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september 2008

On asking questions


by Hans Durrer
  Kane knew what he liked
(knowing what you liked was,
he felt, one of the most important
characteristics of a modern life well lived)
Nicola Barker: Darkmans (2007)

"Is Google making us stupid," asked Nicholas Carr in the July/August 2008 edition of The Atlantic.com. Carr writes:

"Over the past few years I've had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn't going — as far as I can tell — but it's changing. I'm not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I'm reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."

  Sounds familiar? In my case, yes, though, as usual it depends — what would we do without this fabulous expression "it depends," I wonder? — for there are still lengthy texts that I can quite easily concentrate on, provided they really interest me, are well written, in print — and that I'm far away from a computer.
  Referring to the 1960s thesis of Marshall McLuhan, Carr points at the effects of the internet: "... media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation."
  Mine too. I mostly skim articles nowadays, and that includes this piece on skimming by Carr. However, when one of his sources complains that he cannot read War and Peace anymore, I wonder whether this really has to do with the internet — "not anymore"? How often did this guy read War and Peace already? Nevertheless, while the internet seems indeed to contribute to the general restlessness of our time, it at the same time appears to be just another expression of it. The slogan "We Want the World and We Want It Now" nowadays no longer seems to give voice just to adolescent longings but to be the accepted norm.
Next In order to get what we want, we do of course need to know what it is that we want. To muddle through does not seem to be an option — as a concept, that is. Nowadays, we need business plans, exposés, and dispositions. And, we need to be able to ask the right questions — otherwise Google can't really be of help. A bit of a vicious circle, isn't it? To be able to ask the right questions I need to know what I want yet if I don't know what I want I won't know what and how to ask.
  Needless to say, to know what one wants is often helpful. As long as one is looking for the familiar, that is. And, there is of course no doubt that Google is a great research tool. One however shouldn't forget that it is based on data that are toneless, bloodless, and do not smell.
  In real life — the one that can't be as planned, managed and controlled as quite some would wish — to know what one wants not only often overlooks what one needs, it also guarantees that one will most certainly miss all the things by the side of the road. Moreover, in real life we often simply do not know what we want — and that is of course a blessing: just think of all the things you wanted, and got, and that were not good for you.
Next One of the modern manifestations of our wants is the business plan — or, for the more literally minded, the exposé. Such a plan often represents nothing but what we nowadays call a vision — not so long ago, people who suffered from visions were put into psychiatric care — based on which banks grant loans and editors commission articles. I find this baffling. I mean a plan is nothing but a plan — even if you call it "realistic" — and more often than not just plain wishful thinking.
  And, then there's the thing with "the right" and "the wrong" questions — "the right questions" are the ones we have answers for. It is worth noting however that when we say "this is a good question" we usually mean that we have no answer (or too many) for it. Yet in our efficiency-minded times, where the validity of a project depends on whether it is doable, questions such as "Where do we come from? What do we do here? Where do we go from here?" are considered interesting but — for the majority of us — impractical for we can't really answer them. Since this is difficult to accept, we make up reference points and thus create a world in which we are a bit less lost. As Sharon Cameron writes in Beautiful Work: A Meditation on Pain: "It is possible to think this: without a reference point there is meaninglessness. But I wish you'd understand that without a reference point you are in the real."
  Our modern obsessions demand that we should know what we want and then stay focussed on our goals. Probably not as much as George Bush, Jr though — a man famous for knowing without asking questions — whom Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner complimented for being "steady"? "Events can change," Colbert said, but "this man's beliefs never will. He believes the same thing Wednesday as he did Monday. No matter what happened Tuesday." In other words, to know what one wants and to pursue — or, in the case of Mister Bush, have others pursue — that goal vigourosly often leads to disasters. As the wise joke goes: Do you know how to give God a good laugh? Just tell Him what your plans are.
  2008 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes