Tuesday, July 19, 2011

In Soviet Russia, Rubik's Cube Solves YOU

Okay, but this is IT.

Yesterday I checked out Like Shaking Hands with God (Seven Stories Press, 1999), a book of conversations about writing between Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer. Boy, am I ever glad I didn't buy it, and all hail once more to public libraries, the training schools of socialism! I hadn't heard of Stringer before, but one small virtue of this one is that it pointed me toward his books. Vonnegut I've read, of course, and Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the books I will keep no matter how I whittle down my collection in years to come. But here he just embarrasses me.

I do like his remarks about literature as
the only art that requires our audience to be performers. You have to be able to read and you have to be able to read awfully well. You have to read so well that you get irony! I'll say one thing meaning another, and you'll get it. Expecting a large number of people to be literate is like expecting everybody to play the French horn. It is extremely difficult [17-18].
But even here he goes a bit too far. Yes, a reader is a performer, as Vonnegut says. But though reading is harder to learn than spoken language, most people can learn to do it well enough. A significant part of the problem is that reading is generally taught in school in such a way as to discourage students from learning to do it well. If you're just playing a rousing game of "Ain't It Awful," of course, such considerations are unimportant. I do expect large numbers of people to be literate, though "large numbers" and "literate" both need to be defined. And that's leaving aside the question of whether people only respond creatively to written texts: understanding oral performance (which long predates the invention of writing and the spread of literacy beyond small elite groups) also involves complex skills of decoding and meaning-making.

What really annoyed me was this excerpt from Vonnegut's book Timequake, which was read aloud the evening this conversation took place:
A Luddite to the end ... I persist in pecking away at a manual typewriter. That still leaves me technologically several generations ahead of William Styron and Stephen King, who, like [Vonnegut's character Kilgore] Trout, write with pens on yellow legal pads.

I correct my pages with pen or pencil. I have come into Manhattan on business. I telephone a woman who has been doing my retyping for years and years now. She doesn't have a computer, either [40].
"Telephone"?! A true Luddite would write a letter with a quill pen, and dispatch it by messenger, who would wait for any reply and bear it back. Preferably on foot -- none of these newfangled 'railroads', as I believe the young people call them. He goes on to talk about sending some pages to his typist by post, using an envelope. An envelope, for heaven's sake -- a true Luddite would simply fold the ms. and seal it with wax and his personal seal. A gentleman has a personal seal, cuts his own quills, and grinds his own ink.

Vonnegut goes on to talk about the importance of face-to-face dealings with people, and I'm with him there. (So is Samuel Delany, who also discussed the importance of such contact at about the same time in his Times Square Red, Times Square Blue [NYU Press, 1999].) At the post office,
I put the waiting time to good use. I learn about stupid bosses and jobs I will never have, and about parts of the world I will never see, and about diseases I hope I will never have, and about different kinds of dogs people have owned, and so on. By means of a computer? No. I do it by means of the lost art of conversation [44].
I hadn't noticed that the art of conversation was lost. (To lose one art might be accounted a misfortune... But now that I think about it, gossiping in a queue, as fine a pastime as it is, isn't what is usually meant by "the art of conversation.") Vonnegut should have looked in the pockets of his other pair of pants, I know that's where I always find misplaced items. But technology hasn't a lot to do with that issue. As his admission about Styron and King shows, Vonnegut is aware that Luddism is relative. He uses advanced technology when it suits him, like his typewriter and telephone. And though I have a computer, and I even used a fax machine yesterday, I still value face-to-face dealings with people, as do all the younger people I know. Technology is often an excuse for shutting oneself away, rather than a reason; people became recluses long before Facebook.

As the poet Adrienne Rich once wrote: "Nostalgia is only amnesia turned around."

Which reminds me, Dennis Baron has an interesting new post at his Web of Language blog, "Computers Remember So You Don't Have To." He begins by describing studies which show that people who rely on computers and the Internet tend not to remember the information they get there.
More and more we’re saying to ourselves, “Why bother memorizing the names of the Oscar-nominated movies for 1939 when I can just look them up on IMDb?” Or, as the psychologists put it, “The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.”
Familiar so far, but instead of indulging in a technophobic rant, Baron continues:
But this is not surprising. Relying on an external database is nothing new: before digitized contacts files there were address books; before IMDb there were Leonard Maltin books. Before Wikipedia there were analog encyclopedias. And before Google there were librarians. As the experimenters acknowledge, humans have always recognized the role of individual expertise: we quickly learn who to ask for the best recipe, the most-accurate directions, the conversion from Fahrenheit to centigrade. That way we don't have to remember everything.
And for that matter, we don't have to memorize a lot of recipes because they're in the cookbook. We don't have to memorize the music we play on instruments because we have systems of notation that let us write it down. I've always had trouble remembering how to convert Fahrenheit to centigrade, even before computers, but that was because I so seldom had to do it. If I'd done it more, I'd have memorized it. I remember the birthdays of all three of my brothers and my niece, but after a few years BC (Before Computers) trying to work out a system on index cards, I keep track of the birthdays of my far-flung friends on my computer. Bitch about it if you like, but using such tools enables me to remember more birthdays than I could have done otherwise. My friends generally seem pleased when I send birthday greetings, and none have complained so far that I do by e-mail instead of sending a handwritten note in black ink on creamy white notepaper by manservant.

Baron then quotes Plato from the Phaedrus:
This invention [writing] will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.
So, you see, it all started with writing. Or maybe it started when we first started covering our bodies with artificial skin so that we could live in colder climates, or when we began making stone tools instead of using our natural, god-given teeth to rip and tear. Back to the Stone Age! Back to the days before the Stone Age, when we weren't isolated and dehumanized by technology!