Sunday rambles

The editors of n+1 examine the rise of “webism” and some of its paradoxes:

The webists met the [New York] Times’s schizophrenia with a schizophrenia of their own. The worst of them simply cheered the almost unbelievably rapid collapse of the old media, which turned out, for all its seeming influence and power, to be a paper tiger, held up by elderly white men. But the best of them were given pause: themselves educated by newspapers, magazines, and books, they did not wish for these things to disappear entirely. (For one thing, who would publish their books?) In fact, with the rise of web 2.0 and the agony of the print media, a profound contradiction came into view. Webism was born as a technophilic left-wing splinter movement in the late 1960s, and reborn in early ’80s entrepreneurial Silicon Valley, and finally fully realized by the generation born around 1980. Whether in its right-leaning libertarian or left-leaning communitarian mode it was against the Man, and all the minions of the Man: censorship, outside control, narrative linearity. It was against elitism; it was against inequality. But it wasn’t against culture. It wasn’t against books! An Apple computer—why, you could write a book with one of those things. (Even if they were increasingly shaped and designed mostly so you could watch a movie.) One of the mysteries of webism has always been what exactly it wanted …

In The American Scholar, Sven Birkerts thinks about technological change and the future of imagination and the creative mind:

From the vantage point of hindsight, that which came before so often looks quaint, at least with respect to technology. Indeed, we have a hard time imagining that the users weren’t at some level aware of the absurdity of what they were doing. Movies bring this recognition to us fondly; they give us the evidence. The switchboard operators crisscrossing the wires into the right slots; Dad settling into his luxury automobile, all fins and chrome; Junior ringing the bell on his bike as he heads off on his paper route. The marvel is that all of them—all of us—concealed their embarrassment so well. The attitude of the present to the past . . . well, it depends on who is looking. The older you are, the more likely it is that your regard will be benign—indulgent, even nostalgic. Youth, by contrast, quickly gets derisive, preening itself on knowing better, oblivious to the fact that its toys will be found no less preposterous by the next wave of the young.

In the Times Magazine, Gary Wolf speculates that obsessive self-monitoring may be moving out of the fringe and into the mainstream:

Ubiquitous self-tracking is a dream of engineers. For all their expertise at figuring out how things work, technical people are often painfully aware how much of human behavior is a mystery. People do things for unfathomable reasons. They are opaque even to themselves. A hundred years ago, a bold researcher fascinated by the riddle of human personality might have grabbed onto new psychoanalytic concepts like repression and the unconscious. These ideas were invented by people who loved language. Even as therapeutic concepts of the self spread widely in simplified, easily accessible form, they retained something of the prolix, literary humanism of their inventors. From the languor of the analyst’s couch to the chatty inquisitiveness of a self-help questionnaire, the dominant forms of self-exploration assume that the road to knowledge lies through words. Trackers are exploring an alternate route. Instead of interrogating their inner worlds through talking and writing, they are using numbers. They are constructing a quantified self.

Placing the spreadsheeting-of-the-self trend in the context of the social-networking trend, Wolf observes, “You might not always have something to say, but you always have a number to report.” To give it a different spin: Who needs imagination when you have the data?

7 thoughts on “Sunday rambles

  1. KiltBear

    “They are constructing a quantified self.”

    Mix in a little of Gladwell’s “Outliers” insights, and this sounds pretty promising. For lack of a better word, this idea titillates me.

  2. alexandramaeck

    I attended your LA Times Book Fair presentation and almost overcame my shyness afterward, to let you know I had taught your article “What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains” to my 101 class since I teach English and am befuddled as to what English to teach. I am intensely aware of the changes you noted, as a professor in an institution (community college) that is increasingly knowing itself through numbers only, fearfully, and obediently led by mandate and trend, to program and count. Of my students, those who split their time between page and screen understood you perfectly, but those who don’t get off the screen found your article boring. Too many words. Too long. Too pancaked to see the pancake?

    Anyway, I read your books and those authors you reference, to make sense out of what is obviously already transforming the words of our pixelating selves. For some reason, this morning, I’m remembering Hofmannsthal’s letter to Lord Chandos – maybe the words gave up a while ago, and the digits, like the codes of ourselves, read and spliced, suggest programs of a different generation. Not that I know what that means.

    A pleasure to hear you speak that warm LA morning in April. I went to Dartmouth but I was extremely removed from it graduating in 76.

  3. Seth Finkelstein

    “Trackers are exploring an alternate route. Instead of interrogating their inner worlds through talking and writing, they are using numbers. They are constructing a quantified self”

    And a good thing it is, too!

  4. Historymaking101

    I detest the idea of a quantified self. Judgment, for me is and will always be qualitative. Quantifying anything makes it easier to compare it, not only with things relating to itself, but with things to which it has little or no relation. Once numbers have been assigned, associations are assumed. Quantification of what is essentially qualitative material, along with the breaking down of processes, actions and analysis may be moving this society at least into a direction of less individuality, less interaction. We are ever more collections of bits and pieces, snippets of environment and action found elsewhere. When actions and analysis are broken down into similar pieces, when associations are taken fro granted, when judgment is quantized, we are forced to substitute the thoughts, and judgments of others for our own.

  5. John Schoettler

    ‘Quantified Self’ will end up being more like ‘Commoditized Self’ when practiced in the competitive (and globally connected) real world.

  6. Chef

    Nigel Thrift in Non-Representation Theory speaks of a ‘qualculated’ sense — which, as I understand it, is where these calculations and data spread sheets are assumed to be absolutes. For me, I’ve long let go of asking for directions, and even my method of printing out directions is antiquated. GPS technology is radically changing our sense of space. Mobile apps like 4 square allow us to increasingly spatially tag our friends.

    I disagree with the last statement Nick. As an artist, I see imagination stemming from sensory experience. I see the tech aspects as tools. A stick becomes an extension of your arm… you can “feel” at its point. While this incredible change may deaden certain senses, it will open up new sensory experiences. Imagination won’t disappear.

    But of course, if we are talking in terms of power structures, data has long been the currency in that conversation.

    “number does not just describe, it constructs…. number tends to cast the world reciprocally in its image as entities are increasingly made in forms that are countable. Number performs number.” (Thrift in Non-Representational Theory)

  7. Sam Clemmons


    I disgree with the use of the term “rambles” – that is a verb rather than a noun. A better term might be “rants”. Your rants may ramble on but your rambles cannot rant along. Very Hitletesc …I think.

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