Building the Blur: Drezner on Public Intellectuals 2.0

Michael Tanji’s February essay on the growth of web-based, next-gen intellectual communities, shorn of the real world constraints and trappings of conventional think tanks ("Think Tank 2.0"), left me looking for a bit more on how new media augments intellectual life and enables more dynamic interfacing with the thinking public. Serendipity: Dan Drezner’s paper "Public Intellectuals 2.0".

My exposure to/involvement with blogging is a pretty recent development. It’s early days yet, but I’ve essentially been deploying it as part of a cross-pollinating thought experiment on international security (or at least what’s meant to  evolve into a cross-threaded, communicative blur of bloggers, belletristes, and scientists). The exercise is challenging in practical terms, and I have to wonder if something that looks and feels like an extended exercise in herding cats  will accumulate into anything even remotely resembling conceptual emergence.

One of the things I’ve been wrestling with is blogging’s ultimate role in and contribution to public debate, a concern inspired primarily by the level of commitment, energy and interest that it takes to do be successful at it (maybe "relevant" and "sustainable" are more apt descriptors). 

Drezner’s paper provides interesting and useful context:

Will the World Wide Web midwife a new Golden Age of public intellectual life? There are reasons to be skeptical. Members of the intelligentsia initially embraced broadcast innovations of the past – radio and television – as potential breakthroughs in the ability to contribute to reasoned discourse. As the contours of these media have developed, the failure of these utopian visions to come to pass has soured many on the marriage between technology and thought. Already, some have argued that the Internet will simply exacerbate the decline in discourse observed in other venues.

This essay takes the contrary position: the growth of online publication venues has stimulated rather than retarded the quality and diversity of public intellectuals. The criticisms levied against these new forms of publishing seem to mirror the flaws that plague the more general critique of current public intellectuals: hindsight bias and conceptual fuzziness. Rather, the growth of blogs and other forms of online writing have partially reversed a trend that many have lamented – what Russell Jacoby labeled the “professionalization and academization” of public intellectuals. In particular, the growth of the blogosphere breaks down – or at least lowers – the barriers erected by a professionalized academy.

I won’t try to summarize the paper. It’s an easy and well developed read, and he deftly triages and tackles the standard critiques of blogging qua intellectual distraction. Go read it.

Something that Drezner doesn’t address, and that I’d be interested to know more about, is the role of the non-academic practitioner in this intermediary pantheon of what he identifies (not unkindly) as "second order intellectuals", those that bridge/translate/mediate the communcative divide between conventional academics and the informed public. I’m intrigued, for example, at the number of serving members of military and other public services who blog at varying levels of technical and literary sophistication. I’m especially struck by anonymous international security bloggers… quite a few of whom read like intelligence insiders, and many of whom come equipped with first-order scholarly credentials.

Drezner’s subject is public intellectuals and the role of blogging, but surely this constitutes – exposes  – a curious additional feed in the weave of public intellectual discourse, one that might otherwise remain invisible, as it must have in previous era of communicative media.

More than that, many established bloggers are accomplished thinkers and communicators in their own rights, through a medium that stumps many conventionally trained and constrained academics. Building the blur.

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