Tag Archives: Internet

Books are made of win, cont’d: “A momentary stay against confusion”

Clay Shirky says:

[A] book is a “momentary stay against confusion.” This is something quoted approvingly by Nick Carr, the great scholar of digital confusion. The reading experience is so much more valuable now than it was ten years ago because it’s rarer. I remember, as a child, being bored. I grew up in a particularly boring place and so I was bored pretty frequently. But when the Internet came along it was like, “That’s it for being bored! Thank God! You’re awake at four in the morning? So are thousands of other people!”

It was only later that I realized the value of being bored was actually pretty high. Being bored is a kind of diagnostic for the gap between what you might be interested in and your current environment. But now it is an act of significant discipline to say, “I’m going to stare out the window. I’m going to schedule some time to stare out the window.” The endless gratification offered up by our devices means that the experience of reading in particular now becomes something we have to choose to do.

The social piece of reading is a kind of penumbra. It’s something that forms around the text and after the fact. The feature of “highlight this passage and immediately see how many other people have highlighted it”? I mean, ZOMG, no. I want my own thoughts rendered as the most recent entry in the constant, long-running popularity contest that is the Internet – in real-time. Pick it up and do anything you like with it. Tell me later who else liked it. Show them to me, introduce them to me, whatever — not right now. Right now I’m reading.

Shirky writes more here — part of a fascinating series on the future of reading (for good or ill).

Nick Carr adds:

We don’t like being bored because boredom is the absence of engaging stimulus, but boredom is valuable because it requires us to fill that absence out of our own resources, which is process of discovery, of doors opening. The pain of boredom is a spur to action, but because it’s pain we’re happy to avoid it. Gadgetry means never having to feel that pain, or that spur. The web expands to fill all boredom. That’s dangerous for everyone, but particularly so for kids, who, without boredom’s spur, may never discover what in themselves or in their surroundings is most deeply engaging to them.

I’m sure neither author means to suggest that reading physical books is boring. But it does require a qualitatively different kind of attention than the restless browsing that typically happens on the Net, or the multitasking that our new devices make all too easy.

(h/t The Dish; image via CEN)
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4/15 Update: I see The Dish has now put up a nearly identical post — ironic, considering a previous Dish link to Shirky’s piece (but emphasizing a different topic) inspired mine. Let the record show that I got to this one first. 🙂

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“Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved”

Psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle expresses perfectly some of the qualms I have about our plugged-in, always-online, invasively interconnected lives:

The transcript is worth quoting at length (boldface mine):

We expect more from technology and less from each other. And I ask myself, “Why have things come to this?”

And I believe it’s because technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. And we are vulnerable. We’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we’re designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control. But we’re not so comfortable. We are not so much in control.

These days, those phones in our pockets are changing our minds and hearts because they offer us three gratifying fantasies. One, that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be; two, that we will always be heard; and three, that we will never have to be alone. And that third idea, that we will never have to be alone, is central to changing our psyches. Because the moment that people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious, they panic, they fidget, they reach for a device. Just think of people at a checkout line or at a red light. Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved. And so people try to solve it by connecting. But here, connection is more like a symptom than a cure. It expresses, but it doesn’t solve, an underlying problem. But more than a symptom, constant connection is changing the way people think of themselves. It’s shaping a new way of being.

The best way to describe it is, I share therefore I am. We use technology to define ourselves by sharing our thoughts and feelings even as we’re having them. So before it was: I have a feeling, I want to make a call. Now it’s: I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text. The problem with this new regime of “I share therefore I am” is that, if we don’t have connection, we don’t feel like ourselves. We almost don’t feel ourselves. So what do we do? We connect more and more. But in the process, we set ourselves up to be isolated.

How do you get from isolation to connection? You end up isolated if you don’t cultivate the capacity for solitude, the ability to be separate, to gather yourself. Solitude is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments. When we don’t have the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious or in order to feel alive. When this happens, we’re not able to appreciate who they are. It’s as though we’re using them as spare parts to support our fragile sense of self. We slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone. But we’re at risk, because actually it’s the opposite that’s true. If we’re not able to be alone, we’re going to be more lonely. And if we don’t teach our children to be alone, they’re only going to know how to be lonely.

There’s much more, and the whole video is worth watching. And this seems like an apt place to point out that Kate Bush saw this coming:

A previous post on solitude and the need to unplug here. And I’ve also previously mentioned Bob Mondello’s provocative post on E.M. Forster’s prescient science fiction story “The Machine Stops,” which is worth reading here.

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Miscellany, and an apology for long silence

I’ve been away from this blog recently, trying to devote some more time to fiction writing (but not yet quite comfortable enough to talk about that personal creative process, as I know others do). Working on this blog has been, and continues to be, an interesting writing experience — but a reactive one, a curatorial process of finding and commenting on cool things that others have said or done. It’s rewarding to be plugged in to the cultural conversation on the net, adding my humble two cents; but it’s been a while since I’ve made something of my own, and that’s something I’d like to spend a little more time doing. If you’ve been following my posts, I’m very grateful for your time and attention. I’ll try to keep it up as best I can.

Meanwhile, some things of interest:

1) Gregory Benford writes about the future of space exploration, arguing that the time has come for NASA to give way to commerce-driven space initiatives. Neil deGrasse Tyson (whom my family and I just saw giving a brilliant talk at the American Museum of Natural History) offers a different take on NASA and the vital importance of government funding for exploration. (Tyson videos have been popping up all over YouTube recently, eloquently presenting and sometimes re-editing his arguments: some choice ones here and especially here.)

2) A fascinating talk by author Neal Stephenson on our society’s increasing inability to get big stuff done, and why it’s important to revive that sense of ambition and possibility.

3) Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie has a must-read essay on “The Storytellers of Empire,” asking America why “Your soldiers will come to our lands, but your novelists won’t.” She makes a compelling argument for empathy, connection, and identity beyond ethnicity: “The moment you say, a male American writer can’t write about a female Pakistani, you are saying, Don’t tell those stories. Worse, you’re saying, as an American male you can’t understand a Pakistani woman. She is enigmatic, inscrutable, unknowable. She’s other. Leave her and her nation to its Otherness. Write them out of your history.”

4) NPR host Bob Mondello points to a science fiction story by E.M. Forster, “The Machine Stops,” that eerily predicts our (sterile?) virtual culture, our overreliance on technology, and what that says about who we are.

5) Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova asks: “what if we engineered […] selective attention purposefully and aligned it with our emotional and mental well-being?” She calls our attention to Ruth Kaiser and the Spontaneous Smiley Project, which invites us to see — and photograph — the smiley-face configurations that are literally everywhere around us. Kaiser makes the case for optimism on her blog, and quotes some inspiring Dr. Seuss passages as well. You can also watch her TED talk here.

And now I’m off. Have a great day, wherever you are. Go make something beautiful. Make someone smile.

(Photo via Do Something)

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Miscellany

Here are a few items I haven’t had time to write about, but are still, I think, worth your attention. I may revisit and more fully discuss some of these in the future, but there’s no reason not to share them now.

James McWilliams makes the case against eating meat. And Mark Bittman, questioning the line we draw between “pet” and “animal,” calls attention to our continuing cruel treatment of farm animals. (He writes a must-read follow-up here.)

Maria Bustillos discusses “Wikipedia And The Death Of The Expert.” Interesting to revisit this piece after having finished Robert Sawyer’s excellent WWW Trilogy, which projects a breathtaking and optimistic vision of the benefits of our online interconnectedness (and the emergence of a benevolent online AI). But it’s also interesting to consider this “democracy of opinions,” “we are all experts” mindset in the light of a recent talk by Timothy Ferris at last weekend’s World Science Festival. Ferris said that while science and democracy have flourished together (as he wrote in The Science of Liberty) the real test of democratic culture today is whether such a diversity of voices can produce the quick, decisive actions needed to respond to climate change. The Internet broadens our landscape of data and opinions — but is it slowing down our power to choose among these options, to act to save ourselves?

Why libraries matter: because every damn kid matters. And hey, every prisoner matters too.

On the education front: Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education and author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System, speaks out against standardized testing. David Bornstein explores a better way to teach math. And while the US faces a crisis in civics education, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor reminds us that learning about government can be fun: check out her brainchild, the nonprofit gaming site icivics.org. (My daughter’s favorites: “Executive Command” and “Argument Wars.”)

A must-read piece by Linda Holmes on how we should deal with the fact that, no matter how much we individually read and watch and listen and consume what culture has to offer, we’re going to miss almost everything.

Edward Lerner rails against the media for celebrating the end of the space shuttle flights and basking in NASA’s old glories, rather than getting the public excited about the need for a continuing, active, and ambitious space program.

Michael Boylan asks: “Are There Natural Human Rights?”

Jonathan Franzen suggests that technology makes us more self-directed, while love makes us other-directed. Well worth reading. And in conjunction, read David Brooks’ op-ed, “It’s Not About You.” Perhaps they overstate the case in some areas, and there’s some thoughtful pushback in the comments, but these are still, I think, wise pieces.

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Douglas Adams knew what was coming

Emily Asher-Perrin links to a Sunday Times article that Douglas Adams wrote about the Internet in 1999, which demonstrates just how prescient Adams was about where the world was heading:

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

This subjective view plays odd tricks on us, of course. For instance, ‘interactivity’ is one of those neologisms that Mr Humphrys likes to dangle between a pair of verbal tweezers, but the reason we suddenly need such a word is that during this century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment: cinema, radio, recorded music and television. Before they came along all entertainment was interactive: theatre, music, sport — the performers and audience were there together, and even a respectfully silent audience exerted a powerful shaping presence on the unfolding of whatever drama they were there for. We didn’t need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don’t (yet) need a special word for people with only one head.

I expect that history will show ‘normal’ mainstream twentieth century media to be the aberration in all this. ‘Please, miss, you mean they could only just sit there and watch? They couldn’t do anything? Didn’t everybody feel terribly isolated or alienated or ignored?’

‘Yes, child, that’s why they all went mad. Before the Restoration.’

‘What was the Restoration again, please, miss?’

‘The end of the twentieth century, child. When we started to get interactivity back.’

And then there’s this: Continue reading

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