Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, September 26, 2014

Ello, it's me

I’m sure this has been noted many times, but it strikes me that one of the central conventions of sitcoms is that people have a single location where they tend to meet: Cheers, Monk's Café, Central Perk, Paddy’s Pub, etc. 

All social-media platforms aspire to be this: the one-stop shop for your connecting-to-friends-and-family needs, your hourly drip-feed of emotional sustenance. And for some that’s how it is: many millions (tens of millions? hundreds of millions?) of people almost never leave Facebook. 

But splitting social time is more the norm, I think — certainly IRL it is. You may have one place where you’re more likely to meet your friends, but it’s probably not the only place. Thus Foursquare: Where are my people hanging out tonight? 

And in a larger sense, what matters is not where we connect, but that we connect, yes? Thus Google integrates chat into mail, and Apple integrates phone-network text messages with their own iMessage network. Thus also iOS’s Notification Center: maybe your significant other sent you an email, maybe he sent you a text, maybe he Skyped you, maybe he DM’d you on Twitter — who cares? The point is: you have been addressed by someone you care about; you want to answer. 

And your smartphone works pretty well as an aggregator of communications — as long as someone initiates contact with you. But — and behold the power of FOMO — what if your friends are having a fantastic conversation on Twitter but you’re over at Ello? Or vice versa? Wouldn’t that be terrible? What if they’re even exchanging thoughts in the comments on someone’s blog? You’ll never find them there

So: where’s Foursquare for social media? Foursquare for online conversations? A heat map of my friends’ social activity? I doubt that any of the existing platforms want to write APIs that would allow that to happen, but wouldn’t it be cool? 

to know as I am known (by Apple)

IMG 0190

Take a good look at the iOS screenshot above and you’ll see something interesting. Look just above the keyboard, at the row of suggested words — a new feature in iOS 8, though one that has been around a while in Android.
Apple doesn’t just get its suggestions from a universal dictionary. Its description of this “predictive typing” says, 
As you type, you’ll see choices of words or phrases you’d probably type next, based on your past conversations and writing style. iOS 8 takes into account the casual style you might use in Messages and the more formal language you probably use in Mail. It also adjusts based on the person you’re communicating with, because your choice of words is likely more laid back with your spouse than with your boss. Your conversation data is kept only on your device, so it’s always private.
The key phrase here is “based on your past conversations” — but it’s not only conversations that Apple is drawing on. 
See the word “DeepArcher”? Not a dictionary word. In fact, it’s a recent coinage, from Thomas Pynchon’s 2013 novel Bleeding Edge, where it’s the name of an MMORPG. How did it make its way into a list of “predictions” for my typing? 
This is how: I wrote a review of Bleeding Edge. Apple didn’t scan the internet for it, though; rather, a few months ago, I decided to test the “Open in” feature on my iPad, and opened the MS Word version of my review — I always send stuff to editors as .doc files, even though I never actually write anything in Word, and in fact don’t own it — in Pages, Apple's own word processing application. By opening it in Pages, I saved it to iCloud, and Apple evidently uses all my documents in their cloud, as well as my “conversations” in Messages or in my .me mail (which I don’t use), to create a corpus from which its predictions may be drawn. 
Either innocent or creepy, depending on how you think about it. But considering Pynchon’s status as the unquestioned poet laureate of paranoia, there’s something perversely appropriate about that word showing up on my keyboard — and about my surprise when it did. 

hello Ello

Like everyone else I know, it seems, I’m fooling around with Ello. My first comment there was: “So if I understand this correctly, we're all going to follow the same people here that we follow on Twitter, and then we're done, yes?” My next comments were about the peculiarities of the timeline, or more specifically conversation threads, which are not in chronological order. I could try to explain, but it makes me tired. Maybe I’m just old — which leads me to Dan Hon’s really interesting reflections:

It's really hard to use, and apparently I'm not the only one who finds it that way. It's opaque and cool and I'm not entirely sure that this is a conscious design choice: in that I'm not convinced that it's been intentionally designed this way to keep the olds out.

There's a lot to be skeptical about with ello. After having spent three years in manifesto-land, ello's manifesto sets off alarm bells for me because there are a bunch of things that they're saying that either aren't true, or feel like overreaching. Certainly there are things in there that resonate with people ("You are not a product"), but the way that they're acting in communications ("In the meantime, please help us spread the word") doesn't address the fact that there's labour to be profited from. And again, the ... pattern of not including content in notification emails to increase click-through for site retention means that those emails saying someone has replied to your post don't actually include the reply to your post: requiring you to go back to the site.

Completely separate to whether ello is going to work or not is the idea above that it's intentionally designed in a difficult to use way purely to define it as a separate space, much like the way that teens like to invent new language so that they can erect some sort of language boundary. The idea that there's an evolution from language to products/services with which to create safer/more private spaces is super interesting and feels like something that we're potentially seeing more of....

A great deal to think about here! Some initial responses:

  • Will hard-to-use keep the olds (ahem) out? Possibly. Will hard-to-use keep the trolls out? Definitely not.
  • If, as Ello’s creators tell me, I am not the product, what is the product? Ello’s creators place a lot of emphasis on its being advertising-free, which surely means that at some point they’re going to have to charge for the service — which is fine by me, as a dues-paying member of the anti-free-software club — but that will run against the grain of how people are used to thinking of social networks. That will limit the size of the community, which also would be fine by me, and maybe fine by Ello’s creators as well.
  • I definitely agree that there’s a strong movement towards “products/services with which to create safer/more private spaces,” but I have serious doubts about whether creating new proprietary social platforms is the way to do that. It seems to me, as I have already suggested, that we might do better to think about how to leverage the powers of the open web and its existing and very powerful technologies. (Presumably Ello itself, like Twitter, is built on RSS.)
  • In light of all this, I continue to think the smart move will be to own your turf, keep your ideas and pictures and videos there, and use whatever social networks are currently regnant to announce its presence.

And some further non-Dan-Hon-based thoughts:

  • Ello has clearly gotten more immediate traction than App.net did, which got more immediate traction than Diaspora did. This suggests increasing levels of dissatisfaction with existing social networks.
  • Just browsing around on Ello, I see more people describing it as a Facebook replacement than a Twitter replacement. For what that’s worth.
  • Adam Rothstein says, “Ello will one day suck.” Quinn Norton endorses this view and adds, “I hope Ello can be cool, at least for a while. And when Ello fails, I will look for the next thing.” Thoughtful people, then, are going into this expecting it to be a temporary phenomenon. So in such a situation, what to you do? Do you (following the own-your-turf model) make a point of saving to your own computers everything you do on Ello — and Twitter, and Facebook, and Tumblr? Or do you learn to accept that the conversations we have, and the things we make, on modern social media are just as ephemeral as front-porch conversations and castles in the sand?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

bleg: on defending liberal education

Every defense of liberal education in general, and the humanities more specifically, that I can think of makes one or more of the following arguments:

  • studying the liberal arts makes you a better citizen
  • studying the liberal arts makes you more empathetic and compassionate
  • studying the liberal arts teaches you critical-thinking skills
  • studying the liberal arts makes you a capable communicator, in speech and writing
  • knowledge is good for its own sake

Have I missed anything? Are there any other common defenses that I'm overlooking?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

think locally, act globally

I was drafting this post before Freddie deBoer’s recent post on the subject, so this isn’t really a response to Freddie. But what the heck, call it a response to Freddie.

I want to respond by changing the terms of the conversation: Instead of asking “What is the university for?” I’d like for us to ask, “What is this university for?” — “this” university being whatever university I happen to be associated with or to care about.

For instance, I teach in the Honors Program at Baylor University, an intentionally Christian research university — one of the few in the world — that happens to sit in the middle of an exceptionally poor city. So I and my colleagues need to ask:

  • What is the role of the Honors Program within the framework of the university as a whole, whose students are not, by and large, as academically accomplished?
  • What should Baylor be doing to become, more and more fully and truly, a *Christian* university — to be deeply serious about its faith commitments and its academic ambitions?
  • What can Baylor do to be a good institutional citizen within its local community — to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless and train the jobless — since, after all, these would seem to be mandatory concerns for Christians of all descriptions?

I really believe that this is how we should be thinking about our universities: not deductively, by reasoning from what “the university” should be to how we might instantiate that ideal locally, but rather inductively: from what this particular institution is called to be, and is capable of being, to larger generalizations. I truly believe that if we could suspend the general conversation about “the university” for a decade, a decade during which every American institution of higher learning focused on understanding and realizing its own particular mission, and then reconvened with one another to compare notes — then we just might get somewhere.

And I further believe that by attending to its own home turf — its own students, its own faculty, its own surrounding community — any given university will be better able to serve the larger world of academia and society. The old slogan “Think globally, act locally” gets it precisely backwards, I believe: it is only by thinking and acting locally that we can make the right kind of difference globally.

UPDATE: Roberto Greco reminded me of what Wendell Berry says about this:

I don’t think “global thinking” is futile, I think it is impossible. You can’t think about what you don’t know and nobody knows this planet. Some people know a little about a few small parts of it … The people who think globally do so by abstractly and statistically reducing the globe to quantities. Political tyrants and industrial exploiters have done this most successfully. Their concepts and their greed are abstract and their abstractions lead with terrifying directness and simplicity to acts that are invariably destructive. If you want to do good and preserving acts you must think and act locally. The effort to do good acts gives the global game away. You can’t do a good act that is global … a good act, to be good must be acceptable to what Alexander Pope called “the genius of the place”. This calls for local knowledge, local skills, and local love that virtually none of us has, and that none of us can get by thinking globally. We can get it only by a local fidelity that we would have to maintain through several lifetimes … I don’t wish to be loved by people who don’t know me; if I were a planet I would feel exactly the same way.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

happy stories

Tell me a happy story, please! Pretty please?? A happy, happy story.

Turns out a good many people are willing to comply.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

how not to write a book review, techno-utopian edition

Maria Bustillos’s review of Nick Carr’s new book The Glass Cage is really, really badly done. Let me illustrate with just one example (it’s a corker):

In the case of aviation, the answer is crystal clear, yet Carr somehow manages to draw the opposite conclusion from the one supported by facts. In a panicky chapter describing fatal plane crashes, Carr suggests that pilots have come to rely so much on computers that they are forgetting how to fly. However, he also notes the "sharp and steady decline in accidents and deaths over the decades. In the U.S. and other Western countries, fatal airline crashes have become exceedingly rare." So yay, right? Somehow, no: Carr claims that "this sunny story carries a dark footnote," because pilots with rusty flying skills who take over from autopilot "often make mistakes." But if airline passengers are far safer now than they were 30 years ago — and it's certain they are — what on Earth can be "dark" about that?

Note that Bustillos is trying so frantically to refute Carr that she can’t even see what he’s actually saying. (Which might not surprise anyone who notes that in the review’s first sentence she refers to Carr as a “scaredy-cat” — yeah, she actually says that — and in its third refers to his “paranoia.”) She wants us to believe that Carr’s point is that automating the piloting of aircraft is just bad: “the opposite conclusion from the one supported by facts.” But if Carr himself is the one who notes that “fatal airline crashes have become exceedingly rare,” and if Carr himself calls the decline in air fatalities a “sunny story,” then he just might not be saying that the automating of flight is simply a wrong decision. Bustillos quotes the relevant passages, but can’t see the plain meaning that’s right in front of her face.

Carr cites several examples of planes that in recent years have crashed when pilots unaccustomed to taking direct control of planes were faced with the failure of their automated systems. Does Bustillos think these events just didn't happen? If they did happen, then we have an answer to her incredulous question, “If airline passengers are far safer now than they were 30 years ago ... what on Earth can be "dark" about that?” That answer is: If you’re one of the thousands of people whose loved ones have died because pilots couldn't deal with having to fly planes themselves, then what you’ve had to go through is pretty damned dark.

Again, Bustillos quotes Carr accurately: The automation of piloting is a sunny story with a dark footnote. If Carr says anywhere in his book that we would be better off if we ditched our automated systems and went back to manual flying, I haven’t seen it. I’d like for Bustillos to show it to me. But I don't think she can.

The point Carr is making in that chapter of The Glass Cage is that flight automation shows us that even wonderful technologies that make us safer and healthier come with a cost of some kind — a “dark footnote” at least. Even photographers who rejoice in the fabulous powers of digital photography knows that there were things Cartier-Bresson could do with his Leica and film and darkroom that they struggle to replicate. Very, very few of those photographers will go back to the earlier tools; but thinking about the differences, counting those costs, is a vital intellectual exercise that helps to keep us users of our tools instead of their thoughtless servants. If we don't take care to think in this way, we’ll have no way of knowing whether the adoption of a new technology gives us a sunny story with no more than a footnote’s worth of darkness — or something far worse.

All Carr is saying, really, is: count the costs. This is counsel Bustillos actively repudiates: “Computers are tools, no different from hammers, blowtorches or bulldozers; history clearly suggests that we will get better at making and using them. With the gifts of intelligence, foresight and sensible leadership, we've managed to develop safer factories, more productive agricultural systems and more fuel-efficient cars.” Now I just need her to explain to me how those “gifts of intelligence, foresight and sensible leadership” have also yielded massively armored local police departments and the vast apparatus of a national surveillance state, among other developments.

I suppose “history clearly suggests” that those are either not problems at all or problems that will magically vanish — because if not, then Carr might be correct when he writes, near the end of his book, that “The belief in technology as a benevolent, self-healing, autonomous force is seductive.”

But that’s just what a paranoid scaredy-cat would say, isn’t it?

UPDATE: Evan Selinger has some very useful thoughts — I didn't see them until after I wrote this post.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

creative futures, the Minecraft edition

Please read Robin Sloan’s wonderful reflection on Minecraft — or rather, the implications of the game for people who enjoy thinking about generative engines and collaborative creation.

Here’s what gets Robin’s wheels turning. As a Minecraft beginner you might find yourself presented with something like this:


But people who really know what they’re doing can end up with something like this:


Or this:


(More examples here.) Robin comments, “People often compare Minecraft to LEGO; both support open-ended creation (once you’ve mastered the crafting table, you can build nearly anything) and, of course, they share an essential blockiness.” But in his view there’s a major, major difference: “I think this comparison is misleading, because a LEGO set always includes instructions, and Minecraft comes with none.”

Now, that is actually only true of what we might call Modern LEGO, which tells you on the box what you’re going to make and teaches you how to make it. But the good old Basic LEGO sets — buckets and boxes of many different kinds of bricks — are a lot more like Minecraft, except that it’s pretty obvious what to do with those bricks, whereas, as Robin points out, finding your way around Minecraft without help is a trial-and-error process with “a lot of errors.”

But see, Minecraft as such doesn’t help you. You’re on your own — unless you consult resources (websites, YouTube videos, books) created by users, by the community of players. This is what fascinates Robin about Minecraft: that it is not complete, exhaustive, and closed, but rather open-ended and generative. It doesn’t finish itself, but is comprised, essentially, of the instructions that allow users to develop it further and further.

And one of the ways this happens is in books. Robin — a tech guy who also loves books, as a recent novel of his demonstrates — is utterly taken with codexes about Minecraft: “I’m not a huge Minecraft player myself—my shelter never grew beyond the rough-hewn Robinson Crusoe stage—but I look at those books and, I tell you: I am eight years old again. I feel afresh all the impulses that led me towards books and writing, toward the fantastic and science-fictional… except now, there is this other door.”

This other door — a door that Robin thinks he might be able to walk through in some future book of his own. A door that links the world of screens to the world of print, a linkage that holds out at least the possibility of stories being collaborative and self-generating in ways that go beyond Choose Your Own Adventure. There have been attempts at this already: the Mongoliad created by Neal Stephenson et al. seemed at one point to be headed in this direction, though in the end users were able only to “supplement” rather than direct the course of the narrative and the development of the fictional world.

I don’t think Robin knows where these thoughts are headed — and that’s the exciting thing. Doors are opening in unexpected places, but we can’t yet know where they’re leading. Not long ago I was having a backchannel conversation on Twitter with a designer whose work I really, really admire, and we said to each other, “We should do something together.” I don’t think either of us had any idea what that might be, and in any case both of us have big tasks to complete. But there is something intrinsically exciting about the idea of collaborating, not only with people in your own field, others who do more or less what you do, but with people who do totally different things. In such a circumstance one of the prime drivers of collaboration is the desire to find out what collaboration looks like and feels like — to connect with the experience of gifted people who think differently than you think, use tools that are alien to you, approach problems from what to you are strange angles. It’s interesting that the mystery at the heart of Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore requires people who come from rather different worlds and possess rather different skills to pool their resources and work together.

I’m thinking about all this because of Robin’s post, in which he says that he’s got a book to finish — a book of the kind that he’s written before — but wonders what the generative world of Minecraft might teach him about future projects. Well, I too have a book to finish — but after that, why not something different? And why not look for models of intellectual and creative energy in unfamiliar locations? There might be some pretty cool surprises around the future’s next corner.

why the jerks didn't win

The conclusion of this Jason Kottke post got me thinking:

People ascribe all sorts of crazy stuff to you without knowing anything about the context of your actual life. I even lost real-life friends because my online actions as a person were viewed through a conceptual lens; basically: “you shouldn’t have acted in that way because of what it means for the community” or some crap like that. Eventually (and mostly unconsciously), I distanced myself from my conceptual counterpart and became much less of a presence online. I mean, I still post stuff here, on Twitter, on Instagram, and so on, but very little of it is actually personal and almost none of it is opinionated in any noteworthy way. Unlike Persson or Fish, I didn’t quit. I just got boring. Which I guess isn’t so good for business, but neither is quitting.

When I think about this in relation to my recent posts on Twitter, and Erin Kissane’s recent post, and the increasing number of periodicals that have eliminated comments on their articles, it all tempts me to think: the jerks won.

The jerks: the people who use social media not converse but to crow like demented roosters, to nurse every petty grievance, to do the typewritten version of this — they’re powerful. I don’t know how many of them there are, or what percentage of readers they are, but their persistence is amazing, and eventually they drive most people of good will out of the territory. Eventually a guy like Jason Kottke, anything but a belligerent or controversial person, just starts keeping his opinions to himself because it isn’t worth the trouble of dealing with all the nastiness — not disagreement, the nastiness, of the kinds listed above and others — that comes when you express a point of view about anything.

And yet no. The jerks haven’t won after all, unless we let them.

For one thing, they can’t change the fact that before they grew in numbers and influence, Twitter was pretty cool and many of us made friends there that we wouldn’t have made elsewhere. Take, for instance, Erin Kissane and me. According most socio-political metrics we might not seem to have a lot in common, and if socio-political metrics were the only ones available, Erin and I probably would never have connected. But we both like books and reading and we laugh about some of the same things; and I deeply admire Erin’s determination to be kind even to people who are unkind, even as she stands up for the causes she really believes in. (She’s far more charitable than I am.) She’s one of the best people I have met on Twitter — and I don’t think I ever could have met her had it not been for Twitter.

There’s no question that the increasing power of the jerks on Twitter makes it much harder to cultivate friendships there now; but it doesn’t take away the friendships that have already been formed. Nor does it take away the possibility of cultivating those friendships. While there are seasons for making new friends, there are also seasons for strengthening the ones that already exist. It might be time to start thinking about creating, or going back to, tools that help us achieve those goods. And it’s not just a matter of tools, as Erin explains:

Beyond the tools, though, I’m trying to make an emotional shift from exuberant joyful angry frenetic Twitter to something subtler and gentler. When moved to discuss something about which I feel strongly, I’m beginning to default to a longer form first, to reduce the heat of my Twitter conversations and boost the light I work by elsewhere.

To “boost the light I work by elsewhere” — that sounds like a really good idea.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


When I returned from the physical shock of Nagasaki, which I have described in the first page of this book, I tried to persuade my colleagues in governments and in the United Nations that Nagasaki should be preserved exactly as it was then. I wanted all future conferences on disarmament, and on other issues which weigh the fates of nations, to be held in that ashy, clinical sea of rubble. I still think as I did then, that only in this forbidding context could statesmen make realistic judgements of the problems which they handle on our behalf. Alas, my official colleagues thought nothing of my scheme; on the contrary, they pointed out to me that delegates would be uncomfortable in Nagasaki.
— Jacob Bronowski, Science and Human Values (1953)

Would Davos Man still want to rule the world if he had to be uncomfortable doing it?

Friday, September 12, 2014

a civil tongue

A sudden consensus seems to be emerging among a subset of current-event commentators: there are big problems with with term "civility." Here's the claim, summed up:

(NB: see important clarifications/corrections from Pat Blanchfield in the comments below.)

Likewise, Elizabeth Stoker Breunig writes of the “cult” of civility, of its “peculiar tyranny.” Freddie deBoer agrees, and goes a step further: “Civility is the discourse of power…. That’s what civility is, in real life: the powerful telling us that we must speak to them with deference and respect, while they are under no similar responsibility to us.”

I think these complaints are immensely counterproductive. Does the term “civility” get misused? Of course it does — just like every other term celebrating a virtue or an achievement. But it’s sloppy and thoughtless to allow criticism of a term’s abuse to slide into dismissal of the term itself. What words have been more abused than “justice” and “peace” and “charity”? Yet it would be madness to stop using those words because of the ways that bad people have sought to deploy them. They must be rescued and redeployed. The same is true, I think, of “civility”, of which, surely, there is not enough in this fetid swamp of abusive language everyone on social media at least dips a toe into every day.

So, to Freddie I would say that if the powerful demand a civility from the powerless that they are not willing to offer in turn — a claim that I agree with whole-heartedly — then the problem is not that the powerful invoke civility as a virtue but that they are rankly hypocritical, acting in a way totally at odds with their rhetoric. The critique should focus on that hypocrisy; such a critique is not aided by the abandonment of the ideal of civil discourse.

Making a rather different argument, Bruenig writes, “We should all want to be the kind of person who is charitable, merciful, quick to forgive and quick to ask forgiveness; these are all better virtues than ‘civility’ anyway, which is by its own admission little more than a veneer of these genuine virtues.” Well, sure! But the lesson Bruenig draws from this point is the opposite of the one that should be drawn. It is precisely because civility is a lesser virtue that we should be at pains to cultivate it. It is precisely because charity and mercy and forgiveness are so hard that we build a bridge to them by the lesser virtue of civility. I may not be able yet to love my enemies as I should, but if I can practice civility towards them that’s a step in the right direction. If that’s a “cult,” it’s one I want to belong to. A world in which the language we use towards others does not aspire to something nobler than we feel at the moment — well, again, that’s the world of most social media. And it’s not a healthy one.

Nor is civility of discourse incompatible with speaking truth to power. Indeed it may be necessary if one would speak that truth in a way that it can be heard. Consider, as a paradigmatic example of what I mean, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” It’s hard to imagine anything more civil. It’s also hard to imagine anything more devastating. King held himself to a strict standard of civility because setting that standard aside would have reduced the likelihood of his people entering their promised land.

It may well be true that some nasty and ill-intentioned people have tried to co-opt the language of civility. For heaven’s sake let’s not help them do so. Instead, let’s take it back.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


Sviatoslav Richter

When I learned to play the guitar, many years ago, I developed a near-obsession with the musical virtue of articulation. I’m not sure why; maybe because I found it so hard to play without slurring notes or missing them altogether, and without introducing unintentional variations in volume. I came to love guitarists, like Martin Simpson and Stephen Bennett, who managed to articulate every note with wonderful precision — but who did so without losing musical flow and flair.

(Simpson is above all others my guitar hero, and if you want a brief master class in mixed finger- and thumb-picking, slide-playing, and alternate tunings, just take a look at this video — and listen to the stuff at the beginning about why he plays what he plays. Also, don’t stop before the six-minute mark. If you want a closer and higher-definition look at what he does, check out this video — especially useful for guitarists interested in technique. )

Oddly — or maybe not so oddly, I don’t know — my fascination with articulate guitar players has affected my listening to other music. For instance, I have long loved Glenn Gould’s way with Bach: his pedal-free, hyper-articulated approach plays right into my obsessions — especially given his famous recording style, with the microphone stuck right into the piano. Gould’s Goldbergs, and his Well-Tempered Clavier, were simply my versions of those masterpieces for many years.

But … that humming. When I’m listening on speakers I can ignore it; but in the past few years I have been listening to music more and more often on headphones, and the extraneous racket increasingly got on my nerves. I decided I needed a new experience of listening to Bach’s piano music.

So I bought this: the performances that Sviatoslav Richter recorded in the 1970s. At first they were almost impossible for me to listen to: all that pedal! And the echo! — as though it were recorded … I don’t know, in a concert hall or something. What’s up with that? I huffed and sighed; Richter made me deeply uncomfortable. In comparison to Gould his playing seemed so florid and Romantic, thoroughly un-Bach-like.

But I kept listening.

And after I settled down, I couldn’t deny that Richter played with great intelligence and, yes, articulation; his playing wasn’t so stereotypically “Romantic” as I had first assumed; he was, I came increasingly to feel, simply adapting Bach’s music to the character of the instrument, which was, after all, not a harpsichord but a pianoforte. The magnificent architecture of Bach was still there, and in a way brought forth with a new clarity and beauty by Richter’s style.

And after Richter captured my imagination, going back to Gould was … well, not disappointing, exactly — but his way of playing Bach no longer seemed to inevitably right to me. Perhaps he was, at times, allowing a fetish for articulation to displace other musical virtues. On the other hand, I noticed that he did indeed sneak a little pedal in there, allow a few resonances — he was not as rigid a purist as I had thought. And Gould, who is famous for his fast tempos, can take things very, very slow as well: try listening to his version of the Prelude and Fugue in F-minor, followed by Richter’s: Richter takes the Prelude about twice as fast as Gould does — I have to listen with some care to be sure that they’re playing the same thing.

I still love Gould, but at this point I think I love Richter more. In fact, I don’t know that I own a record that I treasure more than Richter’s WTC. I do wish that Richter’s recording technique, as opposed to his playing, had been a little more like Gould’s; but he has somehow become my measuring rod, the performance against which I measure others. If only he had recorded the Goldbergs! But if I want contrast to Gould’s approach to that masterpiece, I have Murray Perahia ‚ and, more recently, Jeremy Denk.

Who knows what versions of Bach I will listen to the most over the coming years? But in any case I am immensely grateful to live in an age which offers me so many wonderful recordings, so many performances of such variety. In exploring this music in the company of multiple performers I draw closer and closer to its heart.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


I’m reading the first volume of David Bromwich’s projected two-volume intellectual biography of Edmund Burke, and it’s fantastic. A magnificent piece of scholarship, about which I hope to have more to say. But in my typically perverse way, I’m going to devote this post to a disagreement — though not to be ornery, I promise. I have a constructive point to make.

One of the chief purposes of Bromwich’s book, it seems to me, is to rescue Burke from those who praise him, especially conservatives. (“No serious historian today would repeat the commonplace that Burke was the founder of modern conservatism” — no serious historian, though I fear that serious historians are defined as those who don’t say that Burke was the founder of modern conservatism.) So any of Burke’s statements that might confirm a conservative or generally traditionalist reading get some careful scrutiny from Bromwich, which in general is, I think, a good thing: conventional wisdom should always get doubled scrutiny.

But what about Burke’s religious beliefs? Here’s a noteworthy passage from Bromwich’s “Introduction”: 

Replying once to a question about his religious beliefs, Burke said he was a Christian “much from conviction; more from affection.” The remark is open to various readings. I take it to imply that for him, ordinary feelings such as trust, though they have a Christian correlative, themselves supply a sufficient groundwork of moral conduct. 

Try though I might, I can see absolutely nothing in Burke’s statement to warrant Bromwich’s inference. Burke doesn’t say anything there about trust, about ordinary feelings, about moral conduct or the grounds thereof. In fact, if you look at the original letter (in Volume VI of The Correspondence of Edmund Burke), he’s not even describing his own beliefs per se: the complete sentence is “I am attached to Christianity at large, much from conviction; more from affection.” The context is reflection on the denominational divisions among Christians, something an Irishman could scarcely not have thought about. And Burke’s point is, quite obviously I think, that his “attachment” to Christianity — something distinct from belief in its teachings — is supported in two ways: first by rational conviction, and second, and to a greater degree, through the testimony of his affections. It is a statement about the grounds of attachment, not about the foundations of moral conduct. 

So why does Bromwich read it the way he does? It seems to be a pre-emptive strike against any claim that Burke’s Christian convictions are essential to his thought. If there is a “sufficient groundwork” for morals outside the framework of Christian teaching, then Christian teaching can be largely set aside in an intellectual biography of Burke, even if it provides a “correlative” to beliefs held on other grounds. 

Yet Bromwich concludes his Introduction by quoting another passage from Burke’s letters that seems to cast doubt on this dismissal of Christianity. To a young woman who had protested against his prosecution of the East India Company for its maltreatment of Indians, Burke wrote, “I have no party in this business, my dear Miss Palmer, but among a set of people, who have none of your lilies and roses in their faces, but who are images of the great Pattern as well as you or I. I know what I am doing; whether the white people like it or not.” Though Bromwich seems not to notice, Burke is grounding his political action in the Christian and Jewish teaching that all human beings are made in the image of God: even the darkest-skinned people “are images of the great Pattern.” It is his conviction of the universal imago Dei that drives Burke’s attempts to bring gross injustice before the judgment of the Law. 

I think that in this case Bromwich fails to see the importance of Christianity to Burke because he is not especially interested in it himself; whereas I see the importance of it because I am both interested in and knowledgable about the subject. Among other things, this incident should be a reminder of how our own inclinations, our own biases, can lead us to shape writers and thinkers we love in our own image. Though I think I have shown that on this one matter Bromwich has misread Burke and I have read him correctly, if I were to write an intellectual biography of Burke I would run a significant danger of over-emphasizing his Christianity. If I were going to write a really first-rate book about Burke I would always need to be on guard against that tendency. 

Similarly, Edward Mendelson and I have had many conversations over the years about W. H. Auden’s religious beliefs and thoughts, and while we agree on much, we sometimes don’t — and when we differ, almost invariably my reading of Auden bends towards my theological inclinations, while Edward’s reading bends towards his. (Oddly enough, the fact that Edward knows five times more about Auden than I ever will does not incline me to defer to his judgment in these matters.)   

E. B. White once wrote, "All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular, although many men are born upright” — a lovely line, but it’s not how you’re born, it’s how you discipline yourself that counts. Pulling yourself towards the perpendicular you know you’ll never quite reach requires a constant struggle. I would like to say that I achieve such constancy; but I don’t. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014


Yuval Noah Harari introduces his new book Sapiens:

We are far more powerful than our ancestors, but are we much happier? Historians seldom stop to ponder this question, yet ultimately, isn’t it what history is all about? Our understanding and our judgment of, say, the worldwide spread of monotheistic religion surely depends on whether we conclude that it raised or lowered global happiness levels. And if the spread of monotheism had no noticeable impact on global happiness, what difference did it make?

Let me just put my cards on the table and say that this entire paragraph is so nonsensical that it’s not even wrong. It is so conceptually confused that it has not, to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis, risen to the dignity of error.

To begin with, what in the world might it mean to say that happiness is “what history is all about”? History, as I and everyone else in the world except Harari knows, is “about” what has happened. And many things, I think it is fair to say, have happened other than happiness.

I truly can’t guess, with any confidence, what Harari means by that statement, but if I had to try I’d paraphrase it thus: The chief reason for studying history is to find out what made people happy and what didn’t. Lord, I hope that’s not what he means, but I fear it is.

And as for “what made people happy,” Harari wants to define that in terms of “global happiness levels.” And how are we supposed to evaluate those? Where would we get our data set? And — to ask a question that goes back to the earliest responses to Bentham’s utilitarianism — how do we count such stuff? Does one person’s horrific misery count the same as another person’s mild pleasure? Or do we add an intensity factor? Also, on the unhappiness scale, how might we compare a quick and painless death at age 19 to an extended agony of fatal illness at age 83?

I suspect Harari hasn’t thought much about these matters, but let’s try to go with him. Instead of considering something as amorphous as “monotheistic religion,” let’s focus on the militant Islam of today. It has clearly made many people very miserable; but it has equally clearly given other people great satisfaction. If the number of people who delight in militant Islam exceed the number of people made miserable by it, then do we conclude that militant Islam is a net contributor to “global happiness levels” and therefore something to be applauded? And what if the balance sheet comes out pretty level, so that global happiness has been neither appreciably increased nor appreciably decreased by militant Islam? Are we to conclude then that it really hasn’t “made a difference”? 

This little thought experiment also raises the question of whether happiness might be defined differently by different people in different cultures. Harari has this one covered. Some people, he tells us,

agree that happiness is the supreme good, but think that happiness isn’t just a matter of pleasant sensations. Thousands of years ago Buddhist monks reached the surprising conclusion that pursuing pleasant sensations is in fact the root of suffering, and that happiness lies in the opposite direction…. For Buddhism, then, happiness isn’t pleasant sensations, but rather the wisdom, serenity and freedom that come from understanding our true nature.

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere! Finally, time for a serious consideration of rival views of happiness! So here’s Harari’s response: “True or false, the practical impact of such alternative views is minimal. For the capitalist juggernaut, happiness is pleasure. Full stop.”

Full stop. The “capitalist juggernaut” has decided what happiness is — and, needless to say, resistance is futile — so we don’t need to think about it any more. We don’t even need to ask whether said juggernaut is equally powerful everywhere in the world, or whether, conversely, there are significant numbers of people who live in a different regime — even though the scale of the book is supposed to be global.

So here we have an argument that happiness is “what history is all about,” and that therefore everything that we do should be evaluated in terms of its contribution to “global happiness levels,” but that can’t be bothered to ask what happiness consists in. As I say: not even wrong. Miles from being even wrong.

Friday, September 5, 2014

resistance is futile, part zillion

Alex Reid is very unhappy with teachers like me who ban laptops (and other internet-enabled devices) from class.

I’ve written about this a number of times before, so let me put it in a nutshell: My students are in class with me for two-and-a-half hours, 150 minutes, per week. During those 150 minutes I choose to focus on our using, together, the technology of the codex. They spend much of the rest of their waking time connected to the internet, and I do my best to teach them how to use it wisely and well for learning. (You can read through the archives of this blog to get a sense of some of the things I do and have done, or look at the syllabus for a course I’ve taught.)

And yet, for Reid, anyone who does not use the internet during class time is failing to confront the ways that “we think differently in the context of digital networks. That’s scary and difficult” and we just can’t handle it. People like me ”offer little or no opportunity for those laptops to be productive because our pedagogy is hinged on pretending they don’t exist.”

Get that? Use laptops all the time or you’re “pretending they don’t exist.”

That’s where we are now with the true-believing digerati: there is no time at which it is legitimate to unplug. There are no good pedagogical reasons for focusing, for less than three hours per week, on learning to use codexes better. Everyone must conform to the all-digital-all-the-time regime!

on The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks

I can’t write something orderly and coherent about David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, which I finished yesterday, but I want to record some responses. There are no major plot spoilers in what follows, but maybe some mood or tone or context spoilers. I’m trying to be relatively discreet, but caveat lector and all that..

1) If you don’t know much (or anything) about David Mitchell, this passage from James Wood’s review of The Bone Clocks will help:

David Mitchell is a superb storyteller. He has an extraordinary facility with narrative: he can get a narrative rolling along faster than most writers, so that it is filled with its own mobile life. You feel that he can do anything he wants, in a variety of modes, and still convince. “Black Swan Green” (2006) is a funny and sweet-natured semi-autobiographical novel, conventionally told, about a boy growing up in a stifling Worcestershire village. “Cloud Atlas” (2004), his best-known book, is a brilliant postmodern suite, comprising six connected and overlapping novellas, set in such eras as the eighteen-fifties, the nineteen-thirties, the nineteen-seventies, and the dystopian future. His 2010 book, “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” is a more or less traditional historical novel, set in 1799, in the bay of Nagasaki, about relations between the Japanese and the Dutch. He has a marvellous sense of the real and of the unreal, and his best work keeps these elements in nice tension—a balancing of different vitalities. One of the reasons he is such a popular and critically lauded writer is that he combines both the giddy, freewheeling ceaselessness of the pure storyteller with the grounded realism of the humanist. There’s something for everyone, traditionalist or postmodernist, realist or fantasist; Mitchell is a steady entertainer. Pleasing his readership, he has said, is important to him: “One of the questions I always try to keep in the front of my mind is to ask why would anyone want to read this, and to try to find a positive answer for that. People’s time, if you bought it off them, is expensive. Someone’s going to give you eight or ten hours of their life. I want to give them something back, and I want it to be an enjoyable experience.”

But beyond that, Wood’s review is just useless. Mitchell’s books all work the boundaries between what people call “literary” fiction and what they call “genre” fiction, and Wood simply lacks the ability to respond to fantasy; and The Bone Clocks has stronger elements of the fantastic than any of Mitchell’s previous books.

2) So when Wood writes of our encounters in the novels with immortal beings, and others who strive for immortality, “these happenings, which occur over hundreds of pages, feel a bit empty, because they are not humanly significant.” Well, they don’t seem empty to me, and I would say that they are indeed “humanly significant,” because one of Mitchell’s chief goals in this book is to explore how this world we live in and the people who occupy it just feel different to those who live only once, so briefly, than they do to those who live hundreds of lives. Though it would be hard to imagine a book less Tolkienian in tone and structure than The Bone Clocks, this contrast between mortals who have received the “gift of death” and those who must bear the burden of long centuries brings to mind Tolkien’s treatment of Men and Elves — both “children of Iluvatar” (God) and yet doomed to experience the same world in radically different ways.

3) It seems to me that Mitchell especially wants us to think about the relationship between death and love. The immortals — who have formed a society called Horology — are not without love. But their loves necessarily have a texture that is largely alien to ours. Holly Sykes, who is effectively the protagonist of this story, asks one of them a question that, in the context of Holly’s own experience, is telling:

“Do you have families?”

“We’re often resurrected into families…. We form attachments, like Unalaq and Inez. Until the twentieth century, traveling alone as an unmarried woman was problematic.”

“So you’ve been married yourself?”

“Fifteen times, though not since the 1870s. More than Liz Taylor and Henry the Eighth combined. You’re curious to know if we can conceive children, however.” I make a gesture to brush her awkwardness away. “No. We cannot.”

And this seems to the Horologist a good thing. It would be exceptionally painful “to live, knowing your kids died of old age decades ago. Or that they didn’t die, but won’t see this loon on the doorstep who insists he’s Mom or Dad, reincarnated. Or discover you’ve impregnated your great-great-grandchild.“ However: ”Sometimes we adopt, and often it works well. There’s never a shortage of children needing homes. So I’ve never borne or fathered a child, but what you feel for Aoife, that unhesitating willingness to rush into a burning building, I’ve felt that too. I’ve gone into burning buildings, as well.”

In some ways going into burning buildings is what Horologists do — and yet it’s clear that whatever love the Horologists feel for mortals is simply not the same as the love we mortals have for one another, especially our families, whether those families are biological or adoptive. Death may not be the mother of familial love — as Stevens said it is the mother of beauty — but it is deeply intertwined with our connections to those who came before us and those to whom we pass the torch. Many episodes in the book, including the last one, confirm this point. 

4) The Anchorites, those who would achieve immortality, or at least very long life, by stealing the lives of others — the Horologists call it “animacide” — recall J. K. Rowling’s Death Eaters. They fear death and will do anything to avoid it. (It is to them that mortal human beings are merely “bone clocks.”) By contrast, the Horologists — well, some of them, anyway — die repeatedly and are sent back to this world whether they want to be or not. But they have no idea who sends them, or why. They have seen something of what lies on the other side of death, but don’t understand it any more than we do. Two remarkable scenes in the novel explore this. Here’s a passage from one of them:

“I’m still a newbie,” says Arkady, “on my fifth self. Dying still really freaks me out, in the Dusk, looking over the Dunes …”

“What dusk?” asks Holly. “What dunes?”

The Dusk,” Arkady says, “between life and death. We see it from the High Ridge. It’s a beautiful, fearsome sight. All the souls, the pale lights, crossing over, blown by the Seaward Wind to the Last Sea. Which, of course, isn’t really a sea at all, but—”

“Wait wait wait.” Holly leans forwards. “You’re saying you’ve died? That you’ve seen all this yourselves?”

Arkady drinks from his coffee bowl, then wipes his lips. “Yes, Ms. Sykes, to both your questions. But the Landward Wind blows our souls back, like it or not. Back over the High Ridge, back into the Light of Day, and then we hear a noise like … a town being dropped, and everything in it smashing to bits.”

And so they return. Later on, Holly briefly glimpses the Dusk herself. One of the Horologists narrates:

I walk over to the oblique-angled west corner, where a window offers a view over one mile or a hundred miles of Dunes, up to the High Ridge and the Light of Day. Holly follows me. “See up there?” I tell her. “That’s where we’re from.”

“Then all those little pale lights,” whispers Holly, “crossing the sand, they’re souls?”

“Yes. Thousands and thousands , at any given time.” We walk over to the eastern window, where an inexact distance of Dunes rolls down through darkening twilight to the Last Sea. “And that’s where they’re bound.” We watch the little lights enter the starless extremity and go out, one by one by one.

Holly asks, “Is the Last Sea really a sea?”

“I doubt it. It’s just the name we use.”

“What happens to the souls when they get there?”

“You’ll find out, Holly. Maybe I will, one day.”

I don’t know what James Wood has done to his readerly self to see encounters like this as “not humanly significant,” but I pray it never happens to me.

5) All this said, The Bone Clocks is a deeply flawed book. Its primary shortcomings stem from simple self-indulgence. We are treated to extended passages of travelogue, in which globe-hopping writers attend conferences in Shanghai and western Australia and Iceland — as though (I suspect) globe-hopping writer David Mitchell had amassed thousands of words in his travel diary that he didn’t know what to do with. Mitchell is a master of pastiche — there seems to be no literary style that he can’t imitate — but we really don’t need dozens of pages of faux war-correspondent-memoir. And the book is marred above all by a long coda that introduces what amounts to a whole new fictional world for the apparent purpose of making some sober and serious socio-political statements. Perhaps those statements need to be made, but if so, they deserve their own book, and shouldn’t be allowed to disrupt so thoroughly the development of this one. I don’t wish that the book were shorter; but I do very much wish that it had been equally long in a somewhat different way. There is occasional tedium here for the reader, or for this reader anyway — a shocking thing to experience in a David Mitchell book.

6) Still, The Bone Clocks is a massive achievement, and allows us for the first time to see just how ambitious a writer David Mitchell is. He is not stylistically ambitious as, say, James Joyce was — as I’ve noted, Mitchell shares Joyce’s love of pastiche, but it’s fairly pedestrian vocabularies that he likes to imitate. His books don’t quite amount to novels of ideas, at least not in a conventional sense. In fact, it’s hard to describe Mitchell’s ambition. But while it has long been noted that Mitchell tends to recycle characters — people who appear as minor figures in one novel reappear as major ones in another — only with The Bone Clocks are we able to see that this is not just a little novelistic quirk but rather a central feature of Mitchell’s imagination. All of his books are starting to look like a single vast web of story, with each significant character a node that links to other nodes, across space and time. And the essential insight, or image, or hope that provides structure to the whole web is the immortality of the human soul.

What does Mitchell himself really think about this web he is weaving? He himself is not sure. When asked recently what he thinks about souls, he replied, “I doubt that we have them, and I hope that I’m wrong.”

Thursday, September 4, 2014

annals of jerkdom, Answers.com edition

Yes, I know I said I wouldn’t write any more about Twitter, but this is not about Twitter as such — only about a new way of abusing it. 

So here are the people who run Answers.com. And here’s what they do: they tell everyone who is interested in the question “Why is absolutism bad?” (among other things) to tweet their questions to Dan Cohen, the Executive Director of the Digital Public Library of America. (They think he still works at George Mason University, but never mind. Poor research is the least of their crimes.) 

Up at the top of each page on the site you’ll find a question box that says “Ask us anything,” so Dan must work for Answers.com, right? Well, no. He doesn’t. 

So, then, they must be employing Dan as an outside expert and paying him appropriately? The correct answer would be No. 

Well, then, surely they asked Dan if he would be willing to answer questions people send to him on Twitter? Alas, the answer to that question is also No. 

So now Dan — and presumably others whom Answers.com has blessed by choosing as experts — gets deluged with questions from strangers, which doesn’t do much for a person’s Twitter experience. Answers.com doesn’t provide emails for any of its “management team,” and none of them seem to use Twitter. (The CEO hasn’t tweeted since 2011.) The company has not responded — big surprise, yes? — to Dan’s requests that they stop using his Twitter account in this way. 

So how about Twitter itself: will they do anything? Fat chance

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

my own private Kanban

Screen Shot 2014 09 03 at 11 54 04 AM

What you see above is a picture of an approach to task management I’ve been using lately — a simplified and individual version of the Kanban model used in software development and manufacturing/distribution. I dislike the rah-rah cheesiness of the Personal Kanban website, but I have to admit that it gave me the idea that this could work for me. (Larger version of the image here.)

Kanban is supposed to be done with sticky notes on a whiteboard or wall, but that poses a problem for me: I work about half the time in my office, about half the time at home — so where do I put the board? An insoluble problem. So I decided to do it digitally, using the good ol’ Stickies app on the Mac.

Here’s the system as I have developed it so far:

  • Just three stages of action: To Do, Doing (i.e., In Process), and Done (Completed)
  • Three colors of notes: green for teaching, yellow for writing, blue for personal stuff (and a different color for the category titles, I guess)
  • They’re arranged in rough order of priority, with highest priority tasks at the top 
  • Occasionally I might use text styles (color, bolding, sizing) for emphasis

That’s it. When I know I need to work on something I put it in the To Do column. When I start working on it I put it in the Doing column. When I’ve completed it, or think I’ve completed it, I put it in the Done column. Eventually I delete those, of course, but I keep them around for a while in case it turns out that I haven’t finished a task after all but must revisit it, in which case it goes back to one of the earlier stages.

Why do I like it? Because it uses a very simple structure to convey lots of information. At a single glance I can see what’s coming up, how much of it involves writing or teaching or personal stuff, what I’m (supposed to be) working on now, and what I’ve recently completed. Also, I can easily write in detail when I need to and minimize that note to it doesn’t dominate the screen.

What don’t I like? Really, only one thing: it’s not portable. I can’t export my data very conveniently, or view it on other devices. Not sure whether that will be a problem or not — that could end up being a feature rather than a bug. In any case, here it is, in case anyone is interested.

Monday, September 1, 2014

intimacy gradients

Pay attention to the links here: Tim Maly pointed me to this 2004 post by Christopher Allen that draws on the famous 1977 architectural treatise A Pattern Language to talk about online life.

Got all that?

The key concept is intimacy gradients. In a well-known passage from A Pattern Language the authors write,

The street cafe provides a unique setting, special to cities: a place where people can sit lazily, legitimately, be on view, and watch the world go by... Encourage local cafes to spring up in each neighborhood. Make them intimate places, with several rooms, open to a busy path, where people can sit with coffee or a drink and watch the world go by. Build the front of the cafe so that a set of tables stretch out of the cafe, right into the street.

That's the passage as quoted in the book's Wikipedia page. But if you actually look at that section of the book, you'll see that the authors place a great deal of emphasis on the need for the ideal street café to create intimacy as well as public openness. Few people want always to "be on view"; some people almost never do. Therefore,

In addition to the terrace which is open to the street, the cafe contains several other spaces: with games, fire, soft chairs, newspapers.... This allows a variety of people to start using it, according to slightly different social styles.

And "When these conditions are present" — all of these conditions, the full appropriate range of intimacy gradients — "and the cafe takes hold, it offers something unique to the lives of the people who use it: it offers a setting for discussions of great spirit — talks, two-bit lectures, half-public, half-private learning, exchange of thought."

Twitter actually has a pretty highly developed set of intimacy gradients: public and private accounts, replies that will be seen automatically only by the person you’re replying to and people who are connected to both of you, direct messages, and so on. Where it fails is in the provision of “intimate places”: smaller rooms where friends can talk without being interrupted. It gives you the absolute privacy of one-to-one conversations (DMs) and it gives you all that comes with “being on view” at a table that extends “right into the street,” where anyone who happens to go by can listen in or make comments; but, for public accounts anyway, not much in between. 

And you know, if you’re using a public Twitter account, you can’t really complain about this. If you tweet something hoping that your friends will notice and respond, that’s fine; but you’re not in a small room with just your friends, you’re in a vast public space — you’re in the street. And when you stand in the street and make a statement through a megaphone, you can’t reasonably be offended if total strangers have something so say in reply. If you want to speak only to your friends, you need to invite them into a more intimate space. 

And as far as I can tell, that’s what private Twitter accounts provide: a place to talk just with friends, where you can’t be overheard. 

Now, private accounts tend to work against the grain of Twitter as self-promotion, Twitter as self-branding, Twitter as “being on view.” And if we had to choose, many of us might forego community for presentation. But we don’t have to choose: it’s possible to do both, to have a private and a public presence. For some that will be too much to manage; for others, perhaps for many others, that could be where Twitter is headed. 

Okay, I’m done talking about Twitter. Coming up in the next week: book reports. 

more on Twitter

Just a couple of follow-up thoughts:

1) I had forgotten, but this piece by Robinson Meyer and Adrienne LaFrance got at many of the issues I talk about, and did it some months ago.

2) I keep hearing from people that they like Big Twitter just fine. Awesome! Then they should keep using it. (This is a genre of response that has always puzzled me. You see it when people say that they’re having trouble with a piece of software or a web service, and others reply “It’s working great for me!” How is that relevant, exactly? If I tell you I broke my arm are you going to tell me that your arm is just fine?) As I said, I want to spend more time in my living room and less time on the street. If you prefer being in the street, that’s definitely what you should do. 

3) Some folks are worried that they won’t know what’s going on in the world — or in some particular corner of it — if they leave Twitter. But consider this: if it’s knowledge you want, then one of the best services Twitter provides to you is linkage: links that take you to places on the open web where ideas are developed at some length. So instead of relying on Twitter to mediate that, why not use an RSS reader and subscribe to a bunch of worthwhile sites? Cut out the middleman, I say. Plus, by using RSS you liberate yourself to some degree from dependence on proprietary services and get back to the open web. As Brent Simmons recently commented,

My blog’s older than Twitter and Facebook, and it will outlive them. It has seen Flickr explode and then fade. It’s seen Google Wave and Google Reader come and go, and it’ll still be here as Google Plus fades. When Medium and Tumblr are gone, my blog will be here.

The things that will last on the internet are not owned. Plain old websites, blogs, RSS, irc, email.

And when I say “use RSS” I mean “use it in its original, open form”: technically speaking, Twitter is little more than proprietary RSS.

4) The past few months have been for me a season of cutting back and cutting down. In addition to my general-if-not-absolute absence from Big Twitter, I stopped reading the New York Times, and have reworked my RSS feeds to feature less news-of-the-moment and more stuff that could have longer-term value. I’ve been reading more books and longer articles. This has all been good.

5) Finally, one interesting (to me) bit of self-reporting: I have missed Big Twitter at certain moments, and most of them have occurred when I’ve thought of something to say that I think is funny. I want to tweet my witticism and then sit back and wait for retweets and faves. That’s pathetic, of course; but good for me to know.

UPDATE: Regarding point number 2 above, someone pointed out to me that I did title my earlier post “The End of Big Twitter,” not something like “Why I’m Leaving Big Twitter.” Honestly, it didn’t occur to me that people would think I was making a statement about what Twitter as a whole is like — Twitter seems to me far too big to make universal statements about. I was trying to focus on a set of experiences shared by some Twitter users; changes a number of us have noticed. Apologies for my lack of clarity.