A belated comment on the Garrett affair, discussed in detail here
for the few, the lucky few who don't already know what I'm talking
about. Briefly, Laurie Garrett, a Pulitzer-prize winning science
writer, got a backstage pass to the World Economic Forum at Davos, and
upon her return, sent a long, chatty email about it to what she
describes as a "handful" of friends. They sent it to their friends,
who sent it on further, and a few weeks later, she was shocked to find
this (initially) private email being chewed to death on Metafilter.
As a rather private person myself, she starts with my sympathy.
But after finding out about her little problem, she's been working to
Garrett does have completely legitmate complaints about the
discussion. To start with, the blurbs about off-the-record briefings,
as unsurprising as the contents were, could be a real problem for her
in trying to deal with confidential sources in the future. However,
her response to the MetaFilter thread, which was clearly intended to
be posted into that public forum, was full of intemperate nonsense.
Let's start with this:
- ... in 2003 few of us pen letters anymore, and the number
of seconds it takes to forward an e-mail to a dozen people is too few
for ethical reflection. We have erased privacy. And, remarkably, we
have all come to believe that it is our right -- our privilege -- to
read and analyze the personal musings of complete strangers. We don?t
want the government reading our mail, but we se [sic] no problem with
reading other citizens' letters.
Never mind how much of investigative journalism consists of reading
other peoples' private documents without their consent -- a right
Ms. Garrett would surely defend in other contexts. The notion that
email technology somehow prevents people from exercising ethical
judgment is just bizarre. The Internet Engineering Task Force's own
guidelines warn against forwarding email (though it also warns
that unencrypted email has the privacy of a postcard at best). These
are the people who invented email, and have been using it longer than
Garrett's problem isn't with the technology. And it's not really
with the folks at MetaFilter either -- by the time the message reached
them, all record of its origin as private email had been stripped off.
Rather, as some of the MeFi folks themselves noted, Garrett's
problem is with her friends, who were thoughtless at best.
(You could sensibly argue that what's new about email is that it
requires the exercise of ethical judgment about forwarding,
which is hard enough to do with paper mail that the question of
whether to do it just doesn't arise. But that's not what she said).
But the genuinely offensive part of Ms. Garrett's note was the end:
Ten years ago, before the Great Dot Com Crash, Silicon Valley pundits
waxed eloquent about the great "community" of the internet, and the
"new global democracy" it represented. But People, this is a
fraud. Do you imagine for a moment that the participants in the
WEF--whether they be the CEOs of Amoco an IBM of the leaders of
Amnesty International and OXFAM--waste their time with Internet chat
rooms and discussions such as this? Do you actually believe, as you
type your random thoughts in such Internet settings, that you are
participating in Civilization? In Democracy? In changing your world?
I beg of all of you--the Internet addicts of the world--to turn off
your TVs and computers now and then and engage the world. Go have
actual eye-to-eye conversations with your family, friends and
neighbors. Read a great book. Argue politics over dinner with
friends. Go to City Council meeting. Raise money for your local public
library. Teach your 12-year-old algebra.
Climb a mountain.
Execute a dream.
Be a citizen of the real world.
As I read through the electronic conversation on this URL I was
reminded of documentary I saw years ago about "Star Trek" fans. In it,
William Shatner (AKA Captain Kirk) stood before hundreds of people
dressed as Klingons, Vulcans, Romulans and assorted other imagined
aliens. Somewhat bemused, Shatner looked at the sea of masked and
oddly dressed humans and said, "People, I have only one thing to say
to you: Get a life!"
We have here a Pulitzer prizewinning journalist, writing (as she
had been made painfully aware) for a public forum, citing the
well-known "get a life" SNL skit as a documentary. Now that's
But what's offensive is the notion that conversation on the
internet is somehow less noble and real than arguments over dinner,
and those who participate are simply wasting their time. And given,
say, the well-documented role of the Internet in organizing the
recent, world-wide antiwar demonstrations, or the credit that
bloggers received for keeping up the fuss about Trent Lott, it's also
From a subsequent UPI
piece on the fracas, it seems that Garrett is still drawing the
wrong lessons, though now they're different ones; now, apparently, she
refuses to comment, saying "anything I say just makes things worse".
No, just the dumb things.
The UPI piece also criticizers bloggers for lacking
journalitsts' professional standards, particularly as regards to fact
checking. Never mind that fact-checking efforts from the generally
skeptical MeFi crowd (about a note that was already on the web before
they got to it) were how Garrett found out about her little problem in
the first place -- they didn't try to reach her quickly