Saturday, July 26, 2008

Babbling at Babel

I was standing on the sidewalk, had a noise in my head.
There were loudspeakers babbling, but nothing was said. – Richard Farina

See, here’s what “they” don’t get: It’s not that we of the great unwashed are unruly, rude, and unlettered—but that “they,” the people who (in their own minds) have earned the right to speak to us, do nothing but babble.

No, “babble” doesn’t seem to have originated with “Babel” in Genesis 11, but a connection exists nonetheless. It’s worth looking at the relevant passage in relation to the current state of information and its communication:

4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
6 And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.

Why? Because these are the “they” I’m talking about above.

In verse 4, in my interpretation of this within a news-media context, what we are seeing is an elite speaking for all, wanting to consolidate knowledge and knowledge dissemination. There’s a subtext of control: if “we be scattered abroad,” we cannot be controlled. We have seen this in the centralization of media ownership and are seeing it now in the attempts to “tame” the Internet.

The God of verse 6 is certainly something of a subversive—to human activity (or that of its elite), anyway. God does not want humankind operating as a block for two reasons: First, people might begin to feel they can challenge God as a group. Impossible as that might be, the attempt would do no one any good. Second, It is up to the individual to find and accept God, and that can’t been done through the sort of groupthink Babel may have symbolized to Him.

When we listened to the centralized and controlling media, information is filtered and we haven’t the ability to analyze on our own (how can we, without access to the full story?). Thus, God, in verse 7, decides to “confound their language.” This makes for diffuse conversation and information exchange.

Let me quote one more thing, from my own Blogging America: The New Public Sphere:

In 2000, the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Information Management and Systems released a study estimating that the “world produces between 1 and 2 exabytes of unique information per year, which is roughly 250 megabytes for every man, woman, and child on earth.” The report goes on to say: “It is clear that we are all drowning in a sea of information. The challenge is to learn to swim in that sea, rather than drown in it. Better understanding and better tools are desperately needed if we are to take full advantage of the ever-increasing supply of information described in this report.” A new study just three years later concluded that “Print, film, magnetic, and optical storage media produced about 5 exabytes of new information in 2002.” This is more than a doubling of information production between 1999 and 2002. If we were drowning in information then, what is our situation now? (134)

One of the arguments against the “anarchy” of the Internet (there isn’t any, really—but that’s for another time) is that this huge information store needs sorting and straining if anyone is going to make any sense of it. And that is true, to an extent. However, all of the information needs to be available to anyone (another topic for another time). Without access, each of us is forced to rely on the “expert.” We can never really make the decision (whatever it is) on our own.

The “experts,” of course, don’t much like the idea of just anyone having access to the information that their years of training and experience have enabled them to use deftly. Today, they point to the “babble” on the Internet as justification for their attitude, as Lee Siegel (whose expertise, beyond a certain facility with words, escapes me) does in his recent book, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob.

As we, faced with so much information, so many choices, do have to make choices (there just isn’t time to look at, let alone read, everything), I have chosen not to read Siegel’s book. Its title along keeps it from passing through my personal filter: The implication is that the “mob” isn’t human, and that only the elite (such as Siegel) is. I just don’t care for that, and don’t wish to spend even an hour reading an author with such an attitude. Call me small minded if you will, but I won’t read books by holocaust deniers either, or Intelligent Design advocates, or books arguing that someone other than Shakespeare wrote those plays. There’s too much else out there that might prove useful.

I’m not the only one bothered by Siegel’s use of “mob.” In a review of Siegel’s book last January on Salon, Louis Bayard wrote:

The subtitle of Siegel's book is "Being Human in the Age of the Mob," and it's worth noting the Burkean scowl of that "mob." Siegel may have liberal credentials, but he is making, at bottom, a conservative argument: in favor of gatekeepers and cultural elites, against the cacophony of untrammeled opinion.

Me, I want “the cacophony of untrammeled opinion.” God was doing a good thing, when He “decentralized” human language in response to the tower of Babel. “They” have been trying to undo it for centuries, finding new ways of consolidating power and knowledge (what’s an empire, after all, but just such an attempt?). For a time, it looked like “they” would succeed, and we would all be looking to Washington and its pundits when in need of information on current events. The Internet has changed that, at least for the time being, much to the chagrin of people like Siegel, who see their lucrative career path challenged. Who are finding that "we" are seeing "them" as the babbling classes, not us. They have controlled the loudspeakers for so long that they've forgotten that it isn't enough to keep sound coming from them; you have to say something as well, not just babble.

Unfortunately, the attempts to tame and control the Internet continue, and they may very well succeed. So, instead of reading Siegel, I will read the blogs, work through links, and learn (rather than be told). And, as He wishes, I will make my own way to Him. I’ve had enough of priests.

[If you care about keeping the Internet “free” in the future, be sure to support the Electronic Frontier Foundation as well as groups like ePluribus Media—the former for its actions as advocate in the political arena, the latter because of its participation in the widespread attempt to find a new way for the news media, on that relies on people and not on pundits.]

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