Jumping the Shark

by Henry Farrell on February 8, 2007

I just took a cab to work, trying in vain to get to an interesting talk before it started, and got stuck in traffic. While stranded in a traffic jam somewhere around Connecticut and L I was somewhat bemused to see a whopping big advertisement on the back of the bus in front of me for The Hill‘s Pundit Blog. I tried to get a photo with my phone, but screwed it up. It made me feel pretty weird; it’s a very different blogosphere to the one that I started off in (I suspect the disconnect for the real old-timers is even bigger).



Maynard Handley 02.08.07 at 8:58 pm

I’m going to catch hell for this, but isn’t this simply iteration 27 of the same (never-learned lesson) from the French Revolution?

You have Rousseau and friends claiming that the average human being is a fantastic creature, full of goodwill to all, bursting with natural intelligence and a desire to learn; all we need to do is restructure society to remove the current constraints, and this commonplace genius will be manifest. And, well, the constraints get removed, or at least shifted around a little, but most people continue to behave in the same, plodding, ignorant-and-proud-of-it fashion as ever before.

Repeat through compulsory public schooling, various marxist revolutions, radio and then TV going to bring opera and culture to the masses, computers in school, and so on. It happened even faster, IMHO, with podcasts — maybe 18 months from the most popular podcasts being various amateur productions or IT Conversations to colonization by the mainstream media.

(It’s not that I am against these media. It is, indeed, true, that a small number of people do use these to improve themselves and acquire a richer life of the mind than would be possible in their absence. What I am mocking is the assumption that these would ever be used by hoi polloi to improve themselves.)

Sure, I could rewrite this post to try to soften and hide a little my contempt for both the bulk of humanity and for those intellectuals who, in spite of the evidence of 250, if not 5000 yrs of history, continue to maintain a ridiculous view of human nature but, frankly, I’m tired and couldn’t be bothered.


Matt 02.08.07 at 9:05 pm

Well, at the risk of stepping in to Chris’s territory, I’m pretty sure that that’s a pretty poor summary of what Rousseau thought, even if it might, in some sense, be what those who claimed to follow him though.


Daniel Nexon 02.08.07 at 9:24 pm

This is just like the first iteration of web-based content. Remember when one went to the “old” web to look for quirky home pages rather than to buy stuff? Okay, some people still do. But the cycle moves faster and faster. It took a few years the last time around, now YouTube is going the way of viral and not-so viral marketing.


Maynard Handley 02.08.07 at 9:33 pm

Please clarify, Matt.

Just to be sure I read the wikipedia article on Rousseau (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Jacques_Rousseau) since I’m sure we all agree that that’s *the* definitive source :-)

Along with a bunch of mystical hoo-haa, I didn’t see anything that I felt actually changed my earlier impression of what he believed. For example we have
* statements about the perfectibility of humans, or

* “Rousseau was bitterly opposed to the idea that the people should exercise sovereignty via a representative assembly. Rather, they should make the laws directly.” or
* (quotation from a letter by Rousseau “You say quite correctly that it is impossible to produce an Emile. But I cannot believe that you take the book that carries this name for a true treatise on education. It is rather a philosophical work on this principle advanced by the author in other writings that man is naturally good”.

If I have an incorrect impression of Rousseau, I’d love to be corrected; but what I read in wikipedia confirms my earlier impression.


Seth Finkelstein 02.08.07 at 9:35 pm

Yes, per maynard/#1, the word you’re looking for is “colonization”.

Doesn’t this make blog evangelism look downright silly at best, and snake-oil salesmanship at worst?


sharon 02.08.07 at 10:46 pm

Shit, there’s Rousseau and all sorts of clever stuff, and I thought Henry was just making a throwaway comment about how much how quickly blogging has changed since c.2004. Silly me.


matt 02.08.07 at 11:15 pm

I’m on a short time frame so can’t write much now (but I’d direct you to Chris’s very good book on Rousseau for more) but, if you read Rousseau (rather than wikipedia- this seems to be another cases where it’s more misleading than good) you’ll see that he’s pretty deeply divided about whether men can be impoved or not at this point- read the discourses on inequality and the arts and sciences. It’s not at all clear that he thinks the programs of The Social Contract can be brought about now or not. But, I must run and can’t write more. Really, though, Sharon has the right point here.


lemuel pitkin 02.09.07 at 12:04 am

So maynard, wasn’t Roussaeu right? It seems to me that on a personal level, people are far elss constrained than they were 200-odd eyars ago, and as a result are more tolerant, intelligent, creative, even happy. Look at how gender roles have changed, the acceptable range of sexuality, the proportion of people who are literate, bilingual, etc., the limited but still quite real progress in the fight against racism and bigotry. You’re far too cynical — the view that humans are perfectible may have been oversold, but it’s much better supported than the view that human nature is fixed.

(I mean, the sex stuff especially. Compare today to 30 or 40 years ago and tell me that (your gloss of) Rousseau wasn’t right.)

Applied to blog medium, yes, it’s more commercial than it used to be, and so the concentrations of power and resources taht apply across our society are becoming mroe influential in the blog world too. But it remains the case that there is still — and I expect will continue to be — a far freer exchange of information and broader range of views in the blog world than in Old Media. No?


Seth Finkelstein 02.09.07 at 1:16 am

The problem with statements like “a far freer exchange of information …” is that they are practically *defined* to be true by the speaker. There is a common way the argument proceeds, where the evangelist will pick one very weak meaning for the statement, and say a trivial or near-trivial meaning is enough to establish it’s true.

I’ve yet to figure out how to counter this effectively. Asking them to lay out criteria where they will admit they’re wrong, doesn’t seem to work.


vivian 02.09.07 at 1:43 am

I think Seth is demonstrating that however much the web changes, there will always be wise curmudgeons sitting at the end of the bar, grumping at the conversation, but happily a part of the conversation nonetheless. Even if outside the CT bar all is plastic and stale. So pass the peanuts please.


vivian 02.09.07 at 1:47 am

(re sharks, a bigger optimist than me would suggest that advertising an old-media-pundit blog on a bus shows simply that they don’t get it, not that they’ve colonized and corrupted blogdom. But I figure they can probably do both at once, grump.)


Laura 02.09.07 at 1:58 am

Where’s my Crooked Timber t-shirt, Henry?


Seth Finkelstein 02.09.07 at 2:03 am

vivian: OK, as long as you don’t tell me that the bar is a new era in community and democracy, that what’s critical is that never before have we been able to have so many different types of beers, and visiting the bathroom shows how the establishment is a two-way exchange.


lemuel pitkin 02.09.07 at 9:42 pm

But Seth, if it weren’t for blogs I wouldn’t be reading you. Doesn’t that count for something?


Seth Finkelstein 02.10.07 at 12:58 am

That’s the illusion. The YOU-YES-*YOU*.

In reality, it counts for a lot less than the statement seems to expect for an answer.

I will never reach more than an infinitesimal fraction of the huckster’s audience.

Observe you’re making the argument that persistent extreme inequality doesn’t matter as long as there’s even arguably the smallest absolute increase. I don’t know where you stand on that _per se_, but it’s a useful abstraction of the point.


fred lapides 02.11.07 at 12:09 am

Please do not use cell phone for any purpose while driving. Esp. if you are close to my car


eszter 02.11.07 at 3:23 am

Please do not use cell phone for any purpose while driving.

I think it’s safe to assume that Henry was not the one driving the cab.

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