A Renaissance of Wonder

Kid at the Academy of Sciences

In the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

Who launches a blog in 2010?

In my case, the answer is someone who had one in 1997, before the term “weblog” even existed. Back then, I was the first full-time writer at Wired News. Web pages had only recently evolved out of the primordial ooze of gray backgrounds and blink tags. Though it seems absurd to contemplate, when I joined Wired magazine’s website HotWired (now Wired.com) in 1995, the idea that you could employ the Internet to publish articles every day, or even several times a day, was still new and radical. Coming from the mindset of a monthly magazine, trying to design and put out a new “issue” once a week seemed ambitious. (We called my proto-blog a “column,” and the awkward term “webzine” was still in circulation.)

How quickly the world has changed; and I’m happy to report, for the better, in many ways. Smart science writing is flourishing all around us, offering perspectives from an extraordinarily broad and diverse range of sources. On a typical morning, I might wake up to an insightful post at Wired.com by @jonahlehrer, a fascinating story on evolutionary theory by @carlzimmer, a poignant reflection on being a woman with Asperger’s Syndrome by @lynnesoraya in Psychology Today, or a deeply informed musing on the social dimensions of technology at Atlantic.com by @alexismadrigal. I can also get my science unfiltered from the brilliant crew of researchers assembled by @BoraZ at scienceblogging.org, listen in as Robert Krulwich and @jadabumrad reinvent science coverage for a multimedia generation at RadioLab, and surf endlessly intriguing links offered on Twitter by the likes of @edyong209, @brainpicker, @ferrisjabr, and @vaughanbell. After breakfast, I can plunge into a book (on paper or onscreen) written by the provocative scientist/blogger Mark Changizi or a compelling and lyrical reporter/prose stylist like Rebecca Skloot. And that’s just the first hour of any day of the week!

Another way that the world has changed, however, is that it’s harder for writers to make a living doing what they do best. In 1996, the idea of a mainstream, for-profit publication asking an experienced journalist to write without compensation — in exchange for “exposure” — would have seemed starkly unethical. Now it happens all the time, even on high-traffic commercial websites. As one journalist friend put it, “How much exposure did you make last year?” Somehow the triumph of the “digital revolution” — putting the tools of creativity and the ability to reach a mass of readers in everyone’s hands — has also resulted in a devaluation (both intellectual and economic) of the writer’s craft. Even the simple notion that smart investigative journalism is an expression of skill has become suspect, elitist, old-media dinosaurish — particularly among some new-media pundits. I’ll never forget my shock reading a tweet from one highly-touted pundit last year: “Finally the professional writers are clearing out. They’ve fucked everything up.”

Imagine saying the same thing about doctors, architects, athletes — or even professional chefs. It seems to me that some self-appointed media experts are confusing the obsolescence of a business model with the unworthiness of a craft. That’s a big, complex issue; one of many that I look forward to exploring here with your help. It’s a particularly nuanced issue for working researchers, because coverage of science and health news has been especially prone to egregious distortion by the mainstream media. One of the best things about the advent of the blogosphere has been its ability to swiftly debunk media hype.

But is the answer simply replacing the “middlemen” — science writers — with networks of blogs written by researchers themselves? I don’t think so, because even some of the most brilliant scientists I’ve interviewed over the years had a hard time explaining the significance of their work to lay people, or to researchers outside their field of specialization.  I wish I could attend the panel discussion on rebooting science journalism in London tomorrow with @david_dobbs, @edyong209, @alicebell, and @mjrobbins.

The good news is that the human capacity for wonder — and the desire to analyze and understand the universe that inspires it — is thriving online. In fact, the collapse of traditional publishing models may even be opening the door for a renaissance of writing driven primarily by the love of science and scientists rather than by monetary considerations. That’s certainly the case here at PLoS, which is non-profit and non-commercial.

The photo at the top of this post, which I took on a recent visit to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco with my nephew, is a fine visual icon for what I hope this blog to be: a pointer to marvelous things, people, and ideas. Thanks for reading.

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