Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Huge Ears"

Yesterday I appealed to the folk poem "Lob des hohen Verstands," from the Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection, to provide a stick for beating up on the poor judgment of the popular media. This morning I realized that the stick may serve me just as well in my ongoing efforts to undermine the argument that the Internet supports the "wisdom of crowds." Recall why the devious cuckoo nominates a donkey to judge his song contest with the nightingale:

Since he has two huge ears,
He can hear so much better
And will know what is correct.

Like the donkey the Internet has very "huge ears," whose prodigious growth is a product of the industrious efforts of Web searching by the massive servers of Google (and others) to "hear" everything in cyberspace. We might even continue the metaphor by comparing the blogosphere with the donkey's insistent and strident voice ("Eee-yah!"). However, the real poetic wisdom of the text, which translator Emily Ezust deftly captured, lies in the key verb of this passage. Like English, German draws a distinction between the verb for "to hear" (hören) and the one for "to listen" (horchen), which is the distinction that mattered so much to Igor Stravinsky. Recall how Stravinsky put it:

Others let the ears be present and they don't make an effort to understand. To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.

Like Stravinsky's duck, the donkey's ears are present to the nightingale's song; but the "effort to understand" is entirely absent:

You make me dizzy! Eee-yah!
I can't get it into my head!

To reduce the argument to exaggerated simplicity, Google allows us to "hear" everything and "listen to" (i.e. understand) nothing. (In a modern translation the donkey might well be given the name Yelp!)

To be fair to these lower animals, ducks and donkeys both inhabit an ecology in which listening does not matter. It is sufficient to detect specific classes of auditory stimuli, and survival may depend on responding to those stimuli efficiently. Reflective deliberation is not part of the system, nor should it be. In more refined terms ducks and donkeys have no need for Immanuel Kant's elaborate model in which the power of judgment mediates between the pure reason of cognition and the applied reason of desire. We, on the other hand, must deal with a far more complex ecology, which is why so much of Kant's philosophical efforts were exerted towards how we deal with that ecology, even if he never used that particular term explicitly. The question of whether or not Google is making us stupid, as Nicholas Carr put it in his Atlantic Monthly article, is simply a pejorative way of asking whether our "Internet culture" is eroding our capacities for dealing with the ecology in which we are situated.

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