A blogosphere thanksgiving

Dan Farber yesterday responded to my response to his post extolling the virtues of the blogosphere. I’m now going to respond to his response to my response to his post. I’m not sure whether this back-and-forth supports my thesis about blogging or shreds it into little pieces, but it seems like a good way to sign off before the Thanksgiving holiday.

This year, by the way, my family has decided to avoid all the nuisance involved in putting together a big meal in the meatspace and instead indulge in a digital simulation of the feast through the new Google Holidays (beta) service delivered through the Google Brain Plug-In (beta). What’s great about the service is that, because it’s supported by ads, you can enjoy your virtual turkey with all the trimmings while at the same time getting a head start on your Christmas shopping. Thanks, Sergey!

Where was I? Oh, yeah: blogging. Farber notes that:

Nick’s critique of blogging is really ironic. He started blogging in April and has now become part of what he calls the fantasy community of isolated egos. Clearly, the blogosphere is not as collegial or knowable as the Harvard campus.

I’ve been struggling with that irony as well. For the time being, at least, I’m going to revel in it rather than resist it. As to the alleged merits of the Harvard campus, I haven’t been there in a couple of years and have no plans to return.

Farber goes on to sum up my motivations as a blogger:

Instead of writing longer articles and waiting months for them to appear in print, or just emailing with his colleagues, [Nick] can offer and receive near instantaneous feedback, which, by the way, is all fodder for going ‘deeper’ and creating end (some revenue-generating) products, such as books, articles and speeches.

I’m not sure about the fodder point – so far, the blog stuff and the other stuff haven’t melded much, and the time given to the former has detracted from that given to the latter – but he’s right that instantaneous, self-controlled publishing is awfully seductive. Web 2.0 is kind of the apotheosis of the vanity press. But that seductiveness is, I’d argue, part of the problem. It’s so easy and cheap to circulate in the blogosphere, or the broader webosphere, that we, as a society, will inevitably tend to spend more and more time there – a trend, it’s important to remember, that Google, Yahoo, et al., have enormous economic incentives to propel. Slowly but steadily, the internet comes to mediate the way we take in and disgorge information, ultimately influencing, even reshaping, the very way our minds work. I really think that guy Richard Foreman was on to something when he wrote:

I come from a tradition of Western culture in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality – a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West …

But today, I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self-evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available”. A new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance – as we all become “pancake people” – spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.

That’s what scares me.

4 thoughts on “A blogosphere thanksgiving

  1. bpr

    You are both right, of course. Farber makes good points about the speed with which ideas can be disseminated and corrected and the flattening of information hierarchies (now any old Joe can toss his 2 cents into the debate). You, as a good contrarian, point up the downsides: piss-poor quality control of the information that gets disseminated and anti-social trends involved in niche communications.

    I have my own niggle regarding net communication: not to put too fine a point on it, the medium was designed by Asperger’s cases with ADHD. We make meaning of the world through sequential narratives, but linking blows that to bits. I’m waiting for some Big Brain at Harvard to tell us in ten years how hot links led to god-knows-what.

    If it’s any comfort, regression is a universal law. Over time, the noise level on the net will demand filters and other devices that help strain out the crap and interfaces will come to better approximate “human” communication needs. In other words, I’m putting my money on natural selection.

    Don’t worry so much!

  2. JohnO

    I think we are becoming a different people. Just look at the way people use phones now. Previously you’d have an address book. You wouldn’t carry it with you, so you still needed to remember people’s #’s that you speak with frequently. Now, cell phone. You don’t have to remember a single # ever now. With such hard drive sizes, you don’t have to remember anything you send in email – just search for it. With bookmarking services you don’t have to remember where to find things (combined with browser histories and searching the history it is nuts). Even with banking you see it, your bills can get taken right out of your account, you don’t have to remember to mail off a check every month, it just gets paid – also on the other end, direct deposit – no trips to the bank to deposit your paycheck. So, people don’t have to remember much these days. But they do need one thing:

    “Knowledge is good, method is good, but one thing beyond all others is necessary; and that is to have a head, not a pumpkin, on your shoulders and brains, not pudding, in your head” – A.E. Housman

    That quote is wildly off-topic, but relevant :)

  3. Seth Finkelstein

    “Slowly but steadily, the internet comes to mediate the way we take in and disgorge information, ultimately influencing, even reshaping, the very way our minds work.”

    That ship sailed when printing became widespread, (and perhaps more so with television). Humans were not optimized to sit all day reading and typing (for those who are so comparatively privileged to have such jobs). But really, the effects can’t be all that large, given that the shift away from being hunter-gathers for survival, hasn’t seemed to make any *deep* change in the very way our minds work (which some would argue is a problem!).

    Fast chatter isn’t conducive to deep thought, that’s a reasonable point. But this is also not the REPLACEMENT OF SELF (except in some extremely silly people’s hype).

    I suggest a deserved skewering of marketing sleaze is being misdirected into too much inveighing about the degeneracy of our modern age.

  4. Sam Hiser

    I don’t think you need to be scared, Nick.

    For one case that I know well, my blogging makes me smarter because occasionally people comment in what an ass I am and correct my mistaken views and hasty responses. And my Personalized Home page makes me smarter because I can see the feeds from RoughtType and Between the Lines and other articulate and diligent sources with the courage to question and learn. This discovery has just about made my year, I don’t mind confessing.

    Happy Thanksgiving, Nick. This post was a nice holiday break, a healthy mix with your usually well honed and rhetorically sound habit of trying to cast away the temptations of easy publishing.

    You have my sincere regard, as you do make the Blogosphere a better place. Even though I think you got the title wrong: “Does IT Suck?”

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