A Little Franzen Follow-up

Jonathan Franzen’s Luddite tirade got him heaps of promotional Internet attention with some people supporting him in the society is dumber every year chorus and others taking him to task for the ill-thought out troll bait. Two of the more entertaining of the latter:

1) Jennifer Weiner, whom Franzen had pinged as a self-promotional harpy because she’d made him example A in looking at biases against women reviewers and authors in the fiction industry — even though he agrees with her about those biases — responded adeptly to Franzen’s swipe and piece.

2) Journalist Kate Heartfield had a nice piece for the Ottawa Citizen talking about the historical inaccuracy of Franzen’s piece in regards to technology and change.

3) And author Clive Thompson promoted his book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, by having various media excerpt some of the data from it in reference to Franzen, such as the quotes below:

In fact, the historical pattern here is steady: Each new tool for communications has provoked panic that society will devolve into silly chatter. Take the telephone, for example. It would, critics predicted, atomize society into a blasted landscape of pasty, sun-averse morlocks unable to socialize face to face, because they’d be out of practice. Who would bother to leave the house, when you could simply call someone? Worse, it would degrade human interaction into a rambling exchange of trivialities, as Mark Twain suggested in his 1880 satirical sketch, “A Telephonic Conversation”. Meanwhile, mavens of etiquette fretted that the telephone would coarsen our manners, because the predominant greeting — “hello!” — derived from the shout of “halloo”, a bellow used to summon hounds to the hunt. (Americans fought about the propriety of “hello” until the 1940s.) Today, of course, everyday use has so domesticated the technology that nostalgics now regard the telephone as an emotionally vibrant form of communication that the Internet is tragically killing off.

…The comedian and writer Heather Gold, one of the cocreators of the concept of “tummelling”, once told me that social media is unsettling to many is because it feminizes culture. All this “liking”, this replying, these bits of conversational grooming — “phatic” gestures, as sociologists would call them, which comprise a significant chunk of our ambient signals — are precisely the sorts of communiques at which women are traditionally urged to excel. “You go online and all these type-A, alpha-male business guys are acting like 13 year old girls, sending little smilies to each other publicly and going hey, happy birthday!” she told me. Obviously, these are crude categories; many men have superb social skills, many women have terrible ones, and as feminists have long noted, the relegating of women to “social” jobs is part of how they’ve been sealed out of decision-making roles for millennia. But this shift towards a world that rewards social skills is real, and explains part of the reaction against it.

Or to put it another way, reaping the cognitive benefits of the Internet often requires social work. This distresses anyone for whom social work is a chore, or seems beneath them.

I did not know that the telephone had incurred as much of the same suspicion when it was introduced, although later on in the 1950’s and 1960’s, its use by teenagers was considered a sign of the impending apocalypse of society. The rest is not a surprise.

What we can learn from this is that if you’re a high profile author who is frequently on media (technology) and the Internet (technology) for promotion mouthing the same old platitudes about how technology changes and makes culture shallow and hollow, then you get a big technology promo boost. But this we must not regard as “bragging.” And anyway, there are authors who agree with Franzen, such as the cookbook author who is doing promotion on the Web, including an event with Gwyneth Paltrow. (The double-speak, it burns.)

I used to joke that Google was trying to take over the world. I’m not going to do that anymore. (I may however continue to do so about the oil and gas companies.) While I’m not under the illusion that corporate behemoths don’t call much of the tune in the world, these conspiracy theories about how this company or that company is going to swallow everybody up are a little too cultish for me — and they’re always wrong. Just the other day, Blackberry laid off most of its employees, is desperately seeking a buyer and is otherwise going off into that good night. Blackberry, of course, was the company that made mobile/phone devices into the powerhouse they are now and arguably was the accelerant to everyone getting cellphones. They were the company that produced the term “Crackberry” as a cultural meme because the Blackberry was so addictive and being used so extensively in business that people predicted that Blackberry would permanently change the culture into a world of rude, scattered, socially dysfunctional workaholics obsessed with trivialities. (Sound familiar?) Now it’s “Blackberry who?” While I suspect Amazon will escape such a fate, nonetheless the tirades about boogeymen in order to get a rise and media attention are a sadder commentary on the culture than people discussing what they had for lunch on Twitter.

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September 25, 2013 · 3:52 AM

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