Sunday, November 9, 2008

Is Blogging Making Us Stupid?

"Why I Blog," by Andrew Sullivan in the November 2008 "The Atlantic Monthly," opines well as an early adopter in his chosen medium on-line-- via the print issue I read and then for my blog linked to here back on-line. Will such circular transmissions, storage, and archiving continue? Or, will we give up paper for bytes?

It is the spontaneous expression of instant thought—- impermanent beyond even the ephemera of daily journalism. It is accountable in immediate and unavoidable ways to readers and other bloggers, and linked via hypertext to continuously multiplying references and sources. Unlike any single piece of print journalism, its borders are extremely porous and its truth inherently transitory. The consequences of this for the act of writing are still sinking in.

We're a hybrid form of communication, you, me, and pundits as famous or Sullivan or as obscure as Fionnchú mise féin. Going back and forth between our shelves and our Googling, Wikipedia and libraries, TV and music, films and videos, what we do off-line and how, for many of you if not quite technologically slower and less gadget-addled me, we bring smartphones and cameras and laptops into that off-line world to blur its boundaries even more. Ray Kurzweil, a visionary with an enviable if rather unsettling slew of successful predictions, figures by 2030 it'll be VR full-immersion injected nanobots into our brains to create and share whatever we call reality as our minds meld with our bodies, our networks with our consciousness. Cartesian separation may at last find its termination.

Another end, that of book culture, continues to be predicted. Beau Friedlander in the November 9, 2008, Los Angeles Times debates whether the Net's making us dumber. "The Internet vs. Books: A Peaceful Coexistence." Comparing Googling with reading books, he finds the latter more durable, less open to the merely individual rave or rant freed of editing, testing, or verification: "Books require a different sort of communion with one's subject than the Internet. They foster a different sort of memory -- more tactile, more participatory."

I'm not so convinced. I grew up loving books; I also was raised in a household with too few of them and too much t.v. Too old for that constantly plugged-in wired routine of my students, too young to have been educated by enough fervent mandarins who worshipped books as the repositories of the best thought and said. I turn to books habitually, but I also click away same as you have to get here.

We're a transitional generation. Will Kindle replace Barnes & Noble? Will we all be our own printing presses, downloading away onto drives rather than stocking our dens? Will our treasured volumes become as trashed, or as collectible, as our rows of vinyl LPs? Many critics rail against the Net as the final assault by the barbarians.

Yet, junk always clutters our vision. We've always needed educated guides to distinguish objets d'art from knicknacks. Any roam in a second-hand bookshop or a new shop's remainder stacks reveals that the gap between what deserves attention and what merits demotion has always persisted. Publishers rest on the same scale of prestige or vanity, niche or mass-market, as the blogosphere now builds. We let our preferences steer us, by Dewey Decimal or keywords, a friend's nudge or a reviewer's quotation. In a store or surfing the Net, we're navigating reefs of crumbling blather towards, we hope, a beacon. I'd respond that this medium you and I share allows for the pull rather than the push. We're more active, less passive.

Lately, I have discovered authors I never knew promoted by ones whom I have corresponded with personally after we met on the Net. My Amazon reviews continue and I solicit, post-election, your positive votes to keep my rank there high! I have found old friends, also whom I met first on-line, with fresh ideas about politics that I had not suspected they had! In turn, they directed me to other blogs and more portals. That's no sign, in my opinion, of a diminishment of my intellectual skills despite these being channelled on-line rather than through books or newspapers or craic in a pub.

The permanence of the coffeehouse diatribe, the bitter screed, the uplifting speech, the ribald anecdote, the essential reference, or the asserted factoid: we trust that the Net may in saving our thoughts and reactions, as quick as a diary jot, as long as an erudite monograph: may these outlast paper, fire, and mildew. (As long as Google stays not evil, no sabotage wipes out in a pulse all the terabytes of the past twenty years, and my account stays free and accessible: we do take a chance, don't we, with all our gathered eggs in one electronic basket?) I continue to seek out challenging opinions and stop by a few blogs to chat and leave comments that extend conversations that, despite what Carr, Friedlander, and Sullivan all charge, may deserve to last as long at least as the pulp and glue that surrounds me in my study.

Books rest all around me as I peck away. They wait for me, no less than the blank search bar at the right-hand corner of my screen lingers until my next urge fills it and off I go, to it as to my stacked paperbacks and clothbound packages of information and knowledge. I participate with you, and your comments and even the enigmatic squiggles of Google Analytics to trace the few of you reading this.

That allows, blip as it may ping, an objective correlative (Friedlander in an essay that appears too severely excised, cites T.S. Eliot, so can I in my entry that nobody can excise: the profits and risks of no other mediator) for my own acknowledgement of a loyal audience. If I publish an essay in a reference work, or even contribute to a scholarly peer-reviewed on-line journal my article, I cannot tell who opens it. I get no royalties, and unlike book authors, cannot tell who's consuming my labors in the real world or the virtual realm. For my efforts, I remain rather invisible-- unless I get an e-mail, perhaps, as happens now and then.

That's how some of you scanning these lines first met me, and vice versa. People who find each other by common interests. A decade ago it may have been discussion lists and participatory boards moderated on the Net. Now, blogs appear to have supplanted them. We all may wander the same bookstores and listen to the same music, but how would we meet out there? We've been scuffling about longing to confide in each other, but before the blogs, we could not easily find our kindred spirits. That's quite a bond that through the Net we can forge. It's participatory-- and a sustained and archived-- network of formidable memory merged with sensible expertise itself.

Friedlander mentions The Atlantic's July 2008 cover story "Is Google Making Us Stupid?". Earlier on this blog, I commented that Nicholas Carr appeared rather facile in his positive answer. Carr found himself forgetting basic information the more he relied on the Net.

As a teacher, I can see the advantages and drawbacks. As a contributor, on a miniscule scale, to Wikipedia, I assure students that it's not the babbling fountain of misinformation many of my colleagues decry; errors often vanish quickly due to careful editing. I'm amazed even delving into the most recondite entries how recently they've been last updated. Also, I favor open-source collaborations, blogs without advertising, and fora on the Net where we can contribute out of the love of wisdom rather than the reduction of yet one more public space to a shopping mall.

Do we have to remember so much? After all, my chemistry teacher sensibly figured we had the Periodic Table hung in the lab, across our textbook's endpapers, and we had no need to memorize it. If we harangue youth for not being able to go around with so much upstairs, by this logic we better take away calculators, maps, address books on their cellphones, and by that logic, reductio ad absurdam, books themselves. Detractors of the Net appear to forget that books are simply another form of portable data storage. None of us since literacy need to carry it all in our mind. I can admire those like Ramón Llull or Athanasius Kirchner whose powers of memory dwarfed mine, but on the other hand, there's a reason those names may not be immediately recognizable, compared to Gutenberg or Edison or even larval Bill Gates.

Typing this, I hunted in my brain for the title of the Borges story about the man who remembered everything. It took me a few seconds before "Funes the Memorious" bubbled up to drown out "Menes the Fumorious." (Which a nanosecond convinced me sounded like a biblical satrap from the Medes mingled with a Lewis Carroll adjective.) I could have looked it up, but "Labyrinths" and "Ficciones" are in the garage with much of my library. I did manage to dredge it up from my less capacious cerebellum. And, like doing calculations on paper (a risky task for a product of California public school's failed New Math program way back), I do try to stretch my noggin once in a while despite the technological alternatives.

Still, as my wife revels, the fact that we can obtain facts from a few clicks rather than a trip to the library or the "World Book" in the parlor (not that we have either one, although I have accumulated far too many books to rival a small library of my own) can prove delightful. Niall marvelled to me recently how he gets sucked into Wikipedia in his own quests for data, and Leo when he needed to know which songs to upload from some CDs I had borrowed from our hip neighbor did not sample them first, but he went (as I would have done) to Pitchfork and All Music Guide to compare their recommended tracks to his own possible picks: an efficient use of the mediator balanced with one's own final judgment.

That's the future: my teenaged sons with their technological literacy. No more bike trips to the library, but I take them regularly and we all split up looking. I might scan the new books, go up to 297 for religion or 796 for chess or 941 for Ireland; Leo likes graphic novels, Niall visits sports. Fiction's where Layne might receive her newest acquisition. I have three library cards for three districts now, and while I buy far fewer books than I used to due to space, budget, and mortality that looms before I can make decent use of the ones I already hoard, I do keep reading, my nose in the book, pointed at the screen, or aimed down and about as my fingers crawl over the keyboard. Just like the one you sit at reading this: the communion of me and you, perhaps no less ancient in its profundity than that of a scroll or tablet or a few ounces of paper dappled with ink and a splash of dye or buckram.

Photo: "Blogging: Now You Can Show the Whole World Why No One Listens to You."


harry said...

Interesting ruminations. Technology doesn't solve problems, it changes them. Technology doesn't make us dumber, just different. As I get older I reject the doctrine of progress, I bemoan the good things that are lost, and welcom the good things coming. In Dag Hammarskjold's prayer, "Lord, for what has been, thank you. For what will be, yes." I remembered the prayer but googled the spelling.

helan said...

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