The three days that my book tour for Now You See It took me to Silicon Valley were among the most exciting of this adventure that began on August 18 and promises to continue all year. In Silicon Valley, I was double-booked and running as fast as I could and barely noticed. It was such a fabulous experience, so much connection, so many wonderful people, and so much sympatico wherever I spoke. It could have felt frantic; instead, it felt energizing, inspiring, gratifying.
Here are a few highlights from those three heady days: I spoke at Mozilla, where I felt like I was visiting old friends. HASTAC was created in 2002-2003 partly to take the lessons of the Open Web, learning interactively together, and apply them to higher ed. After that, was a dazzling day at the GooglePlex, where I had the soul-nourishing privilege to be interviewed on stage in front of a few hundred Google employees by the inimitable Howard Rheingold, a deep thinker whose work I have admired for years and whose friendship I’ve cherished for the last three years. We were introduced by Howard’s incandescent daughter, Mamie, who works at Google. There, the questions were so lively and fresh that, again, I felt we shared a wavelength. Next stop was KQED San Francisco, where I enjoyed a long interview with the brilliant Dr. Moira Gunn of TechCrunch, and then in Palo Alto that night, a dinner with two generous people I had not met before, Petra Dierkes-Thrun, author of a beautiful book on Oscar Wilde and his legacy, Salome’s Modernity and Sebastian Thrun, one of the most distinguished Artificial Intelligence scientists in the world, winner of the DARPA challenge to build a driverless car, teacher of the Stanford AI course whose online component has over 160,000 registrants worldwide, and newly designated director of Google-X, the most experimental, innovative part of Google. Joining us at their lovely home was Betsy Corcoran, formerly a journalist at Forbes, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, now CEO of EdSurge, a nonprofit focusing on innovation in education. The dinner was full of ideas and laughter, lightning fast, and then, at other times, deep and profound, about innovation, about life, about death, about beauty and architecture (of the Web and of round houses). Three days and a lifetime! Whooosh. In her New York Times column, Virginia Heffernan, one of the smartest journalists around, had called me and Now You See It “galvanic.” During those three intense, packed, meaningful days in Silicon Valley, I felt I was living up to that magical word.
Now, dial back to the three days before that whirlwind.
Those three days were spent on a different speed, with a different focus, meandering through Sonoma and Napa, out along the coast in Point Reyes, driving back country roads to Sebastapol, unplugged, unwired. Compare and contrast. Each world exists simultaneous with the other. There is no “before” or “after.” What was so different was that, for three days, my GPS was set on “least use of highways,” in all ways literal and metaphorical. Calculated relaxation, without direction, enjoying the journey, not much caring about the goal.
The three precious, wandering days before those heady, packed three Silicon Valley were marked as “BLACK OUT DAYS” on my calendar starting back in August when Now You See It launched. My partner Ken Wissoker and I were spending those days celebrating our 10th anniversary. Ken’s editorial director at Duke University Press and he travels as much on his job as I’ve traveled this year on book tour, which is to say virtually non-stop. But we both stopped for three days. We visited the incomparable Limantour Beach at Point Reyes, the beach on which we were married a decade before. We stayed in the same Japanese-esque room at Gaige House in Sonoma. For three days, we traveled back roads, we stopped to look at a hawk and a burro and a coyote and elk, at roses and vineyards. We didn’t have appointments. We didn’t have to be anywhere much at any set time or on any set route. We walked, we wandered, we talked, we listened to jazz on the radio, we took in the sun and the breeze, drank wine from plastic cups on the beach, looking for whales and seals and dolphins.
For three days, the GPS was set on “least use of highways.”
* * * *
Whenever I’m interviewed, people ask, with something like fear mixed with anxiety in their voices, if technology isn’t ruining life somehow, destroying our calm, damaging our brains. It’s the right question to ask and there hasn’t yet been a great Information Age where thoughtful people haven’t asked it.
I like historian Robert Darnton’s idea that there have been four great Information Ages in human history, times when the ways people communicated with one another changed so irrevocably there was no going back. I’ll add to that that, for each one, people worried about distraction.
- In the ancient world, lots of thoughtful people worried about the new technology of writing and, later, about alphabetic transcription. For Socrates (c. 469 BC–399 BC), the worrisome Information Age against which he rebelled was prompted by the invention of writing and the Greek alphabetic system of transcription that reached its classical form around 400 BC, over the course of Socrates’ lifetime. He was sure writing things down diminished the mind, weakening its powers of memory and recall as necessitated by the oral tradition, and over-simplifying the complexity of the true flow and development of ideas that happens in dialogue, his preferred form of communication.
- When Gutenberg developed movable type, some feared the authority of the Scriptorium in that great Information Age. The handwritten illuminated texts by professional Scribes were aesthetic marvels and also marvels of clerical and legal control, authority determining what would and would not be recorded. Wouldn’t movable type diminish the mind and dilute the power of social elites? Wouldn’t society more generally become diminished bu too many cheap and fast because replicatable words.
- During the Industrial Revolution, steam-powered presses and machine-made ink and paper made books widely available to middle- and working-class people for the first time in history, and suddenly the pundits were expressing all manner of fears of what this Information overload would do to humanity: the fears included memory loss, distraction, loss of an ability to focus productively, licentiousness, violence, diminished appreciation for great literature or complex philosophy, and asocial behavior (to name just a few). Novels were the video game of the 18th century in its popularity and the vilification heaped upon the genre. When I was researching the first generation of mass readers, scouring the attics of historical societies for marks in books too paltry even to be catalogued, I found dresses and pants into which young people had sewn a hidden pocket in the seam, just big enough to conceal a duodecimo (the format of cheap, mass produced novels). In diaries, young people wrote about these, who taught them how to sew them, and what they were hiding therein. Concurrently, policy makers pushed for compulsory schooling (a way to control thoughts suddenly made unruly by the bombardment of too much print.
- And then there is our own Information Age, which some would harken back to that famous day in April of 1993 when the Mosaic 1.0 browser was made available to the public. The worry over multitasking, distraction, memory loss, lack of depth, inability to concentrate, and all the rest that our pundits present us with today, in this Information Age, comes in a long, fine tradition. For every Information Revolution, there is nostalgia for the unruffled, focused, mindful past in the face of the turgid, confusing, avalanche of information in the ever-tasking present. Isn’t technology destroying us? Isn’t it governing us? Isn’t the quest for ever more speed, ever more tasks, ever more information (what’s the litany from Socrates forward?) making us shallow, distracted, unproductive, asocial, dumber? Isn’t this the dumbest generation? And isn’t Google to blame?
(Well, no, Socrates would have urged us to blame the alphabet. . . )
* * *
What the pundits forget is that sometimes we can set the GPS for “least use of highways.” That is, we can use the current technologies to dial back and control the role of technology in our lives.
By that, I mean that the same technologies that drive us can also divert us, but we have some control over that. We can often set the speed and the direction and make the calls.
This is not to say this Information Age is wonderful, perfect, without terrible hardships. I’m far too political a person and far too critical of the present economic disparities to buy that. The “work speed up” is a real fact of 21st century life. We work more than our parents work in hours per week and hours per year, and they worked more than their parents worked. The economics of 21st century work make overwork a reality for many, not a luxury. I am well aware of that.
But that is not the issue that drives the worry of the pundits. Their concern, like Socrates’, is that technology of information exchange in and of itself hurts our brains, damages our mind. This is no truer today than it was in 469 BCE.
Sometimes it is useful to have the view to help us sort out which conditions hurt us, which we can control and which we cannot, and how we can stop worrying about what technology is doing to us and, instead, take some responsibility for how we use the technologies that we too often and too mindlessly allow to control our lives. There is no contradiction between loving three heady, packed, intense days at Mozilla and at the Googleplex and also loving three other soulful days enjoying golden vineyards or the quiet winds blowing fine sand on Limintaur Beach at high tide.
Both are part of the Information Age, if only we can absorb the fact of our agency. If we can relax to take in how monumental the last eighteen have been in the ways we communicate and interact, if we can appreciate how in less than two decades we have made enormous changes as part of one of the great Information Ages in human history, then perhaps we will have the patience to work out the new institutions we need to support this new life, the new forms of etiquette we need to make it more polite and humane, the new habits we need to make it work best for us.
No one-size-fits-all nor does any technology fit all situations. For me, the beauty of this particular Information Age, is customizable, changeable, interactive forms that can be constructed and reconstructed. We can stop. We can take our own measure. We can decide when we want to speed ahead, all screens open and media blazing in, and when we want to unwire, unplug, move away. That’s the key. Knowing both/and. Appreciating that one way does not preclude the other. And understanding that there is no one right way, but, rather, we can each, in many circumstances, figure out what is best, in that moment, for us, and this particular Information Age even gives us some helpful, appealing tools to use to make some of those choices.
Sometimes, the best route is “least use of highways.”