Thursday, December 13, 2007

Freedom '08

The Herald has an exclusive today about the New South Wales Government's plan to enact emergency laws during next years World Youth Day conference. Leaving aside the religious aspect, I have to say I'm getting a little sick of having my civil liberties periodically restricted just because I have the hide to live in a temperate, good-looking city. I'm all for encouraging tourism, but not if that entails John Watkins acting like Pervez Musharraf every time a big event comes to town. Emergency laws? Excuse me, but an appearance by a leading religious figure does not constitute an emergency.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of all this is the muted response laws like this seem to generate. Oh, sure, people grumble, in much the same way people grumble about their local council cracking down on overhanging branches. But the potential for abuse - and the precedent set by the government enacting new, authoritarian legislation whenever they feel like it - doesn't really seem to hit home.

I'm not trying to pull a Naomi Wolf here. I don't really think Supreme Leader Watkins is about to start sending in the army every time someone stages a protest, and heaven knows Iemma has neither the drive nor the competence to do so. But people are getting so accustomed to having this or that event invoked as a pretext for upping the city's Laura Norder quotient, one begins to suspect that such an action would barely raise an eyebrow. It's sad, and it's dangerous. Remember these images? They're out of place in any democracy, let alone one with a supposedly proud anti-authoritarian tradition.

Of course, the NSW Opposition, many of whom would be quite happy as members of Generalissimo Franco's goon squad, didn't object to the laws per se, at least not as the bill was being debated (to their credit, the Legislative Review Committee did raise serious objections). Instead, the Libs' Jonathan O'Dea took the opportunity to provide a few helpful suggestions of his own:

In light of the recent APEC experience, I particularly urge the Government to consider better ways of dealing with the ABC Chaser team. The boys are quick and imaginative in their endeavours to amuse television audiences. Asking them to sign a post-APEC good behaviour bond would only set their minds in overdrive. I therefore suggest that the New South Wales Government provide funding to get them out of Australia for the week. How about sending them to the Kalahari Desert to investigate humour in 45 degrees heat or to Russia for lessons on how to behave solemnly? Perhaps they could be sent to China and India, as Premier Iemma was before the recent Federal election to save Kevin Rudd from further embarrassment.

Quite. The Chaser provided the only moment of sanity of the entire APEC saga. It cannot be allowed to happen again.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Doris Lessing's War on Everything

So Doris Lessing has used her Nobel Prize acceptance speech to hit out at the internet. The internet! What is behind this? Could it be a simple case of viewing one lolcat too many? Or was Doris, like so many of us, just annoyed to have found herself spending an hour idly clicking around Wikipedia, touring through the pages on salamander and mercantilism and Bobby Darin only to lose track of her original purpose?

Oh no. Lessing is worried that the internet is leading us to our ruin, specifically by dumbing us down. We are turning into a society of ignorant, barely literate, jaded automatons. People specialise in one thing - computers, most gratingly - and don't stray from their field of expertise. Nobody reads anymore. Young people know nothing, and also quite probably chew with their mouths open, although Lessing doesn't find time to mention it.

Could she be right? I think, if anything, I read more - and more widely - than I would if the internet had not been invented. Here is a snapshot of browser windows I had open when I chanced upon the Lessing article. (Please note it was a quiet-ish day at work.)

1. The Sydney Morning Herald - "Net dumbs us down"

Even without the internet, I would almost certainly read a print newspaper every day. I always used to. But equally certainly, I would read different stuff. The article on Lessing would probably never have reached me, hidden as it was in the Tech section, which is generally of no interest to me, and gets thrown out every Saturday, when I do buy the print Herald. In fact, in eradicating the physical barriers between interest sections, the online version probably leads to more branching out of one's interest area, not less. What's more, when I buy the print Herald, I read it on the bus, which takes away time I would normally spend... reading a book.

On the other hand, when I have the paper in hard copy, I always end up doing the cryptic crossword, which I don't like online. It's too hard to mark up, and too easy to cheat.

2. The Guardian, A Hunger for Books

The full text of Lessing's speech, which I googled on reading the article to ensure she wasn't misquoted or taken out of context by the Herald. Checking the context seemed like the fair thing to do. One hardly needs to point out... oh, go on then: this would not have been possible without the internet.

3. The New Yorker, None of the Above, by Malcolm Gladwell

A neat summary of a debate about the statistical IQ gap between races and its implications, with particular reference to the Flynn Effect. I have been following this issue with some interest, although without any scientific expertise. See, it all started when Slate published a series of articles by William Saletan in which he argued that the racial IQ gap was genetic and immutable. This did the rounds of the blogs, including Matthew Yglesias, where I was alerted to it, and naturally sparked a great number of fiery arguments, particularly when it turned out that Saletan's reportage was informed largely by fruity white supremacists. (Duh.)

Being kind of a tosser, I can easily imagine that I would spend perfectly good caipirinha money on the print New Yorker in the absence of an online version. So I would've read Gladwell's article. But I would have had no context outside what the article provides - I wouldn't have read Saletan, nor would I have any idea of the uproar his work had caused. I could have guessed, but I wouldn't have experienced it myself. Also: it was reading Gladwell's blog, as well as the Freakonomics blog, that convinced me to buy his books "The Tipping Point" and "Blink". Do we still think the internet discourages reading?

4. 150 UK pounds in Euros

This is actually for work. I am the office converter of pounds to Euro, miles to kilometres, etc. I keep trying to tell my colleagues about Google Conversions, but they insist that I "do it quicker". This is quite possibly the result of belonging to a generation that has never had cause to doubt that the answer is at our fingertips. If something unfamiliar - a place, a person - comes on the news, someone immediately goes to the computer (that would be the spare computer, beside the television) to find out about it.

How can this mean we know less? We might retain less arcana, because we know we can always retrieve it later. But I even doubt that part, because the internet lends itself to broadening the search, so that each piece of trivia eventually gets a context, something to link it to all the other stuff we've found out about. There's no better way to remember something than to relate it to what you already know. I read that online somewhere.

5. The Economist, Defeat for Hugo Chávez

Like the New Yorker, the Economist is something I can imagine reading in print... or half-reading in print, and then leaving, crumpled, under the passenger seat of my car along with the half-read, crumpled New Yorker. (This is slightly more than just an educated guess. I hereby apologise to the old-growth forests of Tasmania that have died for my sins.) The refined classical liberals at the Economist take a dim view of Mr Chávez, but that's okay, because John Pilger thinks he's God's gift to poor people, and I saw Pilger's film too. It's all about balance.

6. Programme for International Student Assessment, 2006 results

I was led to this through an Economist article outlining the educational attainment of various countries. I wanted to check how Australia measured up. Not too badly, it turns out - our achievement band contains some reassuringly Scandinavian countries, as well as some Asian New Economies. Our performance in reading is slipping, though. Must be all that internet surfing.

7. Crikey: Brendan Nelson: Rat, coward or liar... you decide, Guy Rundle

Crikey is irreverent, contrarian, openly non-objective, and obsessed with the insiders' world of politics and media. It publishes contributions from Gerard Henderson and Robert Manne and GetUp and David Flint. It gets down and dirty with polling-by-electorate data and publishes anonymous "Tips and Rumours" from deep within Canberra's bowels. Its readers - who can and do comment on each story - are sometimes morons and often astoundingly well-informed. In short, Crikey epitomises much of the internet's effect on political discourse. Would we be better off without it? Like hell we would. Consider the Lie Matrix in the Rundle article I linked, showing the rather unpalatable choice of interpretations one has regarding Brendan Nelson's backflip over "never voting Liberal":

You don't get that in Doris Lessing books.

* * * * * * * * * * *

It's probably too easy to take an 88-year-old to task over her views of the internet. It's certainly easy to wax nostalgic about books, and I share her wish that more people would read more literature. But this notion of a past populated by erudite book-readers is at best overly romantic, and saying the internet is dumbing people down is erring dangerously close to grumpy-old-lady knee jerking. People still read. People still read books. As for the internet, it is what you make it: there's a lot of crap out there, but there's a lot of useful things, too. We need to spend less time bitching about Yoof These Days and more time teaching people the difference.