London: The News about the News

“Harry’s War is Over” was the headline all over London on the weekend of our grand gabby openDemocracy conference on “Credibility in the New News.” But, of course, that scoop about 23-year-old, third-from-the-throne Prince Harry at the front in Afghanistan had been suppressed for weeks by the embedded London papers until it finally surfaced in the Drudge Report. Is there more to be said about the near-death of British newspapering? They’re all colorful tabloids now, shrunken in size, seriousness and self-respect, except perhaps for the Guardian and the broadsheet Financial Times. Who’s got the credibility problem?

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations at the Open Democracy conference in London here (39 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

tony curzon price

Tony Curzon Price of openDemocracy

Yet there we were at the London School of Economics in a wary, often worried meditation on the rewiring of the circuits that go from information to “content,” to news, to master-narrative, to belief, to action in the body politic these days. Tony Curzon Price, editor of openDemocracy, spoke with reserve about the “very hectic slow motion” in which the digital transformation in media reveals itself. “It’s all up in the air,” he said, “and it’s still falling, no one knows where.”

The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, a contrarian in the openDemocracy fellowship, is not reconciled to the ease of access to the blogosphere and what seems to him “massive self-publication by imbeciles.”

David Hayes neatly identified openDemocracy, of which he is deputy editor, with the spirit of the Gandhi line: “I want the winds of all the world’s cultures to blow freely through my house. But I don’t wish to be blown away by any of them.” The mission of openDemocracy and Web journalism, Hayes said, must be to build a space both broad and deep, that brings many kinds of outsiders into the conversation, because “everything now works both ways.”

masha lipman

Masha Lipman: “Pro et Contra” the Web

Masha Lipman gave a vivid picture of a burgeoning Internet culture in Russia — making not the slightest dent in the crushing power of the Kremlin. Mark Hunter, an American journalist who teaches at the University of Paris, argued that right-wing presslord Rupert Murdoch of FoxNews and left-wing movie man Michael Moore are the real success stories of the new “consensual media,” blatantly surfacing the identities of their customers in both style and content. John Lloyd of the Financial Times pressed the question of who, in the new market, is interested in the wider view — in reality — and who is willing to pay for it?

My takeaway is that we’re having a hard time thinking big enough — or talking as cheerfully as we actually feel — about the Internet blessings in store for a planet that must be liberated and reconciled in new ways. I have been reading Arnold Toynbee (1889 – 1975) recently (at Parag Khanna‘s urging) and on the flight to London I was struck specially by a Toynbee essay from shortly after World War II, just 60 years ago, that told us to be on the lookout for a “scaffolding,” an epochal tool (sounds like the Internet) for “the unification of the world.” We are, he suggests, the last innocents, the last provincials, in a world that our technologies have changed utterly. So here, from the meta-historian of civilizations, is what I take to be Toynbee’s summary of the 500-year course from Vasco da Gama, who reached India by sea in 1498, to the World Wide Web:

arnold toynbee

Arnold Toynbee

The main strand is not even the expansion of the West over the world — so long as we persist in thinking of that expansion as a private enterprise of the Western society’s own. The main strand is the progressive erection, by Western hands, of a scaffolding within which all the once separate societies have built themselves into one. … [The] future world… will be neither Western nor non-Western but will inherit all the cultures which we Westerners have now brewed together in a single crucible…

The paradox of our generation is that all the world has now profited by an education which the West has provided, except… the West herself. The west today is still looking at history from that old parochial self-centred standpoint which the other living societies have by now been compelled to transcend. Yet, sooner or later, the West in her turn, is bound to receive the re-education which the other civilizations have obtained already from the unification of the world by Western action…

The West alone has so far escaped this unceremonious treatment. Unshattered, up till now, by an upheaval of its own making, our local civilization is still hugging the smug and slovenly illusion in which its ‘opposite numbers’ indulged till they took their educative toss from the levelled horns of an unintentionally altruistic bull. Sooner or later, the repercussions of this collision will assuredly recoil upon the West herself; but for the present this Janus-like figure slumbers on — abroad a charging bull, at home a now solitary Sleeping Beauty.

Arnold Toynbee, “The Unification of the World,” in Civilization on Trial, Oxford University Press, 1948. Pages 79 through 91.

For “the West” I would read the United States these days; we have met this Sleeping Beauty, and she is Us.

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