Thursday, November 15, 2007

Tyrannies Young as the Morning

We often read nowadays of the valor or audacity with which some rebels attack a hoary tyranny or an antiquated superstition. There is not really any courage at all in attacking hoary or antiquated things, any more than in offering to fight one's grandmother. The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers. The only true freethinker is he whose intellect is as free from the future as from the past. He cares as little for what will be as for what has been; he cares only for what ought to be.

--G.K Chesterton, What's Wrong with the World

As I read this quote, I was thinking about the hype about each new technology as it arises--it reminded me of the "tyrannies fresh as the morning" about which Chesterton speaks so eloquently. Then again, since every new technology for the last couple hundred years has the same kind of hype attached to it, it's ironically also pretty antiquated.

The same goes, ironically, for the outright rejection of new technology and the complaints that society is going downhill because of it--those are always new, yet also, as a genre, old as the hills (and as the metaphor "old as the hills").

Technologies are by no means perfect and the panacea for all ills, as the futurist hypers tend to claim. Nor are they the root of all evils as the dystopian futurists claim. As Chesterton suggests, it makes sense that we thoughtfully disengage from both of these potential "will bes" to consider what ought to be.

Not that it would be easy to find our way in the middle ground between these two viewpoints. I suspect it would be particularly hard to restrain ourselves from the utopian side, what with all the keeping up with the latest gadget or trend that's going on in our society. But it's worth the trying.

On that note, I think I'm going to listen to some music on my perfectly-good four-year-old iPod and read a book.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Connections Between Scholarship and the Web

I haven't been posting much on the "im here" blog, but that's because I've been writing academic papers about related topics instead. We had to hand in our most recent paper for our Online Interaction class via a blog, and it's pertinent here, so here's a link to it.

If you want more info before clicking, the paper is called "Footnotes and Hyperlinks: Scholarly Inheritance and the Web." It traces conventions on the Web (and other forms of computer-mediated communication) that have been inherited from academic writing. By tracing the similarities, it's possible to differentiate what's new in online communities compared with scholarly communities.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Electronic Conversations and Simultaneity

So I was playing a game of Scrabble online with my friend Rilla. The game has a little messaging function where you can leave little instant-message-like notes for each other for the next time you make the move, thus enabling a new version of the kind of small-talk you would be having if you were playing the game in person. And as I was looking at a play she had just made in our current game, I giggled at the slightly off-color word she had just made. As I was still doing so, I opened the messaging window and saw that she had written her own giggle into the messaging function.

What was odd about the moment was how simultaneous it felt to me. Even though it was likely minutes, if not hours, since she had written the words (and likely had long since stopped giggling), it felt like one of those moments when as kids we used to say the same thing at the same time and then yelled "JINX!" Despite the reality of the time-lag, it felt like we were laughing together.

This moment left me wondering about the weird mix that's created between the persistence of text, the (at least potential) immediacy of electronic communications media, its conversationality, and textual media's potential for more reflectiveness than a face-to-face conversation.

I'm not sure what new thing's been created in the combination of these things, but it's definitely something fascinating. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Video: 2005 Miami U. Cheezies a cappella: Facebook Song

This video is hilarious, but beyond that, it makes an interesting commentary about social interaction and the Web by its subtext of applying a '50s love song to a new social networking technology, positing through exaggerated means that it's not the people we meet on Facebook that's as important as the social gratification we gain through it.

I can see their point, and yet the implications of the interaction and communication within Facebook are much more complex than that, depending on how various people use the tool.

And then, the "stalking" ethos mentioned in the song alone is a fascinating concept--it's amazing how many people I've heard talk about how they feel they're "stalking" their friends on Facebook, when it's their friends who choose to publish their information for their friends to see. One wonders if the same person who feels they "stalk" their friends on Facebook feel that they're "stalking" a public figure/celebrity by reading their published memoirs...

(And it is a written/multimedia publication, after all, even if the Facebooker in question keeps it to a circulation of the few "friends" of the Facebooker--the same Facebooker who, after all, has a choice about whether their friends list is kept to close family and/or friends or to stretch it to a broad range of acquaintances, and whether to keep the acquaintances from a chunk of their published information.)

It would be interesting to apply some of the media systems theory I was just reading about to people's uses of Facebook, and to see whether younger people used it differently than older people. Ah, the potential research questions so easily multiply...

Friday, September 14, 2007

Language, Contextualization, and the Web

So the other night, to relax after my evening communication theory class, I picked up C. S. Lewis's Studies in Words. Especially since we'd just been talking about contextualization of meaning, I was fascinated when he drew attention to the power of context to help us understand a word's meaning (p. 19-21).

The idea was that if you said "her philosophy is poor," and had no context, you might think it meant that she had a bad philosophy of life, but if it was admittance counselors for grad school looking at a transcript, they might be speaking of her grades in a philosophy class.

I've always loved this sort of thing--it's these delightful ambiguities in language that make it so delightful (while at times frustrating) to write using it.

Thinking of it in the context of the Web, though, I was fascinated by the potential ramifications of this medium for language. Specifically, it brought home to me why writing up navigation bar wording was always so frustrating for me--if you're forced to state a big concept for your web visitors into a single word or two, you're not trying to be poetic with multiple meanings, so you have to think of all the ways that word can be read and misread, because the person could have found the page from anywhere or could have been searching using an entirely different mindset.

Linguistic contexts, in other words, are to a certain extent challenged by the Web. Sure, if there's a navigation item, there's a certain amount of context from the other items and from the page, and if you're unsure of it, you always can click to find out more of the context through the destination page, but no one's going to click on everything to find out what's behind it, and without doing that, navigating the Web can be like overhearing a bunch of snippets of conversations without knowing what the speakers are talking about. That's not entirely a bad thing or an entirely new thing, but it's fascinating to think about what this new widespread application of it might be doing to language and the way we read, write, and understand it.

Except, wait--if actually relevant, links can not only add that context back in, they can add richness to the context. That richness was there in reference and academic books in the form of footnotes, citations, and bibliographies, but it's fascinating that it's been brought to another genre.

Both aspects are true, actually: words on the Web are both contextualized less and contextualized more than they are, say in an academic article. Wonder what Lewis would have thought of it.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Life, Time, and Communication Media

So I've been moving this summer and then starting my new PhD program, which is primarily the reason I haven't been posting much to the "im here" blog. The other reason, I must admit, is having joined Facebook, where I've been keeping up with friends (without sacrificing seeing the friends I can see in person).

In other words, I've been spending more time on other pursuits--the ones I've mentioned and many others. Thinking about this displacement of time makes me realize a truth I somewhat grudge the existence of at times: that, in short, there's only so much time in a day.

For me, this is in part a difficult truth because I hate moving (particularly across the country) and how much time it's taken this summer from my reading and writing tasks.

But that's not the only reason. It's also a difficult truth to acknowledge because I'm loathe to admit, when it comes to media studies, that things change in our focus and attention when we start spending time on certain media. I'm one of those people that wants to have it all and make that okay.

Part of this difficulty in making an academic admission is personal. I don't want to admit that if I were to spend a lot of time watching TV, for instance, might mean that I might read or write less for awhile. Or that if I spend a lot of time communicating on the phone or hanging out with friends in person or spend my time on academic work, it keeps me from doing some of my creative writing.

These sorts of choices are especially apparent when one starts a new pattern of life in a new place. But of course, I also realize that they aren't just choices about which media to use. In part, they're also choices about who and how to spend my time communicating with, not just particular people but also among audiences: for instance, my friends and family, both far away and new ones in town; other academics through their writings and in class; or other creative people through their various creations on various media and by dialoguing with them by working my own stuff.

These decisions are of course choosing some media over others, but at their base they are primarily choices about how to balance the many activities and relationships of one's life--in this case, within a new environment while starting a new school season. The fact that we have so many media giving us so many communication options simply makes the decisions harder.

In some ways that's a bad thing, in that it threatens to overwhelm us at times. Also, choices of media aren't simply neutral choices--different media do carry with them certain biases we should keep in mind. On the other hand, it feels like a privilege to live in a world with so many options, and to be a thinking human being who is able to make choices among them.

Of course, I'm also thankful that now that I'm more settled into my new town and my new apartment, I can focus less attention on those overwhelming tasks involved in moving and settling in, which means I'll have more time again to spend on other things I'd prefer to be doing but haven't found enough time for in awhile (blogging and creative writing among them).

Saturday, August 04, 2007

"Only a Problem Confronting the Builder of Bridges"

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god---sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities---ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

--T. S. Eliot, ll. 1-10, "The Dry Salvages," Four Quartets

I was just re-reading Four Quartets in preparation for next week's MA thesis defense and got chills when I came across these lines again. The chills were in connection with this week's collapse of the bridge across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. The chills were more intense because Eliot, who grew up near the Mississippi River further down in St. Louis, was referring to the same river when he wrote these lines.

It reminded me of one early theory I'd heard on CNN about the collapse--that the water from rivers often works away at weakening pilings of bridges until the whole bridge threatens to collapse.

"[S]ullen, untamed, and intractable" indeed.

Whether or not that actually turns out to be the reason the bridge collapsed (and not to minimize the tragedy at all for those who went through it), the collapse is certainly a good reminder to us that however much we try to solve the "problem[s] confronting the builders of bridges," we can't reduce the mysteries and the power of the world into problems to be solved quite so easily as we tend to think in today's world, where makers of websites and search engines seek to research complex human behaviors, then to try to tell programmers how to write programs codifying them into gridded databases.

I certainly hope to always remember that life is about far more than simply solving such problems: that's one reason I decided to study Eliot's poem during my MA. To be reminded that there is more to the world than the too-often-shallow things we're so often asked to look for in it. More to us as humans than what we buy or how we're entertained or how we search for something on the Web. More to the power in words than their ability to at times boil things down for easy consumption (for one thing, there's something glorious to their proliferation and oft-inexactitude as well). More to a bridge collapsing than the snippets we hear on the news--things that last longer than the news coverage. More out there that we too often "choose to forget."

We too often approach too many parts of the world as though they were a craft, as opposed to an art--something to be easily mastered. But there's so much artistic greatness in the world as it is presented to us--both beautiful and terrible--that we too often forget.

However much we try to understand and tame our complex world, there will always be mystery about it, both in the world around us and within ourselves. In this world, which sometimes seems filled with "worshippers of the machine" seeking for ways to dispense of this mystery and this moreness, we would do well to remember this lesson.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Time Off from the World of Things I Can't Do Anything About

"I'm in awe of the news junkies who can watch three screens at once and maintain their up-to-the-minute data without plunging into despair or cynicism. But I have a different sort of brain. For me, knowing does not replace doing. I find I sometimes need time off from the world of things I can't do anything about so I may be granted (as the famous prayer says) the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

--Barbara Kingsolver, "The One-Eyed Monster, and Why I Don't Let Him In" in Small Wonder

It was a few years ago now I was talking to one of my friends about the information age and the guilt (and, as Kingsolver here adds, the despair) it can so easily bring about. A world of instant communication means that it can easily feel like we should be up-t0-date on everything all the time because we can be. That up-to-date-ness can, in the wrong circumstances, become a sort of passive despair, in which we spend much of our lives hearing about other lives, many of which are sad ones we can do very little about.

A world of instant communication, as Kingsolver implies, also means that we must narrow down our attention to those things that matter most. Of course, the challenge is to keep that latter part--things that matter most--and not shift it into "things I'm most comfortable with." The danger is to narrow down only to the things and the people we like, not allowing ourselves to be challenged by serendipitous chance encounters or by the things and people that we're uncomfortable with.

The challenge, therefore, is to stay aware of the world, but to balance that awareness with action, with our own contributions and participations where we can. A key to this, I think, is to fight back against the constant input, taking back moments for reflection on the things we're absorbing. The best actions often begin with stillness--something that despite all the noise around us can be remarkably easy to take back when one gives an effort.

On the whole, as Kingsolver suggests, the serenity prayer is more important than ever in our information age. And her suggestion that knowing should not replace doing is a good reminder to me, not just as an information consumer, but also as an avid reader and an academic who spends much of my time absorbing information and stories in the worlds of books.

It's a good reminder to me to join the conversation as much as I listen in, to take time not just to ponder, but also to talk to people, to write down and polish my thoughts and then to seek to get them out there in the world. (Of course, it also reminds me that there are other, even more physical actions I can take, and that I should occasionally get out in the world and take them.)

Friday, June 22, 2007

Video: The Impotence of Proofreading By Taylor Mali

Having read some results of over-dependence on computer spellcheck functions while grading English 110 papers, I found this YouTube video quite funny. The tool definitely only does what you ask it to... And it's a phenomenon that teachers wouldn't have had to deal with nearly as much 15 or 20 years ago.

Thanks to Jodie for sharing the link.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Ah, those Newfangled Typewriters!

"'Have you some more typing to do tonight, Miss Murchison?'

"'Got to do the whole bally thing again,' said Miss Murchison. 'Left out a paragraph on page one--it would be page one, of course--and he wants the tripe round at Hanson's by 10 o'clock.'

"Mr. Pond groaned slightly and shook his head.

"'Those machines make you careless,' he reproved her. 'In the old days, clerks thought twice about making foolish mistakes, when it meant copying the whole document out again by hand.'

"'Glad I didn't live then,' said Miss Murchison, shortly. 'One might as well have been a galley-slave.'"

--From Dorothy Sayers' 1930 mystery novel Strong Poison

Clearly, while our technology has changed a bit in the last 70 or 80 years, the argument about whether things have gotten better or worse has stayed pretty much the same...

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Medieval helpdesk with English subtitles

I love this "medieval helpdesk" video (in Norwegian with English subtitles) not just because it's hilarious (though it is), but also because it's a reminder of something we often forget--that once the now-familiar conventions of the book were as new to people as IM or texting is to those today.

The book, too, is a technology, one that changed how we think in many ways. Ways that we often forget when we're considering how newer media, and how we use them, are shaping society. For instance, did the widespread use of the book after the printing press create introverts? I've been reading Walter Ong on how the book and book culture changed things--I'm sure I'll post commentary on that soon.

Copyrights and Creativity: "A Fair(y) Use Tale"

This 13 minute YouTube video (which pieces together Disney cartoon clips to speak about the state of copyright today) not only raises interesting ideological questions, it also proves that didacticism and creativity can definitely go together when done well. It also proves the continuing power of editing to shape original material into something entirely new.

Thanks to Cindy for sending me the link.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Link In Honor of the Reason I Haven't Been Posting Lately

Websites help solo travelers meet like-minded locals: This article talks about ways that websites can lessen loneliness for travelers (in "G-rated" ways). A commentary on how the web interacts with "real-world" socialization...

I don't have much more to say about it than that at the moment--just wanted to post a link on traveling in honor of my last month's activities.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Confession and an Announcement

I have a confession and an announcement to make. Neither of these may be all that startling to my readers who've heard me talk about them in person, but I thought I'd share anyway.

First, the confession. One of the main reasons I created this blog is because I was thinking about doing a PhD in Communications. I wanted to record my thoughts surrounding my areas of interest so I could get a sense of the threads I was most interested in, and as a bonus, maybe start a discussion around some of them.

This confession leads to the announcement: Starting in August, I will indeed be starting a doctoral program in communication research at Purdue University in Indiana. I'll be primarily working in the area of Media, Technology, and Society, hopefully focusing on the ways we write and read in a technological age.

What this means for the blog, I'm not entirely sure yet. But I somehow think I'll have more material for it than ever.

Monday, April 16, 2007

And Back to Librivox...

So as a special treat to myself for writing 18 thesis pages in two days, finishing up the first draft of my MA thesis, I went back to Librivox this weekend. I figured I'd find some audiobooks to listen to while I clean up the worst of the thesis-books mess that's been on my living room floor for the past four months or so.

I was pleasantly surprised by how many free public-domain audiobooks have been added to the stock since I last visited, along with a search function for the catalog and the ability to browse by genre. Considering it's all volunteer work, things are really coming along over there.

I picked some old favorites to transfer to my iPod: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy and Jerome K. Jerome's funny Victorian travelogue Three Men in a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog). Check them out if you get a chance.

I look forward to listening to them as I rescue my apartment from its thesis-focused neglect and as I take long walks in the newly springlike weather.

Ah, the easy liberation from the indoors the iPod brings us--a chance to catch up on the classics and be active at the same time. With such ease of use, I may even get around to downloading and making it all the way through Moby Dick (which I noticed is also now up at Librivox) one of these days--perhaps during one of my long summer road trips.

There's something delightful about using new technology to spread classic stories, many of which have been around since before the phonograph and the radio.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Burying Myself in My Word Processor

Okay, so some may think it may be hard to bury oneself into a laptop screen that's less than a centimeter thick, but that's what I'm seeking to do quite a bit over the next few weeks to get the rough draft of my MA thesis done. I will probably be buried in a few books from time to time as well, a process that's no less obscure and just as virtual in many ways. Words, after all, are virtual representations of thoughts, whether they're scrawled or printed in paper or appear on a computer screen.

I wonder how we came up with this metaphor, to bury oneself in something? Interesting how many of our metaphors for virtual activities are approached by way of flesh-and-blood-and-sweat ones. Not that finishing up the rough draft of a thesis is less work than actually burying something, it's just a different kind of work. Hopefully I'm burying treasure instead of something unsavory.

Okay, now I'm just procrastinating. Time to flip back to that other window and bury myself, once again, in T. S. Eliot and Thoreau.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Stretching out of Media Hibernation...

Even though it's 3 degrees Fahrenheit outside, I can feel spring a-coming (and see it on the weather forecast in the guise of more above-freezing weather to complement the melty stuff we had last week). Along with this feeling, I'm beginning to literally become more active and less media-dependent, as I do each spring. And so I wished to spend a bit of time reflecting on the seasonality of my media use, because every year this pattern seems to recur in some form.

Every year once spring comes (particularly here in Saskatchewan, where it's particularly welcome) I find myself stretching my legs, abandoning the need to watch my TV shows and my insistence on movies. Even when it's cold outside I find myself becoming more active inside the house: spending less time on my computer playing Triple Yahtzee or watching DVDs. More time turning on music and dancing to it. More time thinking about all those physical projects (like sorting through papers) that I've always intended to do but somehow haven't gotten around to yet.

I even find myself making a greater effort to keep in touch with friends and family, which interestingly, with many of those far away, increases my use of communications technology.

So yeah, it really does feel like waking out of a hibernation and rejoining the world of life and activity. It's not that I wasn't joined to it in many ways throughout the winter (including going to the gym), but the motivation to do it more is back, and once again is growing with the ice puddles outside.

I find a similar pattern to be the case with my creative writing--in the spring and summer, I often spend more time collecting new writing material, whereas in the winter, I'm more likely to spend time reflecting on how that material fits into the rest. This year, I find it a bit reversed--the winter seems to have been the simmering time, and now the creativity is starting to churn again (which is quite nice). But no matter which way things go, they always shift about this time.

My question is whether in the northern climes this is an average pattern. Is it just me, or do many of our individual patterns of use of media and communications technology follow a seasonal cycle? And does it affect everyone the same, or like SAD, does it affect some more than others?

Friday, March 09, 2007

It's NEVER Been Done Before?

I love listening to people talking about the web, but whenever I hear the words "this is done now on the web, and it's NEVER been done before" it sets my teeth on edge. And so when I was listening again to the speech David Weinberger, an expert on blogs, gave on the Library of Congress' excellent "Digital Future" series of talks (available to listen free here), and heard him say these words, my teeth gave an answering twitch.

Especially when I'm currently engaged to a very similar analog process to the one he was talking about.

What he was talking about was this: the web of what he calls subjective knowledge between bloggers--people responding to other bloggers, and readers learning from that knowledge. Voice in writing being important in whether people will believe the stuff or not. People pointing away from the current writing by "linking" to other writings.

I'm halfway through an academic thesis in the humanities, and I say "pshaw" to the idea that these things have never been done before. Has David Weinberger ever read through any significant body of academic writing, or tried to write a paper in response to it? What is good academic essay writing but a series of links provided in citations? What is a good research/response essay than a response directly stating an opinion (agreement/disagreement/partial agreement) about what another critic has been saying?

And anyone who's tried to read lots of critical essays is pretty aware that voice is a huge element of whether this genre is taken seriously.

This is not to say that David Weinberger's talk isn't an excellent one, worth re-listening to even 3 years (so long in web time) after it was first given. And I'm actually quite fascinated by what he has to say about forgiveness and unselfishness as being key elements of blogging. (Forgiveness because the writing isn't as polished and many readers accept that before reading, unselfishness because of the linking.) Especially because bloggers are so often accused of egotism and sloppiness.

But as to the fact that a web of semi-subjective knowledge (complete with links to other bits of knowledge it's responding to) has NEVER been done before, I say "pshaw." I'm in the midst of reading sources and creating an 80-page paper that proves that's not the case.

This connection between what happens in blogging and academic writing does give me a fascinating idea/analogy for teaching university students what academic writing's all about, however. Those raised to be web- and My Space-literate, if they're taught how to harness those skills for academic writing, could bode well for the future of academic writing. What a fascinating thought.

Monday, March 05, 2007

A Beef about the (Mis)Use of the Phrase "Attention Span"

Those who talk about the deterioration of our attention spans from new technology tend to use that blanket term for many things that aren't actually attention-span-related.

For instance, I've heard people say that frequent email-checking shows that we can't focus on a single task at a time anymore and that our attention spans have become fractured and unstable.

I disagree.

For one thing, frequent checking of email shows we have an amazing attention span for keeping up with our email, and many people have so integrated it into their daily work that it really doesn't detract that much focus from other tasks, just becomes a matter of course.

Of course, there are times where an interesting email--or an urgent one--distracts from those other tasks. And there can be times when that normally-integrated task claims more attention than the other things.

That can be good or it can be bad.

I've noticed that those who complain about short attention spans of people usually have a stake in the other tasks, not in attention to the email. Those who would like to break through those other tasks using email are likely to complain that you don't check email frequently enough (or respond quickly enough) if you don't respond right away.

What really seems to be happening here is a kind of weird expectations upheaval. Because of the possibility of "instant" communication, it becomes more and more necessary for people to communicate what "ASAP" means (and what's possible), and manage the sort of anxiety that used to be present only at mailtime when one was expecting a particularly interesting or important letter. Whether you view that focus favorably or negatively depends on whether you would call focus to a single task over others great passion and attention or whether you would call it obsession.

This kind of anxiety isn't something that didn't happen in the past--there were many times people were worried about a single topic to the point where they at times ignored other things, and the question of what people prioritize certainly isn't a new one. But the technology today--and its attendant upheaval in expectations--seems to be exacerbating both the possibility of such passions, and the negative view of them by those whose tasks aren't part of them.

I find it particularly fascinating that these passions/obsessions continue in this new technology--a new technology that gets credited so often with shortening our attention spans.

Another related fascination I have is that our Western society is so used to the concept of multi-tasking by now that when a person chooses to uni-task a bit more, they find that difficult to deal with (sometimes rightly, sometimes not), even though I would argue that new media encourage that sort of passion/obsession (think of online poker players, for instance) almost as much as it encourages the culture of multi-tasking.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Being Witnessed

Since Lent starts again today, I've been thinking and talking about Lenten disciplines again recently. That has included talking about my Lenten experiment from last year, in which I gave up playing solitaire (on my computer) and Bejewelled (on my cell phone)--both games that I used to procrastinate from my graduate school homework. If you've forgotten, not playing these games resulted, in part, in my spending more of my procrastination time hanging out with people in person, and I felt more guilty about procrastinating in that way (for some reason) than I did playing games.

Anyway, I was talking to a new friend about this, and she used just the right word to describe why I felt guilty: it was because my procrastination was witnessed.

The more I've thought about this word, the more appropriate it seems to describe an effect the technological revolution has had on society. For years we've been aware that new technology, especially the Internet, has been amazing for introverts--one can look, read, and participate anonymously, without feeling like someone is watching you. It fosters a sense that you're not being witnessed--even though with our awareness of cookies and other techniques, we know that in another sense we are being watched. But it's hard to feel as though we are.

And this sense extends to our online and electronic communications. IM, email, blogging, even talking on cell phones in restaurants or listening to iPods--it's easy to forget that others can be watching (or listening) in. Even some people who are introverts in the non-technological world find it easy to lower their self-censor when communicating through (or around) some of these new media.

As Gerry McGovern noted last week, sometimes that's a bad thing. But sometimes it's also a good thing, especially for those who have good things to say but have felt excessively shy about it before. All in all, it's a fascinating idea--one I'd like to explore more in-depth. How have people who would have felt witnessed (and self-conscious about it) in the world of twenty years ago been affected in their actions both on- and offline by this phenomenon? How has our culture changed as a result of this? I wonder...

And I wonder what those people who didn't like being witnessed were like before the printing press allowed for reading to become a general thing.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Some More Thoughts on Blogs

Don't Let Your Blog Come Back to Haunt You: In this article, Gerry McGovern provides an apt reminder that it's easy to get too comfortable in the informal atmosphere of the web, particularly when it comes to blogging. In the process he illuminates some common-sense--but also often overlooked--differences between the communities formed on blogs and other kinds of conversations.

That said, if you remember that problem I talked about last month with history and losing our records, blogging is possibly an antidote to some of that. That is, as McGovern points out, blogs are records--and although they take certain technology to read, because they're more public, there's a better chance that historians of the future will be able to read them than that they'll have access to our email records or our documents stored on our hard drives.

So although I would agree with Gerry McGovern's word of caution, as a person interested in historical writings and informal drafts indicating thoughts, I say: Blog on, bloggers. Think about first what you'd like to say to posterity, perhaps, as Thoreau may well have done when he wrote his journal (check out how Greg Perry re-packaged it as a daily blog). But blog on.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Are Books Losing Out or Not?

Are books doomed to ultimate extinction or are they still going strong? Two recent articles I've found highlight different sides of the ongoing debate:

Lament from a Librarian: Books are a Hard Sell: In this article, a high school librarian bemoans two things: (1) the change of focus for librarians (from book-centric to all-media-centric, from educating readers about critical thinking and content to education about how to sort through information); and (2) the increasing challenge of getting high-school level readers to be interested in reading literature that's helpful for training their minds, but more difficult to read.

Obama's books drive talk of '08 presidential run: This article highlights the idea that publishing recent, popular books has helped Barack Obama in his potential bid for the American presidency, and that sales numbers of the books by candidates might be one way to view which nominee might win the party nominations. The idea underlying this article is that books and their contents definitely have an influence on public opinion.

My thoughts: I'll try not to blather on too much about my opinion (I have a sense this post could go on forever), but my sense is that, although both sides have a point, I agree more with the points made by the latter article. We're quick these days to bemoan the passing of books, but yet sales of books continue strong, reading groups are a big trend across North America, and, as Pulitzer-Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson pointed out her talk at the Festival of Faith and Writing last spring, attendances at readings and lectures are up around the country.

It's true that we should watch carefully the effects of the information age on us: we should work hard to seek depth over breadth in a world that seeks to manage the overload by seeking to reduce things to soundbites. We should push against this pressure to do lots of things quickly, but none of them well. We should be aware of this tendency that's growing within ourselves and our culture to desire to have everything presented to us in a way that appeals to us. And we should be teaching the next generation about these trends.

But it encourages me that people are seeking to read the books of presidential nominees. It shows that many people aren't happy with the soundbites they get in the nauseating TV ads and other less-than-satisfactory ways of judging what the candidate actually thinks on a topic. They're seeking more depth, more transparency, and they're willing to put in the hours needed to discriminate among the candidates. And that gives me hope for the political process as well as for the culture of literacy as a whole. That hope may not continue until the next presidential election, but for now it's encouraging.

On a related note, I'll confess that I'm nearly as excited as everyone else that the new Harry Potter book is coming out this July, and just as nervous about what will happen to the characters in this last book in the series--a series that may not be high literature, but is fascinating, not least because it's effectively persuaded non-readers to make their way through thousands of pages to finish the saga...

(Thanks to Cindy for sending me the first link.)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

It Was Only a Matter of Time...

Text message novel published in Finland: Well, since emails have long since become stock parts of now-being-published novels, it was only a matter of time before someone thought of doing this. Of course, it would only work in a country where text messaging was mainstream enough for a large audience to be able to decipher all the abbreviations. If the Finnish prime minister broke up with his girlfriend through a text message, then the time is probably ripe for this publication in that country, at least.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Technology's Effects on Historical Studies

The Lost Art of the Letter: Although this article raises it in a science history context, the author raises a point that academics involved in all areas of historical study will have to face at some point.

Electronic formatting and communication make things more capturable (in the sense that IM conversations, for instance, can be so easily saved). But as I've mentioned before on this blog, they also make them more fragile, in the sense that hard drives crash and people regularly delete and overwrite electronic drafts of things they're working on--or letters they've written.

This article raises the difficulties for science historians this process creates, and the same is true, if not magnified, in other historical disciplines such as literary studies, where drafts of work as well as correspondence are often key to disentangling the "authoritative edition" of a literary work.

As the author notes, the quickness of electronic media is a boon for collaboration, for quick capture of creative ideas, and for an author/scientist keeping track of the latest edition of a work. But with the author I hesitate to fully embrace this medium without thinking about the potential limitations electronic media places on future historians' processes and potential discoveries.

There have always been large gaps in the historical record, but the move to largely electronic storage for documents--and our corresponding shift to a more casual approach to destroying them--is something more people interested in history (of all types) should be concerned about. It's a problem librarians have been working on for years, but it's a big enough problem that they shouldn't have to shoulder the burden alone.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Update on the GRE and The Postal Service

For those of you curious about my throes with the GRE and the postal service (see my earlier post), I came back from Christmas to find an envelope with scores in it from the GRE. Alas, however, the scores were from the computer-based General Test I took on December 12, not the paper-based Subject Test in Literature I took on November 4. Apparently technologically-based exams have an "in" with the Canadian-American postal systems or something.

Ah, well, according to the helpful admissions websites that tell me the state of my supplementary applications materials, the programs themselves seem to be receiving my scores. And as my reasonable friends remind me, it's more important that they know my scores than that I do. And that's true. So I'll wait--I'm sure the postal service will deliver the scores sooner or later.

In my more enlightened moments, I tell myself that in this instant age, it's actually a good discipline to have to wait for this. It's hard to remember at times, but fast communication is a privilege, not a right.

Stuck at Home, but not Disconnected

On weeks like this one, in which I've been stuck at home with Influenza A (the bad kind which I'm not supposed to share around), I've been intensely thankful for communications technology. The phone, particularly. Also email. IM. I've been going a bit crazy as it is, without face-to-face social contact, but it would be worse without the possibility of talking to people I like who help me from getting too far into my head. Solitude is good, but only for so long.

The whole thing, particularly since we had a big old prairie blizzard on top of it all, has made me think of those Little House on the Prairie sketches of pioneers, in which they were housebound and isolated from each other and those back home.

This week I can imagine the loneliness they felt, and I'm thankful that I don't have to go into that level of cabin fever (defined, incidentally, by the Alaska Dictionary and Pronunciation Guide as "a twelve-foot stare in a ten-foot room"). And it makes me think that for all the craziness that is brought on by our world of instant communication, I'm rather glad for the connectedness it allows for, particularly on weeks like this.

So thanks to all those who have been in touch. It's helped. I'll be mostly sequestered for a few more days yet, so keep it coming.