Turbulance

September 19, 2008

Robert Darnton

Do me a favor and read my summary of Robert Darnton’s opening paragraphs in The New York Review of Books on The Library in the New Age, and then follow the link below to read Mr. Darnton’s essay. We’re going to learn about the instability of information. You know: compare and contrast.

Here goes: Some 6000 years ago people began to write; it was a big step and it created and defined the civilized world until the third century when the book—as opposed to the scroll—was invented. The advance the book made tends to be under-appreciated. It lead to the emergence of the page as the unit of perception: paragraphs and chapters, and tables-of-contents followed. Think about how important an index is. When people say they don’t read on the Internet, it is the book they hold up. Guttenberg’s development of the printing press and movable type circa 1450 is the third and obvious advance—and no one doubts its importance. The world’s written information became available to the mass of mankind. The forth development ‘took place yesterday’: electronic communication. Electronic communication is the printing press on steroids—and while we know these steroids will produce great muscles, we are less sure about the long term effects.

Darnton highlights some things we already know: Information is an artifact; it’s constructed. It is subject to conventions, prejudices and politics, and it is often mistaken.  Speed has become the only game in town. Large scale changes are coming down the pipeline faster than you can say ‘googolplex’. Libraries are in the process of becoming places where students can comfortably set up their laptops, that’s all.

Thus, the voice of history is loud and clear: speed and change are its shouting points: The times they are a changing. Reap the whirlwind.  

Ah-ha!

Sure, Darnton says, you can look at history this way, you can see it as an index of an ever accelerating rate of change in information technology—from writing to the codex, 4,300 years; from the codex to movable type, 1,150 years; from movable type to the Internet, 524 years; from the Internet to search engines, nineteen years; from search engines to Google’s algorithmic relevance ranking, seven years—but this is not the only way to tell the story. You can also take a historical perspective that emphasizes the continuities with the past. We pride ourselves on living in an age of information and we worry that the Internet with its speed of communication and ease of access is going to introduce major errors into system, but every age can be characterized as an age of information—and information has always been unstable and liable to error. In fact, Mr. Darnton concludes, what unifies the past with the present is this lack of stability.  You think ‘the mistake’ was invented by the Wikipedia? The key to understanding information is to understand that information is unstable and has always been so.

Okay, that’s enough, go ahead and read Darnton, but make sure you come back. I’ll keep busy.

Objectivity

While we’re waiting, I’m going to take my car in for its annual inspection. They check the breaks and the engine and the tires and all that stuff to make sure the car is safe to drive. It’s a good idea, but sometimes you find yourself looking at some mega expenses.

Now, you know the reputation auto mechanics have, but I’ve been going to this guy for years and I trust him to give me a reasonable and objective assessment of my car. He’s not going to tell me I need a new transmission or anything, unless, you know…God forbid, I actually do need one.

It’s going to take about forty minutes. In the waiting room, they have the Fox News channel going, so I settle in to catch up on the news. Fox News is, as you know, the one that’s ‘fair and balanced’—so, it sounds like they ought to be objective about things, right?

Have you seen the photos of John McCain that Jill Greenberg took? One of them is on the cover of The Atlantic. That was the big story of the morning on Fox News. They thought her pictures made him look like a vampire; they thought it was the old liberal media slanting the news—again.  I’m surprised. Photography (sans Photoshop) seems like it ought to be a vehicle for objectivity. You just point and click, right? It reflects what’s out there. Still…the people at Fox don’t think so. There are all sorts of tricks you can do with the lighting.

And when we come back from the commercial they promise a story that explains why John McCain doesn’t use email. Seems it’s got some to do with war wounds he received at the Hanoi Hilton. That’s right, the Hanoi Hilton…

So, a whole pile of issues to think about while I wait: the auto mechanic looking at my car, Fox News looking at pictures of John McCain, the liberal media picturing John McCain, the Obama campaign’s traducement of John McCain’s email prowess—and of course, here I am in the middle of things looking at the car inspection, looking at Fox News and the photos, looking at the ideological slant of both the Barack Obama campaign and Fox News. What’s my role in this? How do I sort out this information stew?

Actually, it’s easy. Just answer this question: Why is it that, among all these issues, there’s only one situation, only one person, we’re seriously thinking might be objective?

Putting it in your own Words: the summary, a précis, my synopsis, an abstract, the recapitulation

 Ladies and gentlemen, we have our first unstable candidate, the simple summary. There’s no question about it, I changed what Robert Darnton said. I took a different narrative tone, I eliminated examples, I emphasized different points, I just used different words than he did. If posterity has only my version, posterity will be the poorer for it. Is this an example of unstableness, the move from an original text to, say, a student’s high school assignment? Is this what Darnton has in mind?

“Summarize three essays on the new media and make concrete recommendations for the development of our class wiki in a paper at least five pages long. Cite specific examples.”

Well, Darnton might find the whole exercise finicky, but I think he’d be sympathetic. His point, of course, is that it is not a new situation to have textual material in flux, but he might balk at seeing this lack of stability flow through every high school student’s back pack. He was citing Shakespeare and Diderot, referring to Folios and Encyclopedias.

Still, so long as we’re in the class room, let’s talk about the idea of ‘putting it in your own words.’ A lot of students don’t get it. For the teacher, putting an essay ‘in your own words’ is a benchmark, and is contrasted to the act of plagiarism and with an injudicious use of copy-and-paste. For the student, lifting it out of the Wikipedia is no big deal. As long as it’s pretty much what they wanted to say, why not use it?

The ability to summarize, to translate information and incorporate it into your own mental frame work is one of the goals of a good student. It’s one way we understand things. It’s one way we evaluate students. Don’t be a copy cat. Think for yourself. It also introduces turbulence into the system.

I would I be remise if I didn’t mention Pierre Menard, the chap Jorge Luis Borges writes about who aspired to write Don Quixote. Talk about dreaming the impossible dream. Pierre wasn’t going to do the story as a play or an opera, or even as free verse poetry, and he wasn’t planning a summary, he planned to write Don Quixote out word for word, page by page, chapter by chapter, just as Cervantes wrote it. This strikes us as stupid. He’s copying the Quixote, word for word? For the Redheaded League, right? But that’s not the deal; he’s not copying. Think of it this way: Pierre Menard wanted to get himself to the same place spiritually and artistically that Cervantes was when he wrote the book, to actually become the same implied author as Cervantes became when he wrote Don Quixote. He actually wanted to write the book again and afresh, but in the 20th century. Our quote of the day comes from Senior Borges:  

It is a revelation to compare Menard’s Don Quixote with Cervantes’. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):

. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.

Written in the seventeenth century, written by the “lay genius” Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:

. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.

History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened. The final phrases—exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor —are brazenly pragmatic.

Oh my. Even with the best intentions in the world, it seems impossible not to mess with the Platonic Forms. Even the word ‘unstable’ seems not stable; does it change to ‘instability’ when it becomes a noun or ‘unstableness’? Instability is a different word, sure, but when you cast both in the positive, ‘stable’, seems to cover both words with equal thoroughness.  

I wonder, though, if we may be painting with too broad a brush. Can we discriminate between a poorly thought through but disingenuous synopsis, and a thoroughly malign but rigorous slander? If a student tells you that the best way to answer a question about Immanuel Kant is precisely the way it is worded in the Critique of Pure Reason, will you explain the importance of adding a little error to the text, just so you know that she really understands the concepts? And where does objectivity enter into this? Surely there is difference if my intentions are to objectivity rather than to some political agenda? Or is objectivity the pawn of larger social realities, being tossed about in the roiling waves of some even larger reality?

Well, Fox News is on in the other room, and I never did hear that story about the Hanoi Hilton…but for  right now… I’m sticking with my auto guy.    

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