Anglosphere: Converging universes

By JAMES C. BENNETT, United Press International  |  July 28, 2003 at 8:19 AM
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WASHINGTON, July 27 (UPI) -- Tony Blair, angel or devil? On July 18, the American media was lionizing Blair, on the basis of his address to Congress the previous day, as the avenging angel of international righteousness. On the same day, the suicide of the key figure in the controversy over intelligence claims justifying the Iraqi war, caused the British media to cast Blair in a diabolical light. Some portrayed him in the Miltonesque sense of Lucifer, the fallen angel undone by pride. In less charitable versions, he was merely Satanic. How could two media using the same language, and, these days, instantaneously accessible to each other have formed such an opposite picture of the same person and events?

This puzzle has led writer Anne Applebaum to conclude in The Washington Post that America and Britain, no less than any other pair of nations, live in "parallel information universes. By that," she wrote, "I mean that the media produced in different cultures doesn't merely reflect different opinions about the news, they actually recount alternative versions of reality."

Applebaum is a keenly observant commentator who has lived in both nations and is well connected with a wide range of intellects on both sides of the pond. I respect her work. However, I would at least qualify her opinion in this matter by saying that, though as a snapshot of here and now I can't disagree with her, I think she is missing the bigger story.

Separate as the British and American information universes have been until now, a process of convergence has begun that will continue until there is only a single Anglosphere information universe. In this, the differences between right and left (for example) become more important than the distinctions of national origin. This process is already foreshadowed in the leading edge of the information universe, which at this point in time is the blogosphere -- the world of the Web logs, or blogs.

Several interconnected and mutually reinforcing developments are driving this process. The first and most obvious is the advent of the Internet and World-Wide Web. This permits flat-rate worldwide communications, ready access to the press of all nations, and, most importantly, the ability to link documents. Two things about the blogosphere are of particular interest: the ability of almost anyone with basic computer literacy to start and run a blog, and the practice of embedding links to other documents of interest.

With this practice, a report in one media source can draw comment from a universe of commentators, many of whom will be more knowledgeable or more immediately involved, and those comments themselves can link to source documents to prove or disprove the point in contention. Still other blogs serve as clearinghouses to review comment on a particular topic or incident, linking to a large number of individual commentators.

The blogosphere was given a strong boost by Sept. 11 and its consequences, particularly the Afghan and Iraqi wars. One salient characteristic of the blogosphere debate was that the pro- and anti-war debates tended to fall out by position on the political spectrum rather than by nationality.

Each side furthermore linked indiscriminately to newspaper and network Web sites on a pan-Anglosphere basis. This meant that blog readers throughout the Anglosphere began to find themselves linking to the Guardian, Times and Telegraph in Britain, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Sun Times, or Australia's Sydney Morning Herald or The Age indiscriminately. In the blogosphere, the sun never sets on the Anglosphere press.

The blogosphere is still miniscule compared to the audience for broadcast and print media. (Although reporters are more and more relying on the blogosphere for research and background, and more and more aware that the blogosphere has the power to expose quickly errors that previously could be buried.) However, its denizens are disproportionately young and disproportionately well-educated professionals. They will likely set the tone more and more for the coming generation. Furthermore, the rise of the blogosphere will likely affect Britain disproportionately to America.

This is because Britain has had a particularly small and closed intellectual class compared to America, a result not only of the island's smaller size and population, but because of its comparatively small and closed university system. If you went to Oxford or Cambridge, you really did get to meet the majority of the people that would constitute the political nation for your generation. In America, in contrast, a Harvard or Yale degree obviously helped, but you knew that for the rest of your career you would also be dealing with many people from Michigan or Oklahoma, or maybe West Texas State Teacher's College, or even no university at all, and that such people could very well be more important than you.

Under the impact of a variety of social changes, Britain is changing. One of these changes is the increasing democratization of its institutions, reflected in phenomena such as the opening of the leadership of the Conservative Party to rank-and-file control. Aided by the early stages of Internet political organizing, this resulted in a significant weakening of the old Tory paternalist, or "wet" faction, and made the party more Euroskeptic and pro-American than its wet elites would ever have permitted.

Combined with the Internet revolution, the democratization of Britain is leading to an expanded worldview, one that is already seeing both its right and left aligning much more closely with their American counterparts than ever before. Even British anti-Americanism, once the prerogative of the patrician Tory sneer, has succumbed to Anglosphere convergence, and must import Michael Moore as cheerleader.

The next big fallout of the democratization of Britain and the rise of Internet media is likely to be the downfall of the British Broadcasting Corp. The BBC's charter as a state-funded entity is up for its decennial renewal in 2006. It has never been seriously contested before, but this time, its closed world-view may be vigorously challenged, probably by an Internet-organized campaign.

Full convergence is still some time away, but it is coming, as surely as today's younger blog-readers will move into positions of influence as time passes. The parallel information universes will be tied together with the thread of Internet linkage. The informational Anglosphere, in the sense of the entirety of written and recorded information in the English language, is gradually becoming fully accessible through Internet and Web, and accessible without regard to national boundaries.

At some point linkage will be so fluid and transparent, and indexing and search so effective, that documents will cease to be stand-alone artifacts, and the entire body of information in English (and for that matter, the entire body of information in other languages) will become in effect a single artifact, probably the most complex human artifact ever to emerge. Intra-Anglosphere national boundaries will become rather weak demarcation lines within the structure of that artifact. Linguistic boundaries, on the other hand, will remain significant decouplers for the foreseeable future, resulting in a number of such massive informational artifacts existing in parallel. It is these that will be the parallel information universes of the future.

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