Dot Dot Dot: The evolution of Opinion
It apparently takes about 1,000 years for a group of humans to change genetically.
I’m talking about stuff like this: an Amazon tribe follows food or flees enemies by moving up into the Andes. That environment, in contrast to the old one, favors people who are physically suited to higher altitudes. Ultimately, through natural selection, the whole group genetically adjusts to this new climate. That process takes about a millenium.
Human culture, society, and technology move much, much faster.
It has only been a couple of centuries since the Industrial Revolution. And we are now only a couple decades into the “Information Revolution”—or whatever you want to call it.
In essence, this is why we have created the Opinion Section, launched today. The world is changing faster than we’ll change on our own. But we humans have something else at our disposal to help us understand and adapt to these seismic shifts in our universe: communication.
Look at the differences between now and 50 years ago in how people think, behave, and act on the subject of race. Or consider how long it would take us to evolve wings—and yet we are taking to the skies regularly now, even to space (take that, birds).
We have taken flight and we have strived for justice because, when it comes down to it, humans have the ability to share an idea with someone else. It’s as simple as that.
To a large degree, it is this aspect of human evolution—the sharing of ideas—that Martin Rees wrote about in his piece today. For centuries, the primary mechanism of recording and codifying our scientific discoveries has been the peer-reviewed journal. The Internet is changing all that. Journals are becoming obsolete and are being replaced by crowd-sourced knowledge of the Web.
How do we do this new kind of knowledge and communication well? What new practices do we need? New traditions and understandings? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? These are the kinds of questions our opinion section will grapple with.
One of my core beliefs is that every single voice matters. As a journalist, I believe in the importance of pursuing the truth above all else, but I also know that every perspective matters; every viewpoint is important and therefore cannot be dismissed out of hand.
This belief in the power of each voice is a direct result of how I view the truth. We pursue it, but we are all imperfect humans and none of us has a monopoly on truth—perhaps no single one of us is ever truly privy to it, as an individual. As it was put to me once while I was covering Hurricane Katrina relief efforts: We’re all on a great big cruise ship and all any of us has got is this one little porthole to look out of. The truth is the expansive, endless horizon beyond all those little portholes.
Each of us only gets one tiny slice of reality, one low-resolution image, maybe even one fuzzy pixel. The more images we can combine, the clearer our images get.
Today, @sweden’s Sonja Abrahamsson gave us her perspective on American politics. It’s strongly informed by her experiences in the week she ran the @sweden Twitter account. You might agree or disagree with what she’s saying, but you can’t—or shouldn’t—dismiss it. It’s what she has seen, and it might fill in a few details, a few blurry corners, in your picture.
One might ask, so why an Opinion Section? Isn’t the web, by its very nature, already full of opinions?
Today, Paul Devlin writes about how remarkable it was to hear the CEO of Apple apologize for the problems in Apple’s new Maps application. It was shocking to see the world’s most valuable company say “I’m sorry” to millions of frustrated users.
The Internet has dramatically changed the balance of power between producers and consumers. Companies can no longer rely on market dominance to allow them do whatever they want. Nor do consumers need to attract the attention of the media to get resolution from the companies that annoy them. Their voices can now be heard directly—all they have to do is speak.
In 140 characters or less. Sure, Twitter isn’t the only way that people share their opinions, but without it, I don’t think that consumer ire could have reached such a fever pitch that even the great white Apple could not ignore it.
The why to our Opinion section is this: As valuable as 140 characters can be, not every critique can be condensed to a tweet. Whatever you think about communism, Das Kapital defined another kind of relationship possible between consumers and producers—that of labor and capital. It’s is a framework that is still relevant today (although changed dramatically as a result of the Internet, a subject for another column). And Das Kapital is much longer than 140 characters.
Obviously, we won’t be publishing any multi-volume sets of economic criticism. But we do want to provide a place for a fuller (and yes, longer) discourse, for real back and forth between the best voices of the Web and the most interesting perspectives on the Internet. I hope that ideas just as powerful as Marx’s might find expression and discussion in our pages.
In a sense, news and features are about the present—or at least, the very, very recent past. Opinion is about the future. It is about trying to make sense of, trying to understand—and that is what we, as a culture, are going to do next.
I think society evolves and it evolves as a whole. It’s a process. As important as a single voice, say Martin Luther King Jr.’s, may be, it is never truly single. King did not just speak about his dream to the million people before him—they helped him create it. They helped him through their participation in a thousand ways before that day on the Lincoln Memorial steps.
We do not really “make sense of” all at once. The past dies “by a thousand cuts”—by a thousand late-night talks, cups of coffee, or opinions shared in a variety of character lengths. The path to the future is created one step at a time, and while the path is not necessarily a straight one, and it doesn’t even necessarily always move forward, it is always moving.
Each opinion piece is, from my perspective anyway, one more step into the future.
Photo by Garry Knight