Tag Archives: Internet

Who Knows What?

Nobody likes to have their shortcomings pointed out. I suspect that’s why many people might find Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters a little uncomfortable. Nichols doesn’t pull any punches. Nor does he claim to be an expert on everything. What he does claim, however, is very important. He shows how America has taken a distinctly hostile attitude toward experts and specialists. Somewhere along the line hoi polloi began to mistake everyone has a right to their opinions for “everyone has the right to be an expert on what they express in those opinions.” This isn’t a new problem, but there’s no doubt that the Internet has exacerbated it. We’ve got people arrogant of their lack of training claiming alternative facts that are “just as good as” established facts. One of them resides in the White House. There’s no arrogance in claiming you have extensive, highly specialized training if you do. It’s a simple, non-alternative, fact.

A perfect book for our times, The Death of Expertise should be—must be—widely read. It’s not likely to change the minds of those who’ve already decided that with the Internet giving them a voice they’ve become the gurus of a new generation of the “Know Nothing Party.” The rest of us, however, should read and ponder. Nichols doesn’t shield himself in his ivory tower—he admits there’s plenty that he doesn’t know. He’s not shy, however, in saying he’s an expert on what he does know. I remember when facts used to stand for something. Winning at Trivial Pursuit was a matter of pride. Now everyone’s a contestant on Jeopardy and Alex Trebek has taken the express train home. All answers are right, for all people are experts. Seems like we have a surplus economy in arrogance these days. And that surplus just keeps growing.

An area where Nichols isn’t an expert is religious studies. He wouldn’t claim he is. I did find it interesting, however, that when he wants to make some of his strongest points he quotes C. S. Lewis. Any evangelicals out there should read The Screwtape Letters again and check what Nichols says. Lewis would not have been a Trump supporter. Not by a long shot. And he uses the word “ass” in his books, even when he’s not referring to literal donkeys. He may have been onto something. We have an anti-expert president who has appointed anti-experts at the head of major government agencies. He anti-expertly launches missiles at Syria illegally. C. S. Lewis was an expert Anglican. 45 may be an expert of the sort Lewis wasn’t afraid to name. We need to be educated. Read Nichols and give our nation a fighting chance. There’s always more to learn.

Size Does Matter

While not exactly a Luddite, my grasp on technology is tenuous. I grew up in what may be the last generation where computer use was considered optional—I made it through a master’s degree without ever using one, and could have managed my doctorate without. Like many of 1960s vintage, I resisted computers at first, somehow believing that the status quo ante would ante up and resist the technobabble that was already beginning to bubble just beneath the surface. I never really had a clear idea what a byte was, or how a simple 0 or 1 could be used to convey complex information. I heard about “blogs” but had no idea what they were. Next thing I know I found myself writing one. To my way of thinking any kind of log is essentially a “once a day” thing, although I know bloggers who post remorselessly all day long. At the beginning I was confused until a friend gave me some advice: don’t write too much in any one post. Keep entries down to about three to five paragraphs, and between 300 and 500 words. That way, he intimated, people will look at it.

Recently, wondering why amid the millions and millions of pages available on the web, mine gets so few hits, I read something by an “industry analyst.” (That phrase makes me shudder, but this is no place to be squeamish.) Want more hits? he provocatively asked, followed by—here are the tips. One of his first bits of advice was write longer. At least three times longer than I do (1,500 word minimum). I don’t know about you, but I often think of such things in holistic terms. That’s a lot of words to ask someone to read. If you’re going to put that much together, you’d better have something really profound to say. You’re asking for an investment.

Those of you who know me will understand that multiplying words is not an issue. In addition to this blog I write both fiction and non-fiction books and stories (the vast majority of which have never been published). I answer a simple question with a 50-minute lecture. In other words I have other words. I just tend not to think that you necessarily want to read them all at once (or at all). It’s obvious that size does matter. I can’t help being disappointed when I open a post and find I haven’t the time to read it because it’s just too long. Life’s not fair in its allotment of time. As usual, I err on the side of caution. I value your time to take up too much of it here.

Image by Scarlet23, Wikimedia commons

Image by Scarlet23, Wikimedia commons

Radio Nowhere

Those of us who somehow managed to be educated without the use of computers, at least nothing more advanced than a TI-30 calculator, fumble our way through the world-wide web. I’ve got this blog, a Twitter and a Facebook account, and I’m on Google + and Medium, and I really don’t know how any of these things work. One of my motivations for starting this blog was to continue the tradition of speaking to audiences that I used to have in my lectures while I taught. I was told that such a format was known as a podcast and I found a host site where I could leave my recordings for free. I could then make a link and bring them onto the podcast page of this blog. How any of that works, I have no idea.

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Recently a few would-be listeners have asked what has happened to the podcasts. Since I don’t really know where they were in the first place, I’m not sure how to send a map to them now. One of my readers, however, has kindly set up a new webpage where all 23 podcasts are available. You can find it by clicking on this link. My thanks to Ahmed Fasih for setting this up. The podcasts cover various aspects of ancient religion. Even now, every great once in a while, a world-recognized name in academia will ask me about some of these topics. When you’re an academic you have the opportunity to spend vast amounts of time focusing on a single subject. The only subject you have that privilege with outside academia is money. I do hope my friends in the academy realize just how lucky they are.

In any case, the podcasts are back. Maybe now that they’re not invisible any more, and since in coming days it may be important to remember when things were better, I may find time to add to them. Blogs—at least those that are regularly read—are locations for discussion. I’m always glad to answer questions that are posted here. During the work week my time is constrained, so you might need to wait for a weekend, but I will respond. I know religion is passé. I know people have better things to do with their time. I also know that for the vast majority of humankind religion remains a vital and integral part of their lives. Exploring it seems to make sense to me. For those who’d rather listen than read, the podcasts are once more available.

Twitter Me This

Techoncrat I’m not. At least I understand that to be authentic in this world you need to be on social media. I have a Twitter account. Have had for years. I don’t follow it religiously, but then, I don’t treat any social media like holy writ. The other day I noticed a disturbing trend. Donald Trump’s tweets end up on my bird feed. No, I didn’t accidentally follow him—I have a natural aversion to fascists with delusions of divinity—but nevertheless his mug shows up so frequently that I tend not to follow the bird maybe as much as maybe I should. I wonder how someone thinks s/he has the right to buy part of my consciousness.

Tweet or honk?

Tweet or honk?

The world-wide web is without laws, like the subconscious mind. Thoughts from around the world—at least the affluent part of it—milling, swirling about in an electronic soup thickened by irony. It’s addictive. The opiate of the masses. Perhaps it is a religion after all. Tweets are micro prayers. Blogs are sermons. Facebook is coffee hour. All these connected minds have created a consciousness of their own. Like Victor Frankenstein, we too know what it feels like to be God. It’s not a particularly joyous place to be. Does God, I wonder, lack the control that we experience on the Internet?

I like Twitter. It doesn’t demand much. The only problem is that to stay on top of things you have to have it going all the time. I turn it off and when I come back on I’ve missed hundreds of tweets. And then there’s Donald Trump again. I can come up with my own nightmares, thank you. I don’t need Twitter to suggest any.

Perhaps this is the apotheosis of capitalism. The ability to buy anything, including space on somebody else’s bird feed. Buy the most powerful office in the country, if not the world. Buy hatred and distribute it freely. One thing you can’t buy is intelligence. At least, up until now, some universities still understand that. It has taken me years to gather Twitter followers, like Mrs. Partridge the family band-mates fall behind in a neat, technicolor line. I have no money. I have very little influence. I’m really not a very good capitalist at all. I give away for free what universities charge for. Just like in the classroom, few pay attention. What do I expect? Who really listens to sermons anyway?

Evolving Technology

Speaking of prediction, after yesterday’s post my wife sent me a BBC story entitled “The Machine Stops: Did EM Forster predict the internet age?”. Although the story by Chris Long is classified as Entertainment and Arts, the issues raised are very serious. Vital even. Now I have to admit that I’ve never read E. M. Forster’s work. As much as I love short stories, I tend to use my reading time on novels and non-fiction and Forester’s focus on class distinctions isn’t what I always find the most engaging. Still, as the BBC story makes clear, what makes “The Machine Stops” so important isn’t its “prediction” of the internet, but rather what that envisioned technology does to people. It changes them. One of the unrealized facets of evolution is that our fellow beasts without opposable thumbs have fallen somewhat behind in the race to invent technologies that impact the entire planet in an intrusive way. No atomic bombs have been built by whales. Of course, I’ve always suspected they’re smarter than we are.

With the internet—a kind of accidental technology—we have changed the world for most people. There are still many millions who aren’t constantly wired, but for those of us who’ve allowed ourselves to become assimilated, we can imagine life no other way. I, for one, couldn’t do my job without the web. Well, I suppose I could, but expectations would have to be much, much lower. And my check couldn’t be deposited electronically into an account that I have to take it on faith really exists. Long, in this BBC piece, notes that the poignancy of the story is that being connected by an “internet” changes the nature of human interactions. Anyone who’s shared an elevator with three other people all texting their friends simultaneously knows what I mean. I’ve gone entire days without an actual human being uttering a word to me. And this is while working in a city of 8 million people. Keep the business virtual. Are we not men? (Pardon the gender-based noun; it’s only virtual.)

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I’ve loved and lost many readers on this blog. Those who are perceptive will realize this is merely an electronic voice meant to replace a human one. A voice, if I may be so bold, crying in the webberness. Technology changes us. I bought my first computer to be a glorified typewriter. Now my life revolves around its more evolved descendants. Technology has raised to an even higher level that question that has haunted since technology was no more than a good fire to sit around at night: what is it to be human? Today that answer involves the internet. And I’m not sure if I should be worried or not, but last night I dreamed of electric sheep.

Bible Search

The Bible is, in many ways, not suited to internet study.  Let me explain: this artificial world of the internet is based on searchability.  To search for something, you need to have a distinctive word, a keyword, or catchphrase.  As perhaps the most successful book of all time, the Bible has undermined its own uniqueness.  How many books are titled The Gun Bible or the Dog Bible or substitute your favorite noun Bible?  Web searches for “the Bible” bring up a large number of relevant hits, but then quickly devolve into other Bibles.  Too many Bibles. Not only has the noun “Bible” been appropriated, so have many aspects of its story.  Particularly the Good Book’s penchant for using short, common words for titles of individual books.

Search for Mark, or John, for example.  Don’t bother adding the word “Gospel” since it too has become widely utilized to give any popular subject an air of authenticity.  Not only did the four evangelists write such books—the Gospel according to Biff, Trump, the Simpsons, or Bruce Springsteen will likely pop up ahead of the original fab four.  Or consider the books whose names became common nouns: genesis, exodus, numbers, judges, kings.  Then there are the ambiguous titles: Job, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Acts.  Sure, you can lengthen them out a bit: Acts of the Apostles, Song of Solomon, the Proverbs of Solomon, but the results you get tend to skew evangelical that way.  Job is just a non-starter. Do you mean employment or enlightenment? Do I need to get a job or to get Job? At least it’s not a popular name for kids.

The other area where the Bible’s success works against it in the computer age is its success at giving names to people.  In a culture so biblically based, the Bible has been treated as a name-list for newborns for centuries.  Even though the Anabaptist penchant for using prophetic names has faded from popular culture, there are plenty of Isaiahs, Jeremiahs, and  Ezekiels out there.  Even some minor prophets, too.  Amos, Micah, Zechariah.  (Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and Haggai haven’t particularly caught on.)  Daniel, David, Joseph, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.  We live in a world of biblical nomenclature.  There’s even more than one Jesus running around.  (Jesus, is, of course, Greek for Joshua, so there may be even more than one might suspect.)  I spend a good bit of the day searching various biblical material online.  I wonder if anyone ever imagined, over two millennia ago, that a three-letter name was bound to cause problems in a world of billions? Were it submitted for publication today, the editor would’ve sent the Bible back to the author for a rewrite, along with a list of suitable keywords.

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Hello, I’m Not In

I recently received two “out of office” replies to my own “out of office” message. Being a fan of futility in all forms, this struck me as a great paradigm for the modern age. Email has made vacation superfluous, of course. I was actually out of town moving my daughter back to college, so email was not high on my list of priorities. When I’ve tried to leave work without putting on a message explaining that I’m not there (I tend to respond to emails quickly for an editor, so I’m told) I’ve been politely informed that it is rude not to let people know you’re away. Or computers. My non-message prompted a non-messages from other vacationers’ email accounts, and when I returned, I had to read them as well as the original email that had received my impersonal reply. Both had sent their replies, despite their out of office messages. This is indeed a brave new world.

It is a world where human interaction is optional, at best. Our industry grinds away making devices and services that people will buy with electronic money sent over a network that no one really controls. And we think nothing of it. Business has blinded us to how meaningless humanity has become. Business runs for business’s sake. Even so, we’re asked to check our email when we’re on vacation, in case something important comes up. I used to think vacation was important. It is the sop we’re thrown for working jobs that lack the visceral appeal of growing our own food and relying upon ourselves. Thoreau on the web.

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Science fiction is the great predictor of where we might go. Most of it is completely fiction, or course, but some manages to catch glimpses of the truth. Skynet, or even the Matrix or Hal, have sent messages to us. Machines that think are devices we don’t understand. We haven’t even defined consciousness to a level that satisfies anyone. We know it because we feel it. Oh, I’m not really an alarmist about all that. I do wonder, however, where we are headed when technology races ahead while the humanities are disparaged. All those who emulate Spock seem to have forgotten that his appeal is that he’s half human. We build our aliens to specification. And they now pass polite greetings when they speed past each other on the cyber-highway with no laws.