- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

In exile from his native England, Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) — chemist, political thinker, theological provocateur — lived out the remainder of his years in rural Northumberland, Pa.

The peace and quiet came at a cost: He missed the intellectual stimulation of the urban coffeehouse. More than that, he missed the regular flow of information. Sending and receiving letters to friends and colleagues in the United States could take weeks.

Overseas? Forget about it: a full season.

The old man wrote that he felt so cut off from society that he even missed his lousy “morning chronicle,” according to “The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America,” Steven Johnson’s engrossing new portrait of Priestley and the intellectual milieu in which he thrived.

Priestley, in other words, would have fit right into our hyperconnected age.

In many important ways, the Web and the proliferating devices that interact with it, from the Kindle to the iPhone, are replicating the kind of ecosystem of ideas that allowed someone like Priestley — whose omnivorous intellect perhaps lacked analytical rigor — to achieve the multifarious things he did: Discover oxygen and the process of photosynthesis. Co-found Unitarianism. Provide intellectual succor to America’s Founders. Invent soda water.

All in one “strenuously useful” life’s work, to borrow George F. Will’s summation of one of Priestley’s good friends, Thomas Jefferson.

Priestley “would have flipped out” to have had the resources available to Mr. Johnson as he researched the book, the author says in an interview.

Massive digitization efforts such as Google Books and its Yahoo-backed rival Open Library allow users not only to view long-out-of-print books and their indexes, but to search texts for specific terms.

Mr. Johnson was able to instantly peruse online Priestley’s voluminous correspondence with friend and fellow polymath Benjamin Franklin.

Conversely, in 1765, Priestley, then a newcomer to London’s brainiac coffeehouse scene, had to personally request access to and comb through Franklin’s books and letters in order to write a historiography (a literary innovation of Priestley’s, by the way) of the era’s greatest scientific advance — electricity.

Alan Jacobs, an author and English professor at Wheaton College, says digital libraries are an increasingly vital tool.

“In writing my last book, on the cultural history of the Christian doctrine of original sin, I spent an enormous amount of research time exploring the treasure-trove of historical documents at sites like the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, and was able to take advantage of some early Google Books scans of old works of theology and philosophy as well,” he says.

Today’s new media technologies provide more than just access to important texts: They provide access to other minds.

At the heart of Mr. Johnson’s book is the idea of “connective intelligence” — intelligence that is neither sequestered by any one discipline nor protected by barriers of entry.

He calls it the “Enlightenment 2.0” effect.

The conviction that united Priestley and Franklin and Jefferson, he says, is that “information that flows freely will lead to better information.”

He quotes Franklin’s support of the policy of limiting the extent of patent protection: Expose an idea to the world, and it will “attract the attention of the ingenious.”

Franklin sounds a lot like a 21st-century media futurist extolling the virtues of “crowdsourcing,” doesn’t he?

The analogy is not perfect, but one sees a similarity between the late-18th-century’s cross-disciplinary vitality and today’s blogosphere. Academics needn’t be cloistered in obscure journals any longer, for instance; blogs have lent them a popular forum.

“Even just 10 years ago,” Mr. Johnson says, academics’ role in the media was limited to “expert” cameos. “If they really pushed it, they would get a quote in a newspaper article maybe once a month.”

Now economists such as Brad DeLong and Stephen Bainbridge; law professors such as Glenn Reynolds and Eugene Volokh; and science writer Razib Khan have popular voices to complement — and augment — their professional pursuits.

Projecting backward to Priestley’s era, a broadband connection could have satiated his jones for both cutting-edge scientific research and the “morning chronicle” with exactly the kind of frequency and breadth he seemed to require.

Blogs and other new media haven’t come without tradeoffs, of course.

Mr. Jacobs, who blogs frequently at the eclectic conservative-libertarian collective the American Scene, says even highbrow blogs are often clogged by inane and incendiary commenters, who tend to crowd out thoughtful readers.

He also says academic bloggers aren’t entirely hip to the possibilities of radical openness that the blogosphere offers.

“On the academic blogs I’ve seen, it’s relatively rare for the blogger to respond to people who don’t appear to be other academics,” he says. “I often get the feeling that academics who blog — under their own names, anyway — are trying to connect with a wider range of academics.”

Then, too, there is the oft-cited threat of social disconnection posed by the Web.

Yet Mr. Johnson hastens to point out that physical coffeehouses are as popular today as ever.

If Joseph Priestley and his ilk were alive today, they could happily sip away in each other’s caffeinated company.

With laptops and Wi-Fi cards, no doubt.

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