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June 27, 2007

Experimental Cell-Phone Cat Video Number 1

I know that my wife is a little homesick, and so, having managed to instruct myself in the use of the "flix" function on our new cells, decided to send her a document of ordinary life hereabouts.

Then I figured out how to get it from cell phone to YouTube -- and thus to you, QS's vast general public:

Not unlike the Althouse meta-vlogging experiment almost three months ago (or joining Facebook for that matter), this is part of my continuing forced march deeper into the digital landscape.

A friend referred to last week's column as "supporting new media." I really don't see it that way. Ambivalent acceptance is not the same as enthusiasm, and neophilia is not the only alternative to neophobia.

It becomes more and more clear as time goes on that my attempts to face what is happening in the mutation of public space can't forego the experience of actually using the media a bit -- just to get the grit of experience into my thinking. Otherwise the consequence is to end up like Gorman, nattering in defense of what you suppose to have been the Good Old Days.

Henry's comments at Crooked Timber refer to something other people have mentioned with irritation: the fact that Britannica has a vested interest in publishing and promoting Gorman's opuscule. There is surely something to this, though it didn't seem appropriate to say as much in the column. So instead I'll put my two cents here, in this out-of-the-way place, the digital "backstage" to my public writing....

I grew up with the Britannica, quite literally so, the edition from 1970 to be specific. It instilled in me at a very early age the belief that all of knowledge might yet be my province, and that "labour" and "centre" were, in fact, the preferable spellings of those words.

And so it gives me great pain to say this, but here goes: Any notion that the Britannica's loss of prestige is an effect of Wikipedia, or any other aspect of Web culture, is profoundly deluded.

The decline in authority of the Encyclopedia Britannica is an affair entirely of its own making, and began long before the general public ever heard of the internet. It probably started more than a quarter century ago with what I usually refer to as "all that 'Macropedia' crap" -- as inexplicable and misguided an effort to "rebrand" as ever an addled mind has conceived.

They eventually abandoned that gimmick. But it seems the damage went much deeper. A few years ago, I got a few recent issues of the EB yearbook, an annual supplement to the encyclopedia itself. The experience of reading them was painful. It made me feel sick. The writing was so bad that it was simply impossible to believe an editor had ever gone over the copy.

If I had a visceral response -- disgust and anger -- that's because the old Britannica was for me, in some ways, a sacred book. I do not mean that literally, of course. But neither is it a joke. In its better days, the Britannica embodied something awesome and powerful and wonderous, at least in my eyes. Talk about a god that failed....

The whole quasi-Mandarin "I have read the Great Works of Human Thought, and from up here on Olympus it is obvious everything is going to hell in a handbasket now because of Wikepedia and blogging and Paris Hilton, who created Wikipedia, I think" schtick is, of course, both easy and robustly self-delighting to perform. (I can do it in my sleep. That, and grind my teeth.) But guess what? Causality is a complicated thing, sometimes, and the decline of an established form of cultural authority can be the product of internal degeneration rather than outside forces.

One thing's for sure. I don't intend to spend any more time thinking about the likes of Gorman. Whatever the problems with Edward Shils as a social theorist, he was right on the money about the absurdity of that kind of jeremiad.

Shils distinguishes among the "superior," "mediocre," and "brutal" layers of culture in a given society. What is bewildering about the Web is that all three coexist in the same space at the same time, rather than being neatly divided up with barbed-wire fences between them.

That doesn't meant the distinctions disappear, however. The proximity, the dangers of overlap, can certainly induce confusion and anxiety. Yet it's mentally degrading to spend very much time listening to a guy who is obsessed with counting and polishing his fine silverware.

It seems much more interesting to figure out how the different cultural categories actually operate in this space -- both within their own terms and at points where they intersect.

Posted by smclemee at June 27, 2007 10:34 AM


I hope it's okay that once I realized the post wasn't going to end, I just went back and watched the cat a few more times.

I think whoever came up with the whole "cat's meow" phrase wasn't thinking of your cat's meow. That's more of a cat's meh. So cute though.

Posted by: rachel at June 28, 2007 2:46 PM

He's been crying a lot lately because of arthritis in his lower back, which is why his voice sounds a little scratchy.

At 4 in the morning, however, he can emit a howl that cuts through you like a hot knife through butter.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at June 28, 2007 2:52 PM

Came here through Siva's blog where he quotes, extensively, your Britannica comments.
Very insightful. The anti-deterministic stance is quite compatible with ethnographic models, IMHO.
Part of this could be described in a "generational" frame. Not that older and younger people differ so much. But the notion of authority is changing at the same time as digital literacy is being assessed through generational identity.

Posted by: Alexandre at July 1, 2007 6:15 PM

Thanks for pointing out the danger of coming to regard a source as sacred and therefore unquestionable. I think one of the positive aspects of Wikipedia and the participatory culture in general is that it seems to discourage the idea that knowledge is something that is handed down from the mountaintop and fixed for all time. Which is not to say that all sources should be treated as equally credible.

Posted by: Marc Meola at August 31, 2007 10:12 AM