Where The Gutenberg Galaxy Wanes While the Zuckerberg Zone Waxes: How the Founder of Facebook is Destroying the Printing Press

At 18, a grunt at Fort Bliss, in El Paso, sitting knee to knee and cheek to cheek with my peers in a latrine of 12 stools, I learned that going to the bathroom is a business, and privacy does not work for us, we work for her. We had, in 1969, at Fort Bliss, neither laptops nor cell phones, though we were allowed books, periodicals, and letters, and if someone wanted to know the status of a constipated grunt in Fort Bliss, they would be updated in a few days via an APO address, not instantly in a Facebook post.

In The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), a mosaic of blog-like posts illustrating the effects of print technology on the human environment, Marshall McLuhan explains that the printing press is responsible for the creation of the public. The printing press, McLuhan argues, created nationalism and the divorce of science from art, made the “marginal man,” the alienated individual, one who lives outside the margins (text boundaries) of society, and print is responsible for linear thinking. McCluhan’s 310 chapters each comprise a complex claim full of what today we would call “links” to other sources. Here’s one of my favorite chapters: “254 The typographic logic created ‘the outsider,’ the alienated man, as the type of integral, that is, intuitive and irrational, man.” And another: “258 Typographic man can express but is helpless to read the configurations of print technology.”

Can we read the configurations of  Internet technology? If McLuhan was right, and print technology traded an ear for an eye in its focus on the page, rearranging our sensorium, the eye now the dominant sense, and if the book, printed in one’s vernacular, killed Latin and created privacy, then will the global village created by the Internet reverse these sensory changes and take us back to primitivism? “187 Every technology contrived and ‘outered’ by man has the power to numb human awareness during the period of its first interiorization.” And when and how will we know?

A flurry of comments on these new directions, new configurations, filled the air this week. This week’s New Yorker (September 20) contains “The Face of Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg [founder of Facebook] opens up,” while CQ Researcher has just published a major report, “Social Networking: Are online social networks eroding privacy?” (Sept. 17): Marcia Clemmitt summarizes in her introduction, “For some the new world of ‘radical transparency’ will increase human understanding and encourage honesty and accountability. But some lawmakers and scholars [are] concerned about losing older notions of privacy.” Zuckerberg is also the subject of a new movie, The Social Network, which contains a largely unflattering view of him, but of the rest of us as well, according to a Newsweek on-line review (Sept. 20), “With Friends Like These.”

These new direction discussions follow [in my reading on the subject] a November, 2009 scholarly article in The Australian Humanities Review, notable for its overall positive viewpoint [as well as for the review taking the social networking phenomenon seriously) of the Facebook experience. In “Grizzling About Facebook,” Meaghan Morris, (Chair Professor of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, and Professor in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney) makes her position and thesis clear in her introductory remarks: “…anyone who thinks that social networking is a ‘superficial’ matter of clicking should explain to me (to begin with) in just what world the effort of making a photo album for friends and family does not involve emotional commitment; and in what kind of real world it counts as an evasion of contact to have an on-line party, or to send gifts, humour and words of comfort or affection to people across space and time. It would have to be a world without regard for writing and reading, obviously: no love of letters, no emotional responses to rock art and cathedrals; no crying over novels and poems, either. Come to think of it, it might be a world without great newspapers (a prospect which some pundits no doubt have uncomfortably in mind).” This was in response to a negative editorial in the South China Morning Post arguing that the virtual contact of Facebook is no substitute for “real” human contact.

But the mounting concern is not over how we spend our time, but whether or not we can spend it in private. To this question, Morris offers a number of questions, each of which might serve as the thesis for another paper: “I certainly do not mean to suggest that all criticism of Facebook is grizzling. Serious legal, ethical and political issues are arising from or being intensified by the ‘Facebook’ phenomenon (to use a typifying metonym myself), in the process sharpening some of the challenging debates of our time; free speech and its limits, censorship, the right to privacy, the negotiation of social protocols for a transnational economy that thrives on difference as well as inequality, the relations between semiotic and other modes of violence, tensions between legal, communal and performative models of identity, the foundations of community, the power of corporations in our personal lives, and the technological transformation of work are just a few of these.” Indeed, that’s enough to keep the Facebook scholars busy for a spell. In the CQ Researcher report, there’s a thread pulled out but not nearly unravelled to conclusion regarding the similarities and differences between Facebook and MySpace, a thread which suggests a social stratification, perhaps a tribal (in the McLuhan sense) response, ultimately, perhaps, a Marxist view of social networking.

But it’s those concerns about “older notions of privacy” that I find interesting. What is privacy? Where do these ideas of privacy come from? Is liberty synonymous with privacy? Are both the consequence of print technology, as McLuhan suggested, and as technology changes and changes us, will our notions of privacy also change? No doubt the development of self-consciousness in human evolution created some sense of privacy (when did we begin to sense a need to be alone with our thoughts?), but now, by privacy, do we mean secret, or do we mean control, or do we mean, as T. S. Eliot said in “Prufrock,” “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet….” Or do we mean privilege, as in the private privy, the privy chamber, not a public place, hardly a Facebook page. Not for nothing is the stool called the throne. The king enjoys the privilege of privacy, and has the power to grant a private audience. Now with 500 million advertised members, control of the masses would seem but clicks away, but who shall be king? But if the king remains in his privy, who cares?

Get Your Chops Back: Good Writing and Bad

How do we learn to distinguish good writing from bad? 

In today’s popular culture and business world, we often hear and find evidence that the average adult spends little time reading. A CQ Researcher report of Feb. 22, 2008 titled “Reading Crisis?” showed that “only 31 percent of college graduates were proficient in reading prose in 2003, a 23 percent decline since 1992. Among students in graduate programs or holding advanced degrees, the drop in proficiency was 20 percent.”

It’s hard to find time to read and write, and people who neither read nor write have more time to work and play – arguably the primary values of our age. But do we ignore reading and writing to our detriment? They are developmental skills. They require practice. They are skills that atrophy quickly if unused regularly. We lose our chops when the books collect dust. Writing, in particular, is hard work, and most of us don’t suffer from graphomania, while reading material foreign to our everyday vocabulary and experience seems arcane and frustrating. Add to this our desire for instant gratification and we find ourselves living in a community of non-readers.

The Audit Bureau of Circulations has reported that of the top 100 magazines by circulation in the U.S. today, most are hobby, entertainment, or popular culture, special interest magazines. Only two in the top 100, The New Yorker and National Geographic, might be considered to have a general interest purpose combined with writing that will get your reading chops back. This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with popular magazines, but to point out that the reading experience of the average adult in our communities is anemic, and the reading deficit results in a writing void, and an inability to distinguish good writing from bad.

But what is good writing? If by good writing we mean writing that achieves its purpose, almost any writing might be considered good. But reading material that exploits and panders to the tastes of an audience captive in a comfort zone gets us nowhere. An excellent B movie is one only an ardent B movie fan can appreciate. But is an academic article, blind peer reviewed then buried in a journal with a circulation of 300 (and most of those from institutions) any different? Writing that achieves a purpose that is too narrow is like a plant that is grown in a pot. It can be lovely, but its growth will be stunted.

Solving the Texas Textbook Massacre, Scandal, and Mystery

Textbooks are like disposable diapers, fodder for landfills, their obsolescence planned and forced new editions programmed with regularity. When I was a kid we couldn’t write in our textbooks. The nuns used them year after year – textbooks must not have been programmed to self-destruct quite so quickly in those days. We had to cover our textbooks with brown paper grocery bags, cut cleanly according to obsessive instructions, so the covers fit smartly around the edges, taped carefully so no tape touched the textbook. In spite of this care, or perhaps because of it, I don’t remember the title nor the author’s name of a single textbook I used in my twelve years of regular school.

A few summers ago I started noticing very old textbooks, from the early 1900’s, showing up in local garage sales. I started collecting them. One day I took a bagful down to the local used book store to see what I might get for them, but the owner was chagrined. “I don’t buy books like that,” she said, and wouldn’t even look down into the bag. Yet Powell’s “City of Books,” in Portland, does a brisk business filling newer-used US textbook orders from overseas, and textbooks, new and used, constitute an enormous, bizarrely regulated industry.

But the mystery of the Texas textbook scandal is why anyone cares, for who supposes students actually read the textbooks? And even if they wanted to, where are the school districts whose funding is deep enough to afford them? Schools that could have afforded new textbooks no doubt spend their money in other, more productive ways: building multi-million dollar sport complexes, for example. And if they have the textbooks, were they distributed? Or are they sitting in a warehouse, as Michelle Rhee discovered when she took over in DC? In any case, given the unaffordable prices and now the tampering with the credibility and reliability of textbooks, Texas teachers should forgo any of the changes forced by their state board of education and ignore textbooks altogether, avoiding their exorbitant costs, forced new editions, inflated purpose, and questionable educational effectiveness; and the rest of the country should follow their example.

Will the Education debate go the way of the Health Care debate? In the April 5, 2010 issue of the New Yorker, Dr. Atul Gawande said, “But the reform package [Health Care] emerged with a clear recognition of what is driving costs up: a system that pays for the quantity of care rather than the value of it. This can’t continue.” Neither can Education’s reliance on the textbook system, which is also too expensive and values quantity over quality. No one doubts this, but, as Gawande says, “the threat comes from party politics.” So too with Education. There is, Gawande says, “…one truly scary thing about health reform: far from being a government takeover, it counts on local communities and clinicians for success. We are the ones to determine whether costs are controlled and health care improves.” The same might be said for Education: it will count on local communities and local teachers for success, not state boards of education who confuse textbooks, editing, and censoring with teaching, and who would use a textbook to narrow the entrance to knowledge rather than opening the door to full and open access – access that is alive and growing on the Web, and that should be given more support to be leveraged by schools to lower the costs of education while improving the quality of instruction.

Instead of the traditional use of textbooks, teachers can use primary sources via the Internet. For in depth analysis, including background and extensive researched reports of current events, school libraries should subscribe to the Congressional Quarterly Researcher (the blog is free; access to the full reports requires a subscription – which most libraries provide). Extensive reports include credible pro-con discussion and annotated and linked bibliographies for further reading. Open Culture is another site that includes free resources, including language, culture, and math and science material – including links to podcasts from reputable universities. Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy is another site that features free and open access to the work of professional scholars (a current fund raising campaign seeks to establish a more permanent and viable funding source – so no, these sites are not free, though they offer free access).

Students are already using the Internet, and teachers can do more to leverage its resources. Google Books, for all the controversy surrounding the copyright issue, is getting better and students access the site without charge (apart from Internet service) for direct access to both primary sources and critical analysis. Credible and reputable periodicals are on-line, some with full access, others with limited access without a subscription. Scholarly journals are following suit and taking down their wall that limits direct access and frustrates students attempting to learn scholarship and research. And individual blogs such as the Becker-Posner Blog (Becker a University of Chicago Nobel economist, and Posner a federal judge), Caleb Crain’s blog, which augments his professional publications, and the World Wide Woodard blog, the blog of author and journalist Colin Woodard, just to mention a few – there are obviously many more – all provide direct, free, and open access to professional criticism, informed opinion, and scholarly research. Still other sites, like FQXi (Foundational Questions Institute – a physics site), provide forums for professionals to share papers and research, while giving students the opportunity to participate by reading and following the studies and discussion. It was on FQXi that I first saw Garrett Lisi’s recent physics paper, “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.”

What we need is an exceptionally simple theory of education. Hopefully it will include open access to primary source documents that might nudge textbooks away from the center of the student’s desk, where the drool is soaking into the garbage bag cover.

Update: 5-27-2010…It was announced this week that Portland Public High School District has posted just over a 50% graduation rate. I don’t think the problem is textbooks. Meantime, here’s a blog post that touches on a similar crisis in higher ed. Some appear to be worried about the adulteration of their disciplines as ethos moves online. Yet their ships are sinking – see the post referenced below and then read the top post (we agree with Levi): Larval Subjects.