By A.D. Freudenheim

18 May 2003

For some time now, a friend has been bugging me to upgrade the technology on this web site. It is not constant, but periodically – presumably when I write something he thinks worthy of a broader audience – he will e-mail me to say that I should get more active about distributing my columns or, of late, to tell me that I should remake this site into a “blog” (short for web log). Clearly, I have been resisting the idea; the basic, streamlined, easy-to-manage nature of this site suits me just fine, but just as important is that it is not too easy, and it does require some attention. Each web page is made-to-order before I post it, goes through a spell-checking process, and gets comments hand-entered into the HTML code. Could this process be automated? Well, sure. In a “blog”, all I would need to do is enter my text into a box on a page, and click a button; the text would automatically be posted to the site, along with a date and time stamp, and perhaps even a headline. But why bother? What truly takes time in supporting this web site is the mental activity involved in writing – in writing creatively and thoughtfully, not to mention well – not just the mechanics of how I post something to the web.

Which is why I was so disturbed by the article in today’s New York Times about “blogs,” the people who write them, and the troubles (oh, the troubles!) they have seen. A number of people interviewed for the article found that after revealing details about themselves, their friends and family, or their feelings about the world ... that some of those friends and family were upset at what had been posted to the “blog,” or upset at the ideas that had been expressed. More to the point, these authors seemed surprised that people were unhappy, almost confused that something they had written for their own web site had actually been noticed by someone else, and had elicited a reaction. As one interviewee put it, “Sometimes it's good to have an editor.”[1] To borrow another colloquial term whose usage in the language predates “blog” by many years: well, duh.

The Times article acknowledges that in creating and deploying this new technology, there are still some usage kinks to work out, and it refers to a number of well-known internet or media scholars to help make the point. “Blogs” have “redrawn the line between what’s public and private,” said one; another noted that “it’s like all your friends are reporters.” All of this commentary overlooks the larger issue of personal responsibility, and the basic concept that just because you can do something does not mean that you should do something. Excuse me for asking, but: doesn’t this apply to almost every aspect of life? And certainly to how we use new technologies and tools and integrate them into our lives? In other words, just because it is possible to write something nasty or hurtful about someone else and post it to the web, does not mean that you should do this. An obvious point, notably missing from the article, which chooses to treat the technology itself as the problem, rather than the person behind it.

There are other examples of silly reporting of even sillier trends. “Education experts warned yesterday of the potentially damaging effect on literacy of mobile phone text messaging after a pupil handed in an essay written in text shorthand” was the lead to an article in The Telegraph, about a Scottish 13-year-old who wrote a school paper entirely in the abbreviated, symbolic language used for cell-phone text messages.[2] The article goes on to include comments from one person who blames cell phone texting for a decline in the quality of written language in Scotland, while also representing the seemingly-pro-texting perspective that suggests that there was a rational basis for kids using such language: “They revert to what they feel comfortable with - texting is attractive and uncomplicated.” No evidence is presented, however, that there has been a huge wave of students writing essays in a similar fashion, which makes the hoary headline a bit misleading – nor was there any mention of the quality of the teaching or the strength of the English curriculum, or what might be deemed a rational, logical effort at teaching children which language is appropriate to use in different circumstances. The problem is not text messaging, or the symbolic language that goes with it; the problem is knowing that it is ok to use it on your cell phone, and not on your English paper.

Another Times article, from May 15th, focused on the potential pitfalls of using computers and other new technologies for voting, to overcome the “hanging chad” problem that caused such mayhem in the 2000 presidential election.[3] Most of the article debates the perfection (or lack thereof) of these systems, and the complexities involved in assessing or fixing any errors during use. As with the articles above, not much space was made for reporting on voter education or training (never mind that too few people vote in the first place); the emphasis here is on using the technology to overcome a set of human deficiencies that no one really wants to tackle separately.

Alas, it seems all too unlikely that both the idiocy of these non-trends or the poor reporting of them will change in the near future; these are just three recent articles on the subject, but in fact, it is a pervasive problem. In a society where instant gratification is the number one commodity, and where passing blame is one of the favorite activities, taking responsibility for our actions - and asserting responsibility for our use of, well, anything – just is not a priority. That is a shame, because until we take this responsibility seriously, we will always be in the position of allowing the machines to control us rather than the other way around.

[1] “Dating a Blogger, Reading All About It,”
by Warren St. John, The New York Times, 18 May 2003.
[2] “Girl writes English essay in phone text shorthand,”
by Auslan Cramb, The Telegraph, 30 March 2003. Hats off
to the June 2003 issue of reason magazine, which brought
this one to my attention.
[3] “To Register Doubts, Press Here,” by Sam Lubell,
The New York Times, 15 May 2003
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