Just a bunch of pamphleteers

It occurred to me some time ago that webloggers are the modern equivalent of pamphleteers, and last weekend I did a little research on this idea. As you might expect, it’s been suggested before, most notably by Dan Bricklin, creator of the very first spreadsheet program, Visicalc (see Pamphleteers and Web Sites).

Now from the BBC comes news (BBC NEWS | Technology | Life lessons for web users) of a recent conference on the Internet’s potential to change society (Beyond the Backlash: Where next for the digital economy?). According to Mark Ward, who reported on the conference for the BBC:

John Naughton, professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University, said there was a pressing need to nurture public discussion spaces online and to keep them free of the usual vested interests that can hobble debate.

His comments were echoed by John Perry Barlow, founder of US cyber-liberties watchdog the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who feared that badly drafted laws would severely curtail the freewheeling spirit of online discussion.

"I thought we would be spared the governments impositions by its incompetence," he said, "but we cannot trust to that anymore."

Instead, he said, the US Government and corporations were pushing a unified agenda that stressed control, censorship and the removal of basic rights over freedom of discussion and action.

Challenges to the corporate and federal axis were limited because, so far, net activists and protesters were not fighting on a united front.

"What we have now is 10 million lonely pamphleteers crying out on lonely street corners and not getting together as a block or getting together as opposition to traditional institutions," said Mr Barlow.

He said there were profound dangers in letting the government and business-backed view of what can be done online prevail because the net was at a pivotal moment in its development.

"If we design it to serve existing models of business and government and to follow short-term goals we will be bad ancestors," he said. "Do not, I beg you, be bad ancestors."

I don’t know enough about the history of journalism to compare the effectiveness of the pamphleteers with that of webloggers, but it seems to me that it might be premature to draw any conclusions. Perhaps the "10 million lonely pamphleteers" will get together soon.

A number of interesting organizations appear to have produced this conference, including Demos, The Work Foundation, and vitamin-e.