Blogs as by-ways.

Traveling the super-connected Internet superhighway is a lot like driving our high-speed interstate road systems, so asserts Diane Cameron, a local newspaper columnist, in last Sunday’s Times Union. (Warning: The TU only archives for seven days, so the link to her piece won’t work after that.)

She writes:
If you really want to see changes in the geography, culture or climate that make up the United States, you have to take the pokey slow roads.

There’s a parallel here for the Internet, our information superhighway. We’ve developed the habit of zipping around to search for info without ever leaving our desks. You can Google your way to facts and data and deals, and think you’ve learned something. But that’s often as bland and indiscriminate as spending five days seeing five states distinguished only by their rest stops and speed limits.

So, in the context of that analogy, it seems to me that weblogs are the by-ways that we can meander to find out what it’s really like out there in the global hinterlands. Unlike the fast food of IRC, weblogs give you a chance to savor the peculiar spices of the locale, take in the sights. Sometimes you have to kick your way through the garbage, but by the time you leave, you take with you a definite sense that you’ve been somewhere unique. If you leave a comment to show that you’ve been there, you’ve left your own footprint in the sands of that local history. Now that’s connectivity.

Ken of ipadventures recently posted some good stuff about “connectivity.” big picture and little picture, from global signal to personal access. Near the end of his post he says:
What we seek is a signal. A connection. The network isn’t about technology. It isn’t about business. It isn’t about profit. It’s about connections. End points are people and people connect, Sometimes we connect with machines to gather information. Often times we connect with other people because we share some link, or bond, or passing interest.

As I looked around the attendees at BloggerCon last Sunday, I couldn’t help think that I was probably the oldest one there — certainly the oldest female (who were definitely in the minority). As I experienced Joi Ito’s session on “Community” (and it was an “experience,” what with an IRC chat — that included people in the room as well as others — happening on the screen behind Joi as he RSSed and Wiki’d and Wifi’d and excitedly shared information that went completely over my aging head) I couldn’t help feeling that I was creeping along in the right lane while the rest of the traffic sped by me on that superhighway. I’m never going to catch up.

After the blue-haired boy in the straightjacket and his handlers stumbled out of the “T” last Sunday, their seats were taken by a couple of older teenaged girls who were instant messaging on their digital cell phone. I can barely program my non-digital cell phone to do one-touch dialing, and I need my magnifying glasses to see the screen anyway. My engine is stalling. I’m pulling over to the shoulder.

Joi Ito talked about how people with instant messaging no longer have to make long range plans to get together. Now you can instant message all of your friends, see who’s available to do something and meet-up spontaneously. Fast and faster and fastest. It seems to me that it’s all about connecting without really CONNECTING.

This technology is for the young and fast. The ones who grew up with with eye-bytes of MTV, with the machine-gun conversations of IRC, the get-there-quick-and-don’t-ask-questions information superhighway.

I’ve copied Diane Cameron’s entire column into an extension to this entry because she brings up implications for education that I think are crictical.

Me, I’m staying on the slow roads. I’m enjoying the by-ways of blogs, where I can linger and converse and find out what it’s like to really live somewhere else (big picture and little picture).


Life Needs Detour for a Change
by Diane Cameron
I’ve been driving and thinking a lot this past week. Spending hours on the highway allows reverie.

Our Interstate highway system was developed in the 1950s as an Eisenhower initiative. As a military man, he was aware that the condition of the roads in the United States was so poor that we would not be able to move troops cross-country in a time of war.
You have to remember those were the Cold War days when kids were practicing duck-and-cover drills in elementary school and adults were thinking about backyard bomb shelters. Our enemy was the Russians who we thought might invade any minute. Turns out the Commies didn’t bomb us, but we got an interstate highway system. Not bad for the law of unintended consequences.

The result of those highways was that we could get around faster. It also created an idea that we easily could see the whole country. With the interstate, you could drive across the United States in three or four days.

But, as anyone who has done this knows, you don’t really “See the USA in your Chevrolet,” despite the freewheeling idea of that old ad. The fallacy is that when you drive cross-country on highways, you begin to imagine that you’ve been somewhere and seen something, but all you’ve experienced is the interstate: fast, bland and boring, just like the food available along the way. If you really want to see changes in the geography, culture or climate that make up the United States, you have to take the pokey slow roads.

There’s a parallel here for the Internet, our information superhighway. We’ve developed the habit of zipping around to search for info without ever leaving our desks. You can Google your way to facts and data and deals, and think you’ve learned something. But that’s often as bland and indiscriminate as spending five days seeing five states distinguished only by their rest stops and speed limits.

This matters now because we’re at a crossroads with education and technology. We have this idea that learning has to be computer based and we measure schools by the numbers of computers available. But do the kids using them learn how to think?
A friend who teaches junior high says she’s come to hate the Internet. “It destroys learning,” she tells me. Kids get tons of information, but they have no way to decipher it. She and other teachers complain that students can’t tell good ideas from bad or legitimate sources from loony ones, and can’t assess authority.

And painfully, they don’t know the difference between an opinion and a fact. “It was on the Web,” they say when questioned about material in their reports. Technology is great when it enhances how we learn, but sometimes we might benefit from an older technology: turning pages to acquire information. Sometimes we need the benefit of speed, but even when driving on an interstate sometimes you have to take an exit, get out of the car and look at the view. Ditto for the Internet. We need to look at the intellectual scenery: Read a book, go to the library and talk to people who know things.

Sometimes when you’re traveling, the car breaks down in an out of the way place and you eat homemade chili at a diner and talk to the folks who live in the odd little town. That is when the trip becomes real and you learn amazing things. That becomes the story you always tell when someone asks if you’ve ever been to Utah or Ohio or Prague.

Our life stories are not about making good time, or piling up facts. Rather they are mostly about detours and breakdowns, about getting lost, meeting people and finding our way again.

Diane Cameron is a Capital Region free-lance writer. Her e-mail address is oklota@localnet.com.

4 thoughts on “Blogs as by-ways.

  1. Right on, Elaine, I think you and Cameron are asking the right question here, especially in regard to education when Cameron writes, “We have this idea that learning has to be computer based and we measure schools by the numbers of computers available. But do the kids using them learn how to think?” Check out some of Steve Talbott’s writings in NetFuture — http://www.netfuture.org/ — he’s all over this topic, too. He also asks why we have this demented idea that the technology doesn’t change us, i.e., that it’s just us, fiddling with the technology as supreme autonomous beings, but not the technology fiddling with us. But clearly the technology is also changing us. I don’t want to be changed by something that I don’t have some kind of self-reflexive critical idea about. I don’t want my kids to be subjected to every new gadget without some critical thinking skills in their brain-toolkit. If that makes me an old fossil, fine by me, but the old marxist in me also says, “follow the money.” A lot of this stuff is all about sales, as in “lifestyle for sale.” And you gotta sell to the kids — it’s a huge, exploitable market.
    I don’t have a lifestyle. I have a life. And it’s that big thing — a life, not a halflife / lifestyle — that I want for my kids, too. (Hmm, didn’t somebody have something recently about word piracy? David Weinberger? Well, that stupid word — “lifestyle” — should be on that site, too.)

  2. “Now you can instant message all of your friends, see who’s available to do something and meet-up spontaneously. Fast and faster and fastest. It seems to me that it’s all about connecting without really CONNECTING.” Actually, what you describe is more about planning to connect. Instead of phone trees and invites with RSVPs we now have e-mail and IMs. The in-person connections are still connections.
    As far as Cameron’s analogy, I think Internet searches are much more akin to “flyovers” than to cross-country trips. There are folks who never touch the ground at all between their point of origin and destination, particularly the ones who regularly fly between the East and West coasts. Looking out an airplane window is hardly conducive to connecting with people on the ground.

  3. I’m not sure it’s *all* about connecting without really connecting. I do agree that a lot is about arranging connections. But I think a lot of it is also about making first contact.
    I wouldn’t be talking to people like Elaine, or Jeneane, or Marek or Frank if not for that “first contact” that was made through one of those ephemeral connections, yet we do share some meaningful contact now. Not arranged, because people don’t arrange to make phone calls or arrange email exchanges.
    I agree that IM and comments are nothing more than a sense of immediate gratification, but don’t they sometimes (often, we hope) lead to more sustained contact? And don’t we have connections with people we don’t have in-person relationships with? I have close friends I’ve known for years but never met in person, and some of them are closer friends than people I’ve known in real life for years. They’re connections to me.

  4. The thing I like about the blogosphere is how it goes beyond personal webpages to offer a real connectivity with the lives of strangers. Sure, it is no substitute for taking a walk and meeting your neighbors, but it is a nice addendum for getting a flavor of the global neighborhood. I prefer to see windows into people’s lives than to read political commentary, though I mix both in my blog. We are intellectual beings thinking about important issues, so that should show up on our blogs, but we are also spiritual, emotional, relational, basically much more than intellect.
    I’m not so concerned about the speed of connection as I am about the lack of perspective and judgment. You know the most popular news source among teens is Fox News? That is more dangerous than the internet, in my book. It always comes back to parents and teachers to try to help the young sort through the crap until they have seen enough of the world to do it for themselves.
    But then I am back again to the virtues of learning from people’s reports from “a day in the life” on their blogs. You don’t have to argue a point when you say, “this is what I did today” or “what happened to me today.” This teaches in the most useful way, more like learning from fiction than from essays – only its truth not fiction – even more true in its message than the “nonfiction” essays usually achieve.

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