Monday, 5 January 2009

In The Blogging Revolution, Antony Loewenstein offers bloggers a tantalising glimpse into an area with which they are very familiar. But the book is not actually about blogging per se.

Instead, Loewenstein gives a broad perspective as to how blogging can or cannot perform a liberalising function in non-democratic countries.

Loewenstein's impetus is what Richard Stanton, in All News Is Local (McFarlands & Co, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2007) considers to be the major malaise of the Western media (p 13):

Most issues are too big to be distilled into sound bites, vision and fifteen-paragraph front page stories. But the Western news-gathering model and its associated techniques require distillation in the partial belief that citizens can only engage with issues and events that appear to effect or have an effect on their individual existences. This is a fallacy. ... Localisation assumes a number of things, foremost that citizens are unable to differentiate between issues and events that are real and those that are fabricated.

Loewenstein seems to be a real journalist - he wrote for a number of media organisations before becoming a freelancer - as well as a real thinker - he refuses to accept the relevance of the 'local' requirement in news. In the book, he frequently rounds on the Western media and points with a quivvering finger at the allusive, fragmentary, contradictory, and partial ways that, say, the democratisation of non-democractic countries can become expressed by people living in them.

Yet the author basically believes in the value of free speech. This is an easy one, however. Why he believes in it, we never really know. Presumably it has something to do with the fact that people do not like getting put in jail, raped, tortured, and ostracised by society for merely saying controvesial things.

But the book rarely touches on blogging itself: the physical, day-to-day drama of being your own writer, editor, publisher and marketer.

This is most distressing when he deals with individuals writing in the Middle East. Here, we meet many people who are bloggers. But the actual drama of their activities - which could provide an enthralling narrative with ample meat - is entirely absent. Instead, Loewenstein is content to spend a few days in one country, a few days in the next - we go from Iran to Syria, to Saudi Arabia, to Cuba etc - and chat with a small sample of writers and (in the case of Cuba, where he found no bloggers) 'dissidents'.

We never get to hear the opinions of the readers. We never - and this is surprising - get to hear the opinions of the censors (except via news stories published in the West and anecdotes from bloggers). So we don't really get a 'feel' for how the writings of these bloggers have affected the daily life of a country.

The book is fast-paced. The best sections, you feel, are to do with China - about which much has previously been written. We don't get many pundits speeking about blogging in Iran but there's no shortage of pundits on blogging in repressive China.

You also feel that Loewenstein is slightly blind to nuance. He notes (p 186) that a self-censoring China is emerging ("Self-censorship has become the primary form of control in China"). But on the previous page he misses a key element of the reaction his new friend, a young woman named Mica, expresses when they meet for the second time.

Clearly, Loewenstein had had a big effect on the woman. She's just spent time in Starbucks talking with a guy who's writing a book on blogging. The next day

... Mica said she had been thinking about our conversation and her inability to speak proficiently about politics. It clearly troubled her.

Mica had said, the previous day: "my father reads the newspapers and loves to discuss politics, and that's a very typical Chinese old male thing". Both these events point to the fact that, until now, Mica had never even countenanced talking about politics seriously, with a well-read and well-organised mind like Loewenstein's. She's a bit bowled over.

Mica is just being Chinese. She doesn't consider herself to be, in our Western sense, an 'individual' but, rather, a member of a tribe. Her tribe is the group of people who are using the internet most these days, and that's why 99 per cent of Chinese blogs "talked about food and daily life" (p 199).

She's just being normal. And the Chinese authorities know this. This is why Loewenstein shouldn't be surprised that English-language sites are allowed through the cordon while Chinese-language ones are not. Most Chinese people don't speak English.

Mica has, suddenly, on exposure to Loewenstein, placed herself in another group and, like a Revolutionary victim writing a self-confession, had chastised herself. Now that she found herself in this context, a lot of things that previously existed beyond the radar of her consciousness, had suddenly loomed a lot closer.

And that's why the Chinese method is working. And that's why Western corporations should simply not deal with the regime. Because given the tools, the Party will do what it pleases. But, here again, Loewenstein doesn't actually talk to any of the people sitting on the other side of the censor's computer keyboard.

Overall, Loewenstein does a good job. The main caveat would be that the book is a bare glimpse. He might have been better advised to write a whole book about, say, the Egyptian experience. This would take more time but, ultimately, would give a better and clearer picture.

Just the sort of picture the author wants to see when he picks up an Australian broadsheet: not just soundbites, but great, bleeding slabs of raw meat. It's good for the soul as well as for the teeth.

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