The free arts and the servile arts


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:

Real time is realtime

Realtime kills real space

More present than the present

The energy

How many tweets does an earthquake make?

A new chapter in the theory of messages

Deriving real value from the social graph

The stream

Twitter dot dash (reissue)


The unripened word

2 minutes ago from Tweetie

The New York Real Times

The eternal conference call

Does my tweet look fat?

Raising the realtime child

The crystal stream


New frontiers in social networking

Exile from realtime

What realtime is before it’s realtime

Worldstream of consciousness

Conversation points

Absence of Like

Automating the feels

Ambient tweetability

Pret-a-twitter and the bespoke tweet

Ambient reality

My computer, my doppeltweeter

The soma cloud

Facebook’s automated conscience

Jonathan Swift’s smartphone

The seconds are just packed

Chatbots are saints

Image: Sam Cox.

7 thoughts on “The free arts and the servile arts

  1. EliezerIsrael

    Very enjoyable to read these two side by side. Just the contrasting tone of the two pieces evokes the underlying word from which they emerge.

    As one who both spends time in contemplation and also occasionally plays the role of a twittering nerve-cell in the world nervous system, I would claim that they are not necessarily at odds in the human personality. One can participate in both worlds, but it does require setting aside ‘holy’ time, time when I am not ‘real-time’.

  2. Chris

    I tend to agree with the sentiment. I am no sure how new the things they are talking about are.

    People rarely reflected even before Twitter and Facebook. Heck the Buddhists have been saying since Buddha himself that people are too scattered and need to learn how to focus.

    I tend to see tiny blog posts, quick YouTube clips, and Twitter as evidence of people always wanting to avoid contemplation rather than causing it.

  3. Gary Frost

    The legacy mediation between the believer and the divine is also provoked by a divide between bionic and silicon neurologies. In both cases the sectarian can manage mediation by ritual and then simulate mediation by obsessive ritual. Email, Twitter, Facebook transactions deflect the need to fathom consequences of automated human contact.

  4. Steve Ames


    Thanks for the fascinating mashup. I read it all the way through. Twice. I must be a previous generation – I’m so intrigued by how Gilmour says we don’t understand it yet – that sense of a significant shift, just ahead. Can’t wait to discover where we’ll be next.


  5. Peter Kay

    I am thinking that the interval of Viktor Mayer-Schonberger’s proposed deletion rules will have to move to (Real Time-N) with N getting smaller and smaller over time.

  6. Meezan Ur Rehman

    Today is the first time to know Mr. Carr & read his ” Is google making us stupid? ” and my answer is ” Yes “. Yes, i became stupid, i am a stupid and most probably i will remain so rest of my life. Before telling you how, please let me explain briefly how i found Mr. Carr.

    B.B.C is my homepage and todays hot news was Oscar. From Oscar to Sandra Bullock’s video to Digital Giants ” Steve Ballmer ” s video on the same page. First time interested about the word “Cloud Computing “. Remembering that something i heard before …. where where where … maybe wiki page ” Human Condition “. Yes, from “Human Condition” to “Neo-Luddism” to accidentally “Nicholas G. Carr” to “Is google making us stupid ” to “Rough Type”. I was so amazed, horrified and felt an obligation that every one should know about it and forwarded it to minimum 50 online friends with cc.

    I have a limited access to net from my official PC. so i saved some rough type blog entries to read it offline & now when i start reading it, i realize that still i am same stupid before discovering Mr. Carr. My first feeling about Mr. Carr was “Thanks god, i found him accidentally. He is the one whom i was searching desperately. At least now i know that i am not alone who is going through this devastating info addiction without any real outcome & i am not the only stupid.”

    Then why i am saying “Ouroboros”? The answer is rough type itself. if today is my first day to visit rough type and i feel an extreme hunger to swallow the complete blog … how many hours, months or years it will take to reach it’s bottom with a sharp concentration, solid determination or without loosing interest? God have mercy on me to be exhausted.

    Since i got official limited access two years ago, it was my first time to experience google. Since then i created numerous folders to save my “exclusive, extraordinary, amazing” god gifted findings to use it, read it in future. which i never did. which are totally irrelevant to my real world, personal & official job. I jumped from page to page, subject to subject more than a monkey jumps from branch to branch in his life time.

    Another thing i realized. Information First and the Humanitarian or Emotional reaction second. Take Haiti earthquake as an example. BBC breaking news alert in my mail. wait for the net access time. BBC details. Instant available pictures. Country profile. International response and then a simple Oufff with a big sigh and later on upon reading the history of Haiti telling to myself let ’em go to ….

    Please tell Eric Schimdt that it is no more worthy to expand the stomach to digest 100 dishes at one time rather enjoy the natural taste of some limited dish.

    Special Note to Mr. Carr : I am sorry for my very poor South Asian English. I just want to give you some hints about my worries. Please edit as much you like before post it.

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