Background Probability

The Agnostic Popular Front has moved to its new home at Skeptic Ink, and will henceforth be known as Background Probability. Despite the relocation and rebranding, we will continue to spew the same low-fidelity high-quality bullshit that you've come to expect.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Susan Jacoby: luddite, drug addict, or slut?

I've just finished reading Jacoby's new book over the weekend, and cannot recall ever being so deeply disappointed with the analytical shallowness of an author from whom I've come to expect a certain level of profundity. Maybe we should stop expecting historians to assess the present, much less predict the future.

According to Jacoby, it is "more insulting to call someone a Luddite than to call her a cheat, a drug addict, or a slut."

Ye gods, how I wish that were truly so. After several chapters of explanation (and well-deserved excoriation) of the faith-based and anti-intellectual movements throughout American history, Jacoby makes it clear which of these epithets she most fears and deserves, as she diagnoses our national cultural problems primarily in terms of "screen media," notably failing to draw any significant distinctions between the various kinds of screens that are drawing Americans away from her lovely and nostalgic world of ink impressed upon flattened trees.

In the realm of new technologies that are displacing traditional reading, the concept of "enough" does not exist. The marketing triumph of Apple's iPhone in the summer of 2007 is the most recent example of the public's obsession with the acquisition of devices that provide instantaneous and continuous access to video and audio distraction - anywhere and at any time. [T]he iPhone is a powerful handheld computer offering Internet access and combining most (though not all) of the functions of the telephone, a music-storing iPod, a camera, and many other audio and video devices that used to be tethered to large machines in one's home, or, at the very least, to a heavy laptop.


The whole point of the iPhone, however, is it comprehensiveness; the availability of more distraction that can literally be held in the palm of one's hand will surely reduce whatever part of personal time is still devoted to reading. You'll never walk alone.

Jacoby implicitly assumes that the iPhone (not to mention those heavy laptops) will be used primarily for distraction rather than autodidaction, and she may well be right on this point. Perhaps people will not use their iPhone to listen to Jacoby's book, read Shakespeare or Arthur Conan Doyle, or conveniently grep through innumerable intellectual publications using Google Reader. Maybe they won't fill up on free videos from the CFR, the BBC, or the brilliant minds over at TED. They might well ignore countless educational podcasts offered courtesy of Canadian, British, and Australian taxpayers.

No doubt many people will continue to prefer entertaining themselves to a conscious program of personal development, but the genie is out of the bottle and all we can do is give people the tools they need to thrive in the brave new world.

It would be better if Ms. Jacoby was a drug addict or a slut, at least such folks are not actively working to dampen the flow of technological innovation.


Anonymous said...


What's even worse is all the hype I have been hearing from the secular communities praising her book. I wonder if they actually read it, or are really behind what she is presenting?

Who said being smart guarantees being rational?

agnostiChicagOkie said...

I do not mind a little latte-sipping liberal elitism, in fact, it is among the virtues I usually seek out in polite company.

That said, Jacoby has succumbed to all-too-common notion that "society will collapse if my chosen profession fails to thrive" which in her case makes for a strong print media bias over other forms of communication and didaction.