Neo-Luddite Quasi-Mandarins

by Henry on June 21, 2007

I’d started to write a short post responding to the first of Michael Gorman’s essays on the Encyclopedia Britannica blog about the Eclipse of Reason in the Age of the Internet, but given up. However enjoyable the shoddiness of Gorman’s reasoning and grotesque luxuriance of his metaphors (the new digital barbarians are associated in succession with creationists, global warming deniers, Maoists, hive mind wannabes, dirty Haight-Ashbury hippies, and some sinister Borg-like collective), it was hard to get into it with a piece of which nearly a quarter was an extended rejoinder to our old friend, Some Dude in a Comments Section Somewhere. Thankfully, Scott has taken up the grim task of responding from his berth at Inside Higher Ed. This bit towards the end seems to sum it up nicely:

The tone of Gorman’s remedial lecture implies that educators now devote the better part of their day to teaching students to shove pencils up their nose while Googling for pornography. … But the idea that new forms of media require training in new kinds of literacy hardly counts as an evasion of the obligation to cultivate critical intelligence. Today the work of acquiring knowledge on a given subject often includes the burden of evaluating digital material…. let’s not pretend that such nostalgia is anything but escapism at best. What really bothers the neo-Luddite quasi-Mandarin is not the rise of digitality, as such. The problem actually comes from “the diminished sacredness of authority,” as Edward Shils once put it, “the reduction in the awe it evokes and in the charisma attributed to it.”

I can see why the Encyclopedia Britannica has an urgent interest in pushing this line, but I don’t understand why the intellectual standards of argument among its appointed critics is so low (and they aren’t an aberration; I understand that they’ve made somewhat of an effort to publicize these pieces and get them talked about). There’s a quite reasonable and serious case to be made about the flaws of Web 2.0 type technologies (I tend meself to think that these flaws are greatly outweighed by the advantages, but I certainly recognize that they exist and can be quite important). However, I’m not aware of anyone, apart from the odd blogger in the odd blogpost who is making that case in a compelling and sophisticated way (I’d be grateful to be pointed towards any counterexamples by commenters).

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{ 33 comments }

1

Aaron Swartz 06.21.07 at 6:01 pm

Wait, you mean Some Dude in a Comments Section Somewhere isn’t a creationist global-warming-denying Maoist hive-mind-wannabe dirty Haight-Ashbury hippy in some sinister Borg-like collective?

2

Bruce Baugh 06.21.07 at 6:07 pm

Aaron: And as established in a previous thread, they all think alike.

3

jokohomo 06.21.07 at 7:02 pm

Wait, so the “sacredness” of authority has NOT been “diminished?”

4

thag 06.21.07 at 7:03 pm

“I don’t understand why the intellectual standards of argument among its appointed critics is so low”

or why they has such trouble with subject-verb agreement, neither.

5

lemuel pitkin 06.21.07 at 7:11 pm

Of course you’re right — and McLemee is doubly right, especially the last sentence of the quote — but why use annoying buzzwords like Web 2.0? What’s it convey that plain old “web” would not?

6

Seth Finkelstein 06.21.07 at 8:13 pm

It seems the only sort of critique of blog evangelism which can get much media traction is the hell-in-a-handbasket sort of pontification that’s aimed at pleasing a type of cultural conservative. Anyone else doesn’t have the media access to get heard, and will just be slammed with no recourse by A-listers. Which, recursively, proves the part of the critique about the false utopianism.

7

Seth Finkelstein 06.21.07 at 8:16 pm

Here’s a few links I have handy regarding my favorite articles on the replication of a system of a small number of gatekeepers:

Jon Garfunkel: “The New Gatekeepers”
http://civilities.net/TheNewGatekeepers

Nick Carr: “The Great Unread”
http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2006/08/the_great_unrea.php

Shelley Powers: “Guys Don’t Link”
http://burningbird.net/connecting/guys-dont-link/

8

Stuart 06.21.07 at 8:17 pm

Web 2.0 is like the old Web, but more ‘2.0’ than it used to be, obviously.

9

Some Dude 06.21.07 at 8:31 pm

I am not an animal. I am a human being. I am a man

10

John Quiggin 06.21.07 at 9:21 pm

I saw (in one of the “Siren Song” essays on the site) this ““If you can’t Google it, it doesn’t exist” is a common saying of Jimmy Wales and his ilk—” and instantly went to Google, which pointed me back to the comments thread where I found that Seth Finkelstein had pretty much nailed it. I’m not sure what that proves,

11

Seth Finkelstein 06.21.07 at 9:40 pm

I’ve got a full post on that quote:

Google: 1, Michael Gorman: 0
http://sethf.com/infothought/blog/archives/001217.html

12

Henry 06.21.07 at 9:52 pm

Seth – you beat me to it – I thought that post was a pretty accurate diagnosis. But I’m not buying the bit about the lack of media access recursively proving the point about false utopianism – this seems to me to be more a problem with the current structure of traditional media attention, and the need for Britannica to exaggerate the crapness of what is obviously a mortal threat aimed at them, than with the internal contradictions of the utopians.

One way to get around this would be to get away from the debate about the wonders or horrors of blogs, wikis etc to the more specific kinds of inquiries that you talk about somewhere in another post regarding wikipedia etc as a laboratory of group interaction. Or, to go one step in a slightly different direction, to examine why some forms of online content development work reasonably well at what they are supposed to do, despite the omnipresence of internal feuds (e.g. Kos in my eyes – while you may not _like_ it it mostly does what its consumers/producers want it to do), some well at some things, and not at others (e.g. Wikipedia), and some have become sloughs of despond inhabited solely by feral trolls and the odd unwitting wayfarer who falls into their clutches (Kuro5hin). I don’t know of anyone who is doing good work on this. Nor do I know of anyone who has really done solid work on Wikipedia’s internal discussion systems. Aaron’s pilot-examination of who _really_ does substantial updates in Wikipedia is the beginnings of a really interesting inquiry into what is exactly going on within, but again, we Need Further Research.

13

Steve LaBonne 06.21.07 at 9:59 pm

I for one welcome our new neo-luddite quasi-mandarin overlords. Or wait, maybe it’s our new digital barbarian hive mind wannabe Borg overlords. I get confused sometimes.

14

Henry 06.21.07 at 10:15 pm

Actually, I see now that the post I was thinking of as the ‘accurate diagnosis’ was “this one”:http://sethf.com/infothought/blog/archives/001216.html, which goes into a bit more detail about what’s happening.

Someone seems to have thought to themselves: “OK A-lister, you say that in order to prosper in this brave new media world, the thing to do is become a talk-radio type flamefest. There should be lots of ranting against The Enemy, and lots of stroking of the audience that they’re the bestest ever. We can do that. You didn’t invent snark, we had snottiness a long time ago. Except we won’t do it in terms of the anti-pointy-headed-intellectual shtick that you favor, but apply it to a besieged-culturalist routine that appeals to our audience.”

15

Jon H 06.21.07 at 10:43 pm

Henry,

I don’t think it’s “Britannica pushing this line” – they are also running contrary responses to Gorman from web-clueful people like Clay Shirky.

16

BillCinSD 06.21.07 at 10:45 pm

Isn’t the sacredness of authority now moving to some guy with a blog, so that some guy in comments can either worship at the new totem or flame the infidel?

17

Jon H 06.21.07 at 11:08 pm

“and the need for Britannica to exaggerate the crapness of what is obviously a mortal threat aimed at them,”

This is a bit unfair, when Gorman isn’t an employee of Britannica, but rather a librarian at UC Fresno.

What Britannica needed was to scare up some attention to the fact that they have a blog, which seems to have been accomplished by running Gorman’s essays and turning it into a debate on their blog.

By the way, I noticed that Britannica is now offering bloggers free-access links to articles, so your readers won’t run into a stub and a subscription form.

They also have a nifty free web feature for building graphical timelines. Kinda useful for history buffs.

(I’m not an employee of Britannica, but I was in 2000/2001 when they opened up all their content for free and tried to make it as a portal. I am, however, a bit of a fan, and glad to see them opening up again.)

18

sara 06.21.07 at 11:17 pm

It sounds as if the older generation of librarians, especially, feels irritated and threatened by the growth of the cult of Googling. Customers may come in with misinformation they found on the Web, or they come in with cutting-edge and arcane information, obtained by Googling, which they demand that the librarian verify. Possibly Gorman feels more annoyed and threatened by the latter case.

19

SG 06.22.07 at 1:01 am

No, sara, I think (from knowing quite a few young and disgruntled librarians) that the older librarians are pissed off at the “cult of googling” for showing that most librarians` jobs can be done by anyone who can read and type. Sure, there are specialists out there but the majority of librarians are really just doing the google thing themselves, and being paid considerably more than people who work in bookstores to essentially do the same thing.

And they don`t even have classes on how to say “shhh” in a properly prim and authoritarian way!

20

vivian 06.22.07 at 1:02 am

Re #12 Henry, how are you sure that the “sloughs of despond” troll-site isn’t also “while you may not like it it mostly does what its consumers/producers want it to do”? I know two people (at least one comments here) who liked joining in on talk.origins. When I was under twenty, I loved arguing with (real-life) trolls, rude-and-incompetent drivers and such. I bet there are people even more screwed up who think it’s witty to play king-of-the-troll-slough. Before you do research, think about how to pin down the difference (and tell us, please).

21

ejh 06.22.07 at 8:37 am

No, sara, I think (from knowing quite a few young and disgruntled librarians) that the older librarians are pissed off at the “cult of googling” for showing that most librarians` jobs can be done by anyone who can read and type. Sure, there are specialists out there but the majority of librarians are really just doing the google thing themselves, and being paid considerably more than people who work in bookstores to essentially do the same thing.

What an extraordinarily stupid and ill-informed comment this is. Knowledge and evaluation of sources? Understanding of the requirements of the user? Tailoring of search terms according to the purpose of the search? Professional experience of problems encountered in searching and the various means by which they may be overcome? Appreciation of the limits of electronic sources, both specifically and generally? All instantly knowable to anybody who can read and type, apparently. Oh, and apparently librarians just do the same stuff as people who work in bookshops. That’s because all they do is look up books, isn’t it? (I suspect somebody here doesn’t know what librarians do or realise that there may be a difference between waht a library assistannt on the checkout desk does and what professionally-qualified librarians – not just a few “specialists” – are actually able and required to do.)

What’s actually annoying (a qualified librarian writes) is that you have to deal with this sort of pig-ignorance on a regular basis: people who think that because they think they know how to use Google they can do something that they do not remotely understand in the first place.

Pope wrote that “a little learning is a dangerous thing”. He might have added that fuck-all knowledge and a contempt for learning was not only dangerous but dangerously stupid.

22

SG 06.22.07 at 9:57 am

ejh, it’s not as far as I can tell stupid and ill-informed; it’s my experience of trying to get librarians to help me with anything. I suppose it could be my fault; but I could tell you stories that would make your ears burn.

23

ejh 06.22.07 at 10:32 am

Would they concern a fully-qualified librarian (I assume you checked this) telling you where to find a book in the library?

24

frank 06.22.07 at 11:10 am

“it’s not as far as I can tell stupid and ill-informed; it’s my experience…”

Then it MUST be true, right? See, folks, this Web 2.0 thingy will work out just fine, nutting to worry about at all. Wikipedia tells me that the treatment of solipsims as “a bankrupt philosophy, or at best bizarre and unlikely” just ain’t fair…

25

Seth Finkelstein 06.22.07 at 11:11 am

Henry, I was trying to respond to “I’m not aware of anyone, apart from the odd blogger in the odd blogpost who is making that case in a compelling and sophisticated way”. I’m not sure what context you had in mind, but from my perspective. the problem is that there’s no interest group which will publicize making that case. What I was saying in my post is that there’s a base of support for this-changes-EVERYTHING, and on the other side, for hell-in-an-handbasket. But the measured critique has no constituency which will get it heard. If someone writes it, or already has written it, you’ll likely never hear about it.

By the way, no offense meant to Aaron, but he wasn’t the first or most extensive to examine who does substantial updating in Wikipedia – he independently replicated some more academic research. This was pointed out in the comments to his post. But you heard Aaron, because he has more reach in your social network. Anyway, see Seth Anthony “Contribution Patterns among Active Wikipedians: Finding and Keeping Content Creators” wikimania2006.wikimedia.org/wiki/Proceedings:SA1

And I can’t stress how very standard Wikipedia is, in terms of the commune/cult pattern (albeit with an interesting Internet twist). You could take any 1960’s era paper on the anthropology of small revolutionary communes led by a charismatic leader, and apply it to Wikipedia. But the attention is all in writing “wisdom of crowds … democracy … new new new …” (or inversely “mindless masses … communists … bad bad bad …”).

What I meant by group dynamics is that the Internet twist means much more of the interaction is documented, for anthropological analysis. So you can trace feuds, factions, alliances, etc. to a greater degree than if you had to go out and live on Jimbo’s Revolutionary Server Farm. Crucially, not *all* of it is public, since there’s still the backchannels that are inner-circle-only. But more of it is visible than trying to run around from the field to the house to the canteen to get an overall view of the interactions.

I semi-joke that somebody needs to find some middle-aged/senior-citizen former-hippie women who are now social sciences academics in order to do this right.

26

John G 06.22.07 at 12:38 pm

The google and the internet is like a free market economy and the librarian/encyclopedia model is like soviet central planning. No wonder the mandarins in control of top-down authority control don’t want to lose their place.

27

sPh 06.22.07 at 3:24 pm

.> And I can’t stress how very standard
> Wikipedia is, in terms of the
> commune/cult pattern

Whereas I am always struck by how similar the goings-on at Wikipedia are to what acquaintances who have worked in commercial information publishing tell me happens behind closed doors at those entities. Very few encyclopedia insiders have ever broken the veil, but the essays by Asimov and Feynman tend to confirm what I have heard from much smaller players.

Does Britannica have access to substantial experts who can make definitive statements on certain topics? Yes. At the same time, topics where definitive statements can be made usually have pretty good entries in Wikipedia too. I have looked up Wikipedia articles on certain lesser-known electric power generation technology and found them more thorough and better written than Britannica’s.

When you get to controversial historical and political topics, of course, Wikipedia’s entries go crazy. But is that different from Britannica? Or just carried out in the open? What would a Britannica article on the Tuskegee Experiments written for the 1970 edition had said? Nothing. Yet some of Britannica’s medical contributors _had_ to have known those experiments were going on. How would that compare to a crazy, “conspiracy theory” (parallel universe) Wikipedia entry on the same subject in 1970? Would the answer be different in 1974?

Perhaps this could be addressed by entities such as Britannica providing more of their reference and source information, and the identities of the authors of their entries. That would allow the concerned reader to dig deeper and judge the trustworthiness of the material (and the “experts”) for themselves. Then again, wouldn’t that make them more like Wikipedia?

sPh

28

flavaflav 06.22.07 at 3:32 pm

“The google and the internet is like a free market economy and the librarian/encyclopedia model is like soviet central planning. No wonder the mandarins in control of top-down authority control don’t want to lose their place.”

Yea, fight the power john g!!!

29

James Wimberley 06.22.07 at 7:29 pm

Henry: Your post, excluding the long citation, had four sentences in parentheses. It is a strength of Web culture that it encourages plain writing and frowns on internal digression. If you want to digress, put it in a link. If you are not digressing, parentheses are an affectation of indecision. (I’m a sinner too here.) Joined-up thinking = your ducks all in a row.

30

yabonn 06.22.07 at 9:07 pm

If you want to digress, put it in a link.

And what with the footnotes? Yes? No? Under conditions? And if the footnotes are linking in the page? Out of the page? If out of the page, does a permalink makes it different?

31

Jon H 06.22.07 at 9:24 pm

sph writes: “Perhaps this could be addressed by entities such as Britannica providing more of their reference and source information, and the identities of the authors of their entries. That would allow the concerned reader to dig deeper and judge the trustworthiness of the material (and the “experts”) for themselves. Then again, wouldn’t that make them more like Wikipedia?”

Britannica does do this.

32

SG 06.23.07 at 1:01 am

No ejh, they would concern fully qualified (I checked) librarians wasting hours of my time failing to do a task I subsequently had to do myself. And yes, the tasks were more complex than finding a book – right in the realm of the specialist librarian, in fact.

33

Wido Incognitus 06.25.07 at 12:56 pm

Web 2.0 is terrible. I would agree that it is probably ahistorical to describe new media as contributing to a general decline in intellectual abilities across society, but Scott’s line about “digital literacy” being an aspect of critical thinking is a dodge. Critical thinking can just as easily be used in evaluating the competing claims in more refereed media, which are generally more accurate anyway than new media trash.
It is true that protection of authority plays an important role in opposition to new media, but this is necessary! Wikivangelism encourages noise and alienation. Noise comes from people with little experience or training in an area feeling themselves entitled to argue wrong positions on subjects about which they know nothing, (of course they ignore the fact that expert sanction is that which makes mcu of the wikipedia knowledge reliable in order to convince themselves of a vast expert conspiracy that kept humanity impoversished until 2002). It is true that this would happen anyway (one of the main reasons I hate blogs is that those complainers often pretend as if this is the first time this has ever happened, as if people not in the business of media never had any media access before 2002) but it now happens on a much larger scale than would be the case in a wonderful world absent blogs and wikipedia. Alienation comes from the fact that human interaction is undermined in order to discover knowledge or buy products. People lose this natural need and hide their anger with the blogger’s stream of self-righteous faux-rationality with rapids of pique against political incorrectness. Even consumption of older impersonal media was vastly superior to the current situation. In that case the medium consumed was the clear product of a number of people working together to construct it instead of morons anonymously editing each other’s work and programmers and installation professionals who are so numerous that they could not possibly have credits.
The end of the Inside Higher Ed. piece rejects (wrongly) the idea that the challenge of new media is “new” but still acknowledges the possibility of unpleasantness. But that’s OK. You will continue to ignore any critism of this and dismiss that which does come to your attention with various unnecessary and idiotic counter-arguments (Do you deny that the digital barbarians have more in common with Maoists et al. than do the editors of Britannica?) in order to convince yourselves that you’ve never had it this good. Destroy all your internet connections!
I am entitled use the internet as the prohphet of old media.

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