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James Gleick on What Just Happened

James Gleick is one of my favorite authors, mainly because of Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, a brilliant book. I went to see him tonight down in Menlo Park at Kepler’s Bookstore; he was in town promoting his new book, a collection of essays on the Internet called What Just Happened.

From what I heard at the reading and what I’ve read of his writing about the Internet, what just happened was what happened with the telephone at the turn of the last century. It connected people, changed how people interacted with each other, shortened distances, and changed the world. Along the way, he mentioned how many felt wary of the Internet after 9/11 because the terrorists had used it to plan the attack, but how that could really be said about anything (as Matt said, it’s silly to ban cell phones because they can be used for potentially illegal or otherwise bad activities).

So far, so good.

In the course of answering a question from the audience about the future of print journalism, Gleick made a curious argument for newspapers versus online media. He said that there’s a quality associated with newspapers that the Web just can’t match โ€” he cited weblogs at this point, which surprised the hell out of me โ€” and that the editing process and overall ideology of a newspaper like the NY Times is missing on the Web. The way in which he said it implied that this whatever-it-was just wasn’t possible on the Web, which seemed odd in light of his earlier comments.

After the reading, we chatted with Gleick briefly about weblogs. He revealed that didn’t much care for them, saying that perhaps it wasn’t such a good thing that we now have thousands of people filling the Web with nothing. After hearing him extoll the virtues of the anything-goes Internet (and rightly so, in my view), I was very disappointed that he missed that same aspect when considering weblogs.

Steven Levy, writing for Newsweek about Living in the Blog-osphere, nails what Gleick missed:

“Even the various computer-generated lists that purport to probe what’s happening on Planet Blog don’t go beyond the 10,000 or so most popular ones, rated by the numbers of links to and from the various sites. But the bigger story is what’s happening on the 490,000-plus Weblogs that few people see: they make up the vast dark matter of the Blog-osphere, and portend a future where blogs behave like such previous breakthroughs as desktop publishing, presentation software and instant messaging, and become a nonremarkable part of our lives.”