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The Internet and the Republic of Skepticism, Part Two

All Info All Ways

Barrett Brown

May 3, 2010

I spent a portion of last year reading through more than a decade of accumulated columns and articles by the United States’ most respected and widely-read pundits; this was done in the course of writing my upcoming book on the failure of the American media to provide the passive news-consuming citizenry with a reasonably competent stream of opinion journalism. Additionally, I’ve spent much of the past five years engaging in media criticism in general, both professionally and as a deranged sort of hobby. I may accurately boast of being among the world’s greatest authorities on the failures of other media professionals. Ignoring for a moment what that says about me as a person, the reader should consider what a fine thing it is to know whether or not a crucial, resource-heavy enterprise is doing its job and what the implications may be if it isn’t.

Even more to the point, the situation has just recently entered a state of unprecedented flux prompted almost entirely by the onset of the information age and its all-encompassing primary feature, the Internet. If we’re willing to take the opportunity, the organized skeptic community can have a hand in assisting with the magnificent and unprecedented revolution that is now occurring, as well as utilizing its dynamics to spread skepticism in general—and our specific debunkings in particular—to a far larger audience than we have at present. More importantly, we will vastly improve our influence upon those who are not already active skeptics and who are thus more likely to personally benefit from the knowledge we bring to the table.

We have an opportunity to do something great, something unprecedented, something revolutionary. All that is needed is a viable plan—which, of course, is like saying that all we need to buy the Empire State Building is the money to do so as well as some people to handle the actual purchase for us.

If we acknowledge that things are not necessarily the way they should be but rather simply the way they are, we might go on to conclude that that which happens to be is not necessarily that which would be best.  The totality of human society may therefore be expected to exist in something less than a state of perfection. The reader is invited to confirm this for himself.

We are aware, then, that society has suffered from imperfections in the past and may extrapolate from this that society suffers from imperfections in the present insomuch as the present is simply the past in gestation, which is to say that we may find great similarity in the now as compared to, say, the now minus ten years. Still, portions of the past may differ in some respects from the present—the past contains the Ottoman Empire, for instance, whereas the present does not. This is reassuring, as it would seem to indicate that the future may differ from the present as well, particularly if we give it cause to do so.  Of course, we cannot help but give the future cause to take a certain form, as we influence it merely by existing in the present, which is the future’s raw material. The present, incidentally, is the unconscious conspiracy of the past; it does not come to us through design. The exception is that small portion of a given present—breakfast, a cigarette, an overthrow of some flawed institution—which is the result of conscious planning in the past by self-aware beings. To the extent that we are able and willing to do so, then, we may conspire against the future in such a way that will bring about such things as these. To have breakfast later, one makes the appropriate preparations beforehand.

The reader may object that it is all well and good to point out that things are not perfect and perhaps ought to be changed, but there is a great difference between pointing out flaws and eradicating them. The difference, our objector continues, is akin to the difference between breakfast, cigarettes, and institutional overthrows; the first two may be successfully pursued by individuals whereas the third tends to require some degree of collaboration, which itself is more difficult to set into motion. Certainly these differences are real, and certainly the overthrowing of institutions is a business best pursued in tandem with other individuals—and certainly such arrangements require the cooperation of others and are difficult to bring about. But in a more fundamental sense, an institutional overthrow can be set in motion by way of an individual action just as fixing breakfast or obtaining a cigarette can be. If, for instance, an individual is able to devise a plan by which such an overthrow may be successfully accomplished and is able to convince others to adopt the plan in such a way as that the plan is perpetuated to the extent necessary to achieve the intended change, then, yes, an individual may cause an institution to be overthrown.

Now the reader may also object that, aside from the semantics of what constitutes individual action, there is still quite a bit of substantive difference between making breakfast or acquiring a cigarette and convincing others to adopt some plan to overthrow an institution. The former actions are quite easily accomplished every day by quite a few individuals; the latter, we might agree, is a great rarity—but we would be wrong because such a thing is not rare at all. Each day, one convinces others to collaborate on some or another thing, such as the preparation of breakfast. It is simply a matter of convincing others to join one in doing such a thing.

Again, the reader objects, this time noting that it is nothing more than a transparent rhetorical trick to compare the persuasion of others to join one in making breakfast to the persuasion of others to join one in attempting to pull off something so ambitious as the overthrow of an institution. There is, one would note, a major difference in terms of feasibility between the making of breakfast and the making of trouble. To overthrow something worth overthrowing, one would have to concoct a plan that would be sufficiently promising to incite the interest of others. One would have to locate those individuals who are in a position to ensure that the plan is disseminated to the extent necessary for implementation, and then one would have to contact them and convince them not only to agree with the plan but to act on it. To the extent that the plan requires resources, expertise, and infrastructure, all of these things must be secured, and this may require one to convince others to provide these things. To summarize, one must put in place the conditions by which the plan is not only possible but deemed desirable and viable by those whose cooperation is necessary to implement it. One must set things in motion.

I will admit at this point that one perhaps ought not to consider contributing to a project unless it is reasonably expected to succeed. Likewise, I will admit that such tasks as described above are easier stated than done. I am happy to admit that I know all of these things must be done because I have already done them all.

The formal announcement and manifesto for Project PM will be forthcoming, although I have released bits and pieces of the overall plan in the three months since I first announced what I had in mind in an article for Vanity Fair. On this occasion, I would like to address the skeptic community as a whole in order to recruit as many as I can for the project, for much the same reason that the Byzantine emperors sought to recruit as many Varangians as they could for their own projects—there is no demographic that is better-equipped to operate in the landscape that is now open to us. And the landscape is very much open to us; the Internet has come about so rapidly that few have yet to grasp its meaning and its potential, while its particular wonders have come about with such regularity that we have ceased to wonder at them and indeed would only wonder if the wonders ever ceased.

A more intricate description of how Project PM works may be found here. Briefly, the effort involves two major components. Both of these components operate within a network that I have designed to take special advantage of the Internet’s peculiarities as medium while also avoiding those problems that have arisen almost universally within those communities to which the Internet has given rise. The first network encompasses commentators who operate at least partially online—mostly bloggers who got their respective starts as such but also journalists who have begun writing for online outlets after initially working in print, television, and radio. The second network encompasses everyone else—people with wildly varying skill sets, backgrounds, and physical locations across the globe, the common element being a great degree of erudition and intellectual honesty as well as a willingness to take responsibility for the future of human society. Both networks are designed to grow exponentially while at the same time retaining quality; how this is achieved is explained at the link above.

The first network will serve as the most efficient possible means of obtaining the most important information as determined by the most capable of commentators; it will also serve to confront and engage the amoral and rudderless media infrastructure as it exists today, combining forces on occasion to focus attention on a particular outlet or media figure who has managed to accrue some great deal of unearned influence and respectability. In concentrating on one particular target by way of advance agreement, participants will thereby create the critical mass necessary to prompt the major outlets to address those of its own failures that otherwise would remain unknown to the general public. This tactic will also be employed in a more general way, as a means of raising awareness of any particular topic that the mainstream media as a whole lacks the inclination to cover in any serious manner.

The second network will serve to run all aspects of Project PM other than those handled by the first network. It is best thought of as a sort of ever-expanding House of Lords, at least during such time as I retain control of the project; after this body has finished composing the more specific procedures by which it will operate on a day-to-day basis, the network will thereafter exist as something similar to what we saw in anarchist Catalonia. At that point, I will be stepping down from my current role so that the body may carry out its other fundamental mission—to demonstrate the administrative viability of a technocratic organization operating under this particular network schematic and recruited in such a fashion as I have gone about recruiting the several dozen members who have joined thus far, a process I will describe at a later date in order to provide others with the knowledge necessary to build their own networks. Similarly, the fundamental mission of Project PM as an entity is to encourage the development of other, similar entities—self-perpetuating, self-governing organizations harnessing human talent from around the globe, operating as representative meritocracies and built with the intent of shaking up the existing order. Such entities as I envision and hope to spur on by example will have numerous advantages over those more orthodox institutions on which man has relied for ten thousand years. Collectively, they will constitute a grand public conspiracy against every manner of nonsense.

All of that is decades away, though. Here and now, we have the specific goal of improving the process of information flow. As of this writing, I have assembled a fine cadre of bloggers with a collective monthly audience of several hundred thousand people, and each of these bloggers will soon be selecting others to connect to them within the network; they will in turn choose others, and so on. We have Allison Kilkenny, an up-and-coming commentator who deals in policy as a cable anchor deals in cheery banter, and who in addition to her blogging hosts the satisfyingly wonkish program Citizen Radio along with her co-host and husband, comedian Jamie Kilstein. We have Michael Hastings, who served as Newsweek’s Baghdad correspondent and afterwards covered the 2008 election, at which point he grew disgusted with the frivolous nature of political coverage in this nation and left a prestigious position in favor of more virtuous pastures. We have Charles Johnson, the pioneering founder of the blog Little Green Footballs who was among the most widely-read of political bloggers until he found himself at odds with the bulk of his allies and audience due to his support for science and his opposition to racism. I am also in talks with other, similarly prominent commentators and journalists who have likewise demonstrated themselves to be experts in their respective subjects as well as intellectually honest. Meanwhile, the governing network is thus far comprised of academics of various sorts, programmers, hedge fund managers, global risk analysts, political activists, as well as individuals of no formal credentials but of demonstrable honesty and erudition—all the credentials one requires in such an age as this, when institutionalism for institutionalism’s sake is finally and happily threatened by the meritocratic dynamics of the Internet and the culture that it has facilitated.

Today, I am seeking to recruit skeptics for both of these networks; I want them to be as over-represented within Project PM as they are under-represented in the U.S. Congress and every state legislature in the U.S. If you are a blogger or other media professional, get in touch. If you are simply a private citizen with a penchant for skepticism and the desire to take on those institutions that perpetuate ignorance when they could just as easily bring about understanding, get in touch. We look back on Houdini, on Sagan, on the still-cantankerous Randi, and we see how much they have achieved for the world and the manner in which the man on the street perceives it. They did what they did without the tools that we ourselves have. The only failure that awaits us is that which stems from failing to follow the example of those who stood up and acted in service to the cause of skepticism, which is itself the cause of truth.

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Barrett Brown is the instigator of Project PM, a distributed cartel intended to reduce certain structural deficits that have arisen in the news media. He's a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, The Huffington Post, and True/Slant. His first book, Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Easter Bunny, was released in 2007; his second, Hot, Fat, and Clouded: The Amazing and Amusing Failures of the American Chattering Class, is set for publication in 2010. Brown can be reached via e-mail at barriticus@gmail.com.