Fast/slow reader

I don’t know when exactly I picked up the habit of reading over a dozen books at once, but it’s served me well. There’s usually so much floating around my snow-globe of a head that I can’t get it to settle down into a recognizable pattern. I read fast, at least twice the rate of most of my fellow teachers; but I also read slow, often spending hours on a handful of pages that pique my interest.

A few further comments on Weinberger’s book, Small Pieces Loosely Joined. The first chapter, “A New World” bothered me because of the way that it began: the question of people playing “dress-up” on the web. People do that in real life too, probably with the same frequency, but not with the same thoroughness. Ever listen to people talk about fishing? Their latest sexual conquest? People love to lie. This is hardly news. The problem with web “identities” is that they are just like the problems liars face in the real world. It’s nearly impossible to be consistent, so people have to rotate their lies often. I was so relieved when I found that he argued that this sort of behavior was the exception and not the rule. Whew.

The e-bay example was another restatement of a conventional behavior. I sold electronics for a long time in another life. People come into a store, not knowing much about what they’re buying. They read brochures, figure out the buzzwords, ask friends for advice, but most of all— they hop from store to store to examine different pitches about what they should buy. Because it takes so much effort, they usually don’t persist at it for long. I think the “gaming” aspect of auction-bidding is perhaps a bigger attraction than the voluntary learning involved. A person wants to be good at the game, so they are more likely to spend time figuring out the rules. A good salesman will reinforce the insecurity of a customer who is buying outside their realm of expertise by reinforcing what they know, and building on it so that they are confident in their purchase. That’s a bit of a game too. Make the customer feel “in-charge.” Next…

The central content of the chapter— the shifting line between public and private, and the question of the sociability of the web— are better directions to go. Identities are constructed by irony and indirection is not entirely new to the web, but it is certainly an amplified aspect. That the level of social behavior stimulated this way is open to dissention is also a good way of addressing the issues behind it all. In most ways, the issues surrounding this “new world” are central to our perception of democracy, and the place of the individual in the world.

Are we, in Thomas Carlyle’s words, shooting Niagara? Is the avalanche of decentralization brought about by the web the core of the ultimate in democracy? Carlyle would have thought it a bad thing, going over a high precipice in a rather flimsy barrel. But then, as he also quite progressively argued, perhaps it’s time to exchange these rags of mock-democracy, or more accurately, oligarchy, for a truer suit of clothes? The political implications of this “new world” are staggering.

And politics begins with the social impulse. What I think is key is the lack of reliance on hierarchy in the formation of this new socialization, facilitated by the very structure of the Internet itself: a liquid structure. I think that it may be bringing out changes much like those traced by Zigmunt Bauman in Liquid Modernity. Internet junkies may be the new nomads.

Throughout the solid stage of the modern era, nomadic habits remained out of favor. Citizenship went hand in hand with settlement, and the absence of a “fixed address” and “statelessness” meant exclusion from the law-abiding and law-protected community and more often than not brought the culprits legal discrimination, if not active prosecution.

Napster, anyone? However, the fluid stage of culture, according to Bauman (page 13, for those who care) brings a return to nomadism.

We are witnessing the revenge of nomadalism over the principle of territoriality and settlement. In the fluid stage of modernity, the settled majority is ruled by the nomadic and extraterritorial elite. Keeping the roads free for nomadic traffic and phasing out the remaining check-points has now become the meta-purpose of politics.

Multi-national corporations anyone? Perhaps the cockroaches of the Internet will overrun them as the borders open, and we can just say no to Starbucks. Or maybe not. Their coffee does taste pretty good.