Wow! One week, you write about monkey-mind and before you know it, monkey-minds everywhere write in to say, Amen, Sister. They’ve commented here, sent emails, started discussions on other sites, blogged, commiserated, argued, wondered and been altogether jolly. Enthusiasm for “Slow” has erupted so widely and all at the same time that I’m rethinking spontaneous combustion.
Someone may be about to jump in and say, “How ironic!” Because after all, we found each other through the internet—the very same gizmo whose “Off” button we have pledged to enjoy more often. Well, of course.
All of which leads me to the point of this week’s blog: Ambiguity, thinking, and the question of what counts as knowledge.
Ever since Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows hit the stage, the debate’s been on about the value of the internet and the value of Carr. Evgeny Morozov, for example, equates Carr’s argument with that of a chap pitiful enough to denounce the telegraph in 1889. Others reach even farther back to those who found moveable type disturbing. (Personally, I’m not yet ready to give up on cuneiform, but that’s perhaps another topic).
Now in our culture the easiest way to make someone sound silly is to call them old-fashioned, and what could be funnier, really, than fearing moveable type? “Ack! The alphabet! On little pieces of metal!” Rhetorical trickery can be so much fun. Call Carr a “digital alarmist,” as one writer did, and your work is mostly done. Someone else denounced Carr and his ilk as “techno-Cassandras.” This last one cracks me up. As you know, if you’ve read the book instead of Cliff’s Notes, Cassandra turned out to be right. That same article argues that the internet is making us smarter. One fellow quoted in there even says that old-fashioned books “are not the shape of knowledge….They’re a limitation on knowledge.”
Now right about now, I could start hurling apples from behind the chicken coop, or we could all take a breather. Breathe. While you do that, I’ll sum up the two sides so far: Did So! Did Not! Did So! Did Not!
In a world awash in zeros and ones, I’d like to re-introduce the concept of “maybe.” Of “both/and.” Of “it depends.” When someone says, “The internet makes us smarter,” I want to say, doesn’t it all depend? What does it mean to be “smarter,” or “smarter” in what kind of way? And when someone says, “Books are a limitation on knowledge,” I want to ask, is there only one kind of knowledge? After all, knowing pi is not the same as knowing how to make a pie. Knowing that someone I love feels sad is different from knowing how to solve for ‘X’. Or how to think about sadness. And, yes, reading Anna Karenina may limit my access to hyperlinks for an afternoon, but reading hyperlinks all afternoon may limit my access to Tolstoy.
Let’s make room in the world for more than one thing. Let’s think. We can celebrate the internet for helping us share information and collaborate on research; and denounce its tendency to make us think less deeply about the information we sometimes gather. We can be glad for online access to first editions of Middlemarch or for the global activism of 350.org. We can also maybe be less glad for updates about Farmville and Mafia Wars, and for the losses to civic life when we spend too much time online (in all fairness, Morozov has very smart things to say about this). And perhaps in the plugged in world, we can also value the experience of Anna Karenina, value the “knowledge” we gain by entering that imagined world of enormous emotional and social complexity. We can value literary imagination.
After all, what kind of knowledge is a poem?
This I can promise: you’ll never solve for that ‘X’ by looking in Wikipedia.