Friday, May 22, 2009

Post #100

So here it is, the centesimal post!

And there I was, in a half-lit room, battling with the Moose horn to horn! OK, so the room was actually rather bright. And it was not the Moose himself, nor even his agents, but his dupes who stood against me. And we didn't use horns--that was a metaphor.

But the fact remains that I went into the very lion's den (our local library), to a discussion group, and argued for a good forty-five minutes that moral absolutes exist. Against the notion that claiming to have truth is arrogant I threw out the idea that refusal to see truth is arrogant.

And the beauty part? They paid me to do it. Hate to admit to being on the Moose's payroll, but the irony is too delicious to keep to myself.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Food for thought

My apologies for the long silence. I have in fact locked antlers with the Moose in the interim, but only now do I have time to speak about it.

For now, just a short note. Two days ago, on my way home, I saw an ambulance with all its lights on parked outside a cemetery. It was odd.

They were either picking somebody up or dropping somebody off, but either way, it's odd.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Death of Tom Sawyer

The Amazon Kindle2 has arrived, announces the world’s largest purveyor of books. Takes me back to my graduate school days, when MU would announce proudly to visitors at the new library that soon we will have “a library without books”. For years beyond recall, the Moose has taught us to think of technology only in terms of the immediate task accomplished: the car gets us there faster, so cars are better; the radio gets us news more efficiently, so radios are better; the light bulb provides endless, reliable, clear light at the flick of a finger, so electric lights are better. So if eBooks are more convenient and more pleasant to read than paper books, the eBook is better, right?

Enter Marshall McLuan and his famous dictum: "The medium is the message." That is to say, every technology has imbedded in it a new way of conceiving some part of the world. When the printing press arrived, the printed word itself ceased to be an object for the ear and became an object for the eye; similarly, our understanding of what a book is changed from a kind of communal product that can be corrected, interpolated, or plagiarized without any sense of dishonesty to a kind of private property of the original author, whose words cannot be used without acknowledgment.

Already, I think, computers and especially the Internet have begun to change our conceptions of what a text is and what a book is. McLuan maintained that in many ways such technologies are bringing us back towards a more oral and less printed culture.

It is interesting to speculate about what effect a successful "e-book" will have. Right away, I expect that the publishing industry will change, and with it our conception of the very act of writing a book; the book itself will not be the same thing for us. As books become more like our computer documents, the relationship between text and memory--already dramatically changed by the printing press, and by the computer after that--will move further in the direction of the atrophy of memory, because anything we want to know from our books can be searched. This in turn will likely further change our conception of what knowledge itself is--an idea that once was closely bound to memory but has been sliding more and more in the direction of "available information."

That much seems to me certain. More detailed theories are less certain, but more sensational and so make for better blog reading.

For example, the eBook will undoubtedly change the publishing business, making the publishing of a book almost cost free. Right now, the sheer cost of getting a book printed and distributed motivates publishers to insure that their books are of a high quality, and the publisher's requirements motivates authors to write at a high level if they intend to write a book. Take away the economic motivation, and now publishers can publish anyone, or perhaps individuals can even self-publish at the press of a button. This raises the possibility that the quality of books overall will decline towards the level of the blog; in fact, individual books will get shorter and shorter, since publishers no longer need a book of a certain length to justify the cost of publishing, and books look more and more like lengthy blog posts. Now everyone gets accustomed to reading books of this sort, and thinks of books as something like blog posts, and the idea of a book has changed. Finally, a generation raised with this new conception of "book" finds it difficult to read the Great Books, because they are trying to read Shakespeare like a blog. On top of that, our hypothetical readers have downloaded the entire Great Books set for free and it takes up zero room in their house, so they are immediately inclined to treat such a thing lightly.

I don't know that will happen, but it could. Here's another one, even less certain but perhaps eerier.

In any culture, when writing is first introduced there is a period when the written word itself is viewed as magical. This was true in the ancient world, but in the not-too-recent past, some third-world country citizens took to stealing shipping receipts because they thought the receipts themselves had a magical power to bring ships laden with wealth. But even after the aura of magic has worn off, and people do not write as many mystic runes as they used to, still the written word has a kind of authority about it because it eternalizes and disembodies the word: talk yourself blue in the face, that page just keeps repeating the same thing, and because no one in particular is saying it--it "is said"--the statements on the page have a strange kind of objectivity and hence authority about them. We have something of that instinct still today: people are more inclined to see things that are in print than things that are spoken.

But suppose we move to an eText world and people know, in the back of their minds, that the words in front of them are nothing but flickering lights. The text can change almost at the speed of thought, with the touch of a button; the one screen on which I read all my "books" itself serves as a reminder that the texts I see are passing illusions, and all supposed authoritativeness of the text is gone. With this changed instinct towards the text, people have more and more trouble experiencing a sacred text as sacred and authoritative; the eBible flickers and is gone like everything else.

Now, I don’t really know that my scenarios will play out. If an eBook becomes cheap enough for a college professor with a large family, then I will buy it. But some scenario or other will inevitably play out; the eBook will not leave us unchanged; a way of thinking about the book may well be passing away--as other ways of thinking about the book have passed away before.

Time only will tell whether the new way is better or worse, but the fact is the books we grew up with will no longer exist. Remember that no book exists until it has a reader: those blots of ink on wood pulp are only virtually a book. When the world no longer has a reader capable of thinking the book, the real book will have vanished; something called "Tom Sawyer" will still be marketed, and it may even be sold in print at special stores, but it will be unconsciously reconceived by the mind of the computer age. Historians will write learned articles about what it was like to live in a "paper culture," just as today they write books about what it was like to live in an "oral culture" or a “chirographic culture”. And we will be as foreign to our children as the ancients are to us.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Virtual freedom

It's time to dispel a misunderstanding. Some of my readers--"some" and the plural form "readers" being a manifestation of my perpetual optimism--may have the impression that I hate technology, given the number of posts dedicated to my distaste for microphones, radios, and so on. Not at all.

First and foremost, I love the ability to blog. Here I am at a tiny Catholic college finishing up my degree in micromanagement, where we learn Catholic social justice principles such as the principle of subsidiarity, meaning that anything other than the boss's opinion or preference is a subsidiary concern, and yet I can venture out into the world under my true name, the Ignoramus, and do as I think best. It's not actual freedom, but it has a lot of the effects and rewards of freedom; you might call it a kind of virtual freedom.

The beauty part is that it is not really an escape under a pseudonym. Day in and day out I play a false part, that of the wise and educated man, and I use a pseudonym, "doctor"; here, in the shadows of my basement, alone in front of the computer, the mask drops. Here I gape and stare about me, aghast at the heights and the depths, in a state of trembling beyond wonder, and await the verdict of Reality.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Socrates and FOCA

Ray Moose's favorite game is to raise a big stink about something important while slipping something else in on the side. We all get excited about the economy--admittedly important--and while the air is still full of dust the issue of life itself--which gives the economy its importance--slips through. And so we end up with a president who wants to sign FOCA.

Thanks to the USCCB, most people know that FOCA would force hospitals to perform abortions. At once the religious freedom flag went up, and much dust has rightfully been kicked up about it; but we should take time to hear the argument in favor of this pro-abortion coercion and think about what it means.

The argument is this: abortion is part of basic health care.

Now apart from whether every hospital is bound to provide every part of basic health care, as though half a loaf were not better than none, notice that we have entered into a philosophical debate. How would you define what man is: based on sick people or based on healthy people? Obviously, the standard for what man is, or should be, is the healthy person. So the question of what constitutes basic health care is a question about what man is. It could have come from the mouth of Socrates.

Our president emphasizes common ground, and hopes that we can find reasonable comprimises on issues like abortion. But FOCA brings things into focus: the truth about man is not only philosophical, but political as well. Politics hinges on anthropology. Pragmatic unity cannot trump radical theoretical division.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Shakespearean Cat

Thinking again about my earlier post on atoms vs cat, I found this passage in E. F. Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed:

To say that life is nothing but a property of certain peculiar combinations of atoms is like saying that Shakespeare's Hamlet is nothing but a property of a peculiar combination of letters. The truth is that the peculiar combination of letters is nothing but a property of Shakespeare's Hamlet. The French or German versions of the play "own" different combinations of letters.

This analogy captures perfectly the approach I suggested in my earlier post.

[E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Harper, 1977), 19.]

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Moose or Monk?

My daughter reads the New St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism for school. It's a great book, with clear, crisp statements of dogma offering rich fodder for thought for years to come. Most of the time. But recently, my daughter came to the lesson on states of life, and to these three dyptichs, with left side labeled "THIS IS GOOD" and the right side "THIS IS BETTER":

First, a graphic explanation of the vow of obedience. On the left we have the lay vocation: as the family sits around the breakfast table, someone remarks, "I want to spend the day the way I think best." On the right we have the religious vocation, with a monkish looking fellow who says, "I want to spend the day the way God prefers." This ridiculous panel has become an inside joke in my family: every time I have to stop cooking to change a poopy diaper while talking with my boss on the telephone about the job that just can't wait, I comment to my wife, "I want to spend the day the way I think best!" And every time she scrubs vomit off the floor while keeping a toddler at bay with one foot before heading upstairs to wash dishes yet again, she says to me in her best infomercial voice, "I want to spend the day the way I think best!"

So here's the skinny: yes, the lay life brings more day-to-day responsibility for how you spend your day. No, a lay person is not free to spend the day in whatever selfish way he wants. Yes, a lay person can spend the day the way God would prefer him to spend it--in fact, a lay person may think that the best way to spend his day!

Next we have a graphic illustration of the vow of chastity. On the left we see a bride and a groom in church, and one of them says, "I want to marry the person of my choice." On the right we see a nun in the chapel, and she says, "I choose Christ as my spouse." Here's the problem: both the lay woman and the nun married the person of their choice! The right hand picture does show what is better, but freedom to choose whom you will marry is not the difference!

Finally, my favorite: a graphic explanation of the vow of poverty. On the left, under the heading "THIS IS GOOD", a little boy points to a sporting goods store and says, "I want an air rifle. I want a car. I want jewels. I want pretty clothes." On the right, under the heading, "THIS IS BETTER", St. Francis of Assissi says, "You can have all that. I want Christ."

Reality check, folks: this left-hand scene is NOT good. It is self-centered materialism, and it does NOT represent the ideal of the lay Christian life. If that little boy were mine, I would dock his allowance!

In all three dyptichs, the religious life is depicted fairly well, but each time the difference between the lay and the religious life is made out to be the difference between self-centeredness and Christian maturity: I want to spend my day doing what I want! I want to marry the one I want! I want to have all the stuff I want! I want what I want! Me, me, ME-E-E!" So the Baltimore Catechism elevates the religious life by denigrating the lay state.

The problem with this approach is that it implies that lay people can be selfish and that's OK. Christian maturity is for other people. Take that route, and not only will you have a lackadaisical laity, but few Catholic children will really understand the nature and attraction of the religious life. Why be good, when being bad is one of my legitimate options? But if sanctity is the goal for everyone, then the religious life will take on its real and almost irresistable attraction.