Monday, August 16, 2010

Offline, I Reconnect

MONTREAL - A few months ago , I finally joined Facebook, on the advice of friends who thought it would better equip me to embrace the new millennium and enter the domain of "social networking." I am now among the 500 million-plus people around the planet who have subscribed. Problem is, when I moved into a new apartment last year, I declined to take the Internet with me.
Unhooking myself from the Net started as an experiment, after depending on it for work and recreation for nearly 20 years. If humans are basically creatures of habit, I wanted to know whether I could survive without being addicted to the World Wide Web.
According to some friends and colleagues, this draconian act has transformed me into something akin to an antisocial psychopath. And stupid, too, as I am in the newspaper business, which places a premium on being up-to-date.
I realize that claiming I am not a technophobe is akin to Richard Nixon saying "I am not a crook" during the Watergate scandal. Although I could never program a VCR, I've always been fascinated by technology, and feel that scientists and technogeeks are passionate the way artists are, in their own way, and not mere drones. I'm pleased to say that I was a bit of an "early adopter" of the iPod.
It's not that I don't use the Internet. Not too long ago I was on it all day long. I'd wake up to the New York Times and then, interested in what the West Coast was thinking, go to the L.A. Times, then on to the Washington Post, the Guardian, Le Monde ... waylaid by links to texts of speeches, press conferences, reports, video clips. At the end of the night, I felt buzzed and strangely empty. I had a hard time sleeping, and my dreams were framed in computer screens.
Every day I go to my local Wi-Fi-equipped EM Cafe in Mile End, spend an hour or two checking email and looking stuff up that I've scribbled in a "to do" list in my notebook.
The exercise gets me out of the apartment -critical to a freelancer who works at home alone. I bump into neighbourhood people -not virtual people, but flesh and blood with real expressions on their faces (not Facebook). I observe the cafe's proprietors Sonja, Anna and Rob, running the roomy, well-lit place. I see real-life comings and goings, engage in face-to-face conversations, hear different voices. I feel connected to where I live.
From there, I often stop by the S.W. Welch bookshop around the corner on St. Viateur St., where Steve Welch, bard of used books, waxes on the pros and cons of gadget culture. "I sell a proven product that doesn't need recharging."
Once I eliminated the Internet from my apartment, I rediscovered the joys of reading books (not blogs). It's a feeling I haven't experienced this intensely since my adolescence, when I devoured books, like a human sponge with a lust for everything. When alone in my room, I curled up on my bed and felt like I was discovering the Meaning of Life. At 16. Indeed, that feeling seems more intense now than do my memories of it then, when I didn't know any better.
Hyperbole has accompanied the Internet and digital revolution since the get-go, but that shouldn't obscure the fact that the hype was accurate and, with hindsight, maybe even understated. The geeks were right: The Internet was such a game-changer that we're still trying to figure it out. (It's too late to stop now!) Besides, innovation is always something to be embraced -and occasionally criticized. So let's start by accentuating the positive in the Internet revolution.
The Net is the greatest resource for information since the library.
Indeed, the Net's a terrific pointer to books that can offer more detailed and personalized information and analysis than the Internet can now offer. The Net is great for unearthing archival material previously unavailable to the mass public. It offers practical and up-to-date hands-on advice on how-to and where-to-go.
While its capabilities for communication between young people have changed the coming-of-age process, the Net's value to the elderly, shut-ins and the infirm is a godsend; they no longer feel left out -perhaps the principal disadvantage for old people living in a society fixated on the young and beautiful. Skype is terrific for long-distance relationships, when you can't quite reach out and touch somebody.
As for the body politic, the Net (principally Twitter) has been indispensable in spreading the word of revolts against authoritarian regimes and intransigent government agencies, or for people imperilled by natural disasters. And while most blogs deal in gossip, picayune personal opinion and rants, many offer genuinely insightful alternative journalism.
The Net makes the world smaller and larger at the same time. There is real power in being able to track events online, wherever you are, or to download music or a movie to suit your mood.
The instantaneous nature of the Net is both its marvel and menace. We feel a need for speed. Thus the compulsion to answer emails and tweets quickly, without thinking things through. Impermanence is seen as a virtue, a signal of a world in constant change (where change is a buzzword). Like, nothing is forever, dude.
Civility has gone out the window when you can hide behind the anonymity of the Internet. It's easier to be rude, even hateful -in the guise of "freedom of expression" -than it is to formulate a reasoned argument. (Indeed, reasoning and civility are slowing-down processes in themselves.) As an absolutist on freedom of expression, I oppose anti-hate speech laws -alas, hate speech is the price we pay for freedom. But that's no excuse for indulging in it because you can get away with it.
"Newspapers will be printed in an edition of one," Nicholas Negroponte wrote in Being Digital. "Call it The Daily Me." That turned out to be blogs. Thus "facts" become whatever anyone says they are. Why should expertise belong to the experts? Joseph Campbell's bromide "follow your own muse" has become an epidemic of misinformation. If everybody is a star, as Sly Stone once said, everyone is a pundit. Yes, fact-checking sites exist, but it's easy enough to refute them with "says who?" and "liberal/conservative bias." Many fan flames of intolerance.
Once an allegation is posted, no matter how unfounded, it's there forever. Case in point: Before the episode whereby British scientists allegedly "cooked the books" regarding global warming, about 70 per cent of Americans thought global warming was a stark reality; after "Climategate," fanned by TV and online pundits, the number plummeted to about 40 per cent. No matter that three panels have recently absolved the scientists; the damage has been done, and on one of the urgent issues of our time.
Sometimes I can't decide what position to take on issues, and find it entirely reasonable to understand both sides. (Norman Mailer, an early
adolescent hero, described himself later in life as a "radical conservative.") But in the world of instant response, exploring the nuances between dualities is discouraged, because you're more or less forced to "take a stand."
Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia put together by the public, is marvellous and up-to-date, yet is still prone to pranks and political correctness; its celebrity bios sometimes read like press releases.
This summer, Nicholas Carr raised a red flag in the book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, based on his 2008 article in the Atlantic, provocatively titled Is Google Making Us Stupid? "Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words," he writes. "Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."
In a New York Times online interview, Carr admits the Internet "plays a very beneficial role in helping me to do research efficiently, to find, very quickly ... relevant books, articles, and facts. At the same time, it plays a very damaging role in constantly disrupting my train of thought and leading me down endless rabbit holes. Robert Frost had a lover's quarrel with the world. I'm having a lover's quarrel with the Net."
If "the medium is the message," as Marshall McLuhan presciently put it, "every new medium changes us," Carr continues. Google is "in the business of distraction." Links "don't just point us to related or supplemental works; they propel us toward them. They encourage us to dip in and out of a series of texts rather than devote sustained attention to any one of them." And so our brains "become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering."
Carr cites astonishing statistics: Office workers check their inbox 30 or 40 times an hour; most Web pages are viewed for 10 seconds or less, and fewer than one in 10 page views extends beyond two minutes. Last year, the average American cellphone user was sending or receiving nearly 400 texts per month, with teens reaching 2,272 texts a month. One study showed that academics typically read, at most, one or two pages of an article or book before "bouncing out" to another site.
"The more distracted we become," Carr writes, "the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctly human forms of empathy, compassion, and emotion."
Regarding a recent statement by Barack Obama -whose BlackBerry was indispensable to him capturing the presidency -that gadgets are a "distraction" and "diversion," Carr told Forbes he thought it was "altogether reasonable. What was amazing to me was how everyone rushed to criticize those few sentences in a very long speech. They called Obama an old fogey and a Luddite rather than acknowledge that this is something we should be thinking about. The reaction was telling about how we're thinking about thinking."
There's a knee-jerk "yes, but ..." quality to the reaction to Carr's argument.
"New forms of media have always caused moral panics," writes Steven Pinker, Harvard psychology professor and author of The Stuff of Thought, in a pointed attack on Carr (without mentioning his name). "If electronic media were hazardous to intelligence, the quality of science would be plummeting. Yet discoveries are multiplying like fruit flies, and progress is dizzying. Other activities in the life of the mind, like philosophy, history and cultural criticism, are likewise flourishing, as anyone who has lost a morning of work to the Web site Arts & Letters Daily can attest."
Similarly, the New York Times reviewer Jonah Lehrer (author of How We Decide) cites Socrates complaining that books "create forgetfulness," then runs the gamut on naysayers dismissing movable type, telegrams, the "passive pleasures" of radio and TV, et cetera, ad nauseam. "The online world," he claims, "has merely exposed the feebleness of human attention, which is so weak that even the most minor temptations are all but impossible to resist."
I think the Net, as a pop phenomenon, tends to encourage these temptations, turning us into kids in a candy store. Carr quotes neuroscientist Michael Merzenich saying we are "training our brains to pay attention to the crap."
When Carr claims we're losing our capacity for contemplation, he's accused of being an elitist, bemoaning the charms and immediacy of pop culture in favour of "deep thought." Pinker parries: "It's not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate." Now, who is the elitist here?
As for studies proving that the more we multi-task, the less able we are to do any one thing well: Some people claim that the human brain has always been adaptable to challenge. But the brain, unlike the Internet, is not infinite.
It's telling that what's on the Internet is rarely described as art but, rather, the more prosaic term "content." "Writers seem fated to eschew virtuosity and experimentation in favour of a bland but immediately accessible style," Carr says. "Writing will become a means for recording chatter."
Writing is firstly an intensely solitary act. The best way of learning how to write is by reading books that, born of solitude, usually have then gone through a painstaking process of honing between author and editor. Vladimir Nabokov noted: "I have rewritten -often several times -every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers."
The other best way of learning how to write is to live on, and observe, the proverbial mean streets (and not the virtual world). As Charles Bukowski put it: "Writing, finally, even becomes work especiallyif youaretryingtopaytherent and child support with it. But it is the finest work and the only work, and it's a work that boosts your ability to live and your ability to live pays you back with your ability to create. One feeds the other; it is all very magic."
And there is magic immersing yourself between book covers. As Carr quotes the poet Wallace Stevens: "The House was quiet and
the world was calm / The reader became the book."
My favourite places are bookstores, especially those selling used volumes. Browsing there is not the same as surfing the Net; you're wading through surviving history. You don't know what you're looking for; you let serendipity quietly take its course. Above all, you can physically inspect the merchandise at random (as opposed to the pre-selected bits available on the Net).
A recent New Yorker cartoon depicted a bookcase, empty except for an electronic reading device leaning against one barren shelf. (Bernard Wolf, owner of the Odyssey used-books store on Stanley St., dubs the Kindle as "Dwindle.") When I look at my bookshelves a metre away from my desk -crammed with books, many on music (most of which cannot be found online) -I feel comforted in the knowledge that I can discover what people were thinking when these books were published many moons ago.
It's the physicality of the book that gets to me; you can literally feel the pages. That's one thing you can't say about the iPad or Kindle. (And would you leave an iPad on the beach while taking a dip? Not to mention that it's virtually unreadable in direct sunlight.)
When I told a journalist friend,
who writes extensively about the Internet, of my new Net-less life at home, his jaw dropped: "How can you possibly live that way?" I said that I would probably get tired of the "inconvenience" of abandoning the Net chez moi, but that was five months ago. I've learned to live with this inconvenience, now replaced by the time to read books and write.
Not having the Internet at home has done wonders for my self-image -and also played havoc with it. I imagine myself as a teenage rebel again, a non-conformist, Bucking the System. My wilful act makes me feel downright quixotic. As in: "How does it feel, to be on your own, a complete unknown, with no direction home, like a rolling stone?" Strictly (pathetic) adolescent nostalgia?
Often enough I think of myself as a cranky fuddy-duddy in the face of the Internet. Why not just chill out, go with the flow? And, ah, the kids today! Why deny them their fun? I feel an acute generation gap, this time with me on the no-future end.
Speed is the domain of youth, more than ever. Alas, I'm not young anymore, a little less steady on my feet. I try to accept this philosophically. But when young people bump into me on Ste. Catherine St., because their eyes are fixated on some gadget, I become uncontrollably angry. After one hairy day on the street, I marched into S.W. Welch bookshop and bellowed, "FACEbook! MYspace! It's narcissism run rampant! How can you learn anything about the real world when you're obsessed with the virtual?!" Eyebrows were raised: grumpy old man.
Sometimes I miss the inability to track events online as they happen, suffering from what's termed FOMO (fear of missing out). Yet, missing what? The treadmill and cheap conjecture of Net traffic? I've discovered that most things can wait.
And, somehow, the less I sense my life being "tracked" online, the more secure and independent -free? -I feel, at least for a little while.
Maybe it's that I'm averse to experiencing all of modern life online, staring at my laptop like a zombie and, as Leonard Cohen sang in Democracy, "getting lost in that hopeless little screen."
"It's a great tool," says bookseller Wolf. "But I wouldn't want to live there. In fact, reading books and consulting the Net are not mutually exclusive."
All that said, I love the Internet -in small doses -if only because it offers the human spirit unprecedented challenges and opportunities. Whether it amplifies, transforms or overwhelms that spirit is another matter. As the Bard wrote: To be or not to be, that is the question.

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