A Press of One’s Own

Despite my having not yet knitted him his hat, Dale Ahlquist has written an excellent essay about one of GKC’s magazine/pamphlet/broadsheet things: G.K.’s Weekly.  It includes a quote which has long been a source of joy to me: in one of the fairly early issues of the magazine, Chesterton wrote that “every citizen ought to have a weekly paper of this sort to splash about in… every grown man ought to have this kind of scrapbook to keep him quiet.” (Chesterton, G.K. G.K.’s Weekly, No. 34).

Now, conservatives are most comfortable when they are bemoaning the new.  But here is a case where I’ve got to celebrate the essentially distributist nature of Web 2.0.  Because a blog is, above all things, just this kind of scrapbook.  As bloggers, we are each our own editors of an irregularly published periodical; most of us do it badly, which is quite all right; the point is that we do it at all.  Even GKC’s own (astonishingly modern-sounding) criticism of the tech of his time is answered by the practices of the read-write web.  Later in the essay, Ahlquist quotes Chesterton bemoaning the

progressive child of the twentieth century, with his earphones or his loud speaker… When he puts the earphones to his ears he does in fact put a mouth-gag into his mouth; as compared with the normal conversationalist conducting normal conversations.  There is no harm in it, of course, in its proper place and proportion.  But to fill your house, and fill your head, with voices you cannot answer, with cries you cannot return, with arguments you cannot dispute, with sentiments you cannot either applaud or denounce, is to enter into a one-sided relation and to live a lopsided life.  The five senses used to be called the five wits; and to depend wholly on the receptive side of them is to be in a real sense half-witted.

Chesterton, G.K. G.K.’s Weekly, May 3, 1930, 119.

Obviously this remains true, and the actual presence of other human bodies is necessary for the majority of our interactions.  But at least our electronic conversations are no longer one-sided: not with comments enabled, not when everyone can upload a podcast in response to the podcast he disagreed with.

I am not the first to notice the distributist nature of Web 2.0– the ur-essay on it is by Dan Ward.  He notes a number of conceptual or practical rhymes between the two ideas: Web 2.0 can enable small businesses to have a world-wide reach and thus actually make their owners a better living; the tools tend to be open-source and/or in some sense owned by their users, and constantly tweaked; and then of course there’s user-generated content: the opposite of the cultural passivity that Chesterton excoriated above.  As Ward writes,

Web 2.0 is, perhaps, a force large enough to counter the pair of 800lb gorillas known as Big Business and Big Government, and it does so organically, without introducing artificial constraints on government or commerce. More and more people are taking advantage of this new opportunity to personally produce, sell and distribute goods. They are writing books, recording music, creating art, then selling their creations – all without relying on traditional retailers.

Distributism advocates the widespread ownership of the means of production. Web 2.0 literally distributes production capabilities around the world.

My Chomsky-reading friend in Massachusetts was fond of making a historical-materialist point by quoting H.L. Mencken to the effect that “freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.”  Far be it from me to be optimistic about the net effect of technology on humanity.  But at the very least, there are more of us, what with this code I’m playing with now, who can be said to own a press.

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