Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Writing the Elephant

As could have been anticipated, Nicholas Carr's Atlantic Monthly article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?," has attracted a fair amount of attention in the blogosphere; but what has struck me more than anything else is the vast diversity of reactions, many of which seem to demonstrate that reading practice of zipping "along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski" that provoked Carr into writing this piece in the first place. In my own post I had to distinguish between Carr's text, my reading of Carr's text, Charles Cooper's reading of Carr in his blog post (which first directed me to Carr's article), and my reading of Cooper's text! It is as if, because Carr wrote an article of such considerable length and depth, he elicited from his would-be readers those same bad habits that he quoted Bruce Friedman describing:

I can’t read War and Peace anymore. I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.

Carr's text has thus become a latter-day instance of that elephant being groped by blind men. The one grabbing a leg thinks the elephant is like a tree. The one holding the tail thinks the elephant is like a rope. The one who finds the trunk thinks the elephant is like a snake.

This phenomenon may actually reinforce one aspect of Carr's article, which seems to have been ignored by most (if not all) of these blind men (possibly because many of those Jet-Ski-readers latched on to the quote by Friedrich Nietzsche about how "our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts" and would prefer to argue over whether Nietzsche became a better philosopher for using a typewriter). Those who ventured no further than Nietzsche never made it to the discussion of Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose initial work that would eventually culminate in his Principles of Scientific Management happened, coincidentally, to begin around the same time that Nietzsche learned to type. Carr's discussion of the impact of Taylorism was well developed; but I think he would have done better to adopt the phrase that Raymond Callahan invoked, describing Taylorism as "the cult of efficiency." Cults have a tendency to take some single principle and hold it above all others; and, as Carr rightly observes, ours is now very much a culture dominated by the cult of efficiency. I would even agree with him that the Googleplex is the "high church" of this cult and that, while Taylorism was first conceived to improve the efficiency of brute-force manufacturing production lines, today's priests of Taylorism are more concerned with what is called (ironically, if not laughably) "knowledge work." (Callahan probably could have seen this coming, since he introduced his phrase in a book about the deleterious impact of Taylorism on public education.)

The primary consequence of this domination of efficiency is, as I have observed on several past occasions, a suppression of the value of effectiveness in both the products we encounter and the very actions in which we engage in both work and leisure time. Thus, in a time of economic crisis (such as the present one), we encounter a lot of jargon about the virtues of "efficient markets" with little reflection on whether those virtues apply to either producers or consumers or whether they only benefit those who trade in shares of the businesses that have to do the actual producing and consuming. Similarly, as Callahan discussed, public education institutions find themselves forced (usually through inadequate resources) to think only about how "efficient" they are at "producing" students who can jump through the hoops of standardized tests, thus ignoring the more fundamental effectiveness question of whether or not those kids are actually learning anything.

There is, of course, a reason for this bias. Efficiency can almost always be measured with highly objective instruments. Effectiveness, on the other hand, almost always comes down to the exercise of judgment in the social world. Viewed through the lens of a social theorist like Jürgen Habermas, effectiveness is something that is recognized through negotiated understanding of the situation being assessed, enabled by communicative actions. The objective instruments need to be given less priority (but not ignored), because, as I entitled one of my posts about a year ago, "If you reduce it all to a single number, that number is almost certainly wrong!"

From this point of view, we can drive home Carr's punch line with a rather powerful hammer. Yes, we are being "made stupid" in the world the Internet has made with Google as one of its primary instruments. However, we might do better to be more specific and assert that our capacity for understanding (particularly understanding that arises from negotiations through social engagement) has been seriously eroded (or, in more politically correct language, "challenged"). We experience this erosion in the deteriorating quality of the goods and services that we pay for with our increasingly meager cash supplies, but the cult of efficiency is so strong that we cannot see that change will not come until that cult is abandoned. Unfortunately, when it comes to viewing our own life-world, we are no better than those blind men groping the elephant; so it is unlikely that we shall be experiencing any "deprogramming" of our cult of efficiency in the foreseeable future.

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