TCS Daily


By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - October 22, 2003 12:00 AM

A lot of folks around the blogosphere got angry at the New York Times' John Markoff for comments he made in this interview in the Online Journalism Review, in which he likened weblogs to CB Radio in the 1970s.


My purpose isn't to defend the blogosphere against Markoff's assertions. (Jeff Jarvis has done that already). Rather, it's to defend CB radio. No, really.


Citizens' Band radio gets a bum rap nowadays -- in most people's minds, it's associated with images of Homer Simpson (in the flashback scenes where he had hair) shouting "breaker 1-9" and singing C.W. McCall's Convoy! loudly and off-key. In other words, something out of date and vaguely risible, like leisure suits or Tony Orlando.


But, in fact, CB was a revolution in its time, whose effects are still felt today. Before Citizens' Band was created, you needed a license to be on the air, with almost no exceptions. Radio was seen as Serious Technology For Serious People, nothing for normal folks to fool around with, at least not without government approval. Citizens' Band put an end to that, not by regulatory design but by popular fiat. Originally, a license was required for Citizens' Band, too, but masses of people simply broke the law and operated without a license until the FCC was forced to bow to reality. It was a form of mass civil disobedience that accomplished in its sphere what drug-legalization activists have never been able to accomplish in theirs. No small thing.


And it didn't stop there. Citizens' Band radio became popular because of widespread resistance to another example of regulatory overreach: the unpopular 55-mile-per-hour speed limit. Actually passed in 1974, but popularly identified with Jimmy Carter's "moral equivalent of war," speed limits were for the first time set not for reasons of safety, but for reasons of politics and social engineering. Americans rejected that approach in massive numbers, and entered into a state of more-or-less open rebellion. CB was valuable -- as songs like Convoy! and movies like Smokey and the Bandit illustrated -- because it allowed citizens to spontaneously organize against what they saw as illegitimate authority.


And it worked: the 55 mile per hour speed limit was repealed. That (plus the gradual introduction of cheap and effective radar detectors, which allowed citizens to watch for speed traps while still listening to their car stereos) gradually ended the Citizens Band revolution.


Well, sort of. Because like many fads, Citizens Band didn't really go away. It just faded from view, and turned into something else.


CB radio primed a generation that was used to top-down communication on the network-news model for peer-to-peer communication, getting people in the right frame of mind for the Internet, cellphones, and text messaging. It also served as a vehicle for spreading countercultural resistance to authority beyond the confines of hippiedom, taking it deep into the heart of middle America.


In fact, it's probably not too much of a stretch to say that this combination of resentment over Big Brother intrusiveness, coupled with the means of resisting those intrusions, laid the groundwork for the anti-government explosions of the 1980s. A lot of people used CB radio to evade the unpopular speed limit, and Carter wound up losing to Ronald Reagan, who preached individual freedom and deregulation. It's hard to know which way the causality runs here -- did CB make Reagan's election more likely, by fanning the flames of anti-bureaucratic sentiment? Or was it just an early indicator of that sentiment? Who knows?


But either way, it was something important. And so it is with weblogs. Like CB, they may well vanish from public attention, if not from the actual world (plenty of CB radios still get sold, after all). And they'll probably be replaced, or absorbed by, new technology within a few years. But they're popular right now because people want to get around Big Media's stranglehold on news and information, just as CBs were popular with people who wanted to get around speed limits. And, like Jimmy Carter, Big Media folks seem largely clueless about what's going on.


Editor's note: due to an editing error, the year in which speed limits were passed was misidentified. The column has been corrected to reflect the correct year.


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