Thursday, June 5, 2008

Happy Meals, Blogging & Thinking

Nicholas Carr in the July/August (getting ahead of ourselves) Atlantic Monthly asks (but you cannot link to it for a few weeks in one of the few advantages to those of us who read a print copy and pay money for it) in the cover story: "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" He applies Taylorism to the Net. Increased production, mass-market predictability, time-and-motion studies akin to, in my case here, Google Analytics with its "bounce rate" and charts where I can try to separate my visits to Blogtrotter from yours. The interest of the sponsors of this very host lies, Carr argues, in reducing content rather than expanding it. The faster we consume data, the more quickly we will wander off to spend more eyeball time, and inevitably more money, in another retail outlet in this vast Internet bazaar.

More familiar with a mall than a souk, I thought of McDonald's. Gulping down animal-style what fights our hunger pangs rather than what sustains our nourishment. Efficiency governs our food, the servers, the machines, and our rate of ingestion if not digestion. We sit in uncomfortable shiny booths under garish light that impels us to gobble and get out.

Make the connection to the form as well as the content. Move on-line. Blame Java and Flash. Pages leap out to grab your glance as if in a ninth-grader's textbook. The restless gaze meets a jumpy sight. Whether a greasy burger or a sleazy model, our attention's arrested and we stand guilty. Marketers' prey, we can't stop the applets and the dancing figures and the floating ads that obscure our comprehension. We're mocked as we stare at the vivid screen.

In editing information (if not knowledge) down into bite-size chunks and colorful graphics and animated filigrees, I wonder: are we not imitating the triumph of an cybernetic Happy Meal? Carr ponders: if Chinese readers have evolved different neural circuitries to unlock ideograms than we Westerners do these alphabetical signs tapping across this page, then we will create different brain functions as we combine all our information into this package you and I open together right now. He anticipates how-- as the map and the clock, the typewriter and the printing press, the TV and the radio, the phone calls and the camera's archive, the movie and the video, and I suppose the workplace and the home all merge-- we are growing less reliant upon the patience that deep thinking requires.

As Ursula Le Guin warned about the decline of literacy in a Harper's article that I blogged about last month, so Carr fears a dumbing down. We will not be able to absorb more than sidebars or factoids. Our youthful memory of being immersed into a dense text that re-created the process of deep thinking will, Carr anticipates, be degraded. I heard the other day of a student whining about why he had to learn the Bill of Rights when he could look it up on the Net. Same problem as a dictionary-- you need to know first the general idea of what you are searching for more precisely. One step may lead to another into Orwellian thoughtcrimes and doublespeak if we lack the articulation of what we can conceive, as well as the possession of what we claim.

Carr interviews his smart colleagues, and they attest to their own weakening grasp of complexity. They find themselves skimming, unable to keep more than three paragraphs or so straight-- even on a blog. Channel surfing with the remote two decades ago led to one stereotype. Augmented if not superseded, the pull content overwhelms the push. Now, it's relentless clicking vs. advertisers who compete to slow our fingers enough to guide them into one-click shopping. (A temptation that I have wisely never allowed myself on Amazon.) As Nietzsche found with his friend-- Carr tells the anecdote-- that the typewriter increased telegraphic, terse prose, I wonder if the Net may exacerbate our restless truffling for hidden treasure. Our appetites crave satisfaction, and for trivially obsessed introverts as well as junkfood junkies and shopaholics, the array of what we can now sample and splurge may speed up debt, disease, and dissolution.

Elias Canetti's protagonist Peter Kien found delusions and hallucinations as he struggled against bibliomania in "Auto-da-Fé." The bookworm's "Supersize Me"? Whether scarfing down Big Macs or restlessly condensing a Borgesian storehouse of lore into Twitter's 140-character missives, technology conspires with obsession. Canetti's 1935 novel attempted to warn of Teutonic madness; Carr's article attempts to rouse us against rapacious forces, but the medium and the message tangle in both cases. A fiction about one's fear of losing a library: as a book. An essay about one's fear of losing one's memory: as a URL. (Well, wait a few weeks for it on

We still are spiny bipeds with heads and stalks whirring about. We can't extricate, at least until silicon uploads our consciousness away from our carbon casing, our desires apart from our stomachs and our synapses. Will information be channeled through companies before it reaches us? Or, can we grow our own?

Fast food can be countered by farmer's markets and home gardens. "American Idol" can be thwarted by our admittedly quixotic resolution to put down the damned L.A. Times (which shamefully devotes much more column inches to its weekly chronicles than it has daily book reviews) and return to a text longer than the space it takes up on our laptop's display. Or else, our daily diet for the mind as well as the body may soon arrive pre-digested as well as pre-snuffled, and, like spinach leaves, pre-packed for our grunting consumption.

Leo asked the other day of his parents why we blog (as with this week's tandem posts about last weekend's getaway) if we have each other to talk to. Thus, the cartoon. Layne explained that we both keep our writing skills up, a mental workout similar to our physical ones. I would also add that this effort that we make in parallel, as she about fifteen months ago kickstarted me into blogging regularly, enriches my own life of the mind. Nearly two decades ago, for a year or two we would write a few lines in a yearly diary that we would alternate in. Our blogs now allow us to continue this regular record of our thoughts and actions, but with a networked capability that invites you to also join our conversation. Perhaps, thanks to my friend Carrie's kind redesign of this blog recently, it also improves the aesthetic quality of my entries, by the graphics and by the images I hunt for to enhance its impact visually. I don't believe this lowers me to the level of a fast-food chain's interior designer!

Certainly my Irish-language paragraphs, which may average around four per entry, take almost two hours to compose, correct, refine, and translate into equivalently basic English. I find this not an onerous task, but a difficult one. The commitment I have made publicly here to do them keeps me loyal. Like jogging in front of a large window at some gym, which I would never do, but the expectation of an audience behind the one-way mirror that the Net provides me-- where you read this and where I type it only imagination can confirm pending web-cams installed!-- with another incentive, however egotistically motivated, to keep up my accustomed pace, to answer my own compulsion to learn and to ruminate.

Layne pays good money for similar self-discipline in her workouts in Griffith Park. I'd add she spends a lot more on it than I do on books or music in our straitened financial state! But, we must attend to our mental and bodily needs. The investment of cash or creativity to stick to a schedule discourages our natural sloth.

Carr's article disappointed me. I expected more rigor. Since I must teach a class to engineers and programmers and analysts on "Technology, Culture & Society," I suppose my eleven years of this Humanities course have encouraged me towards an acceptance of what Carr resists. In the technical university where I labor, my liberal-arts bent gets shaped differently than if I perched in the ivory tower rather than a campus that belies that term as a concrete-and-glass building in a "business park" between an airport and a freeway.

Out of touch with literate types where I work, my lack of contact with the tweedy cadre may reveal either my naivete at the decline in literacy or my resignation to work with what I have, on-line more than on the shelf, to guide my students who emerge from a conditioning to the machine far more integral than my own upbringing when hours whiled away in bookstores or libraries filled my free time. My students will not be able to encounter the authors whom I name drop in this post, at least during the accelerated eight-week per course curriculum that allows them only a glimpse beyond their "career-oriented education." That's what they pay me for.

Am I hastening the decline of standards? Or, is my position (in a tough job market for Ph.D.'s in English not favored by certain criteria beyond my physical control) part of our national shift from education for the elite to service of the masses? Their degrees mark not a gentleman's polish, but an applicant's stamp. They enter this institution told they will be prepared not for syllogisms or iambs, but skill sets and hands-on training. Taylorism governs me. I cannot choose my textbook, my course objectives, or my subject. I am assigned a task to fulfill, meeting top-down dictates. I'm employed to fulfill this duty. I do my best to integrate my humanist perspective into the school's tight focus on pragmatism, metrics, and accountability.

Schoolchildren or college students, they may inhabit rooms labelled as libraries or visit bookstores, but as with the patrons whom I see at the LAPL branches locally, they scan videos and wait for stations. At Borders, there's more readers, but there's also coffee, DVDs, calendars, mugs, and increasingly fewer books displayed. As with the libraries wherever they may remain, you'll find lines not at checkout as often as for silently waiting monitors. Meanwhile, the books recline and slouch, getting lonely. On what passes for my campus the other day, I sat grading papers in the library and watched a student worker dust the tops of the little-disturbed volumes in the reference section.

Perhaps timed endeavor-- my Irish entries and Layne's boot camp drills-- proves, as with treadmills and pedometers and fancy sneakers, that technology can enhance our natural abilities. I studied Carr's article while on the treadmill this morning. I gain sharpness in reading when I anticipate posting a review here and or on Amazon. Unlike the cartoon's Samantha, I venture that Layne and I have improved our intellectual relationship. We can learn from each other's responses to events we experience together as well as trapped in our own monads. And, in this forum, you can eavesdrop on our public personae, musing aloud on private reflections.

Blogging regularly may also force us to keep to a schedule that otherwise we'd have nobody or nowhere to account for. A sort of pledge before witnesses, if you will, of our own fool's progress. A forced march to stiffen our resolve. A constitutional to refresh our souls. At least for a few of us still resigned to workouts, neurologically and neurotically. My students who spend thirty hours a week on World of Warcraft might understand.

Living up to our resolutions long after New Year's means we suffer a nagging conscience. What begins as a hobby can turn a duty, but perhaps then the amateur's commitment becomes more than a passing fancy. With such investment of mental energy, we work against the Net's temptation to dabble and drop.

Instead of, as Carr laments, a web browser wandering off to the next gaudy attraction, a blogger strives to engage his or her audience. Enticing a visitor to stay a few minutes, the blogger reveals a thought, a book, an encounter, a vista that you the passer-by may never have contemplated. This, certainly, becomes as valid a reason for blogging than any earlier form of epistemological correspondence. Unlike past letter writers, bloggers address more than one recipient. Their enthusiasms may be as vapid as the majority of letters left unpublished by past scholars, true. The Net denies the printer or the proofreader as arbiter of taste or profit. Capitalist pigs all when it comes to jostling on the Net, we will always have with us in this libertarian marketplace the publicist and the profiteer. Nobody posts for free. Google wants me to add Ad Sense but I never will. They're wealthy enough without me, and the corporations can patronize those of us who wave about as Sensitive Plants, right Lord Shelley?

A future in which more of us can engage each other, in a forum wider than the aisles of a bookseller, appeals to me. Chroniclers today, unlike Pepys or Boswell, await discovery. Technorati ranks me far lower than Emily Gould who languished across the cover of a recent New York Times Magazine about her stint at Gawker. My very typing of her name boosts her rating. Boswell may have written such about some Lady Montague, or Pepys about Nell Gwyn, similarly. Yet, those ladies' fame has been dimmed by the insights of those two scribblers. Emily Gould may turn into a footnote, while her memorialist may be hailed as the early 21st century's literary lioness.

Who knows which of us on blogger-dot-com will be acclaimed a century hence as the cleverest diarist of our fleeting days? Maybe a shy geekette's entries will gain the notoriety of Andy Warhol's index to his posthumous journals? Those pursued by the paparazzi may find the wallflower, perhaps with video function activated, tomorrow's acclaimed voice. Carr admits that we've always been scared by the new technology for literacy's dissemination; I predict he may prove himself wrong in his hesitation.

No less than the London that Samuel and James witnessed in their day, we bloggers regularly attest to our own wonder, boredom, wisdom, and wit-- or its lack. In such chronological management, we preserve for ourselves and others the distilled essence of what could have been formless reveries. There is another cartoon that I did not put up due to the messy copyright printed on it. Aesthetic reasons, you see. It's a desert island where one fellow muses to his companion: "I'm five weeks behind on my blog."


harry said...

This is america, this is pittsburg steel, this is america, this is how we feel.

The darkness tipped our lives as Reagan ascended.

Movie was on of the best of last year IMHO, better than the arty and precious Control.

Fionnchú said...

I forgot about "Auto da Fé" made into an (of course) ambitious movie last year; thanks for the reminder-- also, speaking of "Control," there's an eponymously (love that adjective) titled Joy Division doc out soon on DVD that's gotten much praise...

Scudbob said...

We do increasingly have the attention span of ferrets. Short term attention spans and either a lack of willingness to ask critical questions or an inability to do so is a perfect recipe for corporatism. How convenient to phase out/minimize liberal arts requirements wherein students might learn to ask critical questions.

Wouldn't Frederick Taylor, Adam Smith and David Ricardo be pleased? Maybe we should take a cue from Frost and "go the road less traveled" which might include such things as