Monday, July 5, 2010

How to Avoid the Apocalypse

or, On False Curmudgeonry

My habit of reading online articles is this. I sit at my desk, often with a cup of Earl Grey tea or cranberry juice, and I have some music playing, usually Mozart or Haydn string quartets or serenades. I open up my web browser and bam! Which politician is destroying the country, which corporation is destroying the environment, which country is destroying the world, group A needs money from group B, things ought to be this way, things ought not to be that way and so on and so forth ad nauseam. Sometimes I just say "Ah foohey!" and stick with Mozart. Such claims of catastrophe are surprisingly predictable and highly formulaic. The continuing existence of newspapers is testament to, among other things, the weakness of man's memory. There is of course a class of people, the curmudgeons, who find ill and ailing everywhere. Yet the art of curmudgeonry is hard to perfect. Fall short of the curmudgeon's charm and wit and you become a gross bore to read. The craft of the curmudgeon lies in fact not in elegizing or deconstructing or proving, but in shedding a revealing light on life's incongruities and then, in the guise of complaining, relishing the contradictions. One comes away from the curmudgeon thinking, "Hah, we people are funny creatures, no? Hah!" and then goes about his business.

Such is the best and my favorite species of critic. There are many: the polemicist, the firebrand, the whistle-blower, the belly-acher, the censurer, the grump, the nostalgiacist, the dissenter, the peevish, and the nag are the most common. They all have their time-honored styles. Sometimes, though, they come in garb of the curmudgeon.

Over the last few years there has been a constant drizzle of articles about how we use technology and how it (allegedly) negatively affects us. Such is the province of the grump-nostalgicist but these articles have come in the guise of the curmudgeon. The more notable essays are Christine Rosen's "People of the Screen" (The New Atlantis, 2008)[1], Nicholas Carr's "Is Google Making Us Stupid" (The Atlantic, July/August 2008)[2], and more recently Nicholas Carr's (again?) "Does the Internet Make You Dumber?" (WSJ, June 2010)[3], and most recently "In Defense of the Memory Theater" by Nathan Schneider.[4]

It would be dishonest not to reveal my first reaction to these essays, which is this: "Stop it!"[5] If something you are doing is bad for you then stop it! But we don't stop do we? Circling around that very human paradox should be the focus of these essays. It isn't. We said if one fails to be a curmudgeon you're a bore. One also comes off as a whiner.

These essays have much in common. Consider the histrionics: "the literary apocalypse," a "dark prophecy," "deeply troubling," and "All in the name of progress." Oh no! And to think I was sitting here sipping my tea whilst people were reading on their Kindles. The horror! Alas, alack!

They're also not seriously fact-oriented, though they pretend to be. Carr does quote someone though, writing, "The pioneering neuroscientist Michael Merzenich believes. . ." He does? OK, good. Can we go over that part then? We ought to ask, "Is this assertion a fact? Is this fact relevant? Does this relevant fact function the way the author says it does in his argument? Is the argument, then, sound? Lastly, is it persuasive?" Consider Carr's examples: does the fact that a chimpanzee brain quickly rewires (how quickly is "quickly" by the way?) when you rewire the nerves in a it's hand, mean visual stimuli would have the same effect? Consider also the statistic, "56 Seconds [is the] average time an American spends looking at a Web page. [Source: Nielsen]"  Well, what is the average time it ought to take? How was the study conducted? (So we know they factored out mistaken clicks and other variables.) They also ignore the obvious. Carr writes, "Whereas the Internet scatters our attention, the book focuses it. Unlike the screen, the page promotes contemplativeness." Well, if that's so, such suggests an obvious solution toward fixing the "screen experience" then doesn't it? Curious that Carr and Rosen never offer the obvious solutions their criticisms generate.

Rosen too quotes a poll but actually chides someone who questioned a point she agrees on, calling the questioner a "techno-utopian" and his question "obtuse and misguided." The essence of this attitude is, "I'm saying this elegantly and it's plausible so believe me. I'll quote something for appearances if it'll get you off my back." The essence of this is a little pact between the author and reader, "We already agree don't we? Great. No tough questions then? Deal." Are books being replaced? Is there any actual data on that? Of behavior they quote studies but not conclusions. The curmudgeon's topic (human nature) and charm give him a pass here, everyone else has to argue and prove a point.

I'm not even saying Carr or any of these authors are wrong. (I may even agree.) Their articles are simply unpersuasive, patronizing, overwrought, and generally annoying. I'm offended by their writing and I admittedly share their bias in favor of focus, cogitation, and long-form literature and art. I'm certainly not inclined to pick up any of their books. If they wanted to prove something they should have done rigorous research, testing, and thinking. People trust and like scientists. If they wanted to talk of the curiosities of human nature they should leave that to the curmudgeons. Everyone loves and trusts curmudgeons too. But the vast realm of quasi-scientific, reasonable-sounding kvetching is an unsatisfying and inane land.

Schneider's essay is clearly the best and most enjoyable, but it is quite mixed up. First, he obviously uses and enjoys technology but has a lifelong sentimental attachment with books. The former isn't replacing the latter, but it's getting better and it might. The essay comes off like this: "I've been with my books so long, but look at these digital databases, they're searchable and indexed! But they're young and fickle. . . and might leave." It sounds like he's confessing to an affair. Since he is so conflicted we won't pick on him any more.[6]

This personal touch is quite pleasant, really. And significant too. Far more than the "I can't read long books because I stopped reading long books" arguments of the other essays. Fortunately the answers are simple all around. Mr. Schneider should have it both ways and the others, well. . . they should stop it!

[6] Except for the fact that he ties the bookshelf's virtues to acquiring and possessing, which really does not damage the argument for the electronic reader, or at least an idealized/improved one. He admits this. So where was this essay going again? Again, all of these essays are rather flawed attempts at mixed writing styles and genres.  The bookcase would have been a fine subject for a little essay of praise, just as a few favorite long poems, books, or songs would have much more persuasively sold Carr's case. Likewise a curmudgeon's take, or a take à la Jacques Tati, on the e-reader would have been fun and revealing. Alas, alack! we are deprived.


  1. Oops! I wish I read this before I published my latest post entitled "Adventures of a Luddite" in which I commit most of the sins you describe here. To be honest, I love reading articles like that--but for the very reason you suggest: It is confirmation of my views and that is more comfortable than reading something that challenges my ideology. I still take comfort that I do seek out opposing views. Unfortunately some people cocoon themselves with self-affirmation and only become increasingly strident in their defense. Thanks for giving me something to think about!

  2. Not at all, I much enjoyed your piece. Critically it was just the proper tone for what you were saying and I liked it much more than the pieces I mentioned above. "Kids these days" need to be told to "Stop it!" not that their brains are being rewired and that it's the end of civilization.

    And you're right, the behavior you describe is both annoying and insulting to the people around you. Recently I was so vexed I swore I'd stomp the phone to pieces if the person fiddled with it again!

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  4. I did think of you while reading it, how could I not with references to Miller and Plato. I'm certain I would have enjoyed it more had you written it, though I thought I gave Schneider not insubstantial praise.