Al Gore's recent speech about the marketplace of ideas is actually quite good, though I think he's mistaken in thinking that television's dominance of the public sphere has led to suppression of dissent by conservatives. He seems to prefer the exchange of ideas through the written word, and when he mentions his Current.tv project it sounds less like enthusiasm and more like a reluctant concession to reality as he sees it. However, thoughout the whole speech he doesn't mention blogs even once, though they're the public forum of the 21st century. The reasoned and rational debate he longs for is taking place, and it's not on television.
The internet is a formidable new medium of communication, but it is important to note that it still doesn't hold a candle to television. Indeed, studies show that the majority of Internet users are actually simultaneously watching television while they are online. There is an important reason why television maintains such a hold on its viewers in a way that the internet does not, but I'll get to that in a few minutes. ...
Consider the rules by which our present "public forum" now operates, and how different they are from the forum our Founders knew. Instead of the easy and free access individuals had to participate in the national conversation by means of the printed word, the world of television makes it virtually impossible for individuals to take part in what passes for a national conversation today.
Inexpensive metal printing presses were almost everywhere in America. They were easily accessible and operated by printers eager to typeset essays, pamphlets, books or flyers.
Television stations and networks, by contrast, are almost completely inaccessible to individual citizens and almost always uninterested in ideas contributed by individual citizens.
There's no question that television holds more eyeballs to the screen than the internet does now, and Mr. Gore is probably right about the reasons -- a physiological predisposition towards moving images. Still, it's important for even a populist to remember that the opinions of most people won't matter because they won't get involved. Television is terrible for debate, but excellent for spreading information to the generally disinterested masses; thus, television can complement the internet by spreading the arguments and results of the debates that happen in the blogs and float to the top.
It is important to note that the absence of a two-way conversation in American television also means that there is no "meritocracy of ideas" on television. To the extent that there is a "marketplace" of any kind for ideas on television, it is a rigged market, an oligopoly, with imposing barriers to entry that exclude the average citizen.
Blogs present no such barriers, which is why the blogging medium is superior to that of television for hosting debates about ideas. Current TV notwithstanding, it always will be. If television really wants to contribute to the national discussion, it should focus on outlining and presenting the various sides of the debates that are taking place online. Let the talking heads talk, but let the blogosphere write the script. Indirectly that's what's already happening; I can't even count the number of times I've heard an argument on TV that I read the week before on some minor blog. Good ideas are floating to the top and slowly breaking through the elite media and into the public consciousness. Mr. Gore appears to sense this trend, but he thinks too small.
The greatest source of hope for reestablishing a vigorous and accessible marketplace for ideas is the Internet. Indeed, Current TV relies on video streaming over the Internet as the means by which individuals send us what we call viewer-created content or VC squared. We also rely on the Internet for the two-way conversation that we have every day with our viewers enabling them to participate in the decisions on programming our network.
He sees the internet as a complement to television, when the reality is the reverse. The downside is that with the profit centers much more disbursed it will be difficult to rake in the vast revenues that support enormous corporations; for better or worse, this revenue shift will contribute to the wider economic trend towards self-employment and small business and away from large corporations. Both Mr. Gore and myself will welcome this paradigm shift, though I think the condemnations he hurls at corporations in his speech are misplaced.
I agree with Mr. Gore's conclusion:
The final point I want to make is this: We must ensure that the Internet remains open and accessible to all citizens without any limitation on the ability of individuals to choose the content they wish regardless of the Internet service provider they use to connect to the Worldwide Web. We cannot take this future for granted. We must be prepared to fight for it because some of the same forces of corporate consolidation and control that have distorted the television marketplace have an interest in controlling the Internet marketplace as well. Far too much is at stake to ever allow that to happen.
I really think the former vice president is sniffing in the right direction. His disillusionment with blogs is probably the result of the fact that his own pet causes are so routinely shot down by the best thinkers of the new public debate, and that must be hard to accept. Still, his support for the discussion shows that his intentions are good, and society can grow stronger by continually refuting his policy ideas.