Chronicle Internet Culture Media

Day 78 and Media Panics.

Skepticism of media and its value isn’t exactly new. The powers that be have disliked letting the masses have a say since we got uppity enough to print and interpret religious texts on our own. The Catholic Church really hated Martin Luther. Yeah, fuck you clergy! Reformation forevah!

The history of moral panics about the negative influence of media is long and we are consistently skeptical of any new medium. From Gutenberg’s printing press, to social media. Even America’s founding fathers were all media skeptics despite being avid users of the eras hottest new medium the pamphlet.

But the skepticism comes at a cost. It’s after we’ve lost our history that we bemoan that more effort didn’t go into saving the Library of Alexandria from Julius Caesar’s troops or celebrating the good fortune that western civilization’s canon was maybe preserved thanks to Irish priests saving books after the Germanic hordes sacked Rome. It cost a fortune to find everything we lost from Roman and Greek antiquity during the Renaissance.

It just seems to me that if we are going to have a panic about the loathsome interests of media to preserve power and harm progress, we should maybe look at the history of who was usually interested in resisting literacy, libraries, and the free flow of information. Popes and Caesars that’s who.

I get it, neo-reactionaries want to burn down the cathedral of soft cultural power, but are sure you aren’t actually Julius Caesar shoring up your literal power? Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post. A16z is the nexus of Silicon Valley power after just a decade investing and they are going hard against institutional media by becoming a new media power. Sure, they are historically new powers and think of themselves as scrappy upstarts, but consider for a moment that maybe they are the barbarian hordes about to be in power in our New Rome. The Germanic hordes also won, by the way.

It generally looks like the winners of these media panics are the ones who actually hold the power, even if they perceive themselves as being upstarts. Caesar, the Barbarians, and our founding fathers won and became the entrenched interests. Something about becoming what we once fought against eh?

It turns out archives are important. And it’s expensive to rebuild them during enlightenment eras. So maybe don’t be a fucking derp lord and rather be clear eyed of the motivations you have for “hating media” and desiring to lay seiege to the cathedral. At least Curtis Yarvin is actually honest about wanting non- egalitarian systems, unlike the majority of media skeptics.

I am open to critics who think the media is one-sided and self serving to their interests and political alignments. I also agree that the progress demands excellence from everyone. But how we determine excellence is very much up for debate. Media has generally been the forum through which we reach cultural consensus. And yes, it’s an ugly process and those with distribution usually win: Guttenberg died penniless, the poor entrepreneur didn’t have enough readers, and search engines without users died when browsers picked winners. A fact which I’m sure the team at a16z is aware of given how the browser Netscape made Yahoo a winner in the search wars for a time through distribution.

I don’t actually give a ton of fucks about the motivations of venture capitalists, Dark Enlightenment proponents, or skeptical rural conservatives. I think they all have a point and I’m old enough to remember when the left and labor was the dominant skeptics of media power. Back to Guttenberg, I kinda dig the narrative that he was just a hustler doing speculation, which just proves motivations and actual impact are not as morally crisp as history suggests so judging who the actual “good guys” are may be impossible in the present moment.

So what’s the path forward?

I’m generally on the side of skepticism and decentralization because distribution and archival is crucial to innovation and progress. Decentralization is hardier and less prone to sackings. I am utopian about the value of informational access in the history of achievement. That means more people having more access to information and being allowed to research, weigh in and distribute without fear so we can achieve breakthroughs in technology. That means more media not less. And yes that means significant tensions about truth and facts.

If I’m picking sides I think Balaji Srinivasan is directionally correct about the role of ledgers and citations in the media’s decentralized future. He and I don’t always agree on which players are doing good work and who are most dangerous, but we share a common goal of access to excellence.

Finally, we need to be clear eyed about our motivations and the history of how this has panned out in past media panics. There is a good chance we aren’t Martin Luther or Guttenberg. We want to be Julius Caesar. Or at very least the Germanic hordes. Which is ok. Power is good. Organizing around power can further valuable interests and anyone who has worked at a startup is familiar with the joys of banding together behind one visionary to achieve it. We should admit it. And get on with the future of information and human progress.