Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, January 20, 2014

relevance and ignorance

A few days ago I wrote, “Between the writers who desperate to be published and the editors desperate for “content,” the forces militating against taking time — time to read, time to think — are really powerful.” If you want evidence for that claim, you couldn’t do better than read this interview with cartoonist and writer Matthew Thurber, who cheerfully describes the pleasures of writing about a subject he can’t be bothered to learn anything about — in this case, the so-called and just-around-the-corner Singularity:

I like not-knowing in general. And if I’d waited until I’d read all of Ayn Rand and all of the singularity literature, I wouldn’t have been able to work fast enough to get this comic done. I felt an urgency to get it out before it became completely irrelevant. YouTube has been around for a decade. The Snowden stuff happened when this book was coming out. But I felt like it would be funny if I didn’t know what those things were. Writing a book responding to the singularity but not really knowing what it was. It was just a rumor. Ineptitude can be funny, too.

Thurber pushes this point hard enough that it eventually becomes clear that he wants to be thought of as knowing even less than he does: “I don’t know what the singularity really is. I understand that it involves the hybridization of humans and technology, or A.I. Or actually, no, I don’t know what it is. A robot? Like the movie D.A.R.Y.L.? Or any movie where there’s a robot who has feelings?” So he asks the interviewer: “And maybe it already happened? Do people think it already happened?”

There’s much to consider here. First of all, Thurber’s claim “I like not-knowing in general.” Well, have I got a political party for you, then! But more seriously, this reminds me of that prince among legal scholars, Hugo Grotius, who wrote, Nescire quaedam magna pars sapientiae est — “Not to know some things is the greater part of wisdom.” But Grotius’s point — made in an era of rapidly expanding knowledge, of having too much to know — was that you have to make a discipline of foregoing certain kinds of knowledge that are not necessary to your chosen intellectual path in order to cultivate other kinds that have first-order importance for you. (When I posted that Grotius quote to Twitter a while back, my internet friend Erin Kissane shot back a famous line from Sherlock Holmes asserting his indifference to the Copernican theory: “You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.... Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”)

But, obviously, this is a vert different point than the one Thurber is making, which is that he likes knowing nothing about the very things he is writing about. Or at least he is quite willing to remain ignorant in order to avoid being slowed down in his work. It’s not hard to imagine making a pleasant intellectual game out of writing about what you don’t know, but Thurber is clear that for him this is all about being relevant — it’s specifically the quest for relevance that mandates ignorance. Thurber’s argument goes like this: A great many people are talking about something called the Singularity; I don't know much about it, but I’d like to draw the attention of those people; but those other people, like me, have short attention spans and may soon be talking about something else; so I’d better write something about the Singularity quickly so I can attract their eyeballs before it’s too late.

This is all phrased light-heartedly, but I wonder if that tone isn’t at least a little misleading: Thurber really does seem afraid of getting left behind. And he’s not the only one: it’s pretty clear that in writing The Circle Dave Eggers was so eager to make a Socially Relevant Intervention about tech companies that he didn’t bother to learn how they actually work. So what we have hear is an urgency to be heard coupled with a need to be relevant. The result: social commentary made by people who have nothing but vague, uninformed speculations to guide their writing. This is how whole books become indistinguishable from the average blog comment.