Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, June 21, 2010

quantity and quality revisited

It would seem that Steven Johnson isn't the only advocate of the quantity-trumps-quality defense of online life. The other day I mentioned Cory Doctorow’s praise for Clay Shirky’s new book, but Jonah Lehrer has a different and considerably more skeptical take:

After Shirky introduces his argument, much of the remaining 170 pages of the book are devoted to outlining what this surplus has produced. The author begins by describing the protests in South Korea over the importation of American beef. Interestingly, a majority of the protesters were teenage girls, who had been motivated to take to the streets by their online conversations. (Many of these conversations took place on a website dedicated to a Korean boy band.) Shirky describes this protest movement in breathless terms: "When teenage girls take to the streets to unnerve national governments, without needing professional organizations or organizers to get the ball rolling, we are in new territory," he writes.

But are we really? There were, after all, a few political protests before the internet. Somehow, the students at Kent State found a way to organize without relying on the chat rooms of Bobdylan.com. While the internet might enable a bit more youthful agitprop, it seems unlikely that we are on the cusp of a new kind of politics, driven by the leisure hours of the young. . . . After getting enthralled by the opening premise of the book, I expected Shirky to have a long list of exciting new examples of our surplus at work. This is where the book gets slightly disappointing. From Wikipedia, Shirky takes us on a tour of ... lolcats. He cites ICanHasCheezburger.com as an example of what happens when our cognitive surplus is transformed into "the stupidest possible creative act." While Shirky pokes fun at the site, he still argues that it represents a dramatic improvement over the passive entertainment of television. "The real gap is between doing nothing and doing something, and someone making lolcats has bridged that gap." There are two things to say about this. The first is that the consumption of culture is not always worthless. Is it really better to produce yet another lolcat than watch The Wire? And what about the consumption of literature? By Shirky's standard, reading a complex novel is no different than imbibing High School Musical, and both are less worthwhile than creating something stupid online. While Shirky repeatedly downplays the importance of quality in creative production — he argues that mediocrity is a necessary side effect of increases in supply — I'd rather consume greatness than create yet another unfunny caption for a cat picture.

I would add that when we read books, if we’re reading them well, we’re not just consuming: our minds are deeply and fully and actively engaged, and in ways that are measurable, if you need that kind of evidence. (Carr has some good stuff about this in The Shallows.) Shirky is generally contemptuous of literary reading, but if he thinks literary reading is only passive consumption, the science doesn't bear him out.

16 comments:

  • A couple of weeks ago James Fallows posted a video panel "Internet: Friend of Dictators or Dissenters?"

    Perhaps the most telling part of the whole thing is Fallows' opening remarks, "A few years ago we would have though the answer to this question to be self-evident. That the internet clearly favored dissenters. But now we're not so sure."

    My own view is that at least as much as the internet is changing society it is also changing to reflect society. If the internet is making us shallow, it is at least partly because we make the internet shallow. That may be unsatisfying and tautological, but it doesn't mean it's not true. :-/

  • Michael Straight said...

    I don't think many people are saying, "Another chapter of Le Temps retrouvé tonight? Or should I finish up that hilarious LOLcat I started yesterday?"

    My guess would be that there are a significant number of people making silly stuff on the internet instead of passively watching "Survivor: Detroit Suburbs" on TV, and I'm inclined to agree with Shirky that that's more likely to lead some people on to more worthwhile creative efforts than another evening of television. No one ever gives you feedback on how well you watched "Dancing With the Stars" last night or challenges you to watch it better next time.

  • _"No one ever gives you feedback on how well you watched "Dancing With the Stars" last night or challenges you to watch it better next time."_

    This is not true.

    Critical communities for nearly every tv show have flourished with the advent of online communication.

    Also, maybe be a little more cautious with the dismissive attitude? I my understanding of how modern audiences understand "reality" and "the desissive moment" is due to my many hours of watching and enjoying America's Funniest Home Videos as anything else.

  • I think Michael (and Shirky) has a point here. I think someone posting a photo on Flickr or LOLCats is still more -- for lack of a better word -- productive than someone just reading Tolstoy. Of course, someone reading Tolstoy and writing a blog-post about the experience is even better! And even better is someone reading said blog-post and being inspired to read Tolstoy. And perhaps hating it and writing a blog-post about that. And on and on.

    I can count at least 3 friends of mine who have started pursuing photography seriously because of Flickr. Obviously, they spend a lot of time taking pictures and even more, playing with filters, colors and compositions -- not to mention looking at other peoples' pictures -- all of which means less time for reading.

    And I suspect that the internet skeptics like Carr would be far less worried if they saw most of the cognitive surplus was being used to produce blog-posts about Tolstoy and Proust. (a) They could easily mock this output, since of course 95% of it would be terrible, by the standards of the day. (b) It would not endanger their professions, and it would keep the cultural standards of the day intact.

    But that's not how it turned out. It turns out that people have a LOT of different interests. They like to take pictures, they like taking pictures of cats (!), they like to make friends with people and talk to them through Facebook, Twitter and IM, they like Yoga and meeting other people who like Yoga. And of course, there will always be people who read novels and write about them.

    Literary reading may not be a passive consumption, like you say, but there were always few people interested in it. There are still few people interested in it - but those that aren't now actually have a chance to engage with their own interests (pictures, pictures of cats, yoga etc.) So yes, posting a picture on LOlCats may be frivolous, and literary reading is not just passive, but I think the cognitive surplus is still better spent posting pictures on LolCats than in deep-reading Tolstoy (especially, say, if that person just keeps the experience of his reading to himself).

    Like Michael says: "No one ever gives you feedback on how well you watched "Dancing With the Stars" last night or challenges you to watch it better next time."

    As for multi-tasking, I think Tyler Cowen makes a good point here. Your thoughts, Alan?

  • I truly don't get the point you’re making, scritic. Why would my time be “better spent posting pictures on LolCats than in deep-reading Tolstoy”? If I’m going to give up reading novels in order to post to LolCats and therefore be more “productive,” I need some reasons, ‘cause I’m really not interested in LolCats.

    I also need a definition of “productive.” Is an activity only productive if you can see it on the internet? Must I justify my decisions about what to do with my “cognitive surplus” by measuring them according to a canon of productivity? I’m confused!

  • Oh, and thanks for the link to Cowen. But isn't he primarily saying "no matter what the studies show I don't believe them"? I do take his point about "self-chosen multitasking," though — I just wonder how this could be tested, since if you're only going to do what you choose to do, then double-blind testing is impossible.

  • I'm pretty sure I've read that the advent of electric lighting changed our sleep patterns in a fairly big way. (this is consistent with my own experience of living "off the grid" for seven out of the last 12 months)

    Maybe someone with better research skills than I have could dig around and see what, if any worrying took place when people began to easily have the ability to stay up as late as they wanted; reading books, and doing whatever else amused them.

  • Tony, I was reading something about this recently: turns out that candles changed the sleep patterns of those who could afford them, but candles were very expensive. So the rich stayed up late and slept in, while the poor had to follow the sun's rising and setting. What electric light (and before that, to some extent, gaslight) did was to democratize independence from the cycle of the day.

    And here’s the link you sent me to Television Without Pity’s “Dancing with the Stars” forum, which I know Michael is going to be a devoted participant in.

  • The reason I said "our" is because unlike most people, when I imagine myself living in days of old, I imagine myself being an ordinary person, rather than the hyper-privileged person I am today. IOW, no candles in Casa Comstock circa 1725.

    I was going to post the link here, but the fact that sritic read right past my post made me think "what's teh point."

    Which brings up a personal point about your "Stitches" post.

    Last night my wife pointed out that my last comment is barely English; to which I replied, "I'll just say I was drunk." We both laughed, because that's a better excuse than "When it comes to making sure I press all the keys and in the right order I am somewhat crippled."

    As a student, my relationship with text was fraught. I didn't really (start) learn to read and write (in the way that school demands) until I was 19 years old. I am visually oriented. I think that in academic discourse text is privileged disproportionately to other methods of inquiry and communication; and that we are poorer for that.

    But try as I might, I can't do comic books. Not as a child. Not as a grown-up. Something happens in the mash-up that doesn't work for me. I have a better understanding of how I read, and on that basis I think it might be cognitive, but whatever, it doesn't matter. I can't remember ever getting from the front to the back of a comic book, or graphic novel, or whatever; not even an erotic one.

    My ability to express myself, to make a place for myself in the world, to have a house, a family, to contribute is so horribly and wonderfully wound up in the collision of words and picture and technology; and sometimes it's hard for me to sit still and listen while people speculate on what I feel I have lived. I know, I know, the plural of annecdote isn't data; and narrative is not truth.

    But as JP might say, what we often want isn't truth, but a sense of truth. No?

  • Michael Straight said...

    Tony, I'm sorry if my attempts to be silly with my examples were insulting. But I think your response does not contradict the point I was trying to make.

    You don't get challenged about how well you were watching Dancing With The Stars if you just sit there and watch whatever comes next. You get challenged if you turn from the TV to the computer and actively participate in a forum discussing the TV show.

    And while I'd agree with Alan's skepticism about the claim that LOLcats or TV discussion forums are, simply by virtue of being more obviously active, better than reading Proust alone, I'd argue that:

    1. The TV discussion group is better than just watching TV and then watching more TV.

    2. The TV discussion group is much more likely to replace watching more TV than it is to replace doing the kind of reading Alan likes.

    3. Thanks to the internet, people are increasingly unlikely to only read Proust alone. They're going to read Proust and seek out a Proust discussion group, or blog about it, or otherwise connect with other Proust readers in ways that would, before the internet, have been very hard outside of big cities and university communities.

  • You don't get challenged about how well you were watching Dancing With The Stars if you just sit there and watch whatever comes next. You get challenged if you turn from the TV to the computer and actively participate in a forum discussing the TV show.

    As with AJ's example of Kent State protesters somehow managing to organize without the benefit of the internet, critical interactions with popular culture were taking place without the benefit of the internet.

    Has IT fostered a higher production and wider distribution of information? I think so. Has it made Sturgeon's Law obsolete? I don't see any evidence that it has. If anything I'd say that ratio of crap is higher, but that might just be my personal bias; and at any rate I don't know how we'd measure the crap ratio.

    But I do see some signs that the huge volume of information production that IT fosters changes the way we sift information, both individually and collectively.

    To a certain degree that leaves us talking past each other. You say "the internet is good", and I say "electric light is good, but not getting enough sleep is bad." You say "Passively watching TV is bad" I say it's harder than ever for someone who has genuinely interesting contributions to offer to be found amongst all the LolKatz." (Not to mention the far "spammier" information our IT environment fosters.)

    I think that's what child psychologist call "parallel play". Maybe that means our IT society is moving out of its infancy and into toddlerhood. ;-)

  • I think Michael's already said what I wanted to say - but far better.

    Sorry, Alan, the word "productive" wasn't very good. My bad. But since I used it, I'm also going to keep on using it, and also try and clarify what I meant. I didn't mean productive for the person; I meant productive in general. For society, really, although that sounds too sweeping.

    So my point wasn't that you should stop reading and post cat-pictures to Lolcats. That would be in no way productive for you. And society wouldn't benefit either because then you wouldn't be blogging about the technologies of reading on Text Patterns. That you read and then blog about it is better than if you read and then don't blog about it (and I agree with you, reading good books isn't just passive consumption).

    But most people don't have the kind of tastes you do, they don't want to read Tolstoy and then blog about it; but they do have other interests. So they participate in discussion forums about TV shows, they post pictures to Lolcats or Flickr, etc etc. I'm just saying that someone posting to Lolcats is still doing something more productive (for society) than someone who reads Proust and keeps it to himself.

    Now of course, this makes me sound like someone who wants to force everyone to air their thoughts on the internet. Not at all. I don't really want to force anyone to blog if they don't want to, and no one really has to post to Lolcats if they would rather just read Tolstoy. I am just saying that it's just better for society if more and more people spend their cognitive surplus posting to some public forum and engaging other like-minded people, beyond their immediate set of acquaintances, as opposed to more and more people indulging their hobbies alone (whether it is reading Proust, or watching Dancing with the Stars).

    Tony, I didn't "read right past your post"; it just wasn't there when I started writing my comment. But again, what you said doesn't really contradict what I am saying here; participating in a discussion forum about a TV show is still more "productive" (to use that misbegotten word again) than just watching TV.

  • Oh, and thanks for the link to Cowen. But isn't he primarily saying "no matter what the studies show I don't believe them"? I do take his point about "self-chosen multitasking," though — I just wonder how this could be tested, since if you're only going to do what you choose to do, then double-blind testing is impossible.

    I don't see why this can't be tested. Laboratory studies aren't the only way we have of studying these things; there's also ethnographic observation. Personally, I think the best way to study how the internet is changing people's habits is to observe them continuously, using audio-video recordings, conducting diary-studies, interviews, logging online activity etc etc.

    Now no doubt I think this because I lean more towards cultural anthropology than psychology. The psychologists try to break up any phenomenon into little parts and then try and test them out independently in the laboratory. So there's multitasking, which they study by subjecting people to tests, controlling for factors etc. But what if the factors they control for are precisely what gives an activity its meaning? What if the whole activity is more than the sum of its constituent parts?

    Take multi-tasking. I think that there's no such thing as multi-tasking by itself. There's multi-tasking at work, and multi-tasking at home, and multi-tasking during school and public events. Each one needs to be studied in context. Or take reading. There's reading for work, there's reading for pleasure, there's reading for edification, there's reading fiction or non-fiction etc etc. Again, each one needs to be thought about separately. In these activities, at least, context is all-important.

    Now the thing about ethnography is that it is far easier to talk about (as I am now) than to actually carry out. It's very intrusive, doesn't yield neat "double-blind" results, takes a lot of time and money, and needs far too many resources. And because ethnographic studies are longitudinal, they can always be argued away by saying that the sample size wasn't enough. While conducting tests in the laboratory is far easier. But the very fact that psychological studies strive for context-independence makes me wonder how generalizable they are.

    Note that I am not saying that psychological (or brain) studies don't yield anything. They do. It is important to study the brain when people read to know which regions are used. It is important to find out how attention is divvied up when people are asked to do more than one thing. But if what we want to study is how people's habits are changing because of the internet, it becomes more important to study this in the context of what they actually do, rather than trying to do context-independent double-blind studies.

    I am sure that most people will disagree with me. When I try and say this to my computer-science friends (or physicists or mathematicians), they just don't buy it. They just don't understand how an activity can be studied holistically rather than atomistically. But of course, they are scientists and reductionism, as a methodological stance, works beautifully in the natural sciences. But isn't it interesting that Nicholas Carr -- a humanistic type (a reader of Heidegger, no less!) who, I assume, suffers from no physics-envy -- goes straight to brain studies to back up his internet skepticism? And that Tyler Cowen, a practitioner of that most reductionist of the social sciences, actually disputes psychological findings by making an appeal to the context-dependence of our day-to-day activities?

  • It seems to me that the sort of people who would consent to being studied for so long and in such detail would introduce a nontrivial sampling bias into any such study. (see also: jennicam.com)

    And I hope I'm not being misunderstood. I'm not a technophobe or a distopianist. I'd wager dinner that my wife and I have benefited more from IT than AJ and Nick Carr put together. I got my first business loan because I was able to write, and then re-write an effective complaint letter after my credit union turned me down for a smaller loan. Without access to a word processor I never would have been able to write the letter and make my case.

    What I do see is a world where almost everyone is better off than they would have been if they had been born in earlier eras; while at the same time I see the gap between the elite and everyone else getting wider; and it looks like IT tends to amplify this trend.

    That's why I'm interested in how generation of such a huge volume of information is changing how information is sifted and sorted; especially in marginal cases.

  • These are great responses, guys — I hope I'll be able to address them soon, probably in a separate post. But for now, back to writing!

  • Michael Straight said...

    critical interactions with popular culture were taking place without the benefit of the internet.

    Speaking only for myself, the majority of my critical interactions with culture would not happen without the internet because I simply don't know people with the same level of interest available on the internet. I have friends who read Gene Wolfe, but none who read him as deeply and with the level of insight available on the Gene Wolfe mailing list. I would never have sat down and written tiny essays about Wolfe just to hand to or read aloud to my friends, but the Wolfe mailing list has probably got 100,000 words out of me over the years.

    I feel certain I'd be much more passive in my reading, much more inclined to seek nothing beyond entertainment, without the internet.

    I say it's harder than ever for someone who has genuinely interesting contributions to offer to be found amongst all the LolKatz.

    That's not my experience at all. I find the internet makes it much, much easier to find the culture that I think is worthwhile than if I were just stumbling around in my local library and trading books among my friends.

    I'm just saying that someone posting to Lolcats is still doing something more productive (for society) than someone who reads Proust and keeps it to himself.

    1. Someone who spends 99% of his time reading to himself and 1% writing about it might be contributing more to society than the person who makes a LOLcat everyday.

    2. Someone who only reads without ever blogging about it or otherwise producing anything directly related to their reading might, as a result of being formed by their reading, become the sort of person who contributes more to society than the LOLcat artist.

    3. I value the intrinsic worth of some reading more than I value making a personal "contribution to society" in the sense you are talking about.

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]