Hypothesis: Internet media and programs have outstripped the development of content. That is, technical development is very clever and complex but has not found or encouraged quality writing.
Corollary: Frivolous content or specialty content is internet kudzu. For instance, romance stories for young women. Then there are the lol cats. . .
Corollary: Rather that enabling serious content, another layer of format complexity burdens the accomplished writer and interferes with feedback.
Corollary: Persons with poor eyesight and difficulty in keeping focus or managing complexity are penalized both as writers and readers.
Long ago and a long day’s drive away, when I was a child, there were always little girls who could not bear to lose at hopscotch and so they would invent new rules no one ever heard of before, so that their marker would be honored. They were obsessed with hopscotch competition. A lot of people are like that. I think of it today because someone asked me a question about Scriver bronzes and it came in on my gmail account, so I tried to answer it there in the "improved" format. It took me fifteen minutes to make the response travel and I’m not sure it went to the person who needed it. Google keeps forcing me into new formats, brilliant ideas for making everyone into a kind of flashmob where they will pretend to be best buddies.
The big “social media” have taken Sunstein’s “nudge” and made it into a shove onto Procrustes’ bed. Because they are controlled by techies who grew up on internet games, that’s what they value and what they assume everyone else values and knows. Content is just an excuse to “play” communication.
The next layer of what I consider distortion is business. Bookkeeping, inventory controls, profit levels, sales, details of transactions, dominate development. In fact, many of them cannot read and analyze literature.
This is not so different from the post-modern philosophers who can find syntax and rhetoric strategies, but know nothing about empathy or the ecology that writers often grow from.
I’m a writer, a creator of content. I sit here writing all the time and I am limited by the clumsiness and over-design of some providers. My eyes are old so I can’t see little dots and pale blue print. Almost always a “redesign” lately has meant faint thin letters that are hard to see and a lot of hidden features that one has to feel around to make apparent when the mouse crosses them or some other secret trigger fires. Or maybe suddenly one’s sentences are being numbered and forced into a list format. I like to play with spelling and punctuation, but the computer doesn't like that.
I’d probably be better off with a computer that has no internet connection and, indeed, I did set one up as soon as I realized that computer corporations were opening my main computer in the night to tinker around “improving” function and, indeed, so were others who weren’t invited. Now I shut this machine off at the electrical outlet, but it still saves up keystrokes and other info, then forwards it when I got back online. There’s nothing privileged or secret, but I’m careful to do backups on paper because even on discs or thumbs, the reading mechanisms keep getting outdated and the programs keep requiring “improvements” that are not. Not only that, but they are colluding, so that unless one has the latest app, Netflix, for instance, won’t work. The NYTimes and the Economist think that if they impose a pay wall, I’ll be curious and pay. But I just stop monitoring them. There are so many ads and interruptions that I'm going back to books.
Maybe the answer will be separate internet webs that are specifically for people who write paragraphs instead of keeping business books. In my early years we fussed a lot about the separation between science and humanities, how they couldn’t understand each other and created cultures that were almost like two separate countries with different goals, constantly interfering without communicating. Now it’s formats versus content.
Margaret Mead used to worry about the difference between people who grew up before the Atomic Bomb and those who have been born since that marker. The idea is that their two understandings of human life have separated. I think she was more than right. One section worries over the death of a zygote that is barely formed, and another section wipes out entire families by burning them to death with a predator drone that requires only money, not any mortal combatant risk from our side. Why are we surprised when zealots and madmen get confused and machine gun whole congregations of ourselves?
There seems to be something binary in every society. I’ve been thinking about “Quark”, the barkeep in Star Trek. Transparently he was meant to be a version of the Chinese or Jewish entrepreneurs who have always followed traffic in the interest of profit, particularly where they are stigmatized. Mr. Spock is the stone-cold intellectual like those forced over to Manhattan during WWII, and Worf is the lover of force, the ghetto man who succeeds in the military or sports. Kirk is the American perpetual child. The longer these characters were filtered through scripts, the less they were racial stereotypes, but eventually they were nailed as a version of Commedia dell’ Arte, generating scripts even as the scripts required them to deliver plot points. (CSI is another example. They start as stereotypes, evolve into persons.)
On Star Trek a Native American, Chakotay, was proposed as a character. The actor, Robert Beltran, was Mexican and the consultant was Jamake Highwater, an Armenian who claimed to be NA. The scripts named him as Sioux, a warrior hunting tribe, but then changed to Hopi, a peaceful tribe. A captive of the Borg, he nearly killed “Seven of Nine” but then fell in love with her. Confusion was the most authentic part of Chakotay. But the writers knew so little about Indians that they couldn’t develop the stereotype. Maybe the same is true of techies.
Some have said that our only hope to find the common denominator of all peoples that will support a peaceful world is through money. Quark’s solution. Certainly that seems to apply around here where farmers are constantly doing math in their heads and every sort of value seems to refer back to an amount, a profit margin. Sports scores. Even the elementary kids have a much better affinity for arithmetic than I do. They tell me that pages of numbers come alive, but that prose on the page -- much less poetry unless it’s song lyrics -- just doesn’t translate into anything they recognize.
The dark side of that is that the numbers on the page become more valuable than the actual people. It’s well-known that building something as big as a dam, a bridge, or a skyscraper will cost a predictable number of lives lost. The insurance for the project will reflect that. I don’t know whether anyone has ever figured out the cost of amputations, carcinogen exposure, dust damage to lungs, and actual deaths in the monetary terms of crops. Usually the costs are figured in terms of the price for seeds, fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, fuel, and land ownership. The consequences of something like patented seeds that will not reproduce so that new seed must be bought have been discussed in moral terms -- very briefly. (How much do we discuss sterility in culture?)
I had not realized how different the cultural assumptions around here are from those of my own personal culture, until I tried to teach school locally. I can’t. It’s not the kids, it’s everyone else who is off-rez. “No Child Left Behind” is a game of numbers. Ironically, even as the rez kids absorb the larger white values of success and domination, it becomes clearer that the OLD rez values are like mine. Or I’m like theirs, since they were earlier. We’re story-based, empathy-based. Everyone is family-based, but those who are Quark-like make boundaries around theirs and defend them with Worf-like reflexes so as to protect the family capital. When I was in ministry, I noticed that the more privileged and affluent people had a kind of floor in them, a refusal to get involved or to risk.
I can’t claim to be either Spock or Kirk, though there is a feminist strand that writes fan-fiction about the two opposites as intimates. I guess when you come down to it, I’m still stuck in “Anne of Green Gables.” But I would aspire to Whoopi Goldberg’s part, Guinan.
Talking in this playful way is dangerous because it underestimates radically the forces at play. Lucy Maud Montgomery, who wrote the up-beat Anne stories to support the family when her seriously depressed minister-husband failed to function, would today be invaded by a storm of “journalists” who would revel in the fact that Montgomery finally committed suicide. In our own times the insidious danger is the myth of the author, who through the courage of talking about sex has become a millionaire. It is rivaled by the myth of the techie, getting rich by inventing an app while still barely out of college, though it’s far more likely they’ll simply be maintaining databases well into middle-age. Seriously depressing. There's more than one way to "lose" a life. Guinan would tell you that.
Lucy Maude Montgomery