Tuesday, 31 July 2007

The Sky is Falling Or Hadn't You Read?

"But the real consequence – unintended or otherwise – of Silicon Valley’s “participatory” media revolution is a culture of digital narcissicism in which our most meaningful cultural reference is ourself. ... Everywhere we look, we are faced with 70 million versions of ourselves: our own electronic diaries, our own half-informed opinions, our own stupidity and ignorance. This antisocial outcome of the social software revolution will be the reverse of the nightmare in George Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen Eighty-four. Big Brother — what Silicon Valley idealists eulogize as “citizen media” — is turning out to be ourselves."

- Andrew Keen

I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Keen on the radio yesterday and have been pondering his comments ever since. Mr. Keen suggests that we modern peoples are very bad at battling seduction and that the internet represents a seduction of the opinions of amateurs. He fears we will stop listening to experts, will no longer support the main stream media and will lose many of the valuable cultural pillars that give us informed direction.

Before you start fuming, please note that Mr. Keen is a polite, educated gentleman, who is no luddite. He appreciates technology and seems to be concerned that we will lose the press along with respect for certain educated authorities in a tide of democratic, anti-elitist, utopian enamorment with the internet.

Whenever I hear the doom-and-gloomsayers speak of the internet, I can't help but think of a quote from Socrates' Phaedrus , concerning writing. He believed it...

“... destroys memory [and] weakens the mind, relieving it of…work that makes it strong [and] is an inhuman thing.”

Of course it is undeniably true that because we can write things down we commit fewer details to memory - thus our mind is indeed weakened. On the other hand, we are able to do so much more work of other kinds these days because we can look up data we could never commit to memory. We can decide what is important to memorize and relegate everything else to a library of records.

I have been hearing for years that the internet will bring the end of the era of the book: That we will no longer want to read from nondigital sources - that publishing and printing will disappear. Of course this is an old trope, one that has been repeated frequently about a variety of entities - most memorably about the movie with the invention of television first and then the video recorder. The film industry it seems has yet to be appraised of its own demise. I seriously doubt that we will see the end of the newspaper, the professor or the author paid for his/her writings and opinions either.

I confess, I am one who appreciates the democratization of publishing and information brought about by the internet. I am a teacher (and yes, I frequently feel unappreciated for my expertise.) I, nonetheless, live by the conviction that the more information that is out there - the more likely we are to be able to fathom a meaningful truth. It is when information is hidden and repressed that we can not get a well rounded picture of the situation and we err in our important decisions.

This means letting everyone have a chance at his or her say - no matter how ridiculous, outrageous, uninformed, biggoted or scary. Need we worry that the public will take their ideas from uninformed and ignorant sources?

Perhaps. History (as wella s current American politics) certainly offers plenty of moral lessons about people who acted on too little, and flawed information. I think, however, that the more information we find "out there", the more likely we are to recognize the need for and to seek out those very experts that Andrew Keen feels are being obviated by the prepondrance of internet information. Jefferson said it better, "Information is the currency of democracy." Perchance we will have a brief period of confusion and being led astray - but when I encounter an issue on the web with too much conflicting data, I seek out multiple sources and then I start to look for the experts. Who has a degree, what does the New York Times , say about it, can the detractors' position be supported by credible sources? I doubt that I am so different from all the other users of the internet.

Will people read less nonvirtual material? Maybe for a while. Children are reading less and less we are told. I agree this is probably not a good thing. Still - it took only one unemployed woman writer on a train to get a generation (or more?) of children back to devouring books avidly. Could they read Harry Potter illegally on the net? Probably, but seriously, is that the way you want to spend your time reading?

Thomas Jefferson also said, "I cannot live without books." When I curl up in bed with something good to read, my laptop is nowhere in sight. There is nothing better than a newspaper or book, an overstuffed chair and a cup of tea or coffee in the morning. Yes, I could be fighting Dragon riding necromancers, and there is certainly a time and place for that, but there are times when I prefer a nice magazine and a glass of iced tea to tap tap tapping onthe keyboard. I love my computer, but there are times when I would rather have a cat in my lap and instead of a mouse in hand - sometimes I'll take a book.

I have faith that this is so and will be so not just for myself, but for many, many people for a long, long time.


Tiggerlane said...

I agree whole-heartedly. There is nothing like sitting down and reading a good book - I even find my vocabulary improves, if only for a few weeks.

Of course, I just read Harry Potter - so now I must read something more intellectual...

Great post!

goldennib said...

Lots of good things to think about. Books have been doom so often by so many things. They are still here, though.

min said...

Isn't this the essence of democracy, aren't we modern day pamphleteers?
We've always had to weed through the prophets to discover the truth.

The Artist formerly Known as Purpleworms (!) said...

TL - There is a lot of that going around. I think I'll read something junky next and go for intellectual later.

GN - So true! With the feel of the page, the smell of the paper and glue - I doubt computers will ever be half as satisfying . Books are here to stay.

Min- Absolutely right - and there were plenty of dubious pamphlets in the early days of democracy as well as those with " special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience."

Pamela said...

I admit that the internet takes up time. but a good book and me curled up in a corner will never be replaced. I suspect that story tellers were opposed to the printing press

"experts" is in the eye of the beholder perhaps.

captain corky said...

That's a lot to think about. But I actually feel like a lot more people are reading and writing because of the Internet. I wouldn't have a chance if it weren't for things like spell checker and google. That's for sure.

nikki said...

I think I'd always prefer to have a book in my hand and I really hope that never changes.

(I've moved to typepad!)

ChrisB said...

I will need to read this several times for my elderly brain to take it all in. I love my computer and I must confess these days embee and I use it to get info probably more than we reach for the hard copy encyclopaedias. However we are also avid readers, we always read daily papers and read every night in bed. This is certainly following on in our family, all three of my grandchildren love reading (we made sure books were always available and they were always having stories read to them) , Little Ben 6yr read me a whole book when he was here last time. But I know that if I didn't have a blog I would write very little (well some would say that is still the case!!)

neroli said...

Dear Artist, I've loved this post since I read it first last night before class, without proper time to give consideration that it was due.
I'm still thinking about it and will for some time---thank you!
My initial thinking about this issue of "internet 2.0" was that this is the closest that we've been in history for some time to that era where oratory, debate, and intellectual thought were considered essential components to being a better human being.
The salons, the piazzas...virtually.
I believe that thinking is changing, and thinking about thinking is changing. The tech is an adaptive manifestation of this. My own experience working with kids who are not NT and my keen interest in MI Theory bias me towards thinking that tech is a way of being present within other modalities, becoming stronger, and perhaps gaining adaptive skills in the linguistic intelligences...
(I love the quote from Socrates.
But you knew I'd say that, yes?)
Thanks again for a lot to think about.

neroli said...

PS---what Min said :-)!