Monkey Minds Unite. Or, What Kind of Knowledge is a Poem?

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  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.


Your hyperlinks for the day: The Shallows, Morozov’s “Losing Our Minds to the Web,” “Digital Alarmists Are Wrong,techno-Cassandras,” Anna Karenina,


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22 Responses to “Monkey Minds Unite. Or, What Kind of Knowledge is a Poem?”

  1. Kelly Says:

    “knowing pi is not the same as knowing how to make a pie.” Brilliant! I love this, and am filing it away under “awesome” for future use.

  2. Tara Seeley Says:

    how about blackberry pi?

  3. Tara Seeley Says:

    I believe that should have been Blackberry (trademark) pi…and then of course there is always Apple (trademark) pi…

  4. Shannon Seeley Walters Says:

    My intellectual tummy is fully sated and gloriously happy. You have fed me well again. I like pi.

  5. Kara Furman Says:

    Couldn’t agree more!

  6. Professor Of Pop Says:

    Last semester while teaching Intro to Media Studies my skeptical comments on Avatar and 3D cinema were greeted in some quarters with wry and clever jabs about the talkies. My students did have a point, no doubt. But I like your answer best because as Brecht I believe said there are the good old things and the bad new things and vice versa. Unlike some of his fellow travellers in the Frankfurt School he knew when to say It Depends.

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      I hear you, brother. New-fangled is so often assumed to be better (in what way? for what purpose?) while old-fangled is considered absurd, no matter its merits. Thoreau also complained about the telegraph, by the way; the trans-Atlantic cable was a shiny new gizmo, for sure, at the time. His assumption was that nothing worth saying would now fly at the speed of electricity from point A to point Z. Was he silly, or was he right? Well, it depends.

  7. Professor Of Pop Says:

    Brian Winston’s book on technological determinism (, Media, Technology & Society, which we used in Intro, also points out that shiny new gizmos emerge primarily for socio-political reasons that often have little to do with them gizmos!

  8. Bob Says:

    I am on board with this whole notion of “slow reading”–and my board is not one of those boards for surfers but for “deep reading.” Plunge in. In deep is far out! Take a look at the Changing Lives Through Literature program if you have the time. Sorry but that is an internet address–but what can we do in this digital age?

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Thanks for bringing your board to the beach today, Bob! Someone else sent me the link about ‘Changing Lives through Literature,’ and it sounds like such a great program. Sometimes the digital age brings us a boon–and this is one of them.

  9. RobertJulianBraxton Says:

    what kind of knowledge is a poem?
    Every day I write, having worked productively for forty-nine years, I am letting this writing (poems) work on and produce me — after one year, for the next forty-eight (years).
    Ammons, A R collected poems 1951-1971,
    “poems are fingers,
    methods, nets, not what
    is or was”

  10. Lisa Guidarini Says:

    Before I had children I could completely lose myself in anything I was reading at the time, but after my daughter was born I found I always had one ear “open” to listen for her. And I’ve never gotten that ear back!

    I have both bipolar and ADD issues, yet I write a review blog and have written columns related to books/writing from time to time. I’m also a librarian. So, many times I am forced to slow down my reading in order to fully comprehend either the material I am reviewing or facts I’m trying to find for library patrons. And that’s truly difficult for me.

    As far as reviewing, I have a system for writing in books (travesty!) so I can easily locate character names and major plot points. That helps tremendously, and also forces me to slow down. For everything else, many times I’ll print out articles. Reading something on actual paper is easier for me than on a computer screen, when I find myself jumping around like a Mexican jumping bean (following links…).

    One solution that seems to help a lot is to keep a written reading journal, using those things called pens and paper (which must be less in demand since the internet came along). From there I can copy salient points to my review blog, reinforcing the piece by having written about it twice, essentially.

    But attention spans… The internet makes it a real challenge. And I’m an email junkie… Sigh.

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Hi Lisa,
      It sounds as though you’ve figured out some strategies to stay on the page. I always advise my students to write in their books, as it slows them down, gives them a way to engage that’s deeper and more thoughtful than just breezing through. I do the same–and lots of great writers have written in their books, too. Marginalia is a fine art–and it’s fun to read well-read people’s comments on their reading. Coleridge and Blake were both brilliant, for example, and often cantankerous. So think of yourself as joining a grand tradition. If you want to deal with your email junkie-hood, I highly recommend downloading “Freedom.” Cheers to you, and happy reading!

  11. Belinda Says:

    Funny…as I was reading the other day…I began thinking of slowing down…I began to slow down…and it was good. I think there is some collective thought going around.


  12. Marathi Kavita Says:

    hello!,I really like your writing very a lot! share we keep in touch extra about your article on AOL? I require an expert on this area to resolve my problem. May be that’s you! Having a look forward to peer you.

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