Thursday, June 20, 2013

Others, Nerds and Readers

“Follow your passion,” goes the self-help wisdom in California.

Recently I’ve been feeling strangely blank from wondering: Do nerds, and others too, spend their hours on the web from having “new improved” passion, with computers being “the exciting wave of the future” or, instead, invest their hours merely in plunging down a time sink… As the band Counting Crows would sing, “…I want to know, and all I really know is I don’t want to know.”

“Know thyself,” goes the ancient wisdom; “Know others,” goes the street wisdom.

Nerds, of course, the forgotten minority, are known for “not knowing” about what “others” would think of basic fashion and social skills. Too bad, because knowing about “others” could be a check to see if you are missing out on fun or too unwisely following your passion: such as programming computers all day long, even during an all-too-brief Banff summer, down in a dingy basement. Contra-wise, (said Tweedledum) the “others” could check to see if they are missing out on knowing enough science.

I suspect many people don’t have any passions or hobbies, and I also think some people, even while they have an above average I.Q., haven’t any passion for learning. I graduated university. While only a few among the public might agree with Grandpa Rabbit, “Reading rots the brain,” more might think, “anyone at university must be a smart nerd.” Not so. Although undergraduates, by definition, have an above average I.Q., in my experience few see themselves as nerds, while some students, although smart, are downright passionless. They seem to be “going through the motions” in order to “get a good job” while having little interest in abstract knowledge—Those folks are the ones I confess I’m still trying to understand… And none of them ever seem to marvel at being able to look across a crowded hall where everybody has a university level I.Q.

I know most people, the “others,” well: They prefer noisy discos and dancing to conversation in quiet cafes; they prefer walking in lively malls and fashion districts to browsing in quiet bookstores. They prefer cities with neon lights such as Vegas, Miami and Los Angeles to modest places like Boulder or San Francisco. These regular folks are everywhere, average and normal but… they aren’t me.

It was my favorite web essayist and computer millionaire, Paul Graham, who pointed out that you won’t get any new start-up software companies, no Google or Microsoft, in any of the glamour cities because nerds don’t want to live there. Millionaires do and regular folks do, but not nerds. Graham is a delight for his reminders that there are other nerds just like me…

Of course I love the common man, of course I see nothing wrong with readers of People Magazine sharing the World Wide Web with readers of The Economist. I’m pleased that I once commented to computer expert Scott Berkun that in the wired world we haven’t yet come up with any “indicators,” any way to show instantly, on a home page, who is the intended audience. In fact, I said, it was as if the virtual world was defaulting to the dominant culture, to being for folks who watch TV and read People. In the paper world, of course, indicators abound: Ratio of pictures to print, density of paragraphs, number of pages, and more. Now I understand other people enough to know: We haven’t evolved such indicators yet—and we never will...

Nerds, being computer savvy, and being early adopters of the World Wide Web, were quick to have some nerd-centered web forums such as reddit and diggit. But here’s the thing: While reading such nerd sites, if it weren’t for some of the topics, you wouldn’t guess the users were smart: No dense paragraphs, no need for an attention span; lots of glitz and emotion, as flashy as Vegas, without sustained thought; everything presented in the now, devoid of historical context.

The Vegas “Wonderland” reminds me  of young Alice. She would be right at home on reddit. (See Neil Postman footnote) You may recall Alice wondered, “What’s the use of books without pictures and conversations?” Well, Berkun once referred to a young woman, a reddit fan, writing angrily that if you can’t make your point in x hundred words then don’t bother. She didn’t mean get to your thesis before the bottom of the first page; she meant say it all in double-quick time. I suspect she watches her TV screen more than she reads, and maybe she spends more time at her monitor than at her TV. Like Alice would, she values the web for pictures and little dialogue-sized paragraphs. Yes, she’s a computer nerd, but no, I don’t expect her to help evolve any indicators to show weighty web sites.

For years, amidst the excitement of spreading computers, I kept expecting computer users to pull up their socks. At last I came to understand, during the “blogging and linking” craze, that others would be in a hurry. Not me. Not Roger Ebert. I remember one fellow thought he would compliment blog-essay writer Roger Ebert, a highly literate man at the Chicago Sun-Times, by telling Ebert his writing was the only thing he didn’t skim. I’m sure Ebert had mixed feelings over this “compliment.” 

Needless to say, there was a lot of panicky skimming during the crazy race for “successful blog” statistics: such silly skimming I thought would be fading away by now because blogs are fading. No such luck.

What I failed to take into account was how my fellow Americans, the ones who “need” the Internet—even when on vacation in Banff—also crave their couches. In this our new century, others have noticed “the couch” might explain why there was no “citizen” oversight as people expired in Iraq and Afghanistan, bleeding to death alone, while no one in Washington was ever reprimanded or fired. The vast couch land of America enabled the men of Washington to have no sense of urgency—and no common sense. (No, I won’t footnote any history texts—I’m too disgusted) In hindsight, “Let George do it” is a perfectly predictable response for a “civilian” with a couch.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with couches in moderation. The same fellow who sits up and thoughtfully reads conceptual science fiction (sf) the “playground of the mind,” might then flip on his TV to watch sci-fi for a well-deserved chance to slouch like a potato. Especially right after work.

For me personally, the problem is at my monitor. The problem is when, like some sort of compulsive chain smoker, I go down the rabbit hole following links, emerging much later with no coherent awareness of “what just happened?” I know one thing for sure: If after spending hours sitting at my computer I stand up feeling hollow inside—which does happen—then I have just spent my man-hours in compulsively avoiding some specific task, or perhaps in avoiding my life.

I recall a motorcyclist who broke his leg leading to a stay in the hospital: He got released, went home, and found himself still watching soap operas. After saying, “Arrhg!” the ex-patient reached for sanity. Others make insane-to-me choices. I know this now. I know now that many nerds, and many others in general, “read” their computer screen while half-wishing they could just “view” it.

Successful science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once gloomily said, “Entropy always wins.” The solution for me is… I have a choice.

As for the choices of people accessing the Internet, thanks to Crawford Killian, (footnote) here is what one expert, web designer Jeffrey Zeldman, found back in the previous century:
Some are viewers, “…look for audiovisual entertainment…treat the web like radio, TV or movies, and don’t have much use for text, except as directions to the next surprise.”
Some are users, “…look for information they can apply… love hit-and-run retrieval.”
Some are readers, “…actually sit and scroll through long documents…may read for entertainment or for use, but they’re not in a hurry.”

Zeldman's findings were from at least as early as 1999. Since then, I suspect, “readers” have become even less “not in a hurry” and even fewer in number.

It’s queer: While the “regular culture,” when not forgetting about nerds, sees them as different, I think [nerds and “others”] actually have a lot in common: viewing. Perhaps the actual forgotten minority, the group being, as Neal Stephenson put it, “photoshopped out of the national scene” is not the nerds—perhaps, instead, it’s the readers: the minority who can handle complex sentences and slow sustained complex thoughts. Like Stephenson, I’m not bitter. Stephenson, being both a writer on the web for Wired Magazine, and a successful science fiction novelist, has a nice serene paragraph in Some Remarks (2012) subtitled Essays and Other Writings:
“Books though, and the thoughts that go through the heads of their readers, are too long and complex to work on the screen—be it a talk show, a PowerPoint presentation, or a web page. Bookish people sense this. They don’t object to it. They don’t favor electronic media anyway. So why should they make a fuss if those media Photoshop them out of the national scene? They know how to find each other and have the long conversations that nourish their bookish souls.” (p 270)
When I read Zeldman’s findings on the consumers of computer networks I didn’t feel any, “Yes! I was right!” Instead I felt blank, the same blankness I always feel when I’m integrating any new reality that “is what it is.” … Now what? What are the implications for the intersection of citizenship and everyday life?

Many people are remarking that our “attention span” is slipping. Very few are remarking on the more serious issue: Our “citizenship” is slipping. It’s not an easy thing to face, I know. God bless the passionate readers… At least, as a society, we are not mute peasants enduring a dictatorship. No. As the reverend Martin Luther King said, we are bound up in a network of mutuality—And we each have a choice.

Sean Crawford
Owning a TV,
Lacking a rooftop antenna,
Lacking cable and rabbit ears and netflix,
June 2013
Banff and Calgary

~The Counting Crows song, Amy Hit the Atmosphere, (waiting for mothers to come) used for the episode Toy House of Roswell, is from the album This Desert Life.

~The findings of Jeffrey Zeldman were condensed from a summary in Crawford Killian’s Writing For the Web, subtitled Writers’ Edition, Self-Counsel Press, USA and Canada, 1999, p 26

~For precisely what I commented publicly to Scott Berkun, and for what he had said, see my essay Fluffy Social Media archived November 2010.

~I recently proposed that blogs are fading in popularity in Fading Blogs and Human Nature, archived February 2013

~For a short essay, quoting Roger Ebert, on the perils of surfing, see Surfing At Work, archived January 2011.

~For a long essay with a “present at the creation of the web” perspective see Essays and Blogs, archived in June 2010

~For a long essay answering a commenter as to why university is not merely for a job see Citizens, Jobs and the Liberal Arts, archived October 2011

~For an expanded look at ‘couch versus citizenship,’ see my quotes of The Assassins’ Gate by George Packer, as part of my essay Citizenship After 9/11 archived September 2012.

~The viewpoint of Alice as regards TV, (not the web) as noted by Neil Postman, is in the footnote to my essay-and-book-review of Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood, archived as Literacy Builds People, July 2012

~I like Philip K. Dick, not only as “a writer’s writer,” impossible to imitate, but as a man. According to a movie industry trade magazine, as I dimly recall from two decades ago, (Memory or the magazine could be off) Dick had a choice of receiving 4 million or 12 million dollars for the movie rights to his novel “Bladerunner” called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? To get the 12 million, he would have to agree to have his original novel suppressed and a new one, Bladerunner, written by a certain modest writer as a movie novelization. As it happens, Dick’s novel was written in the context of the Vietnam conflict, when he feared we were losing our empathy. I like Dick for taking only the 4 million.

Unfortunately he lived much of his life in poverty, with Bladerunner being the only movie made from his work in his lifetime. Since then there’s been both mainstream and independent movies made from Dick’s work. Too bad his other works have only become marketable movies since his passing, instead of during his lifetime.
Movies, from using a search engine:
Screamers, A Scanner Darkly, The Adjustment Bureau, Minority Report, Paycheck, Total Recall, Next, Megaville, Radio Free Albemuth, Imposter.

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