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A Blogger’s Case Against Blogs

December 10th, 2007 · 6 Comments

Mike Masnick at TechDirt bags on writer Doris Lessing for some recent comments about the pernicious effect of the Internet and blogging:

We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers.

What has happened to us is an amazing invention – computers and the internet and TV. It is a revolution. This is not the first revolution the human race has dealt with. The printing revolution, which did not take place in a matter of a few decades, but took much longer, transformed our minds and ways of thinking. A foolhardy lot, we accepted it all, as we always do, never asked: “What is going to happen to us now, with this invention of print?” In the same way, we never thought to ask, “How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc?”

Mike offers plenty of valid points in reply. But I do feel like there’s something to what Lessing is getting at here, and it’s closely related to why I took a hiatus from blogging back in the fall and am trying to limit somewhat the amount of blogging I do. Mike is concerned with the effects of blogs and the Net on the population as a whole, and while he’s surely right to say that the rise of a textual medium is helping to make kids more literate and comfortable with writing in one sense, the baseline here is relevant: We’re comparing e-mail and the Web to TV and the telephone, not to novels and letters.

Even if the effect on the average person is positive—someone who twenty years ago might not have done much reading or writing at all—I think Lessing is on much firmer ground speaking as a writer. This probably sounds a little odd coming from me, but a lot of the habits blogging implants really are pretty destructive. I’ve obviously decided it’s worth it to keep doing it, on net, but I try to remind myself of all the unhealthy tendencies blogging encourages. Most obviously, it is just absolute poison for a writer to get too accustomed to reading and writing in chunks that average 300-500 words. As you get hooked on the instant gratification of firing off “pieces” that each take a half hour, your inclination and facility at crafting sustained arguments really does get degraded. This is compounded by the bloggy focus on timeliness: It always feels as though the most vital thing you could possibly be writing about is whatever all the other bloggers are discussing right this second.

As you may have noticed, I nevertheless have decided it’s worthwhile on net to keep blogging. But I do so only in the hope that by reminding myself of the very real drawbacks of the form, and by taking periodic breaks, I can mitigate the form’s worst effects on my thinking and writing.

Tags: Tech and Tech Policy



6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 David Roberts // Dec 10, 2007 at 5:03 pm

    I take your point, Julian, but I think you miss some aspects as well. Instead of thinking of “the post” as the essential unit of blogdom, you should think of the blog as the unit.

    In other words, arguments are not self-contained in posts the way they are in larger expository writing. Arguments in blogs are evolutionary, iterative, and in some sense collaborative, since you get reader feedback at every step of the way. It’s true that blog writers don’t have to construct long chains of reasoning all at once — a form of mental discipline that is rapidly fading from the world — but they can and do construct robust, interesting arguments in a kind of pointillist fashion, with a supporting bit of evidence here, an alternative argumentative gambit there, etc.

    I also agree that the pressure of timeliness can be destructive to thoughtfulness, but on the flip side it can also force continual rethinking of persistent themes and arguments. It can keep writing, and the mind of the writer, fresh and agile.

    Certainly Lessing has a point, as do you. This new kind of writing is losing some of the virtues of the old kind. But it also has its own virtues, which I think will turn out to be much more rich and complex than your dismissal of “500-word posts” would have it.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Dec 10, 2007 at 5:55 pm

    Sure, and I think I’ve written and spoken in praise of all those aspects of blogging in the past. Perhaps, in pointillist fashion, I can flesh out some of the strengths and weaknesses I see in greater detail in a future post.

  • 3 stuart // Dec 11, 2007 at 8:14 am

    “We’re comparing e-mail and the Web to TV and the telephone, not to novels and letters.”

    I do take this point, but what I wonder is what the relative percentages of each population are. My guess is that few people spent much time reading dickens and crafting letters. The difference does matter.

  • 4 Stuart Buck // Dec 13, 2007 at 11:59 am

    Heresy! If an intelligent human being asks himself, “What is the most important task to which I could apply my mind at this time,” the answer should always be: Whatever other bloggers are frenetically discussing. What separates us from the apes, after all, is that we write out lengthy opinions on Scott Thomas Beauchamp, Huckabee’s latest quip, Clinton’s press release about Obama’s kindergarten paper, etc., etc. This is all going to be of long-lasting significance to the American project, if not the universe.

  • 5 MikeT // Dec 17, 2007 at 8:41 pm

    I have had a theory for a few years now that one of the great fallacies of the modern age is that the public is appreciably more educated, when you adjust for the body of knowledge that exists today, than it was say, 200 years ago. Most people cannot truly argue and debate today, but neither could they have done the same 50, 100 or 200 years ago for that matter.

    Where Lessing’s whole premise falls apart is when she suggests that the specialization of knowledge is a bad thing. Polymaths are very rare, especially today, unless you want a jack-of-all-trades. A gifted engineer is probably more educated in a number of fields than she is, most of which have a much higher barrier to entry than literature.

  • 6 Nate // Dec 18, 2007 at 5:49 am

    I see your point, but not everyone goes from watching TV to publishing novels. Perhaps blogging (both reading and writing) could act as a useful intermediary between being a couch potato and being Ayn Rand.

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