Wednesday, March 05, 2003

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 lose it.

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 netiquette 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 anybody.

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 unprofessional.

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 demonstrably false.

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 enough. Puh-leeze.


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