Literacy… and all the World’s Information

September 13, 2008

Take that, Wikipedia

You know the indictment: that the Wikipedia has no authority, no credibility; that you can’t trust it; that just about anybody can stick in just about anything they want in there; that, for example, some joker could say that Abraham Lincoln was born in the lap of luxury in Connecticut , went to Yale, and never split a rail in his life, that the whole log cabin thing was just electoral politics—and that those of us depending on ‘the wisdom of crowds’ for our facts just accept this stuff as the gospel truth while the scholars at the Britannica go neglected, waiting for someone to pay their fee…

And I bet you’re likely to have one of two reactions to this.  

The first one is, “Ho hum. This is not a new idea. The Wikipedia has mistakes and errors. It has willful deceptions, vulgarity. Thank you so much for pointing this out.”—and you use the Wikipedia all the time.

The second is to take it seriously. You don’t use the Wikipedia. When it comes up on Google, you pass on to some other (more reliable) site. You don’t use del.icio.us or twitter, or diigo. You’re not real sure what Web 2.0 is—‘And it’s George Bush who never split a rail in his life, right?’

A Synecdoche

Of course ‘Wikipedia’ is functioning as a placeholder for a much larger literacy/ technological issue, and in choosing to talk about it in isolation, we are in danger of coming to understand what may be only an eddy on the surface of the river. Five years from now, people might be saying, ‘Remember the Wikipedia?’ and it will be no big deal… but if the entire computer/ Internet/ Web 2.0/ Google thing is also history, we shall have passed a very dire five years indeed. ‘Remember electricity?’

 

A blown husk that is finished

                 but the light sings eternal,

 a pale flair over marshes

                where the salt hay whispers to tide’s change.

This is Ezra Pound at the fragmentary, sad end of the Cantos, still incendiary and still sagacious—at least in his own mind—and in the mood for a synopsis: Think mankind/ civilization/ Europe after 40 years of war/ literature…

Now, Ezra had thought for some time that things were finished. At the end of the Great War—in Hugh Selwyn Mauberly—with a myriad gone under earth’s lid, he’d compared the whole shebang to an old bitch gone in the teeth, to a botched civilization. So many had died for so little—For two gross of broken statues,/ For a few thousand books.

The problem here is that Ezra, however committed to the civilizing process of literature and books, during World War 2, had hardly proved himself an astute political analyst. He chose to remake the botched civilization with butchery and hatred and mechanized murder—listen to the speeches he made in Italy during the war sometime—so maybe we should not be paying attention to him now. The civilization that produced Nazism and Fascism, the Holocaust and the firebombing and atomic weapons also produced Ezra Pound.  Like the Wikipedia he could be gross and vulgar; he could be dead wrong about things.   

So what is this light blowing across the night sky?

Metamorphosis  

Think about the number of people who each morning get in a car and travel at speeds of 60 or 70 miles an hour as part of a routine commute. Not so many years ago, to move at such a speed would have been a life-changing event. Sitting around the fire, you’d tell and retell the story till you were blue in the face. ‘The trees passed in a blur; I held on for dear life…’ Myth, miracle.

It is amazing. Science, medicine, and technology are redefining the way we live. Brute capitalism is allowing a third of the world’s population to live in what the ancients would have thought of as unimaginable grandeur: air-conditioning and central heating, electric lights in every room. People these days get in airplanes and fly—fly!

Science and capitalism…I guess I’d better say something about science and capitalism.

Science is clearly the best method we’ve come upon to find out how the world works, and capitalism (perhaps a little less) clearly describes the way human economy works. You like your Realism real, you should be into science and capitalism, no question about it. But science and capitalism are also being pressed into service as philosophies and poetries, and as religions. One example: When Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene claims he’s got the meaning of life all sewed up, that our purpose in life is to be a survival machine for near immortal genes, he tells the story with a straight face, like he means it. If you want to see the humor in this idea, read John Barth’s story, Night Sea Journey. Yes, it’s good to be busy doing something important.

Being literate and civilized should stop you from making a fool of yourself. I’d like to think this is true, but of course history has ruled otherwise. Consider Deadalus, not a great poet or philosopher, but a great craftsman, builder of a labyrinth to imprison the Minotaur. Ovid tells the story:

Meanwhile Deadalus, hating Crete, and his long exile, and filled with a desire to stand on his native soil, was imprisoned by the waves. ‘He may thwart our escape by land or sea’ he said ‘but the sky is surely open to us: we will go that way: Minos rules everything, but he does not rule the heavens.’

So saying he applied his thought to new invention and altered the natural order of things. He laid down lines of feathers, beginning with the smallest, following the shorter with longer ones, so that you might think they had grown like that, on a slant. In that way, long ago, the rustic pan-pipes were graduated, with lengthening reeds. Then he fastened them together with thread at the middle, and bees’-wax at the base, and, when he had arranged them, he flexed each one into a gentle curve, so that they imitated real bird’s wings. (Translated A. S. Kline)

Those wings…altered the natural order of things.

I probably should tell you what I think. Information, the Internet, science and technology, all the things we can be literate about, philosophy, poetry, religion, are all tending towards re-definition. Those wings: Are we talking about a blown husk that is finished? Or are the river and the lights flowing strongly through the marshes? Being literate and civilized is being aware and articulate; it’s being fluid and flexible. It’s about avoiding the confusions and clichés of the intellect. It’s about knowing things, and knowing you don’t know things. It’s about being dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants, and partaking of the wisdom of crowds. But mostly it’s about being imprisoned by the waves.

Exhibit A: Ezra Pound made a terrible blunder with his life and he wrote great, perplexing poetry. It’s hard to read; you’d have to be a polyglot genius to actually pronounce the Cantos, even saying it in your head is impossible. But listen: Where the salt hay whispers to tides change—weight that with your tongue, say that in your mind. As good as it gets. A pale flare over marshes, where the salt hay whispers to tides change. Deadalus created wings that altered the natural order of things, and Icarus flew too close to the sun. The Wikipedia, the Internet, that awesome database Google is building…

…all the world’s information…

Welcome to ExtraSimile. Surely the sky is open to us.      

 

 

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3 Responses to “Literacy… and all the World’s Information”

  1. extrasimile Says:

    And, yes, surely the sky is open to us.

  2. extrasimile Says:

    Why, thank you John. It was rather fun to reread this after almost 4 years. I don’t in general go back to the stuff I’ve written, and I guess my general take on the world is set, and has been set for some time now—though I still like the idea of ‘beginners mind’ that Shunryu Suzuki spells out in his classic ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’. ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.’

  3. John Stevens Says:

    Something you wrote somewhere recently, Jim, has led me right back to the start of your blog. I’ve not been here before. It ought to feel an unfamiliar place, but it doesn’t – there’s a sense of recognition (a touch of the Proust coming over me … watch out!).
    You’ve expressed the wonder – the amazement – we ought to feel at the internet/Wikipedia/weblogs and all that. There’s distrust and suspicion too as you rightly observe, but the wonder is so appropriate. For a trivial, ready-to-hand example, without all this IT you and I wouldn’t have made contact and I would not have had the benefit of your critical thought.
    Deadalus and Icarus: they are two sides of the same story, aren’t they? But it seems to me that we are more ready to commemorate the one who fell to earth rather than the adventurer who succeeded. It’s sensible to keep a balance, to remember them both.
    And, since you mention him, Ezra Pound is an equally instructive case: marvellous poetry as readable (or otherwise) today as when it was fresh, and a mentor to other great poets, but with reprehensible and dangerous political views.
    Well, these remarks are pretty pedestrian I’m afraid – but I wanted to leave some bits of graffiti here at the site where you started out.


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