Reading In All Media

There is no end to people complaining about technology and new media. It isn’t limited to luddites and other varieties of reactionaries. One hears all kinds of views why the world is going down the crapper, from high-minded critiques from academics to your mother’s nagging about her grandchildren. Recently, Michael Harris wrote about this on a personal level:

“For good reason. It’s embarrassing. Especially for someone like me. I’m supposed to be an author – words are kind of my job. Without reading, I’m not sure who I am. So, it’s been unnerving to realize: I have forgotten how to read – really read – and I’ve been refusing to talk about it out of pride. […]

“For a long time, I convinced myself that a childhood spent immersed in old-fashioned books would insulate me somehow from our new media climate – that I could keep on reading and writing in the old way because my mind was formed in pre-internet days. But the mind is plastic – and I have changed. I’m not the reader I was. […]

“For many writers, this is the new wisdom. A cynical style of reading gives way to a cynical style of writing. I’ve watched my own books become “useful” as they made their way into public conversation. I never meant them to be useful – in a self-help sense – but that was how they were often read. I say this with less reproach than surprise: Almost every interviewer has asked me for tips and practical life advice, despite the fact my books offer neither.

“Meanwhile, I admit it: The words I write now filter through a new set of criteria. Do they grab; do they anger? Can this be read without care? Are the sentences brief enough? And the thoughts? It’s tempting to let myself become so cynical a writer because I’m already such a cynical reader. I am giving what I get” (I have forgotten how to read).

There is some truth to it. I can’t deny that. But I can’t fully agree either, at least not for me personally. My brain doesn’t operate normally, something I know because I have the official tests from when I was diagnosed as learning disabled in childhood to when I was sent off to a psychiatric ward in my early 20s. I’m fully documented as ‘special’.

I don’t give a flying fuck if a book is written and presented in a linear manner. I never have been prone to linear thought, much less linear reading. It’s long been my habit to read dozens of books simultaneously. I skim books and I flit around them like a drunken butterfly. I often read the conclusion first and impressively will then proceed to read the text backwards, paragraph by paragraph. No linear cultural expectation is going to keep me confined. Fuck that!

All of that was true for me long before the internet. It’s why I hated formal education, to such an extent that I learned to read late, almost flunked out of 7th grade, only graduated high school by cheating on tests, and dropped out of college twice. Schools don’t teach the way my mind works. I remember when I first started spending much time on the world wide web. It was mind-blowing! For the first time in my freaking life, I was experiencing something in the larger society that operated the same way as my ‘abnormal’ brain. If I was abnormal, then all of the internet was abnormal and it was my kind of crazy.

I still love to read. And I feel little conflict or competition between literary media as a physical book and electronic media as the internet. I simply have different contexts in which I immerse myself in any given media. It’s all good.

I like to go for long walks in the morning and that is when I find the best time for concentrated reading. My reading-while-walking habit also began long before the internet, maybe back when I was in high school. I typically walk out to my parents’ house at the edge of town and it takes about an hour-and-half, allowing me to read a couple of short stories or maybe a few chapters of a book. I also like to snatch some time to read while riding in a car/bus or sitting around waiting for something, including free moments at work. I always keep a physical book nearby for any occasion with my ever present backpack usually containing many choices of reading material.

There are hundreds of books I’ve read that I never would have discovered if not for the internet. I’ve probably spent thousands of hours reading book reviews and perusing Google Books. On the other hand, I admit that social media can be addictive and pointlessly distracting. I had to learn to avoid much of social media or at least avoid the worst elements of it. I don’t have any doubt that I’m being subtly influenced in ways that I’m unaware. But I seem to have a certain amount of immunity that others lack, as it doesn’t feel unnatural or foreign to me. I love all the vast info available on the internet, as I love books. Media whore that I am, I love it all. I devour all forms of media. And after a while, they all blend together in my mind and experience.

Bring it on! Let the world be transformed by media. It will be a fun social experiment. Anyway, physical books are more likely to survive climate change than is the human species. For the last remaining humans huddled around fires as civilization collapses, there will still be plenty of physical books left in old decaying libraries. The survivors will have plenty of time to read, in between fighting off packs of mutants and evading zombie hordes. But until then, may media bloom like a thousand flowers.

Checking the Facts

Debunkers of Fictions Sift the Net
By Brian Stelter

David and Barbara Mikkelson are among those trying to clean the cesspool. The unassuming California couple run Snopes, one of the most popular fact-checking destinations on the Web.

[…] Snopes is one of a small handful of sites in the fact-checking business. Brooks Jackson, the director of one of the others, the politically oriented FactCheck.org, believes news organizations should be doing more of it.

“The ‘news’ that is not fit to print gets through to people anyway these days, through 24-hour cable gasbags, partisan talk radio hosts and chain e-mails, blogs and Web sites such as WorldNetDaily or Daily Kos,” he said in an e-mail message. “What readers need now, we find, are honest referees who can help ordinary readers sort out fact from fiction.”

Even the White House now cites fact-checking sites: it has circulated links and explanations by PolitiFact.com, a project of The St. Petersburg Times that won a Pulitzer Prize last year for national reporting.

Media bias in the United States
(Wikipedia)

Organizations monitoring bias

Non-partisan

Liberal

Conservative

Ephemeral Media

Many things are changing with the new media. I remember a time when I was but a wee child sitting blank-eyed in front of picture box. When I wanted to change the channel, I had to stand up and manually turn a knob. That was about as interactive as it got, but now with the world wide web interactive is the name of the game.

There is a specific change I had in mind. It’s become increasingly apparent that the new media is simultaneously more permanent and more ephemeral. If you’ve ever posted, commented or uploaded anything on the web, you can try to remove it but you can never be sure it’s entirely gone. Someone else could’ve downloaded it or copy/pasted it. The web trawlers capture almost anything that has been up any amount of time.

That said, it’s easy for things to disappear or become inaccessible. I’ve noticed the fickleness of search engines. I’ve known something exists, but couldn’t find it in a search. Or you can know precisely what you’re looking for and yet look through hundreds of results before finding it.  Search engines only show what the web trawler has noticed and it only shows results according to equations of relevance. And if you live in China, much of the world’s internet would be entirely invisible to you. You can’t know about what you can’t see.

My thoughts, however, are focused on another aspect. A famous example is the Kindle book that was simultaneously removed from everyone’s Kindle because Amazon didn’t have the rights. That would be like if a bookseller did a recall and entered everyone’s home while they were sleeping to retrieve the book. Another example was a cellphone company that managed to lose all of its customers data (contact info and whatever else).

More pertinent to my own experience are examples related to online forums and websites. The first forum I was an active member of closed down a while back. The sad part was it just disappeared one day without warning. I had many wonderful discussions that were almost entirely lost… except what the web trawlers managed to save. Could you imagine if real life communities could just disappear instantly like that? In the case of the forum I mentioned, I did still have contact with some of the other members through other sites… but it still sucked.

Even more recently, the only other online community I’ve been active in also shut down. It was where my first blog was. Fortunately, I had a two week warning. I realized, though, that I wouldn’t have had a warning at all if someone hadn’t told me about it because I hadn’t visited the site as much in recent months. If someone hadn’t sought me out on my new blog, I might’ve lost all of my old blogs… and that would’ve really sucked.

The people from that community have mostly moved over to Ning and started new communities. That is fine. I wasn’t too sad about any of it, but I learned something about Ning that gives me pause. The Ning management has an absolute policy about every individual having the rights to their own material. So, any person can delete everything they wrote, but the messed up part is that all responses to the deleted material will also be deleted. That is just not right.

A similar thing has happened to me on the local newspaper website, but on a smaller scale. If a comment gets reported for breaking some rule (such as slander), then that comment is removed and all responses to it automatically disappear as well.

One last example directly related to blogging itself. I have many posts in this blog. I have some of them saved, but not all of them. If someone hacked my account, they could delete my blogs or even cancel the account entirely. I’ve heard of examples on other blogging platforms where blogs get accidentally removed or deleted by a system error. Sometimes they are able to be put back up and sometimes not. I haven’t heard of any problems with WordPress, but it’s always a possibility.

To be fair, all of life is ephemeral. A fire could destroy all my books in a very short amount of time. In the past, I’ve lost a notebook that had personal writings in it. Or a more odd incident involved a pile of printed material I was saving that one of my cats peed on. That is life. Things get lost and destroyed, but there is something about a physical book, newspaper or magazine that feels more real because you can physically hold it and possess it. Writings on paper can last for centuries and millennia. If the internet collapsed or was destroyed, would it be as bad or worse than the burning of the library of Alexandria?