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Why “Talk” Culture Ruins Everything

In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani takes on the Internet, remix culture, post-modernism and the technology-induced Decline of Western Civilization. She quotes the usual suspects: Jaron Lanier, Andrew Keen, Nicholas Carr as well as Cass Sunstein, Farhad Manjoo.

Picking on traditional media has become a tiresome sport. Much more interesting to explore successful new models than complain about the old gang aren’t getting it right.

Still, it’s hard to swallow an article made up almost exclusively of quotes from various other thinkers, about how dangerous mash-ups are. If “cherry picking” ideas and mixing them into a shortened digital version, quotable at the water-cooler, or on Twitter, is such a terrible thing, what is Kakutani doing writing a mash-up of cherry-picked ideas and mixing them into a shortened digital version, quotable at the water-cooler or on Twitter?

The “problem,” I think, is humans themselves. Unfortunately, this is what we like to do with information: we absorb it, process it, shorten it, and reassemble it… and then share and comment and talk about it.

It always surprises me that there aren’t more articles about the dangers of one-on-one conversations: after all – shouldn’t we be worried about, “the fragmentation of data that the conversations produce, as news articles, novels and record albums are broken down into verbal words and sentences shared between people at cafes everywhere; the growing emphasis on immediacy and real-time responses of the person in front of you; the rising tide of data and information that permeates our discussions; and the emphasis that conversation places on subjectivity.”

The real danger to the future of humanity is not the web, it’s much deeper: it’s is lurking in every conversation over a coffee or beer that anyone has ever enjoyed. The real danger isn’t bits and bytes, it’s our desire to talk about the things that interest us. God help us all.

If Kakutani & her sources can figure out how to eradicate our urge to communicate, they’ll solve the lesser problem presented by technologies that let us communicate as we always have.

There are many reasons that we should carefully consider technology, and figure out how to use it to do more interesting things. But finding ways to stop people talking about things they care about, and making art out of things they love, or contextualizing information with commentary and curation, is not high on my list.


  1. Alexandre Alexandre 2010-03-18

    As may be obvious, I share your perspective. And I like your tone, though it did throw me off for a second and a half.
    One thing which is reassuring is that there’s an increasing awareness of the “oral” character of online communication. At least, I perceive as an increased awareness. At best, it can get us past the tired discussions about re evolutionary view on communication systems. At worse, it gets a few of us to talk amongst ourselves.
    I recently read an old piece by Douglas Adams about the anomaly of mass media. We so naturalized and reified one-to-many communication (including print media) that we talk about conversation, dialogue, discussion, and “interaction” as special things. And this is actualy what makes me much less interested in books, at this point. “Electronic” or “dead-tree” books lack the richness of human communication. They’ve been very useful as a way to package “content,” but they’re too “monolithic” for the kind of world in which I think we live. They worked well in terms of maintaining a rather rigid social structure with “knowledge” used as a form of power.
    I actually don’t remember where I heard a thoughtful discussion about this (probably a podcast about tech, or some such) but it convincing argument about the broad nature of writing: comic strips, libretti, pamphlets, tracts, love letters, palimpsests, accounting spreadsheets, memos, jokes, course outlines, maps, CVs… Books, espeially non-fiction ones, are often perceived as the pinnacle of writing. Yet our emphasis on books may make us forget the continuity between orality and writing. In fact, our emphasis on authorship is so strong that there are still people out there who think Homer wrote epics “from scratch.” Milman Parry and Albert Lord still have a lot to teach us.

    Of course, I assume that we disagree on this point about books. Chances are that I’m even overstating my position, because it’s easier to write than a more nuanced (internal) dialogue. It should be clear that I fully respect your passion for books. The fact that you also embrace “talk” and voice criticisms of the Laniers and Carrs of that world is a lesson, to me.
    So, thanks for this.

  2. hugh hugh 2010-03-18

    I’m pretty-much agnostic about the packages. I like books. They’ve been great to me. I expect they will be great to many other people for years to come. If it turns out that books continue to be valuable, and rewarding, and exciting to people in the next 10 … 20 … 50 … 1,000 years, then we’ll keep reading them, and people will keep writing them.

    If it turns out that most people stop being interested in books, then fewer will be read, and *perhaps* fewer books will be written (though it’s already clear that there is a bigger desire to write books than to read them). I’ll be sad, and some people will be nostalgic, and then humanity will continue on doing what it’s always done: being human, and getting it’s stories and information from whatever sources make the most sense.

    Regarding “comic strips, libretti, pamphlets, tracts, love letters, palimpsests, accounting spreadsheets, memos, jokes, course outlines, maps, CVs” … that is non-book, probably non-commercial forms of writing, here;s a question for Lanier et al:

    If allowing the hoi polloi to comment on and mash-up sacred texts is such a great threat to humanity, why have we based our entire education system, for the past 2,000 years, on requiring students to comment on and mash up texts?

    What is a high school or university essay but a “mash-up”?

    [NOTE: damn I hate the word “mash-up”]

  3. Felix Trepanier Felix Trepanier 2010-03-19

    I also think we should not blame technology or the web for what is described as the ‘deficit disorder’ generation. Technology is a tool and we drive its uses. So has you mention in your post, the problem is human.

    I also agree on the benefits of having great tools to share and collaborate in a scale that was unthinkable before. I truely believe in the commons and in remixing to create. I also believe in the social benefits of the new web tools. I even went as far as going into a primary school to explain 5th graders what CC is about and how those new social tools could help increase education access to developing countries (

    But I share some of the concerns that the NYT article articulates. My concern is more related to the fact that opinions sees to take over critical thinking. This might come from the talk culture. But it seems that even in what could be seen as ‘objective’ disciplines such as programming, opinions rules nowadays. Not that opinions are bad or not important…as Vincent Vegas said in Pulp Fiction ‘Man you gatta have an opinion.’ But opinions are easy and too often shallows…critical thinking is hard. What I’ve been seing on the web lately is more and more opinions…and less and less thinking. That is where I see a loss. The problem with critical thinking is that is requires more that a few lines of text to make a point and long text are not as well received as a quick provocative statement that flood the web. To go back to Alexandre’s comment regarding books…if we end up losing books (not the physical books, but the non-conversational format), I fear that we will lose much more than books, we might miss in-deth thinking altogether.

    But that’s my opinion.

  4. hugh hugh 2010-05-29

    The stuff I read is filled with critical thinking, so perhaps its a question of what you choose to read?

    Or, maybe there is exactly as much critical thinking & opinion, per capita, as there always was – just that more of it gets captured than we used to see. So it *looks* like there is more opinion and less critical thinking – when in fact there is just as much of each as there used to be.

    As for opinion/crit thinking in coding – the proof is in the pudding … so the best code wins in the end. Messy way to sort things out, but there you have the power of evolution: we’re not in a hurry.

    But humans, one way or another, will continue to be human, and use tech for the things they like to use them for, even if you & I don’t agree with such use. And so it goes.

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