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Distributed fairness

By David Weinberger

I hadn't been to an academic event for a while. And, even though it was at MIT and sponsored by MIT with MIT panelists and MIT students in the audience, the panel discussion was not like the academic sessions I remember from my late youth (i.e., up until I was 36). Informal. 15-minute talks. No footnotes. PowerPoint allowed.

It was only after the event that I had my flashback to my professorial years. A sizable chunk of the audience walked to Henry Jenkins' house on the MIT campus. Jenkins, director of MIT's Comparative Media Studies Program, had put the panel together. His house overlooks the Charles River, is stuffed with books (of course!) and feels immediately homey and inviting.

I had just completed the buffet obstacle course and was balancing a plate in one hand and a plastic cup in the other when I found myself standing next to an older man (i.e., my age) who had challenged me in the Q&A session: My statements, he said, lacked credibility because they were too abstract and not rooted in evidence from particular sites. I had replied, containing my Soprano-like rage at being questioned at all, that particulars can be a spur to thought but can't truly support generalizations in this case because there are over 20 billion particulars on the Web. Do we look at Yahoo chat rooms and conclude that conversation on the Net is like professional wrestling or do we look at a breast cancer mailing list and conclude that conversation on the Net is loving and informed? But, I said, I'm not offering unfounded generalizations so much as half-baked abstractions, frequently rooted in the nature of the Web's architecture. (This is probably at best only fairly close to what I actually said.)

This person had snapped my annoyance flag to the upright position earlier by pointing out that while we on the panel talk about how the Internet is changing everything, we've "forgotten" that only one-sixth of the planet is online, that there are poor people, etc. I'd replied by saying that we were here to talk about the effect of the Internet, not the non-effect of the Internet on non-users and that we're all aware of the gap. I refrained from saying: "Thank goodness someone with a superior moral conscience is here to remind us of that fact." As I said, I was annoyed.

So, there I was at the end of buffet line, facing the man. "I hope I wasn't too antagonistic in my reply," I said, meaning, of course, "You were too antagonistic in your question." All part of the passive-aggressive dance I'm so good at.

"Not at all," he said, smiling warmly. Then he introduced himself. He's an MIT faculty member and one of my hosts. Ulp.

"I just think your points would be stronger if you didn't overstate them," he said.

Because I knew this to be true, I of course denied it. "I'm not an academic," I said, "I'm a polemicist."

I only had two regrets as soon as I uttered that phrase: (1) I shouldn't have implicitly criticized academics, and (2) I'm not actually a polemicist. Polemicists live for discord. I'm more of a partisan.

"Well," said he, "I happen to believe in fairness and accuracy."

"Fairness I totally believe in," I said. "Accuracy has never been a strength of mine, although I am in favor of it. But I don't equate fairness with balance."

The truth is that I'm in favor of just about every type of fairness there is. Balancing views. Careful and sober consideration. Objectivity. But also taking up cudgels, overstating and generalizing. It all has its place. And perhaps in an MIT amphitheater, I should have been more reasonable and even-handed. After all, when I was teaching I hated the politically committed professor in the office next to mine because he would never let students who disagreed with him be right.

On the other hand, balance doesn't have to be distributed evenly; not everyone has to represent both points of view. So long as there are people who disagree articulately, such as the faculty member who called me on my extremism, the environment is balanced and fair. In a place like that, even braying asses like me have their role. Thank heavens.

David Weinberger edits "The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization" (hyperorg.com), e-mail self@evident.com

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