Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, August 31, 2013

the real enemy

Rebecca Solnit is right when she points to good things lost in a technological rush, lost by most and sought again by at least a few:

There are also places where human contact and continuity of experience hasn’t been so ruined. I visit New Orleans regularly, where the old leisurely enjoyment of mingling with strangers in the street and public venues – where music is often live and people dance to it, not just listen to it sitting down, where people sit by preference out front and greet strangers with endearments – forms a dramatic contrast with the Bay Area where contact with strangers is likely to be met (at least among the white middle class) with a puzzled and slightly pained expression that seems to say you’ve made a mistake. If you’re even heard, since earphones – they still look to me like some sort of medical equipment, an IV drip for noise – are ubiquitous, so that on college campuses, say, finding someone who can lend you an ear isn’t easy. The young are disappearing down the rabbit hole of total immersion in the networked world, and struggling to get out of it.

Getting out of it is about slowness, and about finding alternatives to the alienation that accompanies a sweater knitted by a machine in a sweatshop in a country you know nothing about, or jam made by a giant corporation that has terrible environmental and labour practices and might be tied to the death of honeybees or the poisoning of farmworkers. It’s an attempt to put the world back together again, in its materials but also its time and labour. It’s both laughably small and heroically ambitious.

Sherry Turkle was also onto some of these important issues when she published Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other last year. And Nick Carr covered these, and some others, in The Shallows in 2010. Winifred Gallagher also when she published Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life in 2009. And Maggie Jackson in Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age in 2008. Bill McKibben was even right about many of these very points when he gave us The Age of Missing Information in 1992. (Modesty forbids my mentioning anyone else who may have written about living in an “age of distraction”.)

So, as I said in my previous post, one problem with Solnit’s essay is that it shows no awareness than anyone else has written about this issues, even though it’s one of the most written-about issues of our time. Solnit is usually such a sharp observer and surprising thinker that this re-presenting of the utterly familiar is uncharacteristic of her.

But I think there’s another problem as well, and it’s a problem shared by almost all of us who think and write about these things — and I say “us” because I include myself. We are inclined to attribute our scattered minds to living in a “digital age” or a “networked age,” and while the latter term is more relevant than the former neither gets at the key issue.

Now, what I’m about to say isn’t new either, but it’s a point that I think is grossly under-emphasized: the primary challenge we face is our extreme vulnerability to intermittent reinforcement. The same impulse affects the person who glances at her phone every thirty seconds and the person who can’t resist the allure of the one-armed bandit: This time it just might happen.

If we think that out problem is our digital gadgets, we’ll be inclined to a digital dualism that can lead us to think that if we just escape or set aside our gadgets we’ll be fine. But that’s too superficial a response. Intermittent reinforcement can overmaster us anywhere, and has always had that power: think of the characters in Victorian novels whose whole lives for a time can become little more than waiting for the post.

So let’s think more about the powers of intermittent reinforcement, and about the complex ways that those powers are related to the digital and the networked. Look for more posts on these matters.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Solnit's nostalgia

Rebecca Solnit writes,

Those mail and newspaper deliveries punctuated the day like church bells. You read the paper over breakfast. If there were developments you heard about them on the evening news or in the next day’s paper. You listened to the news when it was broadcast, since there was no other way to hear it. A great many people relied on the same sources of news, so when they discussed current events they did it under the overarching sky of the same general reality. Time passed in fairly large units, or at least not in milliseconds and constant updates. A few hours wasn’t such a long time to go between moments of contact with your work, your people or your trivia.

You opened the mail when you came home from work, or when it arrived if you worked from home. Some of the mail was important and personal, not just bills. It was exciting to get a letter: the paper and handwriting told you something, as well as the words....

Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the unnuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.

Solnit is one of the finest writers of her generation, so it’s a bit sad to see her recycling these tired complaints. Even if every word of her essay is true, it has been said thousands of times already. Sven Birkerts got it all into The Gutenberg Elegies in 1994, and since then people have just been doodling variations on his themes.

But here’s the problem I have with all screeds of this particular type. If you happen to be old enough to remember the days of letter-writing that Solnit limns so nostalgically, I invite you to perform the following thought-experiment:

  • Estimate the number of letters you wrote in a given year.
  • Estimate the number of letters you meant to write, planned to write, knew you ought to write, and yet never quite got around to writing.
  • Calculate the ratio of those numbers.

In Solnit’s imagination, every brief email or telegraphic text we write today would thirty years ago or more have been a letter. But a moment’s reflection shows that that’s not true. People send emails who never would have gotten around to writing letters or even making phone calls; people (mostly younger ones) who find email too frictiony a medium might send a hundred texts a day. If we’re going to understand how these technologies are changing us, we need to make the right comparisons: not one long hand-written letter to one brief email, but one long hand-written letter to several emails, or dozens of texts exchanged with multiple people in a given day.

An average twenty-year-old today writes far, far more to his or her friends than the average twenty-year-old of any time in human history. His or her experience is remarkable primarily for how textual it is, how many written words comprise it. We should start by acknowledging that fact, and if we go on to form a critique, we should have a clearer-eyed view of the past as well.

All that said, there are some good points about distraction and the alternatives to distraction in Solnit's essay; I'll try to write about those another time. But the nostalgia here is really problematic.

In Memoriam Seamus Heaney

In the first section of his great elegy for William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden shows us a world in which the great poet dies quietly, away from the noise and bustle of lives that go on and on:

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

How in our busyness and our manifold occupations we cannot pause to attend to death, the passing of someone who in his own way was important — this was a theme of Auden's in those days. In “Musée des Beaux Arts,” a slightly earlier poem, he had written of how miraculous events and terrible ones happen while no one can be bothered to look:

even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

This morning I awoke to the news that Seamus Heaney has died. Search for his name in a Twitter client and the results multiply second by second, scrolling, filling the screen over and over. But of course in any given Twitter feed the references pop up amidst the quotidian. My friend Brian Phillips offered beautiful recollections of Heaney that, as they appeared before my eyes, were punctuated by others' tweets about Syria, comical cats, and the rigors of the morning commute. The cats go on with their catty life.

Yeats died on January 28, 1939, two days after Auden had arrived, by ocean liner, in New York City. Auden might have read about the older poet's death in the New York Times or the Herald Tribune, or heard the news on the radio. When Dickens died in 1870, his many American fans read about it in their newspapers, but the newspapers received the information first via telegraph. Before the telegraph, international news would have traveled by ship, and the farther back you go in time the more irregular were those voyages and the more haphazard the information they carried.

I don't know what's better, what's worse. Important and trivial news have always traveled together, to be sorted out differently by people with differing interests. The last time Twitter was totally overwhelmed by someone's death was, I guess, Whitney Houston's, and I was frustrated that day by how impossible it was to avoid hearing the same things about her over and over again unless you had a Twitter client that could mute keywords — which I had, and which I used.

There won't be nearly as much attention given to Heaney today as there was to Whitney Houston when she passed, but there will be a good bit in my Twitter timeline, because I follow a good many literary people. I'm looking forward to it. There will be links to poems, which I will read with pleasure. There may be more stories like Brian's. I smile to think that the world's consumption of Guinness will receive a considerable boost today, as many dark glasses will be lifted in the poet's honor.

This much is clear: a great poet has died, and mere hours after “his last afternoon as himself” millions and millions of people will know that it has happened. Perhaps more people will learn of Heaney's death than of any other poet's demise, ever. This is an odd thought that I don't know what to do with. In any event, the poetry remains — the poetry that took long slow hours to make and rewards long slow hours of reading. And it will remain, for those who care to seek it, on pages and screens alike. “Let the Irish vessel lie, / Emptied of its poetry.”

Thursday, August 29, 2013

what politicians don't know about science (and other things)

Buried in the midst of reports on all the various doings at Christ’s College, Cambridge in that fine institution’s 2010 magazine there’s a fascinating essay by the historian Lisa Jardine — one of my favorite scholars, by the way. It concerns the seemingly endless controversy over C. P. Snow’s famous 1959 lecture on “The Two Cultures” of the sciences and the humanities, a lecture Jardine believes has been generally misunderstood.

Some of her ideas are going to play a role in the book I’m currently working on, but I’m not going to talk about those now. It’s another point, Jardine’s concluding one, that I want to take up today.

Jardine argues that Snow was moved to write his lecture by his experience, not as a novelist or a scientist (he was both), but as a government official.

We live, he writes in Science and Government [a book he wrote immediately after “The Two Cultures”], in times when vital political decisions have to be made for which specialist scientific understanding is essential, but for which those charged with taking the decisions have not been prepared: ‘One of the most bizarre features of any advanced industrial society in our time is that the cardinal choices have to be made by a handful of men: in secret: and... by men who cannot have a first-hand knowledge of what those choices depend upon or what their results may be. [Jardine’s emphasis]’...

Snow goes on to include under his ‘live or die’ rubric all significant decisions taken in the public sphere which involve choices that ought to be informed by fundamental scientific understanding: ‘It is in the making of weapons of absolute destruction that you can see my central theme at its sharpest and most dramatic, or most melodramatic if you like. But the same reflections would apply to a whole assembly of decisions which are not designed to do harm. For example, some of the most important choices about a nation’s physical health are made, or not made, by a handful of men, in secret, and ... by men who normally are not able to comprehend the arguments in depth.’

What are we to do if Presidents and Prime Ministers are making decisions on subjects which they simply do not have the knowledge to understand? Jardine pursues this point by invoking a letter that Albert Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt when it was time to make a decision about whether to use the atomic bomb:

In his letter, Einstein explained that because of the secret nature of [Leo] Szilard’s work, neither he nor Szilard himself was in a position to explain to the President quite how catastrophic the use of the bomb on civilian targets would be – catastrophic beyond what was imaginable to anyone without first-hand understanding of the science behind it. He therefore urged Roosevelt to see Szilard in person, and hear his concerns at first hand. His letter ends like this: ‘The terms of secrecy under which Dr. Szilard is working at present do not permit him to give me information about his work; however, I understand that he now is greatly concerned about the lack of adequate contact between scientists who are doing this work and those members of your Cabinet who are responsible for formulating policy [Jardine’s emphasis].

But Roosevelt died before he could meet Leo Szilard, and President Truman took office. Jardine thinks that “From Snow’s perspective, President Truman’s decision to use the bomb — twice — on a civilian population at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the following August, was the most powerful example that could be produced of the absolute necessity for permanently and irrevocably bridging the two cultures divide.”

But that doesn't seem right to me. The problem was not that Truman had a humanistic rather than a scientific education: Truman didn’t attend university at all (the last U.S. President of which that can be said). Neither for that matter did Churchill, though he did receive a traditional classical education at Harrow, where he was an indifferent student at best. FDR attended Harvard, but he too was no intellectual, and later said that he had spent four years taking economics courses in which everything he was taught was wrong.

Today, a political leader is more likely to be a lawyer than anything else, which mans that he or she will have received an education that is not scientific but not necessarily fully humanistic either. When the newly elected President Clinton in 1992 praised his just-chosen cabinet as the most diverse in American history, a cabinet that “looks like America,” someone — I can neither remember nor discover who — pointed out that sixteen of its twenty members were lawyers, including the President himself and the First Lady.

Political leaders around the world are making foreign policy decisions with very little knowledge of history or geography; economic decisions with limited training in economics; and scientific and technological decisions with almost no background in the STEM disciplines. Which of these deficiencies is most in need of being remedied? And how can political leaders best compensate for what they don’t, and often can’t, know?

UPDATE: In addition to Adam Keiper's comment below, with the link to his very useful and insightful article, see also his editorial on the President as "scientist-in-chief."

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

taking the pop-up book to new places

Via Whitney Trettien.

on the history of lectures

This is going to be an off-on-a-tangent post, but anyway.... I was reading this typically smart post by Ian Bogost on the idea of the “flipped classroom” and the right and wrong ways to think about it, and my eye was caught by this passage:

More recently, Duke professor Cathy Davidson has reminded us that the lecture-style classroom is itself a product of industrialism, a tool meant to train students to sit quietly and conform to a single set of processes and ideas. No matter the learning content deployed in a classroom, its form embraces a disciplinary practice purpose-built for the factory or corporation who might later hire its compliant graduates. Given the collapse of industrialism and the rise of the knowledge economy, Davidson advocates for a more process-oriented, distributed, and exploratory method of learning more suited to today's post-industrial age.

I followed that link and I’m not sure that’s precisely what Davidson says there, but I’ve heard a lot of people say something like it: for instance, that the rise of the classroom lecture is linked to Taylorism and other late-modern products of the cult of efficiency.

But is that true? Is lecture-based teaching a relatively recent phenomenon? In the strict sense, certainly not: there was a great deal of lecturing in medieval universities, for instance, as was perhaps inevitable given the shortage of books. (Advanced students had to acquire dialectical skills also, of course.) But how, for instance, did Augustine of Hippo teach rhetoric, when he was in that business, and how had he learned it as a student? And in the famous Chinese imperial examination system, how were students typically prepared for taking the exams?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and right now don't have time to pursue them. Maybe lectures always happen when there are considerably more students than teachers — something that can happen in any society, not just in industrialized ones. One day I’ll find out.

on all-campus books

Ashley Thorne in the Guardian:

One summer when I was an undergrad, my college assigned The Pilgrim's Progress to all the students. It was, so to speak, a mandatory beach book, not for credit in any course, but meant to be the basis for a campus-wide discussion on the theme of "difficulty". Reading Bunyan's 1678 allegory of Christian's hike to the Celestial City was indeed an uphill challenge for us. That college assignment comes to mind as I've recently been looking at trends in similar summer assignments for college students.

Before they arrive on campus this fall, many American college freshmen will already have finished their first assignment. Their colleges have given them a "common reading", one book that they are all expected to read. Last year, 309 colleges made such assignments. It's a great tradition, but something curious has happened since my days as a college student. Only eight schools assigned anything published before 1990, and only four assigned books that could by any stretch be considered classics.

Well, at least my former employer Wheaton College assigned Achebe’s Things Fall Apart a couple of years ago — written all the way back in 1958! (But of course many of the students had read it in high school.) Last year the choice met the most stringent recency criterion: Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2011).

Now, I think that both of those are good choices for an all-campus book: they raise a range of vital questions that many different disciplines can address. But Thorne is right to note a somewhat troubling trend. The faculty and administrators who make these decisions carry into their deliberations two unshakable convictions: (a) any book read by the whole campus must above all be accessible, and (b) only the very recent is accessible. If any college were to decline either of those assumptions in choosing their all-campus books, the results might be interesting.

Monday, August 26, 2013

return of son of Text Patterns II

“Well,” as a great man, or hobbit, once said in a very different context, “I’m back.”

Since we last met, I’ve been relatively busy. I wrote a biography of the Book of Common Prayer, I published a critical edition of W. H. Auden’s long poem For the Time Being, I blogged for a while at The American Conservative, and I moved to Texas.

This move to Baylor University gives me a great deal of freedom to teach what I want to teach and write about the topics that most interest me. So I have spent the past few months thinking about what I really care about the most. I’ve reached the age where I can no longer persuade myself that I have an infinite spool of time rolling out before me, but instead must consider what most needs to be done in the time remaining to me. Or rather, what most needs to be done that I can do.

So I’ve been meditating and reflecting a lot, writing notes, deleting notes, writing more notes, reflecting further.... Eventually I decided that I should write something of a mission statement for myself — a succinct summary of my central intellectual interests as I now understand them.

And here’s what I came up with:

I want to inquire into the connections, whether collaborative or confrontational, between (a) the forms of understanding traditionally enabled by the humanities and (b) the powers generated by electronic textual technologies. I want to pursue these questions with a rich, nuanced understanding of the intellectual effects of earlier textual technologies, and with a particular though not exclusive emphasis on how those connections affect Christian thought and the practice of Christian faith.

Once I saw what I had written, and realized that I do indeed agree with it, it seemed to me that I ought to return to this blog, because it was centrally concerned with these very issues.
So: I’m back.