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How will we get that general knowledge about the conduct of our rulers?

"Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have … a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean the characters and conduct of their rulers."
John Adams, 2nd U.S. president

Can liberty be preserved when the people spend their waking hours tweeting, texting, instant messaging and otherwise engaged in trivial pursuit? Individuals going off on tangents, fewer and fewer focused on the commonalities that once made Americans a like-minded or at least like-knowing nation with principles and values in common. We all watched the same TV shows, read the same newspapers, listened to the same music.

Blogger-theorist-author-consultant Clay Shirky makes some observations about how changes are taking place.

Clay Shirky
Clay Shirky

Once, the publisher assembled the public to the newspaper’s front page. One the Web, however, many never see the front page. They go directly to something of interest generated by a search engine or a friend’s recommendation. It can be anywhere in the paper or anywhere in the world.

“Online, it is the relevant networked publics, not the editorial board, who determine much of what gets read,” Shirky notes.

“The logic of the Internet, a medium that is natively good at helping groups communicate at vanishingly low cost, is that the act of forming a public has become something the public is increasingly doing for itself, rather than needing to wait for a publication (note the root) to do it for them. More publics will form, they will be smaller, shorter-lived, and less geographically contiguous, and they will overlap more than the previous era’s larger, more rooted, more stable publics.”

This also, he says, affects the subsidies that support the expense of generating news and the ways and by whom it will be generated. He points out the cell phone photos from the London underground bombings as an example. He might’ve noted the tweets from the Iran riots.

“Like driving, journalism is not a profession — no degree or certification is required to practice it, and training often comes after hiring — and it is increasingly being transformed into an activity, open to all, sometimes done well, sometimes badly, but at a volume that simply cannot be supported by a small group of full-time workers,” Shirky says.

He says it is not an upgrade, but an upheaval.

We’ll see what shakes out.

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