One day, 32 years ago, I was walking along Elmsley Place at St. Michael's College in Toronto with Prof. Marshall McLuhan. I had taken several of his classes at the Centre for Culture and Technology, one on poetry where he focused on Shakespeare's sonnets. The name of his institute was an awfully grand and tekkie-sounding thing for 1976, but...the Centre was merely a kind of weathered brick and comfy sort of house overlooking Queens Park, not one of those high-tech buildings over on the main campus of the University of Toronto. I fell into step with McLuhan because he was on his way to Mass, too.
I was only 19 years old, and fairly clueless. No doubt I missed half or more of what was being taught to me and referenced in these classes. In fact, we used to have one professor at St. Mike's, Fr. Belyea, who used to tell us in exasperation that we were useless, and that we shouldn't have come to college, but should be working and putting *our parents* through college. They, after all, with a long life of cares and responsibilities and most importantly *experience*, would now be in a better position to appreciate and benefit from great literature and philosophy, which was utterly lost on us idiot youths!
I must have asked McLuhan something stupid -- I don't remember what it was. There was a certain apprehension, trying to understand, trying to hurry to daily Mass at 12:10 -- and yes, this figure of the counterculture, embraced by so many secularists and Whole Earthers and Extropians, this patron saint of Wired magazine, went to daily Mass. Born of Methodist parents, he had converted to Catholicism in 1937, a good year for that, after reading G.K. Chesterton, we're told by Wikipedia. I don't know. He didn't speak of it. Going to daily Mass wasn't any sign of piety or virtue in this circle. We all went, that was just how it was at the college.
The bell was ringing, and I was looking up at a sort of blank blue sky with leafy trees and the tall professor. He was going over a sonnet that I was stumbling on, no. 111 (There is also the book of Auden's essays of this title, of course):
O, for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide
Than public means, which public manners breeds;
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works in, like the dyer's hand;
Pity me, then, and wish I were renewed,
Whilst like a willing patient I will drink
Potions of eisell 'gainst my strong infection;
No bitterness that I will bitter think,
Nor double penance to correct correction.
Pity me then, dear friend, and I assure ye,
Even that your pity is enough to cure me.
He enlarged on his ideas, went beyond the sonnet, and said to me, "The problem is: staying the dyer's hand."
Perhaps I looked puzzled, because he patiently elaborated, explaining an analogy. Upstream, there is a man dyeing a piece of cloth, let's say. He decides to dye the cloth purple. The cloth is made purple. But he's dying the fabric in a stream, and even the slightest bit of purple gets into the stream and begins to cloud the entire water purple. If you have ever dropped food dye into water, you can see how it works. This is how media works.
The issue then, if I understood it correctly, was then not to stop the stream. Not to try to stop the free media. Not to try to change or divert or block the natural stream. Not to question the dyeing process, even.
The problem, then, was only about "staying the dyer's hand." Anyone pouring that much purple ink deliberately into the stream would have to be restrained, somehow, or they'd turn the entire stream purple. How to stay the dyer's hand?
Obviously, I've thought about that conversation all my life, I'm quite sure I didn't understand what was explained to me then, but perhaps it is what guided me to buy property in a town named Dyerbrook and to adopt the name "Dyerbrook" for my Sims Online character, and for a time, a Second Life avatar.
Of course, there's the usual cadres who will scream about *me*, as an outspoken blogger, being a "yellow journalist," and "libelous, scurrilous, purple-dyer" lol -- but that's because they are simply unused to sharp and consistent criticism, or even normal demands for credibility and accountability. Their way of dealing with a dyer they don't like is to put up a dam and stop the brook. Obviously I don't deliberately set out to "poison the well" as I write with all sincerity by the light of my conscience to the best of my ability about what I think and feel about virtual worlds, the new media, and the new technology. I think those that impugn or project this idea of deliberate dyeing -- "deliberate false fabrication of the socialist order" as the Soviet criminal code used to phase it, have need to put their own house in order to ask not only what their own dye is, but whether you restrain the dyer by restraining the stream.
There isn't really anything that *can* restrain the dyer's hand if they are going to dye the cloth and use the brook to wash their hands or rinse out the cloth. The dyer can pour it on thick or thin on the cloth, and what could restrain him? Only conventions, norms, religious beliefs, moral precepts, community standards, all things that larger societies don't want to put into law or excessively curb by law because it will place a chill on free speech. But who will stay the dyer's hand?
I thought of this today when an incident broke out on Twitter, where you can just type 140 characters of thoughts and links in a huge scrolling soup of consciousness with thousands of other people. The only way to make sense of it, actually, is to pick out about 100 or 500 "friends" who you will follow and pay attention to, filter out those who are noisy or don't make sense, and then actually focus regularly only on about 20-30 of that list, as there just isn't enough time to pay your attention to all of it.
Jeff Pulver is one of those high-signal-to-noise folks on Twitter that I do pay attention to because he usually has something worthwhile to say or a useful link. I have no idea who he is; apparently he's a venture capitalist or inventor of tech. Those in the tech world expect gasps and genuflections at these names that probably mean a lot to them in their world; I don't genuflect. (A guy complaining to me about my blog in a private email wrote in indignation that he was the worldwide X of Y in Microsoft, but he might have well said to me he was the manager of the vegetable department at D'Agostino's. These folks really don't understand how little they are known in the wider world and how little their fame matters.)
What Jeff Pulver put up today really nettled me. Help fight Israeli censorship, he twitted. Bleh. Perhaps it was because it was a day when for 24 hours, the news cycle had what my young son first came to tell me about from seeing it on the TV news: the murder of the Jewish seminarians apparently by a group tied to Hezbollah. My son was saddened and puzzled, and called what he saw "a Jewish Columbine." I don't think he quite realized, just seeing it on TV, that there were deliberate Palestinian suicide-bombers with a grievance, not fellow crazed students -- so inured is he now to the idea of the school shooter in America. So they must have them there, too, he reasoned.
Jeff threw something up on Seesmic, which is a new service sort of like YouTube where you "seize the mike"and put home-made videos of yourself talking, or your interviews, which are, I guess, supposed to be "seismic" in their ripple effect and influence. It has gotten quite popular among the Twitterati. The YouTube Jeff put up was about "Israeli censorship of blogs." Really skeptical, I clicked and watched the scene: a table of young men, long-haired tekkie/hippie types, aparently Israeli tekkies (?), sitting at a table drinking beer and playing poker (this was to be "in your face" on the topic). They were talking in that sort of self-righteous manner of the nouveau victim of censorship -- not a Chinese dissident in a torture cell, but kids playing a game and posturing before the very camera which was breaking through any wall of "censorship" they might be experiencing.
The scene -- before you even got into the point about what this "censorship" was that Jeff Pulver felt he had to crank up the outrage about -- seemed particularly sacrilegious -- for lack of a better word -- contrasted to the footage everywhere else showing bloodied scholars' books and worried students in yarmulkes. The contrast between people who were religious and seriously studying...books...in a library...seemed so sharp next to the card table of these casual and insolent youth being pumped up by an American do-gooder to blab on le dernier cri of new media, Seesmic. This, of course, was merely an accident, and not Jeff Pulver's fault -- perhaps he simply didn't feel any connection between the incidents, even making this film while on a trip to Tel Aviv. Such is the nature of Seesmic -- seize the moment, mimic being a CNN film crew.
Perhaps Pulver just didn't even *think* of what it means to post this or that thing on this or that day with this or that context. And why should he, when there isn't any context on the ever-changing Twitter?
For me, it was definitely the wrong context. I mean, I feel it's about this: can't the Jewish people have one day when they bury their dead and grieve and show Hamas and Hezbollah clearly in the wrong, without everybody having to snipe and attack on the other side and bloviate on about "collective punishment" or "Israeli blog censorship"? Not even one day? When the "collective punishment" of the other side can be seen? Here are these awful attacks on both sides, people dying. And...in the balance we're supposed to put...*this*...censorship? of blogs? Huh?
I researched the issue a bit and found that it wasn't worthy of mention on rsf.org, a liberal French group that would normally not have a problem criticizing Israel. Their essay on Israel makes a very important point often lost on the Western liberal media: the Israeli press is by far the freest in the entire region where it finds itself, the Middle East. I couldn't seem to find anything about "Israeli censorship of blogs" anywhere, except on one other Silicon Valley blogs. It's a meme. It's a tech-meme. Created by tekkies with other tekkies. Here we go again.
It turns out -- and I'm happy to be updated or corrected on this -- that the censorship concerns a law that isn't passed yet, but is getting a lot of debate (and people wishing to harness the new media with their side in it, obviously). It concerns the idea of having ISPs not allow children to access porn and gambling sites and content. It's a kind of Second Life-like "ageplay" and casino debate. The issue isn't so much censorship as it is about the typical kind of TOS you would find on this blog or many ISPs.
The Israeli bloggers were trying to hype this into an issue that they felt would chill their legitimate speech on issues of sex and money. Possibly they're right, no doubt someone can make the case. Maybe parents should do this filtration, not governments. Blah blah blah. We know all that.
But...the entire incident reminded me of Bonnie Ruberg's bleating on Terra Nova about the "sexual censorship" she said was happening in SL (it never happened). I really read her the riot act on that one, and that was one of the posts that led to my TN banning (hilarious, eh lol). Like Jeff and these Israelis, they were selectively outraged, amplifying the yet-to-be and the trivial and missing the larger picture.: that some terrorists had pretty well censored forever some students in a library...
Obviously people will disagree what the larger picture *is*. Let me suggest that it's not a picture you'll get from...Palestinian bloggers, such as they are, or the Saudi state-controlled media.
It's unfortunate, perhaps, that this notion of the dyer's hand is one I am trying to illustrate with this rather minor incident with Jeff Pulver. And that's because it's not one that all the politically-correct will be able to see, so rabid are they about Israel, and so heedlessly pro-Palestinian. I'm not interested in having that debate: I have a rule for debating people about the Middle East. I tell them I'll be happy to debate them, but they must pick sides. They must *admit they''ve picked*. They have to say *I picked this side already.* They can't say "Some of my best friends are X" or "I can well understand Y, but Z" or "both A and Z are to blame here, because historically J and Q." No. They have to *pick*. Once they admit it and *pick*, we can talk. Then, after 30 minutes, I'll ask them to switch sides and keep debating. I've never found that method to fail in making the debate very short and sweet.
Why does this matter? Because at a time when the media hype and hysteria cycle is pushing both the Gaza rocket bombing and the killing of 50 Palestinians and the Hamas terrorist attack and murder of 8 seminarians (and yes the first is *killing* and the second is *murder* just to be morally clear here), a headline or Twittering that says "Israel Censors Blogs" is going to make us think that Israel is censoring *news about rocket attacks in Palestine" or "news about terrorist attacks in Jerusalem" and not...child pornography and ads for casinos. That's the problem. Of course, if the law didn't pass yet, it's also an overstated scare headline just pressing the new media into service of a political faction.
No doubt there's lots that the Second Life laissez-faire technolibertarians can say about "Israeli blog censorship". I don't care. What I want to know is: who will stay the dyer's hand?
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