Me, My Blog, & I

November 25, 2008

I’ve been thinking about what direction I want my blog to go in, and how I want my blog to reflect and effect my life. There’s been quite a few separate fibers that have come together to form the thread I’m sewing now. The most important ones are perhaps the most personal.

Some months ago, I think in June, my father and I were listening to NPR in the car. There was a discussion about whether or not the internet was making us stupid, whether the nigh unlimited access to information we find online, and the ease of tracking down our wild tangents in Wikipedia or with the aid of Google was destroying our abilities to read longer works attentively and think deeply  about subjects. I scoffed at it at first. How could the democratization of knowledge be bad?

I was missing the point. Access to information and unlimited education is powerful and should be available for all people. But what we must be careful of, as individuals responsible for ourselves, is that we do not let the hasty animal aspects, the unhindered curiosity for our surroundings, the urge to skim quickly and then react (things the internet encourages, through links that let you chase down extraneous information, flashing, distracting adverts, the instantaneous updates brought by news feeds and the abbreviated colloquialisms employed in IM conservations), to impinge on what should be deeper, slower processes. Reading. Thinking. Creating. Sharing.

When I was in third grade I read the complete works of Shakespeare. I found an old single volume hardcover copy in my parents’ basement with a faded brown dust jacket decorated with a watercolor of the Bard’s England, and I set my mind to read it. I knew that Shakespeare was supposed to be good, the best even, and I knew that I loved good writing, so it seemed the moral thing to do. I lugged the massive book to school each day, where it would sit on my desk when not in use, taking up a quarter of the surface area. My teacher would threaten all the usual grade school punishments if I didn’t start bringing a less obtrusive book from home, but I persevered. At the age of eight, I read the complete works of William Shakespeare.

I am not telling you this to brag or to show you how smart I was. To be completely honest, I didn’t understand ninety-five percent of what the poet was trying to say. I didn’t even understand what the characters were saying in the dialogue. I am telling you this because what is important is that I took the effort to read every single word that we’ve inherited from Shakespeare and when I didn’t understand something, I thought about it until I either understood it or I had a headache. I did not go to sparknotes.com and I did not skim. I did not turn to Wikipedia for a summary of the plot. I didn’t do any of those things because I couldn’t. I had no access to the internet whatsoever and even if I had, those resources probably weren’t available back in 1995.

And now, at age twenty one, when searching for the online article that accompanied that NPR broadcast, I find that I cannot even finish it before getting distracted and opening up a text editor to start writing this.

I am actually less skilled at reading and thinking now then I was at the age of eight. I may read more words per minute, but I am reading less carefully. I am learning less. I am retaining less. Worst of all, I am reflecting less.

I first started blogging in high school, in what I believe was my sophomore year. Because my day was heavily invested in classes and mandatory sports practices and study halls, and because I rarely had a computer of my own (I was the scholarship boy in my class, and had little money while at boarding school) I did not have the opportunity to post frequently. If I was lucky I could get an open computer a few times a week in the library. Obviously, I could not send off the short little bursts of rapid fire blogging that is so predominant in this medium. What I did have, though, was a lot of time spent in boring classes or on the sidelines of athletic events to think, and so I thought carefully and constantly. My posts, as I remember them, were passionate about politics, but they were also philosophical in nature, touching on human things meant to stir the few readers I had, not just pass on the news I read in the few papers the school subscribed to. They were often long, dallying on a single topic but drawing from all of my experiences and interests: my love of punk music, my penchant for Russian literature, my radical idealism and my old-soul cynicism, and my working class upbringing flung into an upper-class environ.

And now, with my laptop as constant companion and an open schedule that ought to be spent writing literary fiction, which is what I promised myself I would do in lieu of going back to school, I am skimming a million news articles and posting nearly everyday, frequently multiple times a day.  The posts are usually short, no more than a few paragraphs, and my comments are trite, and cheap, and add very little to the public discourse. I have, once, tried to write a piece deeper than the typical blog fare, but in review I find the results to be poor: the language struggles, the sentences enjamb unnaturally and it reads as if I were a mumbling street preacher. What I am trying to say is important, I don’t doubt that, but I lack the skills to say it.

My use of the internet is, it turns out, abuse. I have traded away my brooding study in exchange for an all encompassing buckshot of skim reading, estimation, and chiding. I have not got very much to say anymore, but very many topics  on which I feel required to speak. In high school I would spend whatever money I had ordering books, and I would wile away an entire weekend dissecting Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread. Now I struggle to get through an abridged edition of Marx’s Capital, and I spend no more than fifteen minutes on it at a time before I go running for my RSS Reader to see if XKCD updated. In my youth I spent time writing epic (and awful, as most youthful writing is) novels on reams of loose leaf paper. These days I have to force myself to sit down and drag a short story to a conclusion, if I get that far.

Petrov Kropotkin at his desk.

Peter Kropotkin at his desk.

The Archaeologist Lambros Malafouris has one of the greatest names I’ve ever come across. He also has a very interesting idea. According to Malafouris, the tools we use, be it a tablet for keeping records, a blind man’s cane, or a hunter’s spear are not simply utilitarian objects we employ, but actively shape the way our brains work, and have played and will continue to play an important part in our cognitive evolution. He credits our species’ philosophical and inventive nuance to our use and dependence on tools, for example. In short, the creation changes the creator. This makes a lot of sense to me. Running with his interdisciplinary hypothesis, it has led me to reflect on how my use of computers and the internet has altered my thinking.

I feel rabidly, insatiably hungry. I consume information constantly, but as to what nutritional content that information has, I pay no mind. For me the internet has been a 24 hour McDonald’s drive-thru window. I have become such a consummate consumer that I do not even stop to question if I need this, if this is good for me. I do not even stop to ask if I am enjoying this. And no, it turns out, I am not enjoying this. My mind has turned into Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. There are so many things going on in my intellectual life, so many characters to keep track of and simultaneous plots to read through, that I have difficulty keeping track of it all, and I am overwhelmed. There is no time for understanding any of it. That shows in my blogging, which has amounted to little more than a few dumb jokes and some righteous fury quickly spent. My ideas are fetal pigs stuck in jars, never to grow any larger or develop any legs. My thoughts need time; the style of blogging that I’ve been pursuing demands immediacy. Ergo, my ideas are small and premature, bitter and unimportant.

So I am going to take back my mind.

Rather serendipitously, the New York Times recently ran an article in the Fashion & Style section on the slow blogging movement. Adherents of slow blogging intend to take the time to think about a topic and compose a meaningful essay, rather than blogging about a subject as soon as the headline drops. In short, it is more or less the antithesis to the current ruling zeitgeist on how blogging ought to work. It is also a perfect fit for what I want to do, or need to do, with this blog. There’s a Slow Blog Manifesto written by Todd Sieling (who seems to be returning to his Slow Blog, despite what the NY Times article says) that I encourage anyone else who wants to find a more contemplative form of blogging. It was the third point in his Manifesto that preoccupied my mind the most.

Slow Blogging is a reversal of the disintegration into the one-liners and cutting turns of phrase that are often the early lives of our best ideas. Its a process in which flashes of thought shine and then fade to take their place in the background as part of something larger. Slow Blogging does not write thoughts onto the ethereal and eternal parchment before they provide an enduring worth in the shape of our ideas over time.

For me, that first sentence spells out exactly what is wrong with my blog at the moment.

I am going to blog less often. There will not be pressure to get a blog post up every day, and perhaps not even every week. A post will materialize only when I have wrestled with a subject long enough to make my viewpoint valuable. Conversely, blog posts will be longer. Instead of simply throwing headlines out into the internet, echoing a hundred million other simultaneous bloggers the world over, I will actually think deeply before speaking. As a result when I speak I will probably have quite a bit to say. Hopefully it will be meaningful as well.
So, I hope you like to read. And reflect.

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9 Responses to “Me, My Blog, & I”

  1. […] started reading another seemingly short post, “Me, My Blog, and I,” and discovered he’d folded the quite long post behind a cut-line. So I went to the […]

  2. You should get a trackback to my response to this post, so I’ll keep this one short by saying I found it very excellent indeed.

    I look forward to reading more.

  3. What a great post! I have felt this way since I began blogging. I felt pressure to be prolific, and then quickly got over it. I write when something moves me or stirs me. Yes, I have done the odd “plug” blog or headline news entry, but I really dislike those and don’t do them much anymore. I have learned to get over the idea of readership and the notion that one has to publish frequently to retain and increase readership. I don’t care anymore. I blog for me… and those who identify with what I have to share or reflect on. The ‘blogging-as-marketing’ mindset is one I am happy to leave behind.

    Just like this post, ideas that move us to passionately write are probably most likely to move others who read. In his book, The Culture of Education, Jerome Bruner wrote, “The enemy of reflection is the breakneck pace – the thousand pictures.” I think he was correct.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to write this.
    Clay Shirky points out that when publishing was expensive and difficult, publishers would filter before they published, not wanting to waste resources. Now, creators publish everything,leaving the impossible job of filtering to the public. (Digg, Newsvine…help some.)
    Thanks to slow blogging, I believe both the media creator and consumer will be better served.
    The slow food, blogging, reading…movement is a reaction to the consumer-led way of life that has only lead to stress, illness and feelings of inadequacy.

  5. I think the slow blogging movement is a fascinating reaction to what’s been going on in social media. Good luck with it, I’ll be interested to see what comes next.

  6. spgreenlaw said

    Thanks, everyone, for the kind words and support, especially you, Clay. I’m really glad that there seems to be a strong undercurrent of interest in alternatives to the blogging norm.

  7. […] all, about what to read. And here’s where we might talk about “fast reading” – my term for S.P. Greenlaw’s mention of his RSS Reader addiction – as the real problem, not […]

  8. MBH said

    Thanks for this! I feel like you captured something that has been simmering in my brain eloquently.

  9. Super-Duper site! I am loving it!! Will come back again – taking your feeds too now, Thanks.

    I’m Out! :)

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