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Humanist Archives: Nov. 25, 2018, 6:50 a.m. Humanist 32.221 - the psychoanalysis of everyday computing

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 32, No. 221.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
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    [1]    From: Jeffrey Savoye 
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.218: the psychoanalysis of everyday computing (96)

    [2]    From: Mark Wolff 
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.218: the psychoanalysis of everyday computing (84)


--[1]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: 2018-11-24 14:08:38+00:00
        From: Jeffrey Savoye 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.218: the psychoanalysis of everyday computing

Francois Lachance has, I think, successfully pointed out the rhetorical 
issue with the precise phrasing of the passage in question. The writer 
has taken the convenient dichotomy of easy and hard, with built-in 
presumptions of relative merit. (Perhaps ironically, those he addresses 
have taken the opposite view, that easy is good or better than hard.) It 
is not difficult, however, to take the meaning of what he is saying 
rather than an overly analytical focus on the specific choice of words, 
and I think what he has said is essentially sound. (Replace the word 
"hard" with something more like "more challenging and the rewards 
greater.") I have often pointed out to my nephew, who tends all too 
often to take the easiest and most immediate route, that the easy road 
leads downhill, while the best views are more often to be found on the 
mountaintops than in the valleys. One may, of course, split hairs over 
this phrasing as well, but we should probably accept that all metaphors 
have limitations and that the idea being communicated is the thing on 
which to focus our attention.

The internet is full of interesting information, and some of it is even 
true. (Determining which is which is the challenge.) There is, of 
course, a great deal of information that is not available on the 
internet, and there is a great difference between data, information and 
knowledge.

Way back in 1995, when the internet was just beginning to capture the 
world in its web, Clifford Stoll wrote a book called Silicon Snake Oil. 
It was widely criticized at the time, in spite of Stoll's personal 
reputation as an astronomer and system administrator, and Stoll himself 
has referred to it as his "howler,"  at least in regard to many of his 
predictions (which is always a tricky business). Many of his concerns, 
however, have proven to be valid and insightful. (His writing, sadly, is 
not the best or most compelling in terms of organization or style.) I 
think of it often along with the early promises of what television would 
be. One by one, channels that did once provide a good deal of 
information have slipped into absurdities, such that the so-called 
History Channel is little more now than Pawn Stars, Ancient Aliens and 
the Curse of Oak Island ("could this soda bottle have been used by the 
knights templar?"). There will always be a greater market for 
extravagant and entertaining nonsense than for deeper thought and more 
analytical approaches. One might even say that this fate is preordained 
since the first is easier to produce and absorb and the second is harder 
on both counts (if also, ultimately, more worthwhile). As I often point 
out at work, Cassandra's curse was not that she was wrong in predicting 
bad outcomes, but that she was right and no one would listen to her 
because it isn't what they wanted to hear.

Jeffrey A. Savoye
The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore
https://www.eapoe.org


>          Date: 2018-11-24 02:23:14+00:00
>          From: Francois Lachance 
>          Subject: [Correction Re: [Humanist] 32.215: the psychoanalysis of everyday computing]
>
> Willard
>
> The Bret Stephens piece quoted by Mark Wolff seems with is repetitive
> sequences to be an enticing argument.
>
>>> Tweeting and trolling are easy. Mastering the arts of conversation and
>>> measured debate is hard. Texting is easy. Writing a proper letter is
>>> hard.
>>> Looking stuff up on Google is easy. Knowing what to search for in the
>>> first
>>> place is hard. Having a thousand friends on Facebook is easy.
>>> Maintaining six
>>> or seven close adult friendships over the space of many years is hard.
>>> Swiping
>>> right on Tinder is easy. Finding love -- and staying in it -- is hard.
>
> But its logic is betrayed by an two assumptions that are not inductively
> or deductively true:
>
> (1) X is easy, Y is hard therefore Y is better
>
> (2) Y takes longer and therefore is better
>
> I do not trust the dichotomies that are marshalled here. To tweet well is
> an art of concision that takes practice. To text with any touch of
> brilliance requires a knack for combining words that will tickle attention
> --  providing connectors for conversation. Searching is often a race
> against the algorithm pushing its own response which sacrifices precision
> -- the art of searching depends on learning to bank on the aleatory.
> Friendship is often nourished by acquaintance -- from those superficial
> encounters I sometimes bring back tidbits to share with those I have a
> deep and abiding relationship with -- like the posting to a discussion
> list that led to my reading Stephens's opinion piece and my own little
> rant here.
>
> And it has been easy (but not instantaneous).
>
> There I feel better now.
>




--[2]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: 2018-11-25 00:05:35+00:00
        From: Mark Wolff 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.218: the psychoanalysis of everyday computing

On Nov 23, 2018, at 9:16 PM, Francois Lachance wrote:

> I do not trust the dichotomies that are marshalled here [(1)X is easy, 
> Y is hard therefore Y is better; (2) Y takes longer
> [than X] and therefore is better]. To tweet well is an art of
> concision that takes practice. To text with any touch of brilliance
> requires a knack for combining words that will tickle attention --
> providing connectors for conversation. Searching is often a race
> against the algorithm pushing its own response which sacrifices
> precision -- the art of searching depends on learning to bank on
> the aleatory. Friendship is often nourished by acquaintance --
> from those superficial encounters I sometimes bring back tidbits
> to share with those I have a deep and abiding relationship with --
> like the posting to a discussion list that led to my reading
> Stephens's opinion piece and my own little rant here.

No doubt there are brilliant users of Twitter, Google, and 
Facebook. You can learn a lot with these online media (myself 
included) and I try to teach my students how to use these 
media effectively and responsibly. But the question here is 
not if social media is worse than other forms of communication.

This thread began with a question by Willard:

> It has led me to wonder where and how computing in general, 
> and computationally aided enquiry specifically, fit into our 
> psychic lives and vice versa. […] I mean what is happening to 
> our ways of reasoning and to other cognitive processes through 
> the unguarded (if it is) back door. Would not a better understanding 
> of this help us understand so much more about what we computing 
> humanists are doing -- or not doing, and should?

In the essay by Bret Stephens I cited (https://nyti.ms/2DrlFfV) 
he laments a decline in seriousness and effectiveness of public discourse:

> [We] tend to forget that technology is only as good as the people 
> who use it. We want it to elevate us; we tend to degrade it. In a 
> better world, Twitter might have been a digital billboard of ideas 
> and conversation ennobling the public square. We’ve turned it into 
> the open cesspool of the American mind. Facebook was supposed to 
> serve as a platform for enhanced human interaction, not a tool for 
> the lonely to burrow more deeply into their own isolation.

Stephens would agree with François Lachance that the technology 
alone is not the problem. After marshalling his dichotomies, Stephens 
makes this point:

> That’s what Socrates (or Thamus) means when he deprecates the written 
> word: It gives us an out. It creates the illusion that we can remain 
> informed, and connected, even as we are spared the burdens of attentiveness, 
> presence of mind and memory.

This is an ancient controversy, one that connects with Willard’s 
question about “what is happening to our ways of reasoning and to 
other cognitive processes”. Humanists continue to ponder the effects 
of the written word as a technology on reasoning and knowledge, and 
that inquiry should not jump to the conclusion that raising concerns 
about how social media create problems should not be taken seriously 
if it is possible (for some, at least) to use social media effectively 
and responsibly.

Of course one can do marvelous things with online media. If everyone 
were drawn to the finest examples of online public discourse, the 
world would be much more enlightened. The example of Donald Trump 
on Twitter shows however that one can tweet with a "touch of brilliance,” 
demonstrate "a knack for combining words that will tickle attention --  
providing connectors for conversation,” and still lead us to cesspools 
of bigotry and ignorance.

Online media make it easier to say, think or do things one might not 
otherwise say, think or do. How is this situation no different than 
what Plato worried about, and how is it different?

mw
--
Mark B. Wolff, Ph.D.
Professor of French
Chair, Modern Languages
One Hartwick Drive
Hartwick College
Oneonta, NY  13820
(607) 431-4615

http://markwolff.name/


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