This post, published on February 22, 2009, is the first installment in Rough Type’s series “The Realtime Chronicles.”
I have taken it upon myself to mash up the words of Steve Gillmor, posted yesterday at TechCrunchIT, and the words of the priest and theologian Andrew Louth, published in 2003 at the Times Higher Education site:
Gillmor: We’re at the threshold of the realtime moment. The advent of a reasonably realtime message bus over public networks has changed something about the existing infrastructure in ways that are not yet important to a broad section of Internet dwellers. The numbers are adding up — 175 million Facebook users, tens of thousands of instant Twitter followers, constant texting and video chats among the teenage crowd.
The standard attack on realtime is that it is the new crack. We’re all addicted to our devices, to the flow of alerts, messages, and bite-sized information chunks. We no longer have time for blog posts, refreshing our Twitter streams for pointers to what our friends think is important. It’s the revenge of the short attention span brought on by 30-second television ads — the myth of multi-tasking spread across a sea of factoids that Nick Carr fears will destroy scholarship and ultimately thinking. Of course this is true and also completely irrelevant.
Louth: The medieval university was a place that made possible a life of thought, of contemplation. It emerged in the 12th century from the monastic and cathedral schools of the early Middle Ages where the purpose of learning was to allow monks to fulfil their vocation, which fundamentally meant to come to know God. Although knowledge of God might be useful in various ways, it was sought as an end in itself. Such knowledge was called contemplation, a kind of prayerful attention.
The evolution of the university took the pattern of learning that characterised monastic life – reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation – out of the immediate context of the monastery. But it did not fundamentally alter it. At its heart was the search for knowledge for its own sake. It was an exercise of freedom on the part of human beings, and the disciplines involved were to enable one to think freely and creatively. These were the liberal arts, or free arts, as opposed to the servile arts to which a man is bound if he has in mind a limited task.
In other words, in the medieval university, contemplation was knowledge of reality itself, as opposed to that involved in getting things done. It corresponded to a distinction in our understanding of what it is to be human, between reason conceived as puzzling things out and that conceived as receptive of truth. This understanding of learning has a history that goes back to the roots of western culture. Now, this is under serious threat, and with it our notion of civilisation.
Gillmor: My daughter told her mother today that her boyfriend was spending too much time on IM and video-chat, and not enough on getting his homework done. She actually said these words: “I told him you have to get away from the computer sometimes, turn it off, give yourself time to think.” This is the same daughter who will give up anything – makeup, TV, food — just as long as I don’t take her computer or iPhone away.
So realtime is the new crack, and even the naivest of our culture realizes it can eat our brains. But does that mean we will stop moving faster and faster? No. Does that mean we will give up our blackberries when we become president? No. Then what will happen to us?
Louth: Western culture, as we have known it from the time of classical Greece onwards, has always recognised that there is more to human life than a productive, well-run society. If that were not the case, then, as Plato sourly suggests, we might just as well be communities of ants or bees. But there is more than that, a life in which the human mind glimpses something beyond what it can achieve. This kind of human activity needs time in which to be undistracted and open to ideas.
Gillmor: The browser brought us an explosion of Web pages. The struggle became one of time and location; RSS and search to the rescue. The time from idea to publish to consumption approached realtime. The devices then took charge, widening the amount of time to consume the impossible flow. The Blackberry expanded work to all hours. The iPhone blurred the distinction between work and play. Twitter blurred personal and public into a single stream of updates. Facebook blurred real and virtual friendships. That’s where we are now.
Louth: Martin Heidegger made a distinction between the world that we have increasingly shaped to our purposes and the earth that lay behind all this, beyond human fashioning. The world is something we know our way around. But if we lose sight of the realm of the earth, then we have lost touch with reality. It was, for Heidegger, the role of the poet to preserve a sense of the earth, to break down our sense of security arising from familiarity with the world. We might think of contemplation, the dispassionate beholding of reality, in a similar way, preventing us from mistaking the familiar tangle of assumption and custom for reality, a tangle that modern technology and the insistent demands of modern consumerist society can easily bind into a tight web.
The Realtime Chronicles continues in these posts:
Image: Sam Cox.