Till We Have Faces

Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own. - Jonathan Swift

Writing in the New York Times, Maria Konnikova questions a lesson a decade or more in the making.

Don't Quote Me on This:

Like pretty much every other 20-something, I’m online constantly, from the moment I wake up to bedtime. My iPhone sleeps by my bed. I Twitter and I Facebook — so much that I use both as verbs. I grew up with neither cellphone nor television, but I’ve come to rely on our ability to stay connected. I need the Internet for my work. I need it for my research. I need it, often, for my sanity.

With one important caveat. When I need to write or think, I shut the whole thing down. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get sucked into the very sort of vortex... to drift from fragment to fragment without pausing to consider the whole that any of them imply. I become a link zombie, mindlessly hungry for more: The lure of quotation wears me down.

In her piece, Konnikova expresses a concern about the prevalence of unmoored or "decontextualized" data on the web, questioning its contribution to what we know.

She would certainly have a sympathizer in a favorite blogger and writer of mine, Nicholas Carr, who does not gladly suffer hyperbole and glib assertions that the web is an unqualified boon to human intellect. I know. I was once one of Carr's targets in a rather regrettable, and, thankfully, short lived phase of my life.

And like Konnikova, when I need "to write or think" I tune out the web. My distractions are restricted to a good cup of coffee and a window.


I've learned that its mirrored expanse makes of me a whorling. The reason is a simple one: knowledge is not simply a collection facts, but the labor and hard won experience that accompany those facts. When the effort is frictionless, we become, as she says, link zombies and context is whatever we happen to looking at at the moment. If you don't believe that data and knowledge are two different things, ask any teenage mom or entrepreneur or military veteran what they know now that they didn't know then.

Of the web in particular, "the problem," as Konnikova says, "is one of limited time and energy meeting limitless content." Using her experience as the daughter of Russian immigrant parents, she writes in Don't Quote Me On This about Soviet truisms and the doublespeak that her parents were anxious to avoid in their adopted land. She grew up without a television as a result.

Today the screens are different, of course. But when I discovered late last fall that I could not not use my personal Gmail login for the IdeaFestival's YouTube channel, IFTV, I realized once again that free is conditional. I've since moved my personal and professional email to a paid service, and begun to use DuckDuckGo and Disconnect.me to reclaim some privacy. And because my search history is not being used to shape the results I get, there's an added bonus. The information bubble I so willingly accepted is pricked. 

Data spun around my prior wants and desires and returned to me hardly qualifies as search, does it? Konnikova compares the habit elsewhere in her article "to mindlessly yanking open the fridge." 

To know what one thinks still requires an effort. It still may be uncomfortable, in part because it must find ground not entirely our own. But with enough time and a willingness to tolerate ambiguity, the reckoning is an honest one. The face we discover is our own.

Stay curious.


If you like this blog post, consider subscribing to the RSS feed! You might might also be interested in this Skyped Five Questions video interview with Maria Konnikova, or her post-presentation IF Conversation.

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