Sunday, January 30, 2005

Hugh Hewitt's 'Blog'

Blog BookIn my free time, between practicing medicine, doing a major rewrite of my electronic medical records software, photographing my wife's product line and posting it to her web site, and of course, running a blog, I had the chance to read Hugh Hewitt's latest book, Blog. It was, I must admit, a surprisingly good and easy read.

In my experience, many Internet and media pundits who are superb and engaging in short opinion pieces or commentaries, do poorly when turning their talents to a book. There seems to be a different gift package for writing short concise commentary, versus a much longer work, where a different dynamic is needed to keep the reader engaged. Several recent authors who come to mind, who do not fare well in this transition, are Peggy Noonan and David Frum.

I have long enjoyed Hugh Hewitt's insight and writing style in the Weekly Standard, and his blog is a daily visit. Surprisingly, his book successfully leverages his skill at short, insightful commentary, while maintaining an easy readability. He does this, in part, by writing brief, topical chapters. In essence, his book is much like reading a series of his articles, albeit on the same general topic. If there is a shortcoming to this approach, it is the lack of overarching continuity, development and flow which a truly engaging book manifests.

The book started out a bit slowly for me, as many of the illustrative examples, such as Dan Rather and Kerry's Christmas in Cambodia adventure, were old news, having been an obsessive blog reader throughout the political campaign. The role of blogs in exposing Trent Lott and the Jayson Blair affair were somewhat less familiar to me, but nevertheless fell into the same general mold.

His chapter on the influence of technology with the printing press and the Reformation was far more interesting, and I learned a good deal about that period of time with which I had been previously only passingly familiar. Nevertheless, the analogy between the role of the printing press in the Reformation, and the role of the blogs in the media and information revolution are bit of a stretch, and the two are not entirely analogous.

Gutenberg's printing press was truly revolutionary, and represented a world-changing technology. The blogs, on the other hand, are more of an evolution than a revolution. The technology upon which they are based -- the Internet, web sites and web hosting, and the power of the hyperlink -- is long-standing and has already been revolutionary. The power of the blog resides the way in which it represents a perfect storm of communication technology. It is truly the democratization of journalism, and as such will change the way information is dispersed.

I am not nearly as skeptical as Hugh about the future of the large print and television media, however. While lacking the nimble agility of the Internet, the mainstream media has vast resources to place reporters and video in remote parts of the world on a sustained basis, and very deep pockets, which the blogs cannot reproduce. I suspect the mainstream media will evolve into more of a commentary and opinion vehicle rather than a rapid news source. After all, the Catholic Church survived the Reformation, and is a powerful force for good today. Nevertheless, the large media's stranglehold on information has been broken.

Hugh's emphasis on the role of blog communication in business is a genuine insight, and this thought-provoking even for a small business such as mine.

One aspect of blogging which Hewitt overlooks -- perhaps because he has been in the business of putting his thoughts on paper for so long -- is the personal impact of disciplining oneself to write cogent and thoughtful posts which will be read by others. My blog is oriented toward longer, essay-based writing, rather than the far more common link-quote-comment format. For me, the process of writing for a blog has forced me to organize my thoughts more clearly, and has motivated me to research topics in far greater depth. In more than a few instances, this research has resulted in a change in my own opinion, and almost always results in the deepening of my understanding of a selected topic. The power of research, meditation, focused prayer, mental organization, and disciplined writing can be genuinely transformational.

Blogs also have huge potential as agents of true multiculturalism and tolerance -- unlike the thought-police variety ubiquitous on campus or at the NY Times. In a short period of time I can read opinions on the right and left, from Hollywood or Iraq, from soldiers and academicians, from all races and parts of the U.S, Europe, and the world. I've even found a few attorneys I've grown to like (Hugh is one of them, and the guys over at Powerline) -- so the power to overcome bias and stereotyping through the blogosphere is enormous.

The appendices, where Hewitt reprints prior articles he has published on the subject, detract from the quality of the overall work -- one is left with the feeling of being shortchanged. The author should have rewritten these in the context of the other material, or cited short passages to support other parts of the book. Why buy a book to revisit articles one may have already read?

One last thought: I hate the word "blog". To me, it sounds like a cross between a computer geek's wildest fantasy and a GI condition caused by eating too many Pop Tarts. I hope as this information tool evolves, that a better descriptive term arises. Some have suggested the term cyber sherpa -- an accurate, but far too esoteric substitute. Surely, with the many creative and intelligent minds working on this phenomenon, a better term will evolve.

In short, if you are new or relatively new to the blogging phenomenon, you should read this book to better understand where the information age is heading. If you are an experienced blogger or regular blog reader, you should buy this book to expand your horizons about the potential of blogs. If you are a wild-eyed lefty who believes America is the cause of all the evil in the world, and a Michael Moore groupie, by all means don't buy this book. The religious references will give you heartburn, the political viewpoint will give you a high blood pressure, and most importantly, you may learn something useful to promote your worldview, which will be bad for the mental health of the rest of us. Besides, the book may raise cholesterol levels in susceptible individuals. As your physician, I would strongly advise against it.