At the risk of sounding either shopworn (which I hope I’m not) or like a Luddite (my identification with said philosophy depending on the day of the week), the thing I’m most looking forward to in “retirement,” besides being able to focus full-time on farming and my craft, is being able to go as long as I want without having to stare at this computer screen.
Don’t get me wrong. This computer is a marvelous thing. Besides serving as a super-charged typewriter, it gathers all sorts of information, almost effortlessly, in far less time than that outmoded method of reading books and poring through abstracts or indexes in a library.
“Knowledge is of two kinds,” noted Samuel Johnson in 1775. “We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.” Johnson would surely raise an eyebrow over how his observation has been amplified. Indeed, that second type of knowledge is now so negotiable as to render the first almost unnecessary.
Just kidding. I think so, anyway.
But what is it about this medium, which offers so much in the way of information and communication, that irks and oppresses in various ways. Is it that it delivers its information so unfiltered, with such little discretion that it becomes in the end more diversion and distraction than useful tool? Is it that the information it delivers is so dominantly trivial, juvenile, and silly? Is it, as some worry, that it is destroying my concentration, my ability to read a book?
And I have, indeed, noticed a strange disruption of my attention span, an exaggerated compulsion toward diversion and tangent, a tendency to glean my information in bits and chunks. And it’s hard to argue with the fact that I can learn all I need to know about Eisenhower’s role in D-Day quickly, in easily digestible summary, from this computer. Why would I need to read Michael Korda’s Ike to attain that isolated information?
Well, besides what I think are obvious reasons, such a question strikes me as parallel to the challenge of those clean-fingernailed folks who ridicule the habit of gardening because it can’t possibly be economical. (And even though it was also Dr. Johnson who said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” the pleasure here is indeed in the writing.)
The medium, as Marshall McLuhan argued long before the Internet entered the public imagination, is never neutral. It is, in fact, the message. Of course, Socrates understood the same thing centuries earlier when he worried that writing would damage one’s native memory.
One wonders what form the Big Ideas explored in this issue might have taken had their originators spent their days in front of a computer screen? I doubt that entomologist A.L. Melander would have spent much time at all watching videos on YouTube had it been available in 1915. But then again, the seduction of the Internet’s databases might well have drawn his attention away from the careful observation that led him to first realize that certain populations of insects were not dying from pesticides as they should have been.
Or what if Enoch Bryan had spent his days deleting his email and writing his education blog rather than tending to his growing young college? The role of the liberal arts in an agricultural and scientific education may have lost its import in the face of the Internet’s presumed universal knowledge.
But then again, with such readily available information to aid their thinking, their ideas might well have been even Bigger.