Information and the Future

This is the blog of the Information and the Future task force of the Rolfing Library at Trinity International University. The IF task force exists to explore the role of libraries in the future of Christian higher education.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Against the Machine

I am taking a class on "Technology and Culture" next semester. I started reading one of the books, and I thought I'd do a review of it here. (Sorry if it gets long!) The book is Against the Machine by Lee Siegel. Although I didn't agree with some of what he said, some of his ideas were thought-provoking.

The author seems to have a personal grudge against the internet. I wonder if this might be because of his personal experience. He's a writer for the New Yorker, and he had a blog where he was getting nasty comments from people. So he made up a fake username and posted comments back attacking his attackers and praising himself. When this was discovered he was suspended from the New Yorker. However, he says this whole thing actually helped him - it gave him more fame and got him the contract to write the book. Which is ironic, since this is one of the things he criticizes in the book - how internet sites use scandals to keep people's attention and get noticed.

One of his big criticisms of the Internet is that it is too entangled with business - "business values define the internet." For some reason, he thinks this corrupts the internet (he has a very anti-business mindset). I thought that he failed to recognize that most other innovations usually have business interests as well, including formats he lauds, such as book publishing, radio, and newspapers.

He fears that the "democratic" nature of the internet (anyone can publish and be heard) will suppress true creativity and excellence. He complains about how the internet pushes things that are popular (which is true, since Google puts the most popular sites at the top and you often find things by following other's links and suggestions). But I can't agree with his statement that "popular culture used to draw people to what they liked. Internet culture draws people to what others like." -TV shows, books, newspapers have always been based on what was popular (and the selection was usually chosen by someone else). It was just much more limited in what was available. It is true that the sheer quantity of available material online could bury what is out there. But that doesn't mean that true excellence can't still rise to the surface - and that people can't still find what they like. This probably falls under the importance of educating people to be discerning and to recognize excellence. And I imagine in the future our ways of finding and promoting the good things available will become more sophisticated. It has already improved dramatically since the internet began.

He also blames the internet for social problems that are larger than and existed before the internet - such as increasing isolation, self-centeredness, fear of intimacy, etc. However, I could agree that the internet is partly popular because it fits well with people's desires as a result of societal trends. He says the internet being attractive because it takes away our limits - we can be anything and do anything. His comment that "we find it hard to deal with our limitations of being simply human" reminded me of the biblical sin of wanting to be like God.

I think there is some truth in his comment that people use the internet to hide from real world problems. Interactions with people online can seem safer. We have some distance and control over the relationship. As he says, the relationships "exist too much in our heads to be real." We can imagine the other person how we'd like them to be. I had been thinking about why people can spend hours each day online in a virtual world like Second Life. It probably feels safer and more pleasant than real world interactions - especially for people who have trouble interacting socially. (I saw an article recently that said that Second Life was helpful for people with social disabilities.) But as he says, this can only increase the problem. "The world will shrink to ourselves, and we won't understand the real world."

He also talks about the problems with online pornography and its effect on sexuality - which probably is one of the biggest problems with the internet. He says that it has normalized pornography and the taboo. Pornography is readily available and it exists in situations alongside normal life. People can shop, chat with friends and view pornography from the same computer (and even at the same time). It comes to seem commonplace.

Pornography fits with the problems listed above of people being more isolated and fearful of relationships. It also allows you to be in control of the relationship without risk of rejection. He talks about the future of sex with machines, which would be the next logical step. It allows sex without any of the risk, both physically and emotionally, experienced in real life. But in the process, we lose what's truly valuable about relationships - intimacy with another human being, with the accompanying vulnerability and risks of being hurt.

So overall, I thought he was often overly negative about the internet. But he does raise some interesting things to ponder about our culture and where we are headed.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Tail Actually Is Not So Long (Boston Globe online?) ran an article entitled Group Think that reports on studies that the Internet may actually make it harder for ideas that challenge the scholarly consensus to gain a hearing. The reporter writes:

This study adds weight to concerns, shared by other Internet analysts, that the rise of online research has costs as well as benefits. Internet search tools are not neutral: they tend to privilege the new and the popular. And for all the frustrations of older research methods, their very inefficiency may have yielded rewards. Leafing through print journals or browsing the stacks can expose researchers to a context that is missing in the highly targeted searches of PubMed or PsychInfo. The old-fashioned style of browsing, some say, can provide academics with more background knowledge, and lead to serendipitous insights when they stumble upon articles or books they weren't necessarily looking for.
Personally, I'm not sure that it was the potential for serendipity that resulted in "old-fashioned" research having more width, as the discipline to track down every lead which seemed to be more prized in the print libraries of yesterday, but now seems pointless when confronted with all the keyword generated hits.

The relation of technology to knowledge is a very complicated one and this article reminds us to be cautious and think critically about the hype.

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