Monday, May 22, 2006

Abundance, Attentiveness, Utopia

I want to respond to Lisa's post below but also perhaps push the discussion a little, too, and so in a new post. First—yes, we who have, as adults, lived through these changes will have a different experience of the changes from those who have grown up in a research environment already changing or changed. Whether this induces personal vertigo or not varies from person to person. Regardless of our personal reactions, though, the facts that the sheer amount of information available to us has exploded and that it is accessible (in principle) almost immediately, with almost no lapse of time and no movement of our bodies in space—this does change things. We are in a new situation. And the examples Lisa gives of the ways people marked related changes in the past—of course they may seem quaint and lacking in foresight. But that is because their discourse is to some degree incommensurate with ours because our worlds are so different. Since Lisa brought up the Phaedrus, which laments the fact that writing may become not a help but a hindrance because we will no longer use our memories to think but will rely on the reminders stored up in the written text, let’s think about that. At the beginning of the dialogue, Phaedrus is in the process of memorizing the entirety of Lysias’ speech by heart, even though Phaedrus is represented in almost every respect as an intellectual delinquent. How many of our students (how many of us) have committed substantial discourses to memory? What difference does it make to have one’s memory cultivated this way? Is this a completely dead question for us? Are there occasions when we might need or want to use our memories instead of an externalized text? Would our memories organize and preserve a “text” differently from the way the text is organized and preserved by a writing technology? We will not describe or evaluate past technological revolutions the same way as the people who underwent them (of course we won’t!), but they were observing something real—and understanding why their perspectives seemed sound to them might help us understand the soundness and unsoundness of our own perspectives better.

Second, I don’t think pessimism and optimism are especially useful postures here. There is plenty to justify optimism and plenty to justify pessimism. That’s part of my point about the comedy of abundance. The abundance overwhelms us, and exposes our limitations. I don’t want to make a simple negative or positive judgment about the new abundance. I do, though, want to ask what ethical and intellectual resources we will need to get into the best relation to it. That’s the point of the focus on attentiveness as the intellectual virtue that seems to correspond most closely to what is new in this situation.

Lisa’s great presentation at the summit provides a useful example here. When is it appropriate to pay attention to those citizen reviews on and what kind of attention is that? When is it appropriate to pay some different attention to the New York Review of Books or a review essay in a professional journal? What is worth our attention and how do we give it when we come across hip-hop bloggers offering ground-level criticism of new recordings as well as perspectives on the cultural significance of different forms of hip hop, bloggers whose critical style and vocabulary and focus and sense of the aims of criticism might differ substantially from an academic treatment of the music and its relation to culture? How much and what manner of attention is appropriate for my viewing and listening to and thinking about the machinima (genre of video) about radical telepresencing that Michael Aronson sent me to suggest another approach to the issues we discussed at the Summit?

I can’t imagine being either optimistic or pessimistic about this abundance. The closest I can come is to taking the posture suggested by Kim Stanley Robinson of being a practical utopian, of trying to imagine how we might act skillfully enough in our situations to nurture a small hope that we are contributing in some way to a better situation, both in the time in which we act and for those who will follow us.


At 2:57 PM, Blogger Lisa said...

Hi Jim and others reading the New Research blog,

Thanks for your comments. It ***is*** hard to find a balanced way to respond to new technologies of communication--both when we look back at previous technologies (writing, printing, typewriter, telegraph, telephone, etc) and when we consider the world we live in. It's easy both to overemphasize and to underemphasize their lived consequences. And Jim you're right that it's also easy to take utopian and dystopian stances.

On reflection, I think that I misspoke in saying that my views were more optimistic than Jim's and John's. It's more accurate, perhaps, to say that I believe that rhetoric and the rhetorical tradition, as I have understood them for years, can help all of us find appropriate responses to the questions that Jim raises. These are certainly important questions.

I also think there's an element of serendipity at play in our current communicative moment. By this I mean that some of us will--almost by accident--feel more comfortable with some new communication technologies than others. I literally stumbled into my research interest in blogs, for instance. If you'd have asked me three years ago whether I'd be researching blogs and online citizen reviews I'd have laughed.

I am completely unfamiliar with--and intimidated by--some communication technologies that most readers of this blog take for granted. I don't own a cell phone, for instance, and the idea of taking photographs or video with a cell phone, or text messaging or emailing on one: well that just seems too, too crazy (and difficult) for me.

This reminds me of an ethical issue that our current situation raises: that of uneven access to and knowledge of diverse communication technologies. It's one thing for me to choose not to have a cell phone. It's another is we can identity a substantial group of citizens in America who still do not have access to computer and online technologies.

I guess it's no accident that when we consider New Research and online technologies questions beget further questions.


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