Mark Bernstein wonders about Eric Raymond's seeming meltdown and what it means for bloggers.
Eric was one of the most influential people in computing during the 90s. As the chronicler of Hacker culture, he compiled the New Hacker's Dictionary. Eric was one of the early champions of Open Source software. He has been an inspiration, a hero in some ways, in my life.
He hast lost much of his following in the geek sector due to his fiercely-libertarian philosophy and his tendency to shoot from the hip when talking about issues. Oddly, these traits were specifically what endeared Eric to the tech crowd.
What I think about Eric...
- He really hasn't changed. Are you surprised that the compiler of the Halloween Documents would write this sort of thing? The people who are worried about Eric's ideas never liked Eric Raymond for being Eric Raymond. They liked him for saying stuff they liked or learned from. Now that he is saying some things they don't like, they dislike him. If Eric tells off Microsoft for trying to hire him, people applaud. If he tells off The Left, or Christianity, people wonder about his character.
- Eric really has changed. Since when does a libertarian support international war? Honestly; the ideological jockeying of the last five years has convinced me that only a few people think beyond the box of their political affiliations toward true conviction in political ideology. Like authors who write to sell books, many people form highly-varying political opinions that waver on current events, political alignments, and social groups.
So yeah, Foucault was right. The author function defines our experience. Readers use the author function to guess quality levels before reading. Authors become a brand. Thus, if you dislike Eric's political writings, you may be less willing to listen to his ideas on software. If Black & Decker makes a great coffeemakers, you might be willing to purchase a sub-standard carpet vacuum.
So, what should we readers do? This is a huge question. After all, we have to filter what we read. The author function isn't perfect, but it's helpful. And we can expect much more of it, if weak-tie social group biased searching becomes prevalent. But we should also try to take every individual work as a unique unit. Take the text for what it says. Take what is useful. Ignore what is not. In the information age, do we have time to be indignant, unless we have a specific purpose (ie, debunking, etc)?
As authors, what do we do? Mark wonders...
What will happen if we write something that is really, deeply, wrong? And write it over and over again? How will we mend things, afterward? Can they be mended?
This is an insightful question.
At first glance, the answer is simple: Usually, people who continually write something that is deeply wrong believe that they are right. So the question can be reframed as, "What will happen if we consistently believe something that others feel is deeply wrong?" The simple answer is: Be honest, stand up, stick to your guns. Principle is more important than audience.
But the real answer is more complex, especially on blogs, where the information organization is not based on topics, but is rather centered in authors.
Mark's own writing rubs me the wrong way sometimes. For example, he sometimes speaks against certain religious groups. This post in particular annoyed me, since I attend a Baptist church. If you look at the post, you'll notice that Mark was quick to clarify his statement. He is one of the last people I would expect to be deeply wrong over a long period of time.
The blogosphere fosters discussion. It is thus the medium through which a single author is least likely to be deeply wrong for a long time.
I think Mark is thinking deeper than his reputation or number of hits. He's worried that if he says something deeply wrong, people will believe him.
I think this is even harder to mend than audience respect.
These are the questions every public person must ask. I have recently been asking the question in regards to my physical life. I am a senior in college, and I have some measure of success in my academic efforts. For my first year of college, only a few even bothered to notice me; I could easily get my work done. Now, many people wish to speak with me, be with me, get advice from me. Since I am more popular, I could now easily abandon the core personal principles which happened to lead to a measure of respect on my small campus.
It freaks me out to think that other people are looking at me as an example in life. And sometimes, when I break my routine to participate in a social event, I worry about it. I don't want to become the stereotypical self-marketer who has little substance. I want my work, my character, and my generosity to speak for themselves. You can hang all the dinners and events. That's the hacker in me speaking.
At the same time, I try to use my standing as a tool to help others. By doing so, I make the potential effects of my mistakes much greater.
If I eventually do or say something that people consider deeply wrong, I will lose that respect. This is how the world works. Once you hurt someone, it takes a long time to regain the respect of just one person. The only way to regain a similar standing is to find a new audience. It's probably the same in the blogosphere.
Annotating your ideas can be hard in a web with one-way links, especially if you don't have write access to your old writings. But mending the harmful effect of your ideas is more difficult.
"I think I will remove all habit from my life," he said, and after testing the thick, coarse rope, kicked away the chair.
As a codicil to this, a man once said, "To speak is a grave danger. People will not respond to what you say, and you will be distraught. But yet more dangerous is this: that someone might listen to you, and do what you say."
A second man thought to himself, "You are right," and said nothing.
My brother, who has been called to be a pastor, wonders about this a lot. Honestly, it really freaks him out. How does he get up in the morning?
- He has confidence in the grace of God
- He knows he has been called
- More than anyone I know, he bases his ideas in the scriptures.
- Humility, humility, humility. It's hard to be humble when you're a teacher.