Monday, August 15, 2011

An example of glib pseudo-academic pretension

This article is incorrect on many levels, but it *does* bring up some good (though old) points. The way that media influences the types of memes that are most likely to be propagated has been discussed endlessly, and the kind of oversimplified "twitter is only good for talking about your breakfast" statements by journalists was a big part of the inspiration for the SOMA project (

A breakdown of fallacies in this article:
1) Print literature is the only source of important ideas : This fallacy was discussed by McLuhan at length. While McLuhan was more or less in favor of print media, he recognized that it encouraged particular types of thinking and discouraged others, in addition to giving political power to particular types of people and taking it from others. Print media encourages linear, long-form ideas that can easily be put into words, while visual media encourages nonlinear ideas that are difficult to put into words and non-print textual media encourages ideas that can be formulated in shorter sequences of words. Long-form and easily-written ideas are not the sole source of useful knowledge.

2) We live in an age of information overload : This old chestnut has been popping up in the speech of old-guard folks since Socrates (and probably even earlier). How legitimate it is depends upon how you define information. By the rigorous mathematical formulation, information is actually decreasing because knowledge (which is to say, mental models) is increasing and becoming more accurate -- the jumping jesus phenomenon makes things more predictable. By a lazy layman's definition, the consistent upward trend in the effectiveness of communications technology that appears to have been in place since the invention of spoken language means that someone of any given generation can expect to have the ability to learn more things more quickly and with a greater variety of subject matter than someone of a previous generation. But, just like the other old chestnut (that the world is going to hell in a handbasket), this one is always said and the implied end result never actually happens.

3) People are becoming more shallow : People are always shallow. The rule of news is that it progresses towards tabloid material, and Time Magazine is no exception. This has nothing to do with the Internet, aside from the fact that print magazines lost their monopoly and thus became less profitable, leading to the need to appeal to a larger audience in order to stay afloat. While it's true that much of the communication online is shallow, sturgeon's law applies here: 90% of any print publication is also noise; for every nine people talking about their breakfast on twitter there's one making groundbreaking statements, which is about as good as any other medium ever has been (including, arguably, peer-reviewed academic papers).

I post it here because I consider it to be an excellent example of this kind of shallow anti-anti-intellectualism that does nothing but serve the ego of the author (who comes off as a bastion of hope for intellectual purity against a world conspiring to eat the brains of otherwise promising intellectuals and replace them with copies of The Daily Mail, or something). These kinds of articles are no more new than the kinds of things they criticize, and I consider it important to realize that they don't have any more content than that which they deride either. A habitual contempt does not reflect a finer sensibility; it merely reflects a habit of contempt.

1 comment:

  1. I like a lot of your posts. They echo the manner in which I think. (Assuming I even have original thoughts!)

    But yes, I agree with you. I think intellectualism motivated by ideas is the only proper way to conduct oneself in academia. i.e. people should understand the ideas simply because they want to. The word scholar used to denote a gentleman of sufficient wealth. He became learned about the world because he had a genuine interest in learning about it and he had the means to pursue it. Compare with the modern educational system: forcing students to learn things that they do not place any value on in an attempt to make society more "cultured". Instead, it has the opposite effect. Culture becomes decadent and shallow, as you pointed out.

    Most ideas that are worth noting do not exist in academia, precisely because they are foreign. Divergent thinking should be encouraged and fostered for mutual benefit. Ideas should have inherent value, not how well they fit into your schema. Fervor is not a prerequisite for truth.

    Yes, information is decreasing towards a singularity. Parsimony is always relevant in the pursuit of knowledge. More does not always equal better, or even useful. I am appalled when I enter my local library and find that the majority of books involve boards games, cooking, crocheting, biographies, etc. The science and mathematics, however, is relegated to one isolated area in the back corner. Why should this be so?