Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Texts Without Context

"If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts." - quotation falsely but still repeatedly attributed to Albert Einstein
“Each of us is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts” - quotation attributed in one form or another to Bernard M. Baruch, James R. Schlesinger, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan
In her essay, Texts Without Context, Michiko Kakutani, the noted New York Times critic, describes a "culture of reaction without action" when examining how the web transforms creativity into mere content.

Reviewing several books that tackle or illustrate this phenomenon, Kakutani relates how "the contentious issues of copyright, intellectual property and plagiarism... have become prominent in a world in which the Internet makes copying and recycling as simple as pressing a couple of buttons." For her, the mash-up (second cousin to the hip hop sample) represents the most recent and prominent example of how authors are outsourced by the hive mind.

The article doesn't develop much new ground, but it does offer a relatively concise critique of today's decline in nuance. That is to say, Kakutani's piece artfully illustrates how the subtlety of conversation, the complexity of policy, and the breadth of perspective is increasingly abandoned when tweets, ring tones, bumper stickers dominate our discourse.

With increasing specialization, our electronic agents sift through oceans of data to reaffirm what we already know (a concept defined by Cass Sunstein's as "cyberbalkanization"). Kakutani adds, and I agree, that more academic scholarship appears to be built around technologies that allow us to drill further into our intellectual silos, mining narrow "nuggets of information" to prove our theses.

Yes, it's a cliche, but credit must be paid to George Orwell, who forecast this decline in meaningful communication decades ago:
"Relative to our own, the Newspeak vocabulary was tiny, and new ways of reducing it were constantly being devised. Newspeak, indeed, differed from most all other languages in that its vocabulary grew smaller instead of larger every year. Each reduction was a gain, since the smaller the area of choice, the smaller the temptation to take thought. Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centers at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak, meaning, to quack like a duck.'"
Perhaps this is the irony of convergence, as more voices gather into the same arena, as more texts fall into the same digital singularity: We are unified in form but not in content. We recognize each other but still come across as strangers, especially in the decline of what Cass Sunstein calls "serendipitous encounters." The convergence into one singularity explodes into a multiverse of infinite singularities from which which nothing, not even insight, may escape.

And I too must admit to being sucked in to the same vortex. After all, this post, for all its hand-wringing angst and its clever references, said nothing new, did it? All I've offered is yet another echo in the same shrinking chamber.

So what else is new?

Read the article: Michiko Kakutani, Texts Without Context

1 comment:

Mansi said...

Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Andy. Even though it may seem like we're adding nothing new with our thoughts, our voices, our unique choice of words and expressions -- we are. We're facilitating dialog in our own little circles. Even though the internet is ubiquitous, certain people search for and access only certain snippets of information ... so even though everything that could be is already out there, we're adding something valuable to the mix.