Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Rule of Fives

So, I’d like to comment on this article about why it is that blogs can often suck. For the record, my tongue is firmly in my cheek here. No offense to any pizza boys or anyone else.

Surfing the net is like walking with a blindfold on through a horse pasture- you know it’s usually only a few steps before you land in horseshit. I don’t know why it is, but my Internet probability seems to follow a rule of fives: I can’t click five links without reading something that’s startlingly dopey. Say, for example, that I log on and go to a site that archives generally very well-written and clever articles. Two examples would be Reason Online, or Arts and Letters Daily. There’s one click down. Usually, they will have two or three interesting articles to link to. Okay, so that’s two clicks. Maybe the article is very witty and insightful and impresses me. So, I decide to leave a comment to this effect and- shit! The first ten comments are along the lines of “You anti-American freak!!” or “You Halliburton-loving Bushitter! You go to Hell!”

Drat! Foiled again!

You can avoid the comments boxes altogether and along with them a few of those people who are convinced that the world is controlled by multinational corporations, or Jews, or liberals, or robots, or whoever it is this week, and who also think that every imaginable topic cries out for this unique insight of theirs. But, eventually, you’re going to read an article written by someone who doesn’t have the shadow of a clue what they’re talking about. And then, if you’re me, you’re going to stare at the screen for five minutes thinking: “I know that this is complete crap… Should I correct this guy? Or will I just get flamed by a bunch of angry middle-aged men again? Do I really care enough to correct him?” Lately, I’ve been deciding that I really don’t care. Of course, that could be the Prozac talking.

The thing is that I don’t know about a good number of things. For instance, have you ever noticed that I don’t write a lot about Germany? Well, I don’t know very much about Germany. Oh, my wife’s been there, and our friend David lives there and many of my colleagues are German. And, eventually, I’m going to learn German for my dissertation. But, honestly, I don’t know a lot about the land of brau and sausages. So, I keep my mouth shut. Similarly, I have very little to say about anime or cross-stitching.

I’ve studied France for four years and lived in Canada for about three years and grew up in the United States. So, I know a bit about each, and one thing I’ve learned is that Americans know jack shit about Canada and France, the French know fuck all about Canada and the United States, and Canadians know much less than they think they know about Americans, and generally know a little about the French, but have many misconceptions of their own. (Of course, my wife knows a lot about Americans and the French, but she’s brilliant.) I’ve had many Canadians ask me in all seriousness what it’s like to see people get shot in the streets in America. I’ve had American students tell me that they’ve heard that Canadians are dirt poor and their government is Communist. And yesterday, I had a French woman at the archives ask me if I would like to have a letter sent to my house. When I said, “I would like it, if it’s possible. I live in Canada”, she responded, “Oh, Canada! No problem! We can send it to England!” C’est vrai!

Another thing I know a little bit about is academia. I know its flaws, and have pointed them out here ad nauseum, but I also know its strengths. More importantly, I know that people who haven’t been to college in twenty years are full of crap when they say that academia is controlled by a consortium of anti-American radicals with ties to Hamas. But, you know what I’ve found? Even if you’re embedded in the academic world and they took three night classes twenty years ago, they still think that you haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about when you disagree with them, because they read on “Academic Hamas Watch” that academia is controlled by a consortium of anti-American radicals with ties to Hamas, and that’s that. Because the Internet puts “a world of information at your fingertips” it allows a goodly number of people who have no clue what they’re talking about to have no clue that they have no clue what they’re talking about.

The Internet was supposed to make better informed people. But, one thing I’ve realized is that there are many people on the Internet that don’t really want to be well informed, or even know what they’re talking about. They just want firm and solid positions to take, and someone who’ll tell them that they’re right even if they aren’t. And for people who aren’t really curious about anything, the Internet is great because it makes deep learning seem pointless: why learn when you can Google? The idea of sacred knowledge, or even superior knowledge, is completely passé.

Even better, if you have some ridiculous delusion- say that the local Pizza delivery boys are all homosexuals who are putting roofies in the pepperoni pizzas to have their way with the customers- you will be guaranteed to find at least a few people on the Internet who have the same delusion. Hell, there’s probably a news site- “Pizza Boy Watch” or “Beneath the Mozzarella Cheese” that you can use to narrowcast your life around your delusions. The Internet is great for the dispersal of urban legends and plain old crapola. And because the Anti-Pizza Boy people have as good a website as does the Chicago Tribune, it’s difficult to know who should be respected and who should be ignored. Moreover, those pizza boys really are pretty shady.

Maybe it was that old wishful thinking of the Enlightenment… the idea that in a democracy of knowledge the best arguments will win out. That people are generally rational, and so, all things being equal, they will be swayed by the strongest and most rational arguments. But, maybe that’s wrong too. Maybe people just want to explain the world to themselves, and find that a very convincing line of nonsense works as well as anything else does.

So, maybe when I have a minute, I’ll go online and check out “Germans are Controlling My Mind” dot com, and learn a thing or two about those wily Germans.


Jen P. said...

Nice, Rufus. I don't claim not to write crapola, but at least I don't claim to know anything either!

Rufus said...

Well, I wasn't thinking of you. Actually, I was thinking more of the many "Watch" blogs...

Rufus said...

Like "I'm watching the New York Times and I'm going to prove they're liberal", or "I'm watching Fox News and I'm going to prove they're conservative". People have a lot of free time.