Sunday, March 24, 2013

Our New Republic


I often hear or read opinions about how bad the Internet and the digital age is in terms of people’s ability to think. I must disagree. I considered not putting up this post, as I think that I am stating the obvious. However, the ubiquity of contrary opinions that I hear on an almost daily basis has convinced me lay out my opinions.

For those of us who are curious about the world, it is simply the best time to be alive so far. Of course there are negative aspects to the information age. There are negative aspects to almost everything; but for those who utilize these modern tools to propagate and explore real knowledge, ideas and opinions, the digital highway is a wondrous medium that no previous generation has had the good fortune to have at its disposal.

No one needs to be reminded about the ocean of information and resources available. Just as importantly, there is such a free and efficient exchange of information, viewpoints and ideas. Book Blogging is but one example! 

In The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined Steven Pinker draws a parallel between what he calls our “Electronic Republic” and the old Republic of Letters. Centuries ago, intellectuals and writers kept their ideas percolating by a system that was known as “The Republic of Letters”.  During the 17th and 18th century, these notable thinkers engaged in a written exchange of ideas and commentary.  Today, people throughout the world have availed themselves the use of this new medium. The modern community is so much vaster. Furthermore it is not solely for the elites anymore. Millions of people throughout the globe are participating. Of course, our system is also much more efficient in terms of speed and is enhanced by verbal and visual communication. Though Pinker’s analogy between the centuries old medium and our modern interactions is limited and not entirely congruous, in many ways our current endeavors are an heir to the old literary republic.

All of my life I longed for more fulfilling communication with interesting, dynamic and innovative thinkers. Long before the Internet came along, I established friendships with such folks, read books and articles written by other such people and even watched television that helped me to understand the world better. Now, however, at any time of day or night I can read, communicate and exchange ideas on my blog, as well as on the sites of fellow bloggers. I can download millions of books and access essays on technological and scientific subjects, history and literary criticism. I can read and comment upon magazine articles, watch videos of authors discussing their books, the list goes on and on!

Many will lament the profusion of fluff, junk information, hate speech, etc. found on the Web. Many humans will also inevitably spend enormous amounts of time on silly online pursuits (indeed, I do so a little myself!).  I think that we must ask, however, twenty, or fifty, or one hundred years ago, were there that many more people engaged in intellectually stimulating pursuits? I hazard to guess that the information age has stimulated more then stymied the growth of curious minds. A dreamer, out of the box thinker, or even just a bright individual, who in years past might have been stuck in an intellectual backwater, now has access to vast communication channels with paths that reach to the far edges of both the geographic and intellectual world.

Nevertheless, a lot of unproductive time is spent with electronic devices. Some folks have had their lives consumed by them. However, when it comes down to it, I could care less what most people do with their time or their thoughts. I am just very happy and grateful that myself and likeminded folks have such a wondrous and useful door to the universe at our fingertips!


35 comments:

Guy Savage said...

I feel very lucky to be alive at this time. You're right. There is an unprecedented amount of information available. It's simply incredible, and of course, up to us to sift through it.

On another note, I've known several people who've got into trouble via the internet--I'm talking forging relationships. I knew one man whose wife told me she'd caught him writing love poetry to a woman he'd met in a chat room.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - As I alluded to but did not emphasize there really is a down side to all this. Forging inappropriate relationships is just one of many examples.

Rachel Bradford said...

I couldn't agree with you more. :) I am addicted to the IDEAS that I can find on the internet. Yes, some of those ideas are fluff, rude, etc. But that's just because there are more ideas out there - more ideas means more interesting stuff as well as more fluff. Just stop whining and check out the interesting stuff!

As a biomedical scientist in today's world I can't even fathom what research was like for the previous generation. People who had to physically walk over to a library and sift through journals looking for something interesting? I, on the other hand, can find information that is more relevant, I can find more if it, and I can find it in only a few minutes of looking. WITHOUT getting off my fat behind. (I'm not actually fat - it's a figure of speech...)

On the other hand, I DO think people should get their noses out of their electronics a little more often. I hate it when I go out with a friend (or worse, a date!) only to have that person spend the entire time on twitter.

vb said...

this is a timely post when there are tonnes of arguments going around on the same topic and I guess we are all on the same boat in dis..Though I can stay away from internet and its goodies still if given a choice I would only choose a life with this technology as I wish...Intenet and its accesories I feel is like a sharp knife either u use to cut an apple or slit open a life is ur personal choice...
being a life science research i can only say how blessed im with al da net access..

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - Indeed the connivence of and ease of obtaining quality and detailed information is spoiling us!

I do agree with you about the rudeness and obsessiveness people exhibit especially when it comes to mobile devices. Be it the use of twitter, texting, etc. I cannot imagine someone using one for any length of time of a date.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi VB - the double edged sword analogy is definitely a good one. There are many people who have indeed allowed the new digital age to mar their lives. As you say, this is really an issue of choice.

Lucy said...

This was a really interesting post - thanks!

I certainly agree about the Internet's capacity for wasting time! However, upon considering the wealth of information available to so many people, I think it's worth it. Wikipedia, TED talks, and blogs are among so many things that make learning more accessible. I think you can either waste your time away on the Internet, or engage with educational and useful materials. I tend to do both!

Best wishes.

Heidi’sbooks said...

I agree! Who really wants to go back to the card catalog system? I'm so thankful for search engines on the internet. And I love that so many books are available in electronic format for free, readily available for download at any time. I don't even have to leave my living room to download them.

Also, it is so difficult to find people who want to talk about history or other intellectual pursuits in our own little worlds. It's nice to find others via the Internet to discuss and sharpen our learning.

Book Dilettante said...

No question, Brian, of the benefits of the electronic age. We can use it to our advantage or fritter our time away... our choice, but what choices we have that we never had before!

Sharon Henning said...

I agree with you. There can be negatives to the electronic age but that's a matter of choice as to how we use the electronics.
I like our modern age of communication for the same reason you do. It allows me to interact with other people of similar interests.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi lucy - I fo a little bit of time wasting but I am so busy with work and home life that I have needed to cut out most of the waste time.I am not familiar with TED talk, I will need to check it out.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi - Ah the card catalogue system! I have not even thought about that in years as even when I go to the library there is now computer lookup.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - I also wonder about folks who do fritter away lots of time online. I question how productively they would be using their time in an earlier age. Yet it is true that video games do consume a lot of some peoples time.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I would just add that not only have I found people whose interests are similar to mine, but I have found really intelligent folks with very different mindsets and interests who are well worth communicating with.

Naida said...

Well said Brian. The wealth of knowledge we have at our fingertips is truly incredible. When I try to explain to my children that I used dictionaries and encyclopedias when I was doing research in school, they look at me like I lived with the dinosaurs. They don't understand not having so much information available at the click of a button. They can't wrap their minds around it. We truly are living in an incredible digital era, and it's only getting more and more advanced.
I'm guilty of playing Words With Friends and being on Facebook regularly. But hey, it's all part of this amazing electronic age we live in.
I also tried explaining cassette tapes and cassette players to my kids. Forget it. I lost them at 'cassette'. lol

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Nadia - You made me laugh about the cassettes. The funny think is that vinyl records are all the rage these days!

As I alluded to a spend a little time doing frivolous things online. It is no crime!

Jennifer @ The Relentless Reader said...

"For those of us who are curious about the world, it is simply the best time to be alive so far." Yes Brian, yes! I couldn't agree more! The information at our fingertips is astounding!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi jennifer - Yes it is a bonanza for the curious. One point that I did not mention however is that if one is interested in too many things it is easy to lose focus.

Carroline said...

I couldn't agree more, Brian. I think the Internet and the way we can access information is amazing.
People will always be people and those who are dysfunctional or have a tendency for addiction will maybe find the internet dangerous. It's likely thy would find many other things too tempting as well.
Sure there is too much information and we have to have an eye on our behaviour, make sure we don't all develop ADD. And of course there is always the danger of being in a relationship and having a cyber crush... But extra-marital crsuhes and affairs can happen anywhere else.
I'm not enthusiastic about technology in genreal but the way we can communicate and share ideas is a great thing for me.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - The attention span thing is a real concern. But I think that also gets to the issue of how one uses the tools. If, like many people one just constantly browses and reads short snippets and skims then I think that it affects attention spans. If one actually reads and absorbs it will be different.

Parrish Lantern said...

I think it's like most things if you put fluff, cr*p etc in it's what you can expect to get out, the level you connect with something will be the level it connects with you.

JaneGS said...

Totally agree--there was a time when I thought no one liked the books I liked, and then the internet happened, and I discovered a world of kindred spirits. I have discovered so many great books via my blogging friends, and I've had great conversations about books, authors, and ideas.

I'm with you--how others spend their lives is their business, but I'm glad I live in an age when technology has made so much possible.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Parish - Agreed and it is so true. Think about books and films and the choices that one can make in those areas. As you say, what you put in is what you get out!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi jane - You raise a great point about discovering others who like what one thinks is the unlikeable. It is true not just about books, it is true about films, music, etc.

Suko said...

Excellent, thoughtful post, Brian! I was just thinking today about how texting has changed the way we communicate--and I was barely scratching the surface in that regard. Anyway, when it comes to technology and the "information age", I also think that the good (greatly) outweighs the bad. We do have the universe at our fingertips, which is remarkable and transformative in countless ways.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi suko - Thanks for the good word. One thing about the good verses the bad of all this, unlike the bad of many other things, for the most part, one can avoid the bad of the digital world based upon ones choices I do understand that this is a generalization and there are exceptions, in particular if a family member made bad choices one might suffer a great deal.

stujallen said...

wonderful post Brian I find the net is full of botht the worst and the best of the world ,all the best stu

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the good word Stu! It really is the best best of times and the worst of times!

Violet said...

Sometimes I feel completely overwhelmed by the internet and think about giving it up and retreating to my previous quiet life. For me, the internet is like being in the middle of a big noisy party, which feels very uncomfortable and somewhat alienating. I think this is why I'm so bad at leaving comments. I read people's posts, but then I need time to think about what I've read and formulate a response, but there are only so many hours in a day!

This is a great post though and I'm sure most people feel the way you do. I'm often reminded when I'm on the internet that I think differently from most other people, and that's not exactly a comfortable place to be.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - Interesting points. There are negative angles to all this, even if one stays away from all the junk. T

The thing about the big noisy party, to some extent that may be true, but I also think that there are paths that lead away from the house where the party is going on that are quite and isolated and where, if one choose, one could spend all or most of one's time.

The hyperactive nature of it sometimes is a problem. I also sometimes read things , think about them and then go back to leave comments. Your remarks are making me think about that and I am thinking that I should do more of that type of commenting.

Take care!

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

BRAVO!! What an EXCELLENT post!! You expressed your ideas so forcefully, and eloquently!! It was about time somebody wrote something like this on a book blog! I'm sick and tired of people -- in the 'real' world -- decrying the supposed 'dumbing down' effects of the information age. True, teens tend to text a lot, and thus, are not writing correctly, but I think that, if they made an effort to limit their abbreviations to their texting, their writing wouldn't be hampered when doing schoolwork, for instance. Parents and teachers should be aware of this problem, and help teens with it. Other than this, though, I think 'the information age', as they call it, has opened VAST horizons for inquisitive minds. So I think it's totally ridiculous to criticize it!

One thing I don't agree about, however, is e-books. I will NEVER buy myself either a Kindle or a Nook. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE printed books, and refuse to give them up!! For me, there's nothing like holding a REAL book in my hands, and turning pages. So that's one aspect of the information age I will never, EVER like. I do realize that e-books and e-readers are more convenient (sometimes, anyway, if the battery's working), and save space and trees, but still. I can see them being used in schools, for instance, so kids don't have to carry heavy textbooks home in their backpacks. However, the love of REAL, PHYSICAL books should continue to be instilled in children, teens, and young adults. I LOVE PRINTED BOOKS!!!!!

Besides, the use of e-books raises another concern: piracy, It's very, very easy to copy an e-book and pass it around! That's obvious. Thus, authors get shortchanged. I really wish they would sort of quietly disappear...except perhaps in schools, with tight Internet security,

Anyway, I'm off my soapbox, now...lol.

Thanks for such an interesting, thought-provoking article!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Maria - As we have been discussing there are negatives to all this. I do think that SOME young people have impaired writing ability as well as attention spans.

I really have mixed feelings about e - books. I share many of your sentiments but, some say that the aesthetic quality of reading a book went out the window when paper backs were introduced.I do not agree with that comply but there is some truth to it. I do love the search and organizing functions of e books to. On the other hand the decline of the independent bookstore is a terrible thing.

Piracy is indeed a problem. Perhaps the market will work something out. I really do not know enough about the business to say much.

Thanks for the great comment!

Maria Behar said...

You're very welcome, Brian!! I will always, always prefer REAL books!! You might have noticed that I have a picture of "a magic book" in my sidebar, accompanied by the message: "This is an ebook-free blog!!" As you can see, I'm VERY passionate about this!! :)

Tom Cunliffe said...

I just wish I'd have the Internet available to me when I was young - life would have been so much easier for me. Thanks for a fascinating set of viewpoints

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - I do think of all the mysteries that would have been solved had I had the net available in my younger days too!