It’s important to have actual data to look at — thanks, Eszter! — even though it confirms what we should all probably know by now: When it comes to information, we’re a lazy, sloppy species that vastly over-estimates its own wisdom.
Archive for July, 2010
Slashdot discusses a NY Times Magazine article on the problems with remembering everything, and refers to Viktor Mayer-SchÃ¶nberger’s book Delete. (I interviewed Viktor for a RadioBerkman episode here.) I think this is one of those topics that’s so large that we’ll only understand it fully by living through it. (Not that we shouldn’t keep trying.)
I’ve completed a first run-through of a chapter on the fate of long-form argument on the Internet. I say “run-through” and not even “draft” because I started off not knowing what I thought, where it was going, or how to get there. So, I’m quite confident that when I re-read it, I will discover that even if the chapter moves along ok sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph it will make no sense.
I’ve been writing boxed intros to each chapter, which I’m likely to take out afterwards. They’re more for me than for the reader, because readers shouldn’t need to be given a boxed intro to know why they’re reading what they’re reading; relying on them is lazy writing. Nevertheless, here’s what I have so far for this chapter.
The Nets continues where arguments end.
We’ve liked to think that we think through issues by digging deeper and deeper into our assumptions, until we come to some bedrock. Then we write up what we’ve learned, going in the other direction: establishing a foundation, and then building upon it, board by board, nail by nail. We are thus archeologists when thinking and carpenters when arguing.
The pinnacle of knowledge has been a structured presentation of a long-form argument â€” a book â€” that leads us step by step to a conclusion of import. And now we worry that the Net is destroying our attention span so that we can’t follow arguments long enough to reach responsible conclusions.
What is the Net doing to the long form of argument and to the knowledge that it derives?
I’ve been reading Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignity of Good. The first two essays are written a little too much (for me) within the particular philosophical debates of the 1960s, but the third remains pretty wonderful. Here’s a short paragraph that is not central, but that I really like:
If I am learning, for instance, Russian, I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me. Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal. The honesty and humility required of the student â€” not to pretend to know what one does not know â€” is the preparation for the honesty and humility of the scholar …[A]part from special contexts, studying is normally an exercise of virtue as well as of talent, and shows us a fundamental way in which virtue is related to the real world.
I’ve been staring at a chapter I need to write about transparency, books, long-form thinking, and maybe attention. I had hoped not to have to write about this stuff. As a result, I haven’t thought about what to say or how to say it. So, I’ve been thrashing for the past few days, writing an opening, realizing it’s irrelevant, making notes, deleting, starting again. I don’t like writing without knowing roughly what the chunks are that I need to cover.
I think I’m making progress, though. As of now, I’m opening it with a look at what long-form writing is like, using Darwin as my example. Now I think I’m going to write as concretely as I can about how the form of books (bound paper ) dictates the form of what you write. It may turn out to be too obvious, but I won’t know until I try writing it.
Yes, there’s a small irony that I’m having trouble writing a short-form chapter about long-form books, critiquing long-form books in a long-form book.
I’m on a mailing list that discusses the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Many years ago I was a fledgling Heidegger scholar, but now I am on the list strictly as a tourist.
Today someone posted: “If you don’t know German you don’t have a ghost of a chance of understanding Heidegger.” A few people posted immediately in reaction to the “dismissive” tone of the comment. I felt the same way, but then thought, hmm, this is an empirical question, isn’t it? List the people you think understand Heidegger best â€” or pick some other writer in some other language â€” and see how many of them don’t read him in his original language. There is something true about the dismissive remark.
But, there is something false as well. It draws too strong a line between understanding and not understanding. I obviously don’t understand Heidegger as well as the full-time scholars on the mailing list do. But, having studied Heidegger for several years of my life (I wrote my doctoral dissertation on him), I’m pretty sure I understand him better than most who haven’t studied him do. If we acknowledge that our understanding improves as we read and study more, we acknowledge that understanding doesn’t fall into only two buckets: understands or doesn’t have a ghost of a chance of understanding.
For the original comment to be empirically true, we’d either have to show that (a) there is a clear line between those who understand and those who do not (and that reading the original language is a requirement for getting into that first bucket). Or, (b) we could say that the commenter is actually talking about having professional standing as a scholar: You cannot claim to be a Heidegger scholar if you can only read him in translation. The first alternative seems to me to be ridiculous. The second seems far more plausible. The problems arise when someone applies the bright perimeter of professionalism to the messy web of understanding.
I certainly do believe that had my German been better â€” it was barely adequate at the time, and now has devolved into very basic travel glossary stuff â€” I could have understood Heidegger better. Likewise, better understanding the history of philosophy, knowing early 20th century German politics, reading Greek and Latin, and being conversant in German poetry all would have helped me understand Heidegger better. There is no end to what we need to know in order to understand the thought of another, because there is no such state as Understanding that excludes all doubt, excludes all errors, and excludes all others.
Finally, it’s not at all clear to me that if we list those whose understanding of a thinker we most respect, they will be in rank order based upon how many of the Professional Requirements they’ve mastered. Some of the best Heidegger scholars â€” and you can pick your own criteria of bestness â€” may be weak in Greek, weaker in German politics, but very strong in poetry. Others might have other sets of strengths and weaknesses. Not only doesn’t understanding necessarily correspond to the fields mastered, the community of scholars ameliorates the weaknesses of individuals by writing works that others read: A scholar weak on politics reads the work of scholars strong on politics. Understanding in this sense is a networked property, and a very messy one indeed.
Ian Frazier has a well-done-as-usual piece in the New Yorker, reporting on a visit to the Berg Collection in the NY Public Library, where the librarian Ann Garner showed him some literary marginalia â€” Mark Twain, Nabokov, Ted Hughes, Kerouac on Thoreau, and more.
It begins with a paean to the physicality of books, leading to:
In the soft lamplight, the open pages of the books she had chosen glowed like a physical and visible representation of the sublime.
All part of our culture’s long goodbye to the Era of the Book. Books will be with us forever, but functionally and iconically they’re being replaced by networks that don’t glow nearly as sublimely in soft lamplight.
The irony is that the digitizing of books should bring us into the Golden Age of Marginalia, in which not only is it easier than ever to highlight and annotate passages, but we can benefit from the marginalia of others, especially as reading becomes social. We will lose the thrill of knowing that Kerouac’s hand scratched that line of ink into this book, but we will gain the ability to learn from the digital traces left by all of today’s Kerouacs, Kerouac scholars, and Kerouac readers.
Catherine White has posted the first two chapters of her thesis, which is about how to deal with difficult people in a conversation without shutting them out. Fascinating question and a provocative opening.
I’m particularly interested since I’ve already drafted a chapter of Too Big to Know that argues that we over-estimate the value of diversity in conversations; conversations require vast amounts of homogeneity and can only tolerate a smidgeon of diversity. (Of course, that smidge is crucial.)