When speaking about how our society and culture are changing because of networked technologies, one of the many cheesy metaphors I often depend on goes something like this: In the 20th century we sat silently in the opera house; in the 21st century we find ourselves surrounded by the chaos and the pressure to participate that is inherent in the karaoke bar. I first brought this up in my “Pro-Craftsmanship, Anti-Virtuosity” talk. My main point: that karaoke bars are a hell of a lot more fun than any opera house. And, while to this day I would still take even the worst karaoke bar over the finest opera house, I do understand that many are increasingly nostalgic for the façade of masterpiece that an opera house represents. In their minds they want to rise above the droning humdrum of everyday egalitarianism and submit to the suspension of reality that virtuosity both demands and evokes. (I suppose that 3D Imax is the contemporary equivalent of the 19th century opera house.)
Yesterday, in the February issue of The Believer, I came across a newly published Derek Walcott poem titled “No Opera” that goes like this:
No opera, no gilded columns, no wine-dark seats,
no Penelope scouring the stalls with delicate glasses,
no practiced ecstasy from the tireless tenor, no sweets
and wine at no interval, no altos, no basses
and violins sobbing as one; no opera house,
no museum, no actual theatre, no civic center
– and what else? Only the huge doors of clouds
with the setting disc through which we leave and enter,
only the deafening parks with their jumping crowds,
and the thudding speakers. Only the Government
Buildings down by the wharf, and another cruise ship
big as the capital, all blue glass and cement.
No masterpieces in huge frames to worship,
on such banalities has life been spent
in brightness, and yet there are the days
when every street corner rounds itself into
a sunlit surprise, a painting or a phrase,
canoes drawn up by the market, the harbour’s blue,
the barracks. So much to do still, all of it praise.
I still remember the first time I had heard of Derek Walcott. It wasn’t that long ago, though long enough ago that Twitter was not yet even an idea. Georgia linked to an interview with Walcott on WNYC and I gave it a listen. He spoke of his poetry and his watercolors. He spoke of art as a way to escape ego. I was mesmerized by his words, though those who knew better would later summarize for me, “he can be a bit of an ass.” But the man has talent, of this there is little debate.
The fact that I followed Georgia’s blog and podcast on a weekly basis and yet hadn’t even heard of Derek Walcott is just one more example that many cultural critics would point to as evidence that we are losing our ability to distinguish and navigate between the truly brilliant and merely good. (To be honest, though, I still tend to prefer a blog post by Georgia to a poem by Walcott … poetry has just never really been for me.)
Still, there is something about Walcott’s latest poem that speaks to me. It’s as if he has fully realized that his own poems will not be held by future generations as “masterpieces in huge frames to worship.” Instead we have loud parks and cruise ships. We are more apt to worship ourselves and our groups of friends. This seems to stir about a tear of regret, but then there is a noticeable change in tone and perspective halfway through the fifth to last line: “and yet there are days when every street corner rounds itself into a sunlit surprise, a painting or a phrase … So much to do still, all of it praise.”
Poetry and art will live on long after Derek Walcott is gone, and god bless him for accepting this most basic fact with only a few stanzas of wallowing-in-barber-shop lament. Instead of giving up altogether and claiming that all poetry is dead – as our friend Milan Kundera so cleverly attempted with the novel – Walcott recognizes that there is still “so much to do” and that more people will be involved in doing it than ever before.
Evgeny has a book review in last Thursday’s The National of Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget. Evgeny, who also has a book coming out that takes a critical stance on the internet’s impact on society, writes in his review that books taking critical stances on the internet are sorely needed, but that Lanier’s book is not the one we should be reading. Clever.
Pundit posturing aside, here is the sentence by Evgeny that I take issue with: “This is how we have ended up in our current situation, where people like Lanier – who may know everything about technology but very little about society – are the only ones asking extremely important questions.” Evgeny is actually suggesting that there is a shortage of people thinking critically about technology’s positive and negative impacts on society. That’s funny because I seem unable to escape those discussions. And it’s not just the circles I travel in – everyone everywhere has their own pet theories and we’re all just about saying the same thing over and over (even this very blog post … please forgive me).
Evgeny is right to point out that academics – who are actually paid to sit around and think and talk – have generally done a pretty dismal job when it comes to contextualizing technology’s social impact. (There is currently a debate on the Air-L mailing list – a discussion space for academics engaged in internet research – about whether or not “apps” refers to applications or Apple products. Dan Cohen, meditating on “academic theater” and “edutainment” says that academics can only blame themselves for becoming too insulated and not engaging with the public.) But Lanier has nothing new to say – not because he hasn’t read Rousseau and John Dewey, as Evgeny suggests – but rather because everything he has to say is already said on a daily basis at your neighborhood Starbucks.
What Jaron, Evgeny, Derek Walcott, and Dan Cohen all have in common are bruised egos. “Why aren’t they paying attention to me?” Jaron and Evgeny are both trying to fashion themselves as public intellectuals. This career path demands that they seek attention and create publicity. But their financial restraints seem to have influenced their intellectual thinking: something must be wrong, they figure, in a world where less people pay attention to the likes of Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov.
Of course, in reality, there is a wealth of smart, critical thinking about how the internet and modern technologies are changing all aspects of society. The BBC World Service has done a great job producing many documentaries exploring these questions in locations that are often ignored. Internet Cafe Hobo is an interesting three-part series looking at the impact of cyber cafes. “Citizen Journalism – democracy or chaos” has a well-balanced look at the pros and cons of citizen participation in journalism by focusing on Kashmir and Egypt. Other episodes look at Russian hackers, online dating in India, and the internet’s impact on religion in Iraq. Some are better than others, but they are all sure to leave you with some new facts and many new questions.
At Global Voices we’ve also done a pretty excellent job looking at how technology and the internet has impacted society around the globe. For the next two weeks Global Voices and the BBC are collaborating on a special reporting project titled SuperPower to examine the influence of the Internet on our lives. Click through the links and you’ll find that there is no shortage of deep, critical thinking about how technology is changing us – both in how we perceive ourselves and relate to others.