It’s a good thing you can’t burn blogs

by Mathew on December 10, 2007 · 19 comments

Doris Lessing, the Nobel Prize winner for literature, is the latest to mount her rhetorical horse and try to skewer the blogosphere — and the Internets in general — as being bad for our Culture, bad for Knowledge, and generally just not as good as Books and That Sort of Thing. Duncan Riley is right to call this approach Keensian (as in Andrew Keen, who I just finished writing about) because the same impulse drives both of them: the impulse to see ideas and knowledge as valuable only if they appear in books.

This is more an example of intellectual fetishism than anything else, I suspect. Nick Carr is clearly in this camp as well, although it’s not evident so much in his actual post on Lessing’s speech as it is in the comments, when he responds with umbrage to one of his readers by saying that:

“fucking around with ‘text’ all day has absolutely nothing to do with reading serious, challenging books… she’s talking about the desire to read good books as a manifestation of the desire to expand one’s knowledge and understanding of one’s world.”

As a commenter quickly notes, however, a desire to expand one’s knowledge and understanding of the world is not synonymous with books, no matter how much Doris and Nick wishes that it were. It used to be, yes — and for the kinds of places that Ms. Lessing talks about in her speech, it still is. But it’s quite a leap to say that blogs and the Internet in general are just a waste of time compared with anything book-related. I would have expected a bit more insight from Ms. Lessing.

As Shelley points out at Burningbird, wasting time and mindless entertainment in general have a long and storied history that stretches back through the entirety of human history — it is no more a product of the Internet than it was a product of radio, or the “talkies,” or cave paintings and getting drunk on fermented wheat were thousands of years ago.

  • http://www.ipdemocracy.com Cynthia Brumfield

    Mathew,

    Lessing is a captive to her own talent, which is to delve deep and ruminate and develop ideas in an amazingly complex way that only books can support. Had she been born in the Internet era, her unique talent would have gone wasted because, let's face it, we're all suffering from some form of newly introduced mass ADD because of the Internet.

    Complex ideas are more difficult to encounter because of the short attention span that the Internet has fostered and I think that Lessing is mostly reflecting on this notion rather than physical books are better than, say, Kindles.

    But you're right too. Mindlessness existed long before the Internet and humans are amazingly flexible and voracious creatures when it comes to consuming information and communicating ideas, or communicating anything at all. No need to look longingly to the good old days when people read books or fret that we're becoming stupider.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    A fair point, Cynthia — and there's no question that the Internet and
    BlackBerrys and blogs and so on encourage the short attention span.
    But that doesn't mean there isn't some high-quality (even deep)
    thought going on, and other things that might lead to knowledge and
    understanding — in some cases even more than can be gained from a
    book, I would argue.

  • http://www.bizop.ca michael webster

    Mathew, I agree with Cynthia's comment. When you read the entire Lessing speech, and give it a charitable interpretation, what she says about the internet is that is selects for inattention. (I would also add that it rewards absurd claims with inappropriate amounts of traffic.)

    Ironically, the techcrunch article demonstrates the first thesis: it is impossible to read Lessing's speech as anything other than demonstrating a profound respect for and homage to reading.

    And she doesn't think, parenthetically, that much reading goes on in blogs.

    But the parenthetical remark is just that. The entire essay is a beautiful piece of work.

    Today my office internet was out; I was “forced” to read Andrew Goodman's work on Adwords for 3-4 hours.

    I may make internet down/book reading up a new office tradition!

  • http://www.roughtype.com Nick Carr

    I agree with the first two paragraphs of Cynthia's comment. The third feels like a cop-out.

    I'm also wondering whether fuckingaroundwithtextallday.com is still available, because it would be a great name for a blog.

    Nick

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I think that's fair, Michael — it's true that Ms. Lessing's larger
    point has a lot of merit, and I'm certainly not about to argue that no
    one should read books, or that TechCrunch is as good as War and Peace
    or anything like that.

    I'm just not sure why she had to engage in that little drive-by on not
    just blogs but the entire Internet. There's lots of rubbish books out
    there too, not to mention ones that taught people plenty of things
    that turned out to be wrong.

  • http://www.bizop.ca michael webster

    Mathew;

    I don't think that there was a “drive by”. In context, having read the entire article, the point was simple: there is too much reacting on blogs, and not enough reading, thinking.

    The TechCrunch article, as much as I like Duncan Riley, was a perfect example of what I take her point to be.

    And I agree with Carr's observation about Cynthia's third point – it does feel like a cop-out.

    There is also a deeper irony in Lessing's speech; some of us would not have taken the time to read it, but for TC's own little drive by!

    Michael

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Of course you feel that the third paragraph is a cop-out, Nick — that's the one where she disagrees with you :-)

    And I think you and I should set up a new-media content aggregator social-networking Digg-style site at fuckingaroundwithtextallday.com, and then later we can flip it to Google for a couple of billion.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I actually meant the “drive by” to be sarcastic — I just don't know the HTML markup for sarcasm :-)

    And apart from being ironic, I think your point about TechCrunch's post leading people to read Lessing's speech is actually a pretty important point.

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  • http://scrawledinwax.com scrawledinwax

    I find myself oddly on the Carr-ish, almost Keen-esque side of this debate (I know,I know, I hate myself). While I am a big proponent of blogs and 'tech' in general, I think that there is a sort of depth-of-thought that comes from reading long-form books that we haven't really done a particularly good job of replicating online. And I think it should be replicated, not only because of the kind of introspective space that reading creates but also because some ideas are just kinda' hard and long – you can't really examine the relationship between capitalism, identity and social networking in blog form.

    Also, when Carr says “text”, is he dissing just SMS-ing? Or post-structuralism as well? I only ask 'cause I'd guess he has a similar disdain for both ;)

  • Pingback: Doris Lessing: Let’s Not Dismiss Her Just Yet « Scrawled in Wax

  • http://www.industrygirlblog.com patricia

    I think if anything she was referencing social networks, not blogs, internet media or anything resourceful. That is how the mass market is using the web, they're not educating themselves by way of a great blog. They're sharing photos of partying and chatting online with their friends. I think society overall has gotten smarter and dumber at the same time, in different places, both because of the web and other reasons.

    No less, I took what she was saying about internet users from 10,000 feet. It's easy to forget the rest of the web doesn't use it the way we in tech do, but that is the reality.

  • http://www.mappingtheweb.com Aidan Henry

    That's gold… haha…

    PS. How do I get in on this venture?

    Cheers,
    Aidan
    http://www.MappingTheWeb.com

  • http://www.mappingtheweb.com Aidan Henry

    I'm going to provide the most ambiguous answer ever, yet I think it does provide some value and insight…

    We need both mediums.

    Traditional media (books, magazines, newspapers) provides a unique, professional, well-researched, all-encompassing voice. What social media (and blogs) provides is the ability to challenge ideas and thoughts via comments and trackbacks, further solidifying arguments or completely disproving them. Previously, we were at the mercy of the given publisher.

    Mathew… I always enjoy your perspective on a topic such as this, as you dangle a foot on each side of the fence…

    Cheers,
    Aidan
    http://www.MappingTheWeb.com

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Aidan. I think you are right — and I'm glad you enjoy my
    fence-sitting :-)

  • http://www.mappingtheweb.com Aidan Henry

    That's gold… haha…

    PS. How do I get in on this venture?

    Cheers,
    Aidan
    http://www.MappingTheWeb.com

  • http://www.mappingtheweb.com Aidan Henry

    I'm going to provide the most ambiguous answer ever, yet I think it does provide some value and insight…

    We need both mediums.

    Traditional media (books, magazines, newspapers) provides a unique, professional, well-researched, all-encompassing voice. What social media (and blogs) provides is the ability to challenge ideas and thoughts via comments and trackbacks, further solidifying arguments or completely disproving them. Previously, we were at the mercy of the given publisher.

    Mathew… I always enjoy your perspective on a topic such as this, as you dangle a foot on each side of the fence…

    Cheers,
    Aidan
    http://www.MappingTheWeb.com

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Aidan. I think you are right — and I'm glad you enjoy my
    fence-sitting :-)

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