Glenn Reynolds's Utopia
Christine Rosen, The New Republic/Candide's Notebooks, June 29, 2006
Glenn Reynolds is an unlikely visionary. Before he emerged as the "InstaPundit," he was just a law professor at the University of Tennessee, writing on administrative law and the Second Amendment for publications like Law and Policy in International Business and Jurimetrics. These outlets, however, didn't satisfy Reynolds's desire to reach a wider audience, and, in 2001, he began posting messages under a variety of handles like "AGAndroid" in "the Fray," the readers' forum for the online magazine Slate. Reynolds seemed to have an opinion about everything--from Canadian prescription drugs to the relative attractiveness of rock groupies--and a knack for pumping out copy faster than a wire reporter. His celebrity among the Slate Fraysters prompted him to strike out on his own. And, in August 2001, Reynolds created a blog, InstaPundit, where he could tie together his academic and outside interests and provide links and commentary on news and opinion journalism.
If it weren't for September 11, Reynolds's commentary on the Slate bulletin board might have been the height of his fame. But, in the dark moments following the attacks, the public craved commentary--and InstaPundit supplied it in torrents. His conservative politics and implacable compulsion to post earned him a massive following. Today, the blog-tracker Technorati ranks InstaPundit as one of the top 100 blogs, and Reynolds is known to many as the "blogfather," a moniker that pays tribute to his role in shaping the new genre. Print journalists frequently turn to him for his opinions on the medium. He even has an online store, where loyal fans can purchase merchandise ("classic thong" underwear for $8.99) emblazoned with the InstaPundit name and the slogan ahead of the curve since 30 minutes ago! Earlier this year, Reynolds decamped to a slightly more old-fashioned medium and published a book, An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths. This tome won't be remembered for its lapidary prose or polemical genius. But, in its way, the book is a defining work of an era. Because the blogosphere is an essentially responsive medium mired in discussion of Topic A, it has never slowed down to fully lay out its worldview, to explain its ideology--at least, not until now. Like many of his cyber-colleagues, Reynolds believes in a form of triumphalism: that his medium has transformed the exchange of ideas and information. When this triumphalism appears in the course of a 200-word blog post, it seems remarkably plausible. As bloggers never tire of reminding the world, they brought down Trent Lott and Dan Rather and powered Howard Dean's ascent. But, at book length, as the ideology's core assumptions and convictions are laid bare, the idiocies and dangers of this triumphalism become all too apparent.
Dangerous, to be fair, hardly seems the right term to apply to what Reynolds describes as the "comfy chair revolution." Following in the grand tradition of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward and William Dean Howells's A Traveler from Altruria, Reynolds waxes lyrical about the golden future created by technology. Imagine a world of Wi-Fi hot spots and laptops that allows humankind to escape the oppressive office. Reynolds enthusiastically describes the hours he spends "comfortably ensconced upon a leather couch" with his laptop at his local Borders bookstore. In Reynolds's world, people can work anywhere, firing off e-mails to co-workers in between playing video games with their kids in the basement rec room or mixing and producing music in the family garage. (Reynolds himself is an amateur musician who used computer software to create a soundtrack for his wife's documentary and who runs a small record label with his brother.) People tired of the flavorless offerings of beer manufacturers can brew their own, as Reynolds does. And consumers sick of the same old boring products can now, as Reynolds notes, do things "their way," as his own daughter did at the make-your-own-toy store Build-a-Bear. He tells me, "It's worker control of the means of production, without all that tedious communism stuff." Mr. Lenin, wipe that latte off your mustache.
The late-nineteenth-century techno-utopians hoped to transcend the horrors of corporate and industrial capitalism. And there are strands that connect this older vision to Reynolds and contemporary techno-utopians like Ray Kurzweil, James Hughes, and Ramez Naam. Both variations claim to side with the little guy--soldiers in Reynolds's "army of Davids"--in his battles against nasty bureaucracies. An important difference, however, separates this new breed. Where the older techno-utopians believed that government could exploit technology to create unprecedented human abundance and happiness, the new breed of techno-utopians can all be broadly described as libertarians. They believe that technology, in many cases, obviates the need for government. In Reynolds's ideal world, technology allows us to circumvent large, outdated institutions and the elites who run them in order to pursue our dreams, whether the dream is to capture terrorists, produce records, or publish books. When he peers into the foam of his home-brewed beer, Reynolds sees a revolution--"a future in which many more people think of themselves as writers, filmmakers, musicians, or journalists than in the past," he writes. The little guy can be a poet or a pop star; with technology as his handmaiden, anything is possible. But this follow-your-bliss vision of individual fulfillment has little patience for the standards necessary for judging genuine talent, which is why Reynolds's book reads more like a middle-aged hobbyist's utopian manifesto than a blueprint for cultural renaissance. "The central point of the book is the power of fun," Reynolds tells me. "All of this stuff is fun to do. This is very important." Reynolds's enthusiasm for the future possibilities presented by technology is wildly optimistic, and his book treats the outré dogma of a klatch of futurists (Kurzweil, Vernor Vinge) as conventional wisdom. The comfy chair revolution is merely the beginning, he assures us. Nanotechnology will soon allow us to create things like refrigerators from "sunlight and dirt" and usher in an era when material goods are almost free and "personal property would become almost meaningless." Space exploration by private individuals, not nation-states, will lead to the colonization of Mars. Life-extension technologies will allow us to live longer, more prosperous lives. And, as the pace of technological change continues to increase, Reynolds enthuses, we will approach "the Singularity"--a term popularized by Kurzweil to describe the point at which humanity is so irreversibly transformed by its own technologies (especially artificial intelligence) that we no longer recognize ourselves as human.
As Reynolds notes approvingly, the Internet has been remarkably effective at promoting the ideas of techno-utopians--extropians and transhumanists and proponents of genetic enhancement all have their own websites and blogs. Like his fellow techno-utopians, Reynolds dismisses criticism of these ideas as "the usual skepticism regarding the new." As long as individuals control the technologies, we should welcome them, he argues. As for the risk of catastrophic unintended consequences from our use of these technologies, Reynolds is sanguine. "You'd better hope that I'm right," he says, chuckling. "It's basically an unstoppable phenomenon."
There's one place, at least, where this unstoppable phenomenon may indeed quickly triumph. It's precisely the area where Reynolds now toils: media. Reynolds would argue that he is a proponent of what his fellow blogger Jim Treacher calls "we-dia," journalism practiced by the technologically empowered, amateur masses. Reynolds writes, "Millions of Americans who were once in awe of the punditocracy now realize that anyone can do this stuff--and that many unknowns can do it better than the lords of the profession." As Reynolds argues with unrestrained glee, Big Media is in retreat. And, if circulation numbers and share prices are reliable indicators, he's clearly right. To survive, he writes, the news media must embrace the citizen-journalist ethos of the blogosphere. Blogger dispatches and digital photos from readers, he claims, will provide coverage as rich and more thorough than that of Elisabeth Bumiller and John F. Burns, for example. Those who don't adapt, Reynolds warns, may "wind up being replaced by those who do."
But what would we-dia actually look like? This is a question that can be easily answered by InstaPundit. Reynolds's blog consists largely of links to news or opinion articles and other blogs followed by comments consisting of such profound observations as "Heh," or "Read the whole thing," or "Indeed." (These are recurring tropes whose centrality can't be exaggerated.) What Reynolds lacks in analysis, he makes up for in abundance of content. On any given day, he'll provide his readers nearly 20 entries--or, if you can stomach it, more.
The blogosphere doesn't universally suffer from this extreme case of logorrhea or vacuity. (Nor are newspaper columnists immune from the latter syndrome.) It contains plenty of experts and thoughtful analysts who excel at precisely the analysis that is hardly the forte of newspaper reporters and eludes old-fashioned pundits. But Reynolds exposes how the blogosphere, at its worst, values timeliness over thought. After linking to an article on congressional earmarks, he'll add, "Well, that's encouraging. Sheesh." Quod erat demonstrandum. Or he'll carp, "Nancy Pelosi, on the other hand, is just dumb"--a point that may be perfectly true but probably requires some explanation or proof beyond the simple assertion. In the end, this method provides the intellectual horsepower of, say, an Andy Rooney commentary. To wit, he wrote in December, "A battery recall on the XM portables. Is it just me, or are we seeing more battery recalls lately." Well, no need for The New York Times, then.
If, as Reynolds predicts, the rise of the blogosphere comes at the expense of older institutions like newspapers and magazines, then he will shed no tears. That's because his libertarianism makes him a fervent believer in the wisdom of markets. But, in the market of opinions, can you count on talent and insight to triumph? The case of Reynolds--"Heh," "Indeed"--would suggest that the market for opinion doesn't make its judgments based on logical coherence or intellectual honesty. Reynolds's terse, almost meaningless commentary may make him the reductio ad absurdum of the blogosphere's worst tendencies. But these tendencies happen to be its ubiquitous ones.
Of course, the so-called "mainstream media" and academic experts have their shortcomings. And, thanks to Reynolds and the blogosphere, these have become well-known: self-importance, a willingness to bloviate on subjects about which they know nothing, et cetera. But the old institutions--the academy, publishing, the press--are essentially arbiters that vetted writing and thought before broadcasting to the world. They provide editors and peer review, valuing opinion formulated by sustained research over opinion produced by a Google search. They are the superego checking the authorial id. But the techno-utopianism that haunts the blogosphere doesn't account for the importance of any of this. Reynolds is too excited that software downloaded to his laptop has allowed him to circumvent record company executives and newspaper editors.
In effect, the blogosphere has become a crude form of the techno-humanism that Reynolds celebrates--technology now permits thoughts to be constantly published in more-or-less real time, as if the blog were an extension of the brain. And, even if the blogosphere could foster a more reflective discussion, it hugely privileges the instant response and the explosive rant on the issue of the moment. This may be valuable in certain circumstances. Blogging has undeniably made it much easier for people to share opinions and information and to find like-minded souls. Patches of good writing exist out there, as well as impeccable argumentation. But it's nothing more than old-fashioned techno-utopianism to assume that the blogosphere could adequately supersede the old media order or to believe that traditional institutions can be so easily and casually jettisoned.
And, unfortunately, it's not just libertarians like Reynolds who share this faith in the power of the market to generate news and opinion. Even if liberal blogs like Daily Kos and Atrios aren't so enamored of nanotechnology or space exploration, they share Reynolds's triumphalism about the medium. In fact, techno-utopianism is the one sentiment that unites both left and right in the blogosphere.
This new techno-utopianism is the heir to Bellamy and Howells, but it has turned their vision of the future on its head. The old futurism celebrated the expert and venerated the scientist who could master and harness technology. Reynolds will have none of this. InstaPundit resides in a world where technology can be harnessed by any semi-literate with a PC. His hero is the guy without any expertise who can see through the palaver of elites. There's no need to accumulate expertise through years of study or experience, because the Internet has become the great repository of knowledge and experience. You have to admire his argumentative boldness. He has taken figures who have been historic punch lines--the dilettante, the hack--and turned them into civilizational saviors. It's a brave new world. Heh.
Christine Rosen is a fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center and a senior editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society. This piece appeared in TNR's June 26, 2006 issue.