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.)