The Web

I’m not much for live radio, so I never heard any of David Cayley’s radio documentaries when they aired on CBC Radio’s Ideas, but the podcasts of those shows played a significant role in my post-university intellectual life. They introduced me to the work of Ivan Illich and Rene Girard, and they deepened my appreciation for a number of other thinkers, like Simone Weil, Charles Tayler, and Richard Kearney.

Cayley was also gracious enough to meet with me in person a few years ago, and though our conversation was unexpectedly shortened, I have always looked back with appreciation on his willingness to sit and talk with an absolute stranger about Ivan Illich and homeschooling. Our very brief interaction left me with the impression of a man characterized by what I call intellectual hospitality, by an openness to ideas as a place for people to share themselves, and there are few greater compliments that I can offer.

So I’m truly pleased to see that Cayley has launched a new website to host some of his radio shows that are no longer available elsewhere. The shows are free and include the the ones on Ivan Illich and Simone Weil that I enjoyed so much. There are also links to additional shows hosted by other sites, a blog of long-form essays, and information about Cayley’s books.  There is a lifetime of shared ideas here, and you could hardly spend your free time better this holiday than by sharing in those ideas yourself.

I am by no means an expert on the history of mnemonics, but it has always interested me to see how growth in literacy has tended to cause a corresponding decline in the practise of memory, as people become more and more content to have the written word remember for them, to replace their memories with archives. There is something to be said for this arrangement, of course, since writing allows us to recall and transmit far more knowledge with far more efficiency than even the most highly trained memory ever could, but writing also permits us the luxury of a peculiar forgetfulness, where we need not know what we can find in the archive, and we need not find it if we would rather remain forgetful, for reasons of politics or expediency or even sheer laziness.

The rise of the technologies that are commonly called the internet are pushing this relationship between archive and forgetfulness to even further extremes, because we know submit everything to the archive — our photographs are on Pinterist or Flickr; our videos are on YouTube or Vimeo; our lives are journaled on Facebook or in our blogs; our correspondence is stored in our email accounts; even our water-cooler gossip is preserved on Twitter. This capacity for archiving ourselves, however, has been accompanied by an equal capacity to be forgetful of ourselves. We have recorded our lives, but we have not remembered them, have not understood them, have not told their stories, and so we no longer know ourselves, or if we do, we know ourselves very differently, as media creations that we no longer recognize as ourselves.

This is not what the internet must mean, of course, because the internet can be made to mean other things, but for many people this is what the internet has in fact come to mean: both total archive and total forgetfulness.

Let me begin by saying that Lindy now has, not a new edition, but a new cover, with jacket art graciously provided by Larisa Koshkina.  That, however, is the last positive thing I will say in this entire post.  The remainder of it will descend to the level of a rant in which I savagely critique’s cover editor.  You may not want to read further.

So, Lulu provides three options for designing a cover.  There is a basic online template, which is useless in the extreme, not much better than trying to design graphics in a word processor.

There is a new online template, which is awkward and cumbersome but that mostly gets the job done, unless, of course, you want to do something crazy, like have an image on the spine of your book, which it will not allow you to do under any circumstances.  The reasoning, in theory, is that the spine width changes depending on how many pages are in the book, and so the image size for the spine is different with each project. Yet, by the time you get around to designing the cover, you have already uploaded your book file to Lulu, and Lulu already knows exactly how wide your book will be, so all Lulu really needs is an online template with the capacity to change spine widths according to the information it already has.   Apparently, however, this is too difficult for a company that sets and prints many thousands of different covers a year, which is, in short, remarkably inept.

The third option is to create your own cover and upload it to the site, but Lulu once again makes things as difficult as possible by providing no template at all.  To generate this template,  based on the book you have already uploaded, would be simple in the extreme.  It need not be interactive.  It need not be editable online.  It need only be a file generated to the book’s dimensions.  Instead, Lulu just lists the dimensions for you and tells you to go do it yourself,  which is  simply horrible customer service.

So, I think Lulu may have lost my business in the long term.  I will leave things as they are for now, but I am exploring other more professional options, and I am hopeful that I will be able to judge at least some of these publishers by their covers.

I have been learning a little about LaTeX recently.

For those of you who are unfamiliar (as I was only a few months ago), LaTeX is a program that uses mark-up language (something like html) and a document preparation system to produce documents through the TeX typesetting program. It is used, mostly in academia, to produce publication-quality documents, and is particularly useful when building bibliographies, using graphics, and representing mathematical or scientific symbols.

When I went about trying to self-publish Lindy, my friend Dave used LaTeX to help me mark-up the manuscript and prepare it in a form that would accept, but then I needed to make some revisions, and then I wanted to typeset a short story for someone, and then I started putting the Island Pieces together into a more formal shape, so I figured that I had better learn how to work with LaTeX myself rather than pestering Dave every time I needed something. Unfortunately, this has traditionally meant downloading the entire program and a whole set of additional packages,  setting them up, and doing the sort of computer work that generally ends up making me deeply frustrated with the world and everything in it.

However, as of quite recently, there is another option. ShareLaTeX, which describes itself as LaTeX in the cloud, provides a dedicated .tex editor and typesets to .pdf without having to download any part of LaTeX at all. The site is in its infancy, and it has not been without its growing pains, but the hassle that it saves more than makes up for it, and the creator of the site has been very good with responding to issues as they arise. To this point the service is free, and it will always be free to have a limited number of active projects, but eventually there will be a cost for larger numbers of projects.  I recommend the site to anyone who is interested in experimenting with what LaTeX can actually do.

Even without having to setup the program myself, however, the learning curve for marking up the text in a .tex file was fairly steep for me.  There are bits about LaTeX that make absolute sense, and other bits that make sense once you know them, but some bits remain counterintuitive even once you have used them, especially if you approach learning like I do, by throwing yourself into a project and just troubleshooting your way through it, rather than sitting down to read through a manual.

It took me some time, for example, to discover how to insert blank pages between the table of contents and the first chapter of a book in memoir class.  The newpage and clearpage commands did not seem to produce what I wanted, even when followed by thispagestyle{empty}, which were the standard suggestions for this problem.  Eventually I stumbled upon the cleartorecto and cleartoverso commands, which seem to have done the trick, though nobody else seems to use them in this way.  All of which is to say that learning to markup text for LaTeX has been an interesting experience for me, and though I am fairly certain that I will never make a career of it, I am pleased to be a little more self-sufficient in this respect.

I have been reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death again, and I think he may have been wrong, not in entirety, but at least in one critical point that bears materially on any attempt to extend his work to social media.  Postman’s central thesis is essentially that textual media and visual media produce profoundly different kinds of public discourse.  He claims that textual media require active interpretation and so produce a public sphere that is characterized by rational, propositional, and informed discourse, while visual media encourage passive amusement and so produce a public sphere that is characterized by concern with image and appearance.  This is not to say that visual media are in every respect inferior to textual media, only to say that they produce a public sphere that is less able to conduct the kind of discourse required for an informed and functional democracy, and I would agree with this analysis in its broad outlines.

Where Postman errs, I think, is in including the telegraph and the telephone among the technologies of amusement, when I would argue that these media are actually forerunners of the social media that currently dominate the media landscape.  Because his book precedes the internet and the rise of social media, it fails to see how profoundly different these kinds of media are from both textual and visual media, even in their simplest forms.   This is not exactly Postman’s fault of course, not considering the time in which he was writing, and I have been told that he did address the idea of cyberspace in some of his later work, but I would like to presume on Postman’s ideas a little by extending his analysis of textual and visual media to social media, probably in ways that he would not endorse.  I apologize to anyone I might offend in so doing.

Here is what I would suggest.  First, where textual media require active attention, and where visual media require only passive attention, social media require a kind of attention that is neither active nor passive but idle.  We have these media continually on hand, in our pockets, on our screens, in the background, but we seldom actively apply ourselves to them or passively amuse ourselves with them.  We play with them.  We fiddle with them.  We trifle with them.  Rather than absorbing our attention actively or passively, they absorb our attention idly.  Though they are capable of supporting active and passive attention, the natural mode of social media is merely idle attention.

Second, where the activity of textual media results in understanding, and where the passivity of visual media results in amusement, the idleness of social media results in diversion.  These media operate by ceasing to be merely on hand, in our pockets, on our screens, in the background, and by demanding to be answered, now, in this instant, by ringing or chiming or vibrating or appearing on our desktops, and they thus diverts us from whatever it is that we were doing at that moment.  They can be ignored, of course.  We can let our phones go straight to voicemail, ignore the message telling us that we have mail, put off reading the latest item in our feed, but the natural mode of these media is to disrupt, to demand instant response, and so they divert us.  Indeed, they very often divert us from a previous diversion, so that we intend to check only one meassge and end up looking at the pictures of some guy we hardly know, or we intend to follow one link that a friend tweeted and end up surfing youtube for half an hour.  Diversion leads to diversion.  This is the mode of social media.

I am not implying, of course, that social media cannot support other modes of attention and activity, only that idle diversion is the natural mode of social media, the mode into which they fall by default, the mode in which they are most comfortable.  I am also not implying that the mode of idle diversion is necessarily without value, because it is very good at accomplishing certain ends.  What I am suggesting, however, is that this mode tends to produce a particular sort of discourse in the public sphere, just as textual and visual media do, and that the sort of public discourse produced by social media is not necessarily in the best interests of a healthy democracy.

The reason for this is that success in social media is not a matter of attracting active attention, as in textual media, and not a matter of attracting passive attention, as in visual media, but a matter of diverting idle attention.  To put this practically, it is a matter of going viral, of getting more likes and more retweets and more comments and more hits.  It is not necessary that we understand the political issues, not necessary that a candidate amuse us with witty talking points and distinguished good looks, only necessary that something divert us long enough to click it.  Our engagement in public discourse becomes reduced from active engagement, to passive reception, to idle clicking that diverts us from something else and will almost instantly be replaced by another diversion in its turn.

This is not, as I said above, the only mode in which social media can function.  It is possible to stimulate tremendous political action through social media, as history has shown already.  Social media can reach massive numbers of people almost instantly, and can mobilize these people in powerful ways.  However, even when it is successful in producing action, this action remains mostly uninformed.  It is a viral action that mobilizes over a slogan or an event, something that can be summarized in a hundred and forty characters, something that we can post on our feeds and send to our lists, something that we can click, and it lacks the kind of sustained, reasoned, informed public discourse that is necessary to produce healthy political action.  It is political action as a diversion from the other things we do, and we are as quickly diverted from it as we were to it.  When something else hits our feeds, we are off in another direction altogether.

It is certainly possible to use social media against their natural mode, to conduct through them the kind of political discourse that a healthy democracy needs, to disseminate information through them, to hold government accountable through them, and I affirm anyone and everyone who uses them in these ways.  The real problem is, however, that these social media produce us as much as they produce the discourse in which we engage, and they are increasingly producing a population which is incapable of any political action beyond following a feed and clicking a “Like” button, not merely because this seems natural, but because they have no experience of any other political discourse or any other political engagement.  It is not only the public sphere that is being changed by our media, but we ourselves.  We are becoming a culture that is capable only of idle diversion, and the implications of this impoverished ability to engage politically can only have a detrimental effect on the health of our democracy.

Last year I wrote what I called a State of the Blog Address quite close to the anniversary of my first post on April 11th, 2008.  This year, as you will see if you check today’s date very closely, I am a little late to mark the anniversary, and this is mostly because I forgot about it until now, and I would not likely have remembered it at all had Dave Humphrey not emailed to tell me that he has extended our domain for another three years and to remark that I will now need to keep blogging at least that much longer.

This gave me pause for thought.  I had told myself when I started writing this blog that I would commit to it for at least a year, and I publicly committed myself to a second year in my first State of the Blog Address, but I had never looked any further ahead than a year at a time, and the idea that I might be writing in this way for three more years was, I admit, a little daunting.

This is not to say that I am less interested now in writing through this form.  I still find it a very useful medium for me, allowing me to formulate ideas in the limited time that my life as a father and a husband and a teacher and a gardener and a cook permits me, and allowing me to share these ideas with the people who are important to me.  For these and other reasons I have every intention of continuing to write through this blog for at least the next year or so, though what I write through it will likely change as much during that time as it has changed over the past year or more.  Even so, the idea of comitting to three years of writing in any particular form is perhaps a little more than I am willing to entertain.  It is certainly possible that I will still be writing a blog in ten years.  It is also possible that my life or the world or both will have changed so much even in the next year that I will need a very different form to accommodate what I would like to write.

So, the domain has been renewed for three more years, but I will commit to nothing more than to be here to write a State of the Blog Address next year, which will have to be enough for all of you, since it is more than enough for me.

I never blog about anything technical.  I review neither software nor hardware, neither application nor gadget.  There are good reasons for this:  Not only do I lack any education and experience with the subject, but I am also a late adopter and a selective Luddite, so almost everyone else is more qualified to write about these things than I am.  I just try to stay clear.

Today, however, I am making an exception, because today Dave Humphrey introduced me to Readability, a bookmarklet that allows users to remove the clutter, the adds, the sidebars, the themes, from any webpage, rendering the page’s text according to preferences that the reader selects.  It is one of those almost too simple ideas, and yet, for anyone who reads as much online as I do, it makes life so much easier. With a single click on any page, I can have just the text I want in a reasonable font size that runs the entire width of the screen. With a second click I can print or email it.

I have wanted this for years without even knowing what it was that I wanted, and so I am sharing it with those of you who have not yet discovered it yourselves.  I may not be qualified to write on technology, but I know what I like, and I like Readability a lot.