Sunday, August 20, 2006

Regarding Mr. Carr's post

Via James' blog, I read this blog entry in Mr. Carr's blog about blog readership. I am tempted to say I wrote a shorter version of the same, with juicy comments too. But I would like to comment on Mr. Carr's post now.

Yes. It is easy to think that whatever one has to say all of a sudden has more value because it appears in a blog. A blog is typically a much prettier place than a mailing list. It is so convenient to make it attractive, and to use its visual qualities to throw an aura of greatness on oneself.

But when, despite the best efforts, one's blog does not have the readership of mass media... not even an average of comments per post significantly greater than zero... then it sinks in. Our efforts to be well-known are in vain. So if one was blogging with the idea of being popular, hey, people know that appearances can be deceiving.

But there's more to this. Regarding innocent fraud, as commented on by Carr, I'd say it is described quite eloquently in the tiny book called On Bullshit. Amazon's review, written by Mary Park and quoted below for convenience, offers the following:

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit," Harry G. Frankfurt writes [...]. "Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted." [...] Bullshitting, as he notes, is not exactly lying, and bullshit remains bullshit whether it's true or false. The difference lies in the bullshitter's complete disregard for whether what he's saying corresponds to facts in the physical world: he "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are." [... H]e points to one source of bullshit's unprecedented expansion in recent years, the postmodern skepticism of objective truth in favor of sincerity, or as he defines it, staying true to subjective experience. But what makes us think that anything in our nature is more stable or inherent than what lies outside it? Thus, Frankfurt concludes, with an observation as tiny and perfect as the rest of this exquisite book, "sincerity itself is bullshit." [...]

I would add that being "sincere" might qualify as being arrogant.

But back to the story. On one hand, we find it so easy to look at another blog and question it on bullshitting grounds, ignore it, post no comments, or rebuke it in our blog, etc. But on the other hand, the majority of us find it very hard to stop accepting things like mass media at face value.

So how do we achieve this dual behavior without experiencing a mental meltdown? And here I would like to offer my 2 cents: it is because we, in general, have learned to suspect our fellows, and only trust arbitrary sources of authoritative opinion[*1].

In other words, we rarely communicate with each other. We live mostly alone, in a world where as long as our opinion matches that of the source of authoritative truth, nobody will question us. From the moment we learn to do things such as to pass multiple choice tests, our individuality is squished because we are taught that we only need to pick the correct answer from the ones we will be conveniently provided in a silver tray. And we do not even need to understand the book to recognize the direct quote from it.

Besides, questions are scary. What if we had not memorized the answer yet? We would not be able to answer immediately, and we would not look cool[*2]. We might even have to say "I do not know"! So why do we need the hassle of thinking for ourselves, with the possibility of making a mistake, needing time to consider things, or just look stupid when compared to someone who answers on the spot? We'd do better if we did not need to come up with an answer by using whatever gray matter we may have.

With time, we even learn what are the things we should associate with authoritative truth. Ceremony. Rounds of applause. A particular cadence in speech. Reverence to particular names. Standing ovations. Buildings, structures or other artifacts with particular looks. Low frequency voices. And so on. Therefore, we do not even need to think about what is a source of authoritative truth --- as in a multiple choice exam, we just choose what we are taught to bark and wag our tails for.

And thus, trained to think that this must be so, we live in a world of seemingly easy dog biscuits --- one of sameness, blandness, atrophied minds, and bullshit... lots and lots of bullshit.

And then we wonder why would anybody waste time reading our blogs! Even if we used them to let others know about things we research, or about the results of spending considerable time using our gray matter, we do not have what we need to be recognized as a source of authoritative truth. Immediately, our readership goes to zero, comparatively speaking.

I wish we ever dared to live with the scientific method as our golden standard, and let go of all this bullshit, even just a bit. And I do not wish that so that more people would read what I write. It is because then we would be more aware of our limitations, and with that knowledge we might even decide to try to become better. But someone else has already expressed this quite well:

"We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers." --- Carl Sagan

*1: CNN proudly proclaims it is the most "trusted" source of information, for example. Trust, yes. Resistant to reasonable inquiry, no.

*2: The "blink" phenomenon, and the idea that experts are right because of gut feeling, is a prime example of telling the masses what they need to consider as "cool". The Holy Inquisition, witch hunting and many other horrors we inflicted on each other were direct consequences of gut feeling.

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