Friday, May 8, 2009

I [Heart] Web Realism

Apologies for the lengthy quotes, but I love it when the calm, clear voice of reality breaks through the squalling. Exhibit A comes from Alex Goodall addressing yet more hand-wringing over the decline of newspapers blamed on the internet:

In a deliberate McLuhanite fudge, these groups are intentionally occluding the difference between the medium and the message. Journalism isn’t in jeopardy, newsprint is. Napster didn’t put music in jeopardy, it just screwed CD retailers and distributors. You can’t defend the print press on the grounds of their commitment to investigative journalism, since investigative journalists are doing pretty well on websites and blogs these days, since virtually none of the investment in the press goes into investigative journalism, and since mainstream investment in investigative journalism has been consistently declining over the past decade as the press dumbed down and put pictures of Angelina Jolie on the front cover in the hope of playing to the audience’s jockstraps.

The real problem is not that everyone can steal content from the New York Times, it’s that with the direct AP wire feed or the corporate press release available at a single click of a button, the Internet has made it possible to see how little genuine editorial work or creativity has gone into most journalistic output. (There are great exceptions, of course, but they are undoubtedly exceptions.) You can even now trace the same sentences moving from press release to wire service to mainstream media. If you think what you do is really so valuable, go ahead and charge for it. And we'll go somewhere else.
I am already in the queue for the 'somewhere else' we'll all go if and when newspapers try charging readers for their online content. The answer is no; no need even to pose the question.

Exhibit B comes from Norm Geras, addressing yet more hand-wringing over the decline of cognitive abilities blamed on the internet:
A Committee of Inquiry into the Changing Learner Experience has found that use of the internet by university students is encouraging 'a preference for quick answers' and 'a "casual" approach to the evaluation and attribution of information'; it is having a harmful effect on critical skills. This is obviously a regrettable development, if true. On the other hand, it shouldn't be seen only as a fixed result - I mean, a fixed result of trends about which nothing can be done. Education isn't just about predicting what will happen, after all. It's about trying to achieve certain things in a given context, and about helping others to achieve them. Therefore, since the internet and its use are here to stay, schools and universities need to include in their teaching programmes exercises that demand of students accomplishments they cannot get at the click of a link, that require the reading, assimilation and critical assessment of books and substantial articles, that train people in mature written expression, and that assess them in terms of how well they do in response to all this. It is what universities have always done, and there's nothing about changing technology that forbids or prevents them from continuing to do it. They need to be able, of course, to give out bad marks for poor performance, rather than fudging this necessity of an adequate education.
It could be that educators face a new challenge in the important work they do. Someone is alarmed, surprised, dismayed? From what quiescent, ahistorical cave have they emerged?

Technology changes things for better and for worse -- it can disrupt once-stable economic equilibriums, alter patterns of thought, introduce whole new classes of problems, simultaneously increase and decrease complexity. The revulsion to the change can be genuine and understandable, but almost without exception, rolling it back has not prevailed either as an argument or a practical program.


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