Tuesday 11 December 2007

Teh Intarweb has made u all dum

Or at least that's what the Guardian yesterday distilled from Doris Lessing's Nobel acceptance speech. The money quote being:

"Writing, writers, do not come out of houses without books. We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned, and where it is common for young men and women who have had years of education to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing."

Reading the actual speech I was a bit disturbed to find that the quote is a little bit massaged - first she says..

"We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women who have had years of education, to know nothing about the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers."

And a bit later gets to this theme.

"Writing, writers, do not come out of houses without books."..

Overall though they capture one side of Lessig's Lament - the Internet is debasing writing and facilitating the decline of "standards". They ignore the other more complicated side of her argument about what sort of environment makes good writers (and by implication enhances our cultural well being).

To get back to the first quote above though I have to say that I am disappointed - it is a tired and (frankly) pathetic argument that has been a staple of the elderly and the conservative since the ancient Greeks. Monty Python's "Four Yorkshiremen" skit is a classic precisely because it turns that standard cultural meme on its head and exposes its inherent silliness. Culture is not fragmenting, there has never been a time when the world was more monocultural than it is today (although that might be a bad thing in itself) and it is absolutely correct that the youth of today should question the standards of their elders and dispose of those that no are no longer useful.

Does this mean that we should ignore the classics? Of course not, but the intelligentsia needs to get its head out of its collective backside and acknowledge that there are hierarchies of interest in the world. More people than ever are reading "The Classics" now and discussing them at length. Search the web for Ovid, Virgil, Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Sartre and you will find hundreds of thousands (and millions) of pages, hundreds if not thousands of which contain active discussions on the meaning and content of the works by those authors. The Internet means that anyone who can connect to it and who wants to explore it has instantaneous access to material in a way that people like Doris Lessing just doesn't understand or appreciate. The fact that hundreds of millions of people prefer to read about Britney's latest car park fender bender or Brad Pitt's new pet sheep makes no difference.

Moving on and actually digging into the speech the main point she seems to be making is:

"In order to write, in order to make literature, there must be a close connection with libraries, books, the Tradition."

Libraries don't have to be mystical stone buildings, books don't have to be paper and anyone who writes Tradition with a capital T deserves to be ridiculed. More seriously though access to the intellectual tradition does not require smoking jackets and smokey academic coffee rooms, the fine traditions of literary, cultural and philosophic thought and valuable, even cutting edge, debate on them continues on line and is healthier now than it has ever been because it is more accessible. Not all deprived children are a badly off as the Zimbabwean horror stories Lessig rightly laments  - many potential great minds have been stunted because even in first world societies it was always hard for people who don't have access to a library at home to develop the habits and interests that are needed to get started on the road to intellectual exploration. It's not just about writing either. The point though is that with the Internet those who are interested are no longer hamstrung if they don't happen to be one of the lucky ones (like Lessig, and like me to be fair) who grew up in a house surrounded by books.

The true benefit of libraries is that they make books available, and books about books and they enable those who are interested to do some real research and perhaps find some truth. Most of that research is utter drivel though - the tens of thousands of books that have been written about Shakespeare not having really been Shakespeare would be a good example of that - but that doesn't matter the point is that the ideas need to be available to minds so that those minds can discover them and think about the. In the past a load of old paper was the only way for a developing mind to benefit from the work of the past. That has changed - a ten year old (or a 70 year old for that matter) who develops an interest in Plato (or Ovid, or Kant, or Shakespeare or whoever ) can now read as much of the entire relevant canon as they please when ever they please and enter into discussions about the fundamental meaning of the work with (some of ) the best minds on the planet via that demonic Internet. Now many people will cry about how that's not the same - you can't actually read a Book on a monitor, that's not Reading, blah,blah, blah. Seriously folks the youth of today will read on anything - in fact they'd probably prefer to read Plato in their mobile phones if given the chance.

The vast majority of the unwashed ( i.e. the proletariat bloggers out there that Lessig despises ) don't care about Ovid, Virgil, Plato, Shakespeare, Sartre, Kant or Derrida but then the vast majority of people in the 1050's/1550's/1950's or even 1970's never did and wont in 2050 either. Arguably there are many more people communicating today who are less catholic in their education that those who were lucky enough to have an education and access to publishing resources twenty years ago, let alone a hundred and five hundred years ago, but that doesn't mean that there is some sort of intellectual decline. Far more people today have a good to average level of education than ever before and that number just gets better. Unfortunately most of those will only want to read about Angelina's latest tiff with Brad or who's been run off the latest reality TV show but a small but significant fraction will continue to add worthwhile cultural content and that has always been the same.

At one point she bemoans the fact that a library full of books in a London school generally lies unused..

"Next day I am at a school in North London, a very good school,".... "And here, in this privileged school, I hear what I always hear when I go to schools and even universities.'You know how it is. A lot of the boys have never read at all, and the library is only half used.' 'You know how it is.' Yes, we indeed do know how it is. All of us."

I went to school in the 70's and 80's and finished up in a good (but not "privileged" ) school and there were plenty of very smart and quite well off kids there. Still, the library there was effectively unused. As far as I can recall I was the only kid in my final year in secondary school who used both the School Library and the local Public Library regularly, and I had access to a pretty good library at home. I bet if if went back there today there would still be only one or two sad geeks in the same boat. When my kids were younger I used to take them to the Public Libraries regularly and again I'm one of the few people around who knows where the local libraries actually are. I don't think that the fact that only a tiny minority have an interest in physical Libraries is a huge or even a new issue. They have ceased to be culturally special places and that change took place long before I went to school in the 70's and 80's so their decline (if it is relevant) predates the latter half of the last century in my experience. The advent of the Internet has changed the game completely now - everyone lucky enough to have access to it who chooses to use it has access to vast libraries in an instant. I recall that when I was in College a girl that I had a sort of crush on wrote something slightly obscure in Latin to me in a note (I told you I was a geek, so were all most of my friends). I knew enough Latin to know what it said and it was a very interesting thing for a nice, attractive girl to write to a boy. However it was clearly some lines from a longer poem and I suspected that I needed to read the context to fully understand what it meant. It took me a couple of days to find it even though I had access to a full University Library in order to carry out the research. Thankfully I found what it was as the literal meaning of it would have given me the wrong idea but the point I wanted to make is that today anyone could find that out by typing four words into Google and reading a few articles. My example is a simple one and there are substantially better examples out there but every time I search Google for something obscure I am reminded that some things are now astonishingly easy and it is invariably a good thing that they are. I remain fundamentally convinced that the internet's democratization of knowledge in this way is an enormous cultural benefit moreover it's removal of the barriers to participation in intellectual discourse and the production of cultural content are effective cultural "multipliers" that will lead to the creation and rapid distribution of far more valuable content in the future than would otherwise have been possible.

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