Reading and Writing in a Virtual Jungle

October 7, 2009 at 8:01 pm | Posted in uncategorized | 1 Comment

(authored by Jeff Doell)

Some time ago I came across a video meant extol the virtues of electronic communication, compared to the rigidly linear and soon to be antiquated traditional print media of yesteryear. I tried to find the video on the internet so I could link to it. I entered every search term I could think of and finding half a dozen sites discussing web thinking, none of which I deemed worthy of a link, gradually concluding that the internet was not a web of meaningful connections, rather a tangle mixing the interesting and important with the meaningless and trivial.

Searching for a needle in a haystack with the likes of Google, and its web –crawling –google –bots and complex algorithms, constantly in flux to outwit clever spammers. (see How Google Works) No knock on Google, but getting their attention and saying something insightful are two totally different things. The ability to create a set of instructions that will break down and classify text without understanding it is quite a trick, but the difficulties of applying such a strict protocol when dealing with complex ideas and subtler themes has become apparent as the company has ventured into the domain of traditional librarians with Google Books Library Project. Harvard librarian Robert Darton has written that Google’s efforts “to digitize collections and sell the product in ways that fail to guarantee wide access … would turn the Internet into an instrument for privatizing knowledge that belongs in the public sphere,” while others complain the millions of electronic volumes are poorly organized: “Google has misdated hundreds of books and scattered many multivolume works so arbitrarily that they’re hard to piece together even with the computer’s help.” (see Google Books and the Judge, The New Yorker Book Bench, Sept. 18, 2009)

Such a democratic forum might not be the appropriate method to access high quality research and literature carefully produced by professionals who cannot be expected to labor without just compensation. (see The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen. But surely the internet is useful, begging just what kind of content is best suited for internet access? Reading through the posts on our course website, my own comments and this post included, I get to feeling how I imagine would a teacher grading student essays, which seems strangely at odds with fast pace typical of electronic communication, usually scanned and actively navigated as opposed to dutifully followed like traditional prose. While considering the merits of brevity in internet postings, I penned the following:

To speak in terms of instantly
recognizable units

Rumination will only
conceal its essence

The kind of austerity you’d
expect from a math teacher

Raising dystopic concerns
of Orwellian newspeak

Doesn’t a little explanation
prevent misunderstanding?

Our complex web of connectivity deals best with short pithy statements that are well tagged and available for hyperlink. It is less important for the creators of internet content to carefully connect ideas because connections are made by the navigating user. Despite Foucault’s observation that books are like nodes in a vast network, they are also entities unto themselves and arranged in an intentional fashion deserving of a certain preservation that the major thoroughfares of electronic communication cannot provide. Democracy, coincidence, dilatants, and untapped talent may be able to compete with those who have made a career of letters, but electronic communication must proceed in a way that insures the opportunity for communication at length.


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  1. I am also often frustrated when I am searching the Internet for pertinent materials for a research paper or project. I would also agree that when I am searching Google or other website networks, most of the information that surfaces is not applicable or important. The complex texts and collections that are found in libraries cannot easily be located, if at all. Any search is also very sensitive to the right “key words”. Sometimes a minute perturbation in the arrangement of the “key words” leads you into a very different realm. Many times when I am searching, I get excited by the title of some source, only to find when I open it that it has been encapsulated into some abstract that is meaningless or I must go find the book or journal instead of them providing the article I need directly. The purpose of the InterNet is to provide immediate information. Don’t you agree?

    On the other hand, I can understand what a prodigious task it must be to provide all the information that is available and categorize it for instantaneous access on the InterNet. I wouldn’t want the job. I too am concerned about websites accessing all complex works and collections. I believe this information does belong in the public sector. We surely would regress as a society if published information is harbored by private interests. Google and other websites may not be the proper guardians of such resources.

    I offer a final observation in relation to the process of gathering resources. I’ve had a couple of projects over the last few months where I’ve had to acquire at least five very different kinds of resources on the same topic. These were multi-genre projects where I had to locate a myriad of sources ranging from Children’s books to videos to novels. In this fast-paced world, it is important that I locate pertinent sources quickly. I always start out with the InterNet and usually land about 3/4 of my sources in this manner. That’s not too bad. But then one of two things happen. Either I run out of electronic real estate to search in or it becomes a case of diminishing returns. To find more takes too much time. I probably should also admit that I am not the master of such search techniques, but I can hold my own. The last 25% of the information I find and use comes from the good old Monroe County Public Library system. It’s particularly good for picture books.

    How about you? What percentage of the information that you search for do you find on the InterNet? Should everything be on the InterNet? If not, what should or should not be?

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