Denis Dutton and Arts and Letters Daily: the authority of the aggregator and the shift in power from information to meaning

Denis Dutton, founder and editor of Arts and Letters Daily, has died. His daily selection of reading material was a remarkable work in itself and has much to teach web and media watchers about where true value is created online
Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
1 January 2011

I came back from my Christmas break to the sad news that Denis Dutton, founder and editor of Arts and Letters Daily, had died. I discovered the power of what he did on the web very soon after arriving at openDemocracy: as soon as I arrived in 2006, I started to look at the data – where do our reads come from? what are the important positions on a page? what makes for the success – in readership terms – of an article? I made the important discovery that there was one web-site that stood head and shoulders above others in terms of influence: a recommendation on Arts and Letters Daily would drive tens of thousands of readers to an article; a sort of online swarm of readers would aggregate on that one branch.

The phenomenon deserved investigation (and emulation – see for example, the more recent and impressive, but not yet as influential Browser). Understanding Dutton’s achievement has led me to a much better understanding of the web, of editorial processes, of the nature of authority … and has opened up some persistent questions about Darwinism, climate change scepticism, the American right, and the world of the mind.

First, on Dutton’s web achievements. In an otherwise over-wrought analogy with the 12th Century published in the FT.com, Parag Khanna makes this interesting point about the centrifugal impact of the power of the individual in today’s globalisation. (It is what one of our generous donors, Alec Reed, has written about under the term “Peoplism”):

Now, globalisation is [...] diffusing power away from the west in particular, but also from states and towards cities, companies, religious groups, humanitarian non-governmental organisations and super-empowered individuals, from terrorists to philanthropists. This force of entropy will not be reversed for decades – if not for centuries. As was the case a millennium ago, diplomacy now takes place among anyone who is someone; its prerequisite is not sovereignty but authority.

I think that Dutton, completely without fanfare or glitz had become one such “super-empowered individual”. Neither a terrorist nor a philanthropist – Khanna’s rather reductive categories for power – Dutton influenced the daily reading habits of thousands of people. And I am sure that web-site editors all over the world will have looked out for the “Arts and Letters bump” in the graphs and, when working on a piece, will have thought “might this be one that Denis likes?” This is influence and power, and, as Khanna says, its prerequisite is authority.

The web has done two fundamental things: reduced the cost of information reproduction to almost zero and has allowed us to link all that information together. In the context of editorial work, this has allowed a complete disaggregation of functions that used to be carried out within large institutions like newspapers and magazines. Dutton, a brilliant reader, could select articles, headline their essence (something he perfected well before the Tweet made us all try to do this) and link to them. The key editorial function of the filter no longer needed a commissioning budget, let alone a printing press and distribution network. (I explore this in great detail, drawing on Dutton’s example in “The Blind Newsmaker”).

Dutton’s authority came from his ability to consistently provide very high quality links to material that single readers would be unlikely to come across. This is what Google and Digg have tried to do – give you reading lists around areas that should be of interest to you. But in the world of the automaton, Dutton stood out for the irreplaceable quality of the human mind as filter. (I made a short screencast film comparing Digg and Dutton in preparation for the MacArthur “Credibility and News” seminar that openDemocracy ran in 2008, over here and below.)

In that film, and at that time, I was thinking about what social-cum-silicon mechanisms there might be that fall somewhere between Digg and Dutton. The need for those mechanisms is clear, I think, from the experience that is now common with Google search results: fine as a “telephone directory”, but no longer any good as a librarian:


As every web content producer adjusts to Google, its results become necessarily less and less compelling. The joy of Google past was to think hard about the search query and get a first screen result full of relevant but quirky, even obscure material. A Google result today is much less sensitive to the searcher, because every content maker is trying to "buy" space that it can't pay for in "genuine" links. SEO-- even the unconscious SEO that is now so widely practised --  will ossify Google and a better solution will wipe it out with the speed of an epidemic. The web has become over-fitted to Google like a strain of wheat becomes over-designed to a specific ecology. The web is covered in content strategies over-designed to Google, and a new mechanism will find a source of meaningful, un-manipulated information---just as the hyper-link was before PageRank made it a gameable commodity.



My intuition continues to be that meaningful miscellanies of meta-information – lists that point to other pieces of information – will proliferate with the unfolding of the web revolution, but that the scarce commodity in all of this is meaning. Pagerank worked – when it did – because the act of linking was meaningful. (There is a related and very important point about ebooks and apps made by Stephen Johnson in the Ft.com – we really need to develop ways to make these highly meaningful collections linkable, which today they are not). Pagerank was a way of scooping up that meaning, storing it and serving it when needed. This was the hope of the benevolent invisible mouse:

Das Google Problem is directly analogous to the Adam Smith problem: will the algorithms organising information under Web2.0 bring us credible, trustworthy information? To answer "yes" is to believe in an "invisible mouse", whose operation, unbeknownst to each link-maker and clicker, leads to a harmonious organisation of knowledge. But in The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, Smith explores the necessary pre-conditions for the operation of the invisible hand: a world of virtues, some natural, some social and sustained by social practices.


The same applies to Das Google Problem: web communities are emerging within the new spaces shaped by social-search algorithms, in which epistemic virtue are developed and which will make the invisible mouse roar. But what are the preconditions for these communities to produce knowledge of the quality that the old hierarchies produced? And what new technologies will allow and hinder that progress? The big questions for the production of meaning have become sociological and technical: this is the environment that, one way or another, will put Humpty Dumpty together again. Into what shape, who knows.

Those epistemic communities have emerged – they exist in our Twitter lists and Facebook newsfeeds, and I suspect that Google knows, looking at its traffic, that it has lost the lead in the meaning-distillation market.

To understand why, and what it means for the future of the meaning industries (so much more important, valuable and rare than the knowledge industries) which should look again at Dutton and his own remarkable feat of meaning-distillation.

Any habitue of Arts and Letters Daily soon understands it not as a miscellany, but as a running commentary on the world. The function of giving us three pieces worth reading everyday weaves the story of our time in a particular way. Although a collaborative process, one feels Dutton’s personal and particular understanding all over it. And there was something absolutely unique about Dutton’s world-view – one that I hope will transform itself into something equally interesting now that he is dead.

So what was so particular about Dutton’s meaning-making? The combination of his interests as well as their configuration was quite unique. You found him pointing to the New Left Review on the Frankfurt School’s aesthetics as happily as to a piece of evolutionary psychology on neuro-marketing; to a defense of faith as easily as a piece of climate change scepticism (one of his favourite themes). The pieces he selected from openDemocracy tended to be by left-wing writers willing to take a critical stance on established beliefs (like Fred Halliday’s The Left and the Jihad, or Paul Kingsnorth’s Confessions of a recovering environmentalist); or by right-wing writers appealing beyond their usual readership (for example John Casey and Roger Scruton); or the fundamental philosophical topics that one felt he understood to be the really important ground of debate today (like Jane O’Grady’s Can a machine change your mind?).

While one guessed a generally conservative sensitivity in Dutton, it was one that was in absolutely no way anti-scientific; it was also unlike the dominant liberal technophilia of the West Coast web in being deeply interested in the lifeworld, the Husserlian Lebenswelt – the world as it is experienced, understood, constructed and imbued with meaning by humanity and its cultures. In many ways, the intrigue and attraction of Arts and Letters Daily was created by the tension in the world views that Dutton was both fascinated by and deeply cultured into. He wanted to be with the left on cultural criticism, with the scientists on evolution, with the right on geo-politics and with the philosophers in recognising where lay the great questions of the day.

Dutton’s own recent book in aesthetics, The art instinct, persisted in this extraordianry balancing act of world views. You can see him talking about the book in the TED video below.

Beauty, says Dutton, is not “in the eye of the beholder”. “Beauty is an adaptive effect which we extend and intensify in the creation and enjoyment of works of art and entertainment”. The adaptation in question, Dutton explains, is Nature’s way of ‘acting at a distance” – a way of arousing our interest without inviting the desire ot eat or mate with the object that aoruses it. The baby, the peacock’s tail, the landscape, even, are all “satisfying at a distance”. For example, even people and cultures who have never lived in landscapes characteristic of humanly inhabited savanna find images of them particularly attractive. With the hook of finding objects “attractive at a distance”, we can start to make these objects and play with the sense that nature gave us. So artistic traditions are born. For example, the tradition of tear-drop hand-axe making is the “longest artistic tradition of humanity” – it started 150,000 years ago at least, and continues to this day in tear-drop ear-rings and cut jem stones.

What is remarkable in Dutton is his persistent desire to marry the causal account of Darwinism with the meaning-based accounts of phenomenologists. He is unusual amongst evolutionists in steering clear of the thought that all there is to a question of aesthetics, morality or political philosophy is its genealogy. Its origins are interesting in their own right and sometimes even provide insights that add to our appreciation; but the phenonmenon is not its causes. It is the clarity of this distinction, I believe, that always made Dutton’s Arts and Letters Daily such a surprise and pleasure to read; it is the distinction that allowed him to filter the good material from such a breadth of sources.  

If I am right – that the uniquely attractive quality of Dutton’s selections of reading material comes from his ambition to make sense of diverse approaches to understanding – then there are lessons for the program that I described in the short screencast film of discovering social-silicon mechanisms “between Digg and Dutton”. We can think of the social/silicon division of power in this way: tools that produce lists of recommended reading, like Facebook, Pagerank and Twitter, can become good meaning-harvesters. But they need fruit to work with – the meaning itself. That is the distinctly social and essentially human component. So a new silicon tool will only work if it discovers – in the wild, as it were – a source of meaning (as Pagerank did); or cultivates one (as Twitter and Facebook have done). Facebook sowed its seed in our friendships; Twitter in our fanships (those whom we follow, and who follow us). Each have some of the qualities of Arts and Letters Daily. But there is still a long way to go in this exploration: groups-thoughts, debates, conversations are all still looking for the tools that will aggregate the meaning that they make.
Arts and Letters Daily stands – and will continue to do so – as an exemplar of what a list of pointers should strive to be. I wish Dutton’s colleagues the best of luck in continuing his wonderful work. I look forward to their own unique transformation of what he built.


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