Sunday, January 3, 2010

Can books (or blogs) loosen our electronic leash?

Pico Iyer, a writer I envy for his charmed life, reflects on how this decade's bombarded us with increasingly noisy levels of unprecedented access to information, in "Tyranny of the Moment,". It's a solid essay, advocating again the need for us to immerse ourselves in more lasting pursuits between pages and with each other than tapping away as I am now at the keys to churn out what you at your computer then peruse. He reminds the few of us who may still buy books, beyond the diet/inspiration/self-help treatise, the ghostwritten bio, the scandal and/or politician du jour, of the need, well, to read books. Globetrotting, funded, touted, I do agree with him despite the privileged perch from which he addresses us few literate peons. He addresses our remnant who turn to book reviews in a remnant of our Sunday "Arts & Culture" section, for we in L.A. no longer deserve a separate Book Review pull-out. Most of you elsewhere may never have expected us out here to have had one any time.

Iyer's also unsurprising in his mandarin mien at how we wallow in entertainment. Without the book tours and promotional pictures on book jackets and Facebook tie-ins that he decries yet thrives by himself, I doubt I'd've heard of and then read and posted my review of his relationship with the Dalai Lama, "The Open Road." So, the fealty he and I and you by scanning this on your chosen monitor pay to the idols of the marketplace may be both our punishment and our pleasure if we wish to sustain the promise of a semi-intellectual, somewhat-informed slice of the demographic.

The other day I wrote a friend of my wife's who reviews for the L.A. Times regularly, and who's published three novels. I opined that many current reviewers seemed to spout off too much on the subject and not the book, or, worse, about themselves. The results often appeared to me anodyne. (I sell my own self cheaply-- to Amazon and here on this blog for nothing, and the occasional academic publication that may or may not afford me a review copy gratis.) The flabbiness of much of book reviewing in mainstream media-- I direct you reluctantly, as she does not merit more P.R., for a worse-case scenario to the train wreck that is Sandra Tsing Loh in her last two entries in "The Atlantic"-- may attest, as Iyer laments, to a decline in how far we can stretch our networked multitasked addled attention spans. We already munch too much low-fiber bread and as we watch the circus cult of celebrity. Inflated by puffery than bloats authors, and those who roll the (b)logs and crack the whips on talk shows and book signings, as prostitutes for promotion.

Beneath it all, the "reality TV" mythos that takes over so much of this past decade's energy, we discern a shabby rush for not only instant recognition but lasting fame. I learned how one of the Jackson brothers in their own pandering "A Family Dynasty" hesitated on camera (was this scripted?) to cash in on a "reunion tour" so soon after Michael's demise, but was persuaded by his siblings. By the end of the episode, high-fives all around as they congratulated themselves on their business acumen. They also bemoaned their inability to walk down a street unmolested by fans, a dubious claim, but one that the show itself appeared to promise to change into the very notoriety that they claimed to wish to avoid. A telling metaphor, or tangled one. Certainly they lack an underlying philosophy, recollection off stage, of how they should conduct themselves in the wake of the funeral procession, among the baked meats (or caviar trays) after their need to generate cash after the cow died. The profits must accrue; I pass a billboard over an industrial barrio for "The Jacksons" on my way from work. Four middle-aged, portly, beaming brothers dressed like gangsta pimps. Role models for us, stuck in post-Christmas traffic. Ho ho ho.

So much for holiday jeremiads, a specialty of mine. Alongside egghead (should they be egg-nogged?) tirades. Back to the personal touch.

In "The Tyranny of the Moment," Iyer concludes: "
Define happiness, someone asked me recently. Absorption, I said instantly (it was an e-mail interview), and anything that gives me an inner life and a sense of spaciousness, intimacy and silence. The world is much better for many of us now than it was 10 years ago, and I never could have dreamed so many of us would have so many kinds of diversion, excitement and information at our fingertips.

But information cannot teach the use of information. And diversion doesn't teach us concentration. Imagine a seven-hour-long heart-to-heart with someone who's been saving up all her life for what she's about to whisper in your ear. The medium that has been dying the whole century may be one way we can rebel against the hidden dictatorship of Right Now."

Dictatorship does exert control, and technologically this medium exacts compliance. I weary of bosses who track that I check in wherever I am daily online, of electronic teaching that never ends when I leave the classroom, of an employee inbox that fills with Priority To All red-flagged demands for responses as of yesterday.

On the other hand, at the same contraption but by my own volition, I find that a handful of blogs reward me. More benefits to recollect in tranquility, compared to the instant pecking out "going to sleep now" @374 people? For me, blogs may be the infant heir to the Tatler exactly three centuries ago-- coffeehouse chatter that elevates (or even may expand) itself as essays, articles, tirades, and reviews. Sir Richard Steele's thrice-weekly magazine lasted from late 1709 to January 1711, however. Less than two years: the shelf life of many a startup or e-zine.

That generation gap and the stylistic registers granted, I do encounter fine prose out on the Net. Often erudition and humor join, and commentary on politics and culture appears that I'd have no idea about otherwise. As with any medium, thus for me its defense. For example, a new Follower here to whom I was introduced to by a blogger in the list below told me on Facebook about her sister's film project from a decade ago that intersects, perhaps, with my current Celtic-oriented research.

I make my rounds to click on (inter alii) my Northern English colleagues "Bo" at "The Expvlsion of the Blatant Beast" (by invitation) & "The Cantos of Mvtabilitie" (open) and "Vilges Suola" at "Lathophobic Amnesia"; Irish journalist Anthony McIntyre at "The Pensive Quill"; Irish author Tony Bailie at "Ecopunks". Add to these upstate NY-based poet-critic Ben Howard's calm "One Time, One Moment: the Practice of Zen"; fellow Angeleno (if a USC and not UCLA grad) John W. Smart's feisty "Liberal Rapture"; and San Franciscan (adjacent) Lee Templeton-- who migrated with her beloved iPhone to FB but I gently remind her that she should keep up the blog equivalent for her own globetrotting eloquence at "The Templeton Chronicles"-- these correspondents who've become my friends (some in person after meeting them on the Net) epitomize for me intelligent voices that I check in with regularly, if not daily. (I also miss another blogger's presence who's a year on now "Gone Fishin'"-- you know who you are.)

After I typed that list of URLs, on Facebook I found two relevant articles uploaded. I shared them with some of the above. John Burns on 20 Dec. asks in the (Irish) Times Online: "Where have all the Irish bloggers gone?". Political coverage there apparently stagnates as journalists drift off to Tweet. Meanwhile, the huddled masses over here keep breathing free, if through their mouths, according to Chris Hedges over on 13 Nov. at "Forget Red & Blue-- It's the Educated vs. the People Easily Fooled by Propaganda".

Is the democratic surge predicted by Netizens a decade ago coming to pass, or has it passed? Do we lack even the patience to keep up with a blog, or to keep one up? For me, the past year has brought me into a spirited debate often on "Liberal Rapture," and kept me from ranting so much over here. (John Smart, who presides over it, mentioned to me in following up on the "Forget" article above, that he thinks come mid-term elections, U.S. bloggers will rally.) I often agree with my fellow LR commenters but often I do not, and for that, I gain perspective and challenge my own preconceptions. The comments on such blogs form their own vibrant community that adds to the learning and arguing that enriches us. These observers of the Right Now provide me with rich opportunities for cultural, academic, and political insight.

Finally, my wife's weekly entries, all 2000 or so words each Friday afternoon, at "CasaMurphy" do cap off every turn of the moon's shadow in fine fashion. Seeing myself reflected eerily in her own descriptions as "Himself" does make me both humbled and happy. Chastened and chosen. It's a bracing exercise each weeks for this mortal to see myself-- harried father, (im)patient husband, erstwhile recluse, hapless housekeeper, wearied worker-- as at least one Other sees me.

They may not be quite the "seven-hour heart-to-heart" that Pico Iyer imagines should supplant our status updates. Yet I find that some of those listed above, when I've met them in person, have engaged with me in nearly that long a conversation, our previously amassed dialogues online a prelude for the face-to-face connection. Also, better than even a tete-á-tete, blogs provide a permanence that I'd argue needs to remain against the tyranny of the moment. On Facebook or the Twitter, the latter not used by phone-phobic me, these moments pass as live feeds then fade. I'll stick with this blog for a more ruminative, less hurried, archived and reasoned forum to talk and listen with you all. I'm glad you keep me company as followers and commentators.

P.S. I found this letter in today's L.A. Times, but from its print edition only, tellingly. Littlerock CA's D. W. Kreger in "Tweet-Spaced to distraction" muses how Iyer got the tyranny backwards. Modern media rather than keeping us locked in Iyer's "windowless cell of the present," shackles us "perpetually addicted to distraction, which actually keeps us from being fully present in the moment. From an Eastern meditation perspective, blogs, tweets and the 24-hour news cycle are like a reverse meditation, which uses distraction to keep us locked out of the here and now."

(Illustration: Edel Rodríguez for the Iyer article, Dec. 20, 2009, L.A. Times. Its caption-- "Can Books Loosen the Electronic Leash?"-- I amended for my own title.)


vilges suola said...

I think using the internet has seriously damaged my ability to concentrate and at the same time made me even more of a magpie for snippets of shiny info. I find myself wanting to watch two or three You Tube videos simultaneously because I'm impatient to have seen them rather than to see them. I always have several books on the go at once and as a result I cannot remember what I have read and only rarely do I actually finish one. I keep telling myself I'll have an internet fast, but it seems it is one more addiction / obsession among my other obsessions. If we had a week-long power cut, it would do my brain a power of good.

Fionnchú said...

There's competing articles in the Atlantic Monthly over here. "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" & the inevitable rejoinder, "Is Google Making Us Smarter?" Not sure which, for as you, VS, I do find the Net both a comfort and a distraction, in equal amounts-- but is that different than a book, or watching TV, or imbibing, or travelling, or a sport or hobby?

P. M. Doolan said...

I think you have put your finger on the contradiction that is inherent in technological communication. We are repulsed by it and we can't do without it. I agree with the other poster above that the internet is destroying our concentration. I teach in a school where every student has a laptop (a tablet) and teacher's are frowned upon if they don't integrate enough technology - they are considered old school, has beens and possibly cynics, which is the greatest crime of all to those with a totalitarian mindset. Today I caught a student in class during my lesson on skyp. I am reminded of what Werner Herzog said: "The more we communicate through technology the less we will communicate through our selfs."