Saturday, August 07, 2004

do blogs democratise knowledge?

Maggi Dawn recently asserted that blogging does not democratise knowledge.

She was responding to a post by Dan Hughes that's worth quoting

the next generation of theologians will start as bloggers. they will be schooled in global-reach pontification, in flame wars and public reconciliation. they will know how it feels to be wrong in a very open way and will be well versed in admitting to it. this admission will bring with it both a more scrupulous fact checking and a more fast and loose approach to publishing. comments, conversations, deep links and trackbacks will be the circuitous route that many thoughts will gestate along.

Maggie also mentions the skeptical comments of Steve Taylor who writes,

But if the statement is to input some magical status to theoblogians, I will need more convincing. As an inhabiter of both clasroom and blogoshere [sic], the debate in the blogosphere is no deeper or more incisive than the debate in a theological classroom. In fact, often the debate in the blogosophere is less incisive. At least in the classroom there are things called assignments that encourage reading.

and Steve elsewhere asserts,

Blogs democratise knowledge. I am not convinced that democratisation will enhance theology, not because their [sic] is anything elite in theology, but because blogging can be a surface, skimming occupation that leaves less time to think and reflect.

Maggie demurs:

I do not subscribe to the idea that blogs do - or should - democratise knowledge.


Blogs are often like marginalia - they are the spill-over comments, the little points where your main work touches on the news of the day, or where specialist information suddenly becomes highly relevant. For in-depth thought you need full length essays, book-length developments (whether in print or on-screen).

While making valid and necessary points, I respectfully suggest that Maggie and Steve are missing something very important.

They are both entirely correct in asserting that blogging doesn't suddenly make you a brilliant and knowledgeable theologian. Dan would have done well to mention this. - but maybe not. Maybe he was writing iconoclastically - painting with broad stroke without mentioning all the nuances.

What Dan is onto that, I fear, is being missed is the effect the medium of blogging can one day have on the quality of theological discourse.

Several years ago, not too long after email began, while on a business flight I read an article in Fortune about how the phenomenon of email was having a de-hierarchicalizing effect on a large consulting firm. This company was using Lotus Notes and when one consultant had a question, he would send out a message to all others on the network and, quite often, someone could provide some expert help. It was revolutionary in that business and this phenomenon had the effect of democratising the individuals in the company because they were now being evaluated on the quality of their knowledge instead of how high up they were in the company's food chain. Francis Bacon was right: Knowledge *is* power. The immediacy and ubiquity of online technology is putting knowledge into the hands of more individuals than ever and giving them new mediums of discussion.

Four years ago, Francis McInerney and Sean White's investing book FutureWealth claimed that society changes as the cost of information falls. When handwritten books and the time to learn how to read and write them is very precious, then temples and specialized priests must create, read, interpret, cherish and transmit them from generation to generation. When the printing press is invented, the cost of information lowers and a sea change in society can occur. Some consider that the Gutenberg Press empowered the Protestant Reformation. Yet even with this, discrete intuitions of higher learning are still necessary because there must be some place where the books can be accumulated and studied, and young minds can be exposed to older, more informed, and wiser minds.

But today, information can be acquired and minds can meet online. In technological development, hardware is always first, then software, and then folks' optimized use of the software. Many, for example, have attributed the carnage of the Civil War at least partially to the fact that old military tactics were deployed with newer military technologies. And so we have yet to see the exponentially transformative effect that the ubiquity of information combined with the immediacy and availability of online relationship can have on the praxis of theological disagreement.

Dan well stresses the requisite character of theological discussion. Our new forum of theological discussion provides the theologian with increased humility opportunities. This is all to the good.

"Blogging" - in its current popular form - may be as ephemeral to online communication as the citizen band radio was to wireless communication. Maggie and Steve are to be forgiven for not being impressed that blogging itself is going to transform theological discourse as we know it. And they both are quite right to insist that merely the ability to expatiate atop the online soapbox doesn't instantly validate what's being said. Fruitful theological discourse requires in tandem both the hard work of information acquisition and spiritual transformation (combining what the 'mappers call propositional and transpropositional elements). But it's a mistake to collapse the potential of online interaction to its blogged vernacular form. Because of the way the online world rapidly disperses information and empowers relationships, it easily has the potential to be a very fruitful modality for theological discourse (though online discourse is not to be considered the omnicompetent modality). The widespread use of the internet lowers the cost of information and thereby makes it more readily accessible. The interactive nature of all things online makes this more widely dispersed information more readily discussable. And the interconnections of individuals accessing and discussing this information allows the development of more and more relationships strengthening Christian community.

This very blogged conversation is illustrative. Steve, Dan, Maggie, perhaps myself, and others whom I've not yet read all contribute valid points to this discussion and we all have something to learn from our fellows. Further, how likely is it that the four of us - and now you - would have ever gotten together to interact around this topic? It's the wise reader who pulls the best from all to form his own conclusion. And we have yet to see how these new community threads will strengthen Christ's church's capacity to love God and others more perfectly through better theology.


leviathen said...


Excellent post. On one of the best ever!


mrexmiller said...

Digital tribes and tribal conversations are one of the intriguing elements of the emerging digital culture.

Israel received their written law - but they also received an oral law passed along by Moses to the 70 elders preserved in rabbinical tradition. If you read the Talmud along with the Mishnah and Gemara they read like a of a blog. On oral debate captured by the scribes. This debate and dialogue centered on interpreting the halakah (law - or the way). It is considered sacred "theology" even though it reads like a blog.

So - perhaps our blogging is today's verions of the Mishnah and Gemara. Oi Vey!

Stephen said...

Thanks Levi.

Rex, that's fascinating! Do you treat that in your book?

Stephen said...

Oh, one more thing Rex: When are we going to see *your* blog??

maggi said...

some good points, stephen. But my worry with the inflated claims for blogging remains. I don't dispute that blogging is a useful form for theological discussion - theology can take place in any format at all. But the suggestion that blogging and other internet forms can or should (or have already) replaced conventional forms doesn't democratise anything - on the contrary, it narrows the field. The best theological blogs are ones that offer some reflection on what is being read and written and discussed elsewhere, the blog thus being one thread in a much bigger fabric.

If we use the blog as a useful addition to other forms, it will be fruitful indeed. But if we neglect other forms in favour of the blog, we risk going down a very shallow stream indeed.

Stephen said...

Thanks Maggie. You've actually now launched me into a bit different (but complimentary I hope!) of a direction and I'm going to blog on your comments later. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

your blog doesn't seem to allow trackbacks, so to note that i have made some partial response over at

Stephen said...

Thanks Steve!

I'll be posting a couple of final comments soon.

mrexmiller said...


"The Millennium Matrix" does discuss the nature of oral culture but does not discuss how Moses passed along an oral law preserved in rabbinical tradition. The emerging digital culture seems to be reclaiming some elements of oral interaction and dialogue. I know its going to be a challenge for a lot of us "live" within the varieity of communities popping up and keep up with the ever expanding blog worlds.

My father was in China at the end of WWII. He was in the Shantung pennisula. There were more than 50 dialects spoken and most of the villages could not converse with the others. Language is not the current barrier to maintain connection and community - time is the new barrier. I wonder if the Internet society will converge or fragment?