THERE was a time when we knew where we were getting our ideas. In my eighth grade English class, we were assigned “A Tale of Two Cities,” and lest we enjoy the novel, we were instructed to read Charles Dickens’s classic with an eye toward tracking the symbolism in the text. One afternoon while I was in the library, struggling to find symbols, I ran into a few of my classmates, who removed from their pockets folded yellow and black pamphlets that read “Cliffs Notes” and beneath that the title of Dickens’s novel in block letters. That “study guide” was a revelation.Read the rest.
Here were the plot, the characters, even the symbols, all laid out in paragraphs and bullet points. I read the Cliffs Notes in one night, and wrote my B paper without finishing the novel. The lesson was not to immerse and get lost in the actual cultural document itself but to mine it for any valuable ore and minerals — data, factoids, what you need to know — and then trade them on the open market.
With the advent of each new technology — movable type, radio, television, the Internet — there have been laments that the end is nigh for illuminated manuscripts, for books, magazines and newspapers. What is different now is the ubiquity of the technology that is replacing every old medium.
The information is everywhere, a constant feed in our hands, in our pockets, on our desktops, our cars, even in the cloud. The data stream can’t be shut off. It pours into our lives a rising tide of words, facts, jokes, GIFs, gossip and commentary that threatens to drown us. Perhaps it is this fear of submersion that is behind this insistence that we’ve seen, we’ve read, we know. It’s a none-too-convincing assertion that we are still afloat. So here we are, desperately paddling, making observations about pop culture memes, because to admit that we’ve fallen behind, that we don’t know what anyone is talking about, that we have nothing to say about each passing blip on the screen, is to be dead.
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Karl Greenfeld writes for the NY Times: