My secret hope for blogs

The last few days in my aggregator have been discouraging. Today’s nonsense was this from Gizmodo:

Airlines on the look out for gadgets. In light of the recent discovery a whole panoply of gadgets in al Qaeda hideouts that had been converted into weapons or bombs (like camera flashes that turned into stun guns), the Department of Homeland Security is issuing a warning to airports to be pay extra close attention to passengers with computer equipment and consumer electronics. So maybe bringing two laptops, a digital camera, a Pocket PC, and a WiFi detector with us on our current trip to California wasn’t such a good idea after all. [Gizmodo]

Boing Boing is full of similar distressing items ranging from:

TSA adds “sarcasm” to list of aviation risks

A kid who put a note telling TSA snoops to stay out of his luggage was busted on trumped-up “bomb-threat” charges for penning the following and putting it in his bag:

”[Expletive] you. Stay the [expletive] out of my bag you [expletive] sucker. Have you found a [expletive] bomb yet? No, just clothes. Am I right? Yea, so [expletive] you.”

Boy, good thing the eagle-eyed, sticky-fingered underwear fetishists on search-detail were on their toes, otherwise, this kid might have been able to board an airplane with a deadly sarcastic note in his checked luggage.

to John Gilmore’s recent experiences as a “suspected terrorist.”

As I read these and other tidbits offered up through my aggregator and through news channels, I fear we are a civilization that has abandoned the capacity for rational thought.

Fortunately, my aggregator also brings me gems such as Seb’s recent post on the late Edsger Dijkstra’s efforts at what I’ve described before as thinking in public (plus parts 2, 3, and 4). The whole post is well worth the effort, but let me focus on the last section of it.

The end of the article offers a great quote from Dijkstra on the struggle to accurately observe and steer one’s own thinking:

“The need to get some sort of verbal grip on your own pondering will by sheer necessity present your ponderings as something in which, as time progresses, patterns will become distinguishable. Once you have established a language in which to do your own pondering, in which to plan and to supervise your reasoning, you have presented a tool that your students could use as well, for the planning and supervision of their reasoning.”

I completely agree with Chalmers who writes about that quote:

Geek that I am, I find this passage incredibly touching. It’s the combination of Dijkstra’s searing integrity and his humility and willingness to make a complete ass of himself, by actually standing up and pondering aloud in front of his students, for their sake, that gets me every time. I wonder if the success of the scientific method does not depend on exactly this combination of integrity and humility? Dijkstra doesn’t just advocate it. He models it.

Here, for me, is the secret promise of blogs. They lower the barriers and make the practice of writing widely accessible. Which increases the chances we will begin to start thinking again.

Writing is the fundamental tool of reasoned argument and what we need as individuals, organizations, and civilization is as much reasoned argument as we can get. In the blogosphere you get to watch good writers at work as they develop ideas. Thanks to aggregators those ideas appear in a form that makes them natural raw material to kindle your own thinking. The combination of blog technical features (public distribution, short posts, chronological ordering, permalinks) with social practices (personal identification, generous linking, blogrolls) highlight the development of ideas as a social phenomenon over time.

Here’s a Gedanken experiment. How would activities at the TSA change if they published a daily weblog with real stories of the best and worst of what they had encountered that day? Not likely to happen, but worth thinking about.