Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Internet, Sans Memories

There was an old lady,
Lived under a hill,
And if she’s not dead,
She lives there still!
Junior Classics

Back in the good old days, when I was a child, my life was improved: Someone wrote a first person nonfiction article, about a man with a diver’s helmet, published in the Junior Classics Shelf of Books. The “shelf” held ten volumes; I think they were published just after the war, as one of the stories was about a B-17 limping home. (Oh, those brave men … oh, those dear boys) One day, middle-aged and passing through the rocky mountain town of Golden, I found a few of those volumes. I picked one up and glanced at that old childhood article about exploring the silent world, and I realized: “Hey, I know this name!” It was James Ramsey Ullman (1907-1971).

My grade five teacher, Mr. Thompson, read to us Ullman’s story about a young alpine guide, Banner in the Sky. Years later, it was during my Outward Bound course that I heard Ullman’s Americans on Everest read aloud in the dusk, across a campfire. It’s a small world: in another time zone, in another decade, that reader was to be my college outdoor pursuits teacher, Alan Derbyshire. Across the flames Alan read to us of the summit team being benighted, sitting through subzero temperatures, waiting for the sun. (They lived) Both of those readings have stayed with me, warming my heart, but neither has changed my life as did as Ullman’s account of exploring under the sea.

According to my childish erroneous memory… before I was born, before the invention of self contained underwater breathing apparatus, Ullman entrusted his life to the principle of the diving bell: air will compress upward, and finally become too dense to allow the water to go any higher. (I guess every boy has tried putting Kleenex in a glass upside down in the water) But instead of being within a diving bell, Ullman had just a helmet. No watertight canvass diver’s suit, just a helmet. The water came near his chin. I remember he found how fish would swim closer if, instead of standing stiff like a man, he would sway with the currents as the seaweed did. Back in those days, of course, there was no such thing as a store-bought underwater camera. How was he to retain images of that amazing world beneath the sea? Easy: He would turn his head away, and if he could not picture the scene, he would turn back his head and try again. This trick has improved my life.

To this day I have retained “memories,” what the French call “souvenirs,” of treasured moments. Another version of Ullman’s trick, for works of nonfiction, is to look away from a page and try to imagine how I would explain it…

Down the years I watched as vacuum tubes gave way to transistors, which in turn gave way to solid state. Computer programmers gave way to software developers. And now I have high speed Internet, in a new plastic world, far away from solid diving bells and steel propeller bombers, a world where supposedly we have a better chance to avoid war, if only because, with the Internet, we can acquire more wisdom from having more information. A better chance for peace, eh? I remain skeptical.

Peace? Can we hope to be wiser than our grandparents, who tried and failed? I’m tired of people surfing with their mouse, click, click, click, skipping like stones over the surface, as if the world beneath the pages is forever silent to them. Knowledge won’t become wisdom if you won’t look deeper, won’t look up from the page to reflect.

Do clickers have any memory? Any attention span? I just don't know… I think if they turn their heads away then, after a little while, they don’t even know what they just clicked on. What did you learn today? In the morning it's "click click click;" in the evening it's "I don't know." Regretfully, I fear that someday, in my golden years, the only “classic” pages on the web from back in 2011 will be from pages that have been scanned in from real paper.

One of my favorite blog-essayists is a software developer named Stevey. In one of the last pieces he ever did, in July of 2010, he mentions Reddit, a well-known geek site where pages are voted on to have rankings. Perhaps he was being ironic in Blogger Finger when he wrote:
“Another perspective I’ve gained is that I now actually agree with everyone who complained that my blog posts were too long. Reddit has ruined my attention span for online material. There seems to be no such thing as too frequent, but there’s definitely such thing as too long. So I’ll be better about that.”
… I suppose it’s a good thing, overall, that Stevey is conscious of what’s happened to him.

Less conscious are those people like me, from the post-war generation, unaware why we find it hard to read the classic novels our parents liked. According to best selling novelist Rita Mae Brown, people of the TV generation keep expecting a change every so often, just as they would expect to pause for commercial breaks.

I can relate, because when I was in college I took a “creative movement” class. Although our class offered the same credits as any other class, we needed more classroom hours per week. We were serious. However, we still lacked the time to choreograph pieces of any length. And so for several years afterwards, whenever I saw “real dances” on stage I kept expecting/wanting them to end… Admittedly, part of my problem with seeing long dances was my old inability to digest sweet beauty, a problem I would also have when reading the classics… Thank God the performing arts developed my attention span, for my problem with taking in beauty would have been unsolvable without sustained attention.

As for my everyday reading tastes, after finishing a best-selling volume of nonfiction, I like to turn my head away for six months. Then look again. Besides being re-entertained, the main benefit is to allow a few “take away” lessons to truly sink in; the lesser benefit is to have enough space for a critical, calm look at a book the public is so excited about…

For me, a way to understand Internet surfers is to picture a ship, after a three-hour tour, washed aground on an uncharted desert isle. Remember? The ship’s name, Minnow, was a satire, according to wikipedia. Minnow was the television executive who deplored how TV was a “vast wasteland.” (The fault, dear Gilligan, is not within our executives but within ourselves)

It’s nice to be able to look at wikipedia, nice to have access to the internet, but if I “channel flip” through web sites too fast, if I won’t read anything longer than a few hundred words, and, most importantly, if I won’t pause to reflect... then in the end I will be just another television zombie, sans brains; in the end, sans memories, I will have created my own Internet wasteland.

I refuse to take that easy way out. Back in my childhood I read works by people who met the challenges of mountains, deep seas and difficult books. I hope I can learn, someday, both to read, and to write, as well as they did.

Sean Crawford
Praying for peace
August, 2011


~My childish memory is weak on science, (that helmet) and Ullman may have writ the piece before or after.

~Out of principle I no longer do links but I have made one for Stevey. He has two essay sites and it would be a pity if a reader's web search found only his most recent site.

~No longer do links? In the working world, of course, I save people precious seconds, such as by leaving my telephone number in a message to a person who already has my phone number on his Rolodex. But at the same time, in the real world, I don't see people as being quite so busy.
As explained in previous essays, (Most recently in March, 2011, Done and Learned) making links for volunteers who are reading for their leisure, and not for their business, can all too easily become casting pearls before swine.  

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