Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Roads to Nowhere?

'If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there.' Baseball great Yogi Berra famously gave directions to his home: “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” Supposedly, either way, you'd get to the house. Sometimes any road will take you where you want to go. This, of course, is one of the beauties of the Internet: there are always multiple pathways from any one place to any other. No road is irrevocably wrong. Still, what Chirstine Borgman, in Scholarship in the Digital Age, calls “a complex environment of social, technical, economic, and political trends” gets more and more so every day, we do need to continue to try to understand it, to map it--though today, much more than ever in the past, any map we make is flawed or worse.

In The Tyranny of Words, Stuart Chase discussed this problem of the relation between map, mapped, and user on the eve of World War II:

Confusions persist and increase because we have no true picture of the world outside, and so cannot talk to one another about how to stop them. Again and again I come back to the image of the map. How can we arrive at a given destination by following a grossly inaccurate map, especially when each adventurer has a map with different inaccuracies? Better language can clear away many nonexistent locations which clutter the maps we now carry. It will help us talk sensibly with one another as to where we are, why we are here, and what we must do to get there. If the characteristics of people and groups are in fact different from the characteristics our charts and theories ascribe to them, the charts are dangerous, and we run into reefs instead of sailing through open channels. If people do not in fact behave as our ideas of “fascism” expect them to behave, we are rendered helpless in dealing with the happenings which go under that label.

The faith in language Chase describes (if it is just 'better') seems touchingly naïve today. The problem with this confidence in 'better language' (today it would be 'better technology'), is that improvement also expands things, creating new problems even as the refinements and developments solve old ones. We may have defeated fascism, but another totalitarian system threatened soon after. Today, that system has collapsed, but the world seems even less mappable and understandable (and less controllable—a map, of course, being a symbol of control as well as understanding) than ever before.

Overwhelmed by increasingly complex entities around them, people (tea-partiers, for example) long for an imagined past of simplicity, of knowledge they can believe in—much more passionately than others supported Barack Obama's “change we can believe in.” The problem is, however, as Neil Postman describes it in his talk “Informing Ourselves to Death,” that we live “in a world without spiritual or intellectual order, nothing is unbelievable; nothing is predictable, and therefore, nothing comes as a particular surprise.” Not even change is believable. But neither is the imagined past of the new conservatives.

In information terms, the Internet, we are finding, has two clear and immediate uses, depending on the mindset of the user: it can validate prior belief or it can open the door to relativism. In this, it is not that different from the intellectual tools long available to us. However, if it is used primarily for the former (as is occurring in tea-party parts of American culture), the Web may become an agent of cultural calcification, helping close in cultures as certainly as China was closed in, two hundred and some years ago, when it refused to face (culturally speaking) the challenge of the newly technological West. Or, if the cultural mindset is expansive, willing to accept risk and challenge, it could lead to surprising and positive results, as may be happening today in Africa where cellular communications technology is meeting cultural needs and opening up possibilities for cultures that have felt stymied in the modern world for decades. Like the bicycle a century ago and the moped more recently, the cell phone is proving to be something that Africans can embrace and make use of on their own, perhaps even breaking the grip of 'underdevelopment.' As in China, though, as in the United States, competing forces of cultural conservatism and cultural change will certainly affect the speed and the extent of the influence of the new technology even there. I just hope the calcification doesn't block any of us completely, leaving us maps to possibilities but roads to nowhere.

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