There’s that word again. No idea what it means. So I took a quick look at the Wikipedia entry. Ontology, it explained, is the philosophical study of the nature of being, existence or reality.

Oh. Heavy.

Then I closed the window.

But it wouldn’t close. The frame hung there.  I clicked the little x in the corner. Nothing. Again. Still nothing. Then I pulled up the Task Manager. It showed no applications running. None. But the Wikipedia ontology page was there. I could see it. The philosophical study, it still said, of the nature of being, existence or reality.

Yet  the task manager said it could not be there.

Wow.  Weird.

So I turned off the computer. All that being, existence and reality went poof.  I sat there staring at a blank screen.

Then I powered up the computer. It whirred and plinked and blinked and offered me a choice. I could go to my home page, or return to my original session.

I chose the latter.

The wikipedia page reappeared.  Ontology, it explained, is the philosophical study of the nature of being, existence or reality. But was the page really there? I clicked the little x in the corner, and it vanished. Poof.



Last sentence

I didn’t start working as a print journalist until 2004. I quit in 2011. Watching print journalism’s disintegration from ringside seats was incredible. Writing for one of the nation’s leading alternative weeklies as alternative weeklies found their raison d’etre disappearing was almost surreal, the medium seemed to go from important to unimportant in months. At the same time I had a front row seat to watching radio begin to disappear, as jazz radio seemed to suffer the worst first. I saw first hand in a particularly brutal way how online journalism is disintegrating–I can’t write about that under fear of being sued, however. I have watched the recording industry fall apart for years. I’ve seen live paid performances disappear. I’ve seen photography destroyed. And now, since I’ve been blogging (just because I write incessantly, not as a professional move) I am watching blogging itself drowning in its own words. There are so many words, they’ve suffocated readers, turned the blogosphere anoxic. The Internet undermines everything. When everything is free and instantly accessible, no one will pay for anything. Pay to read, pay to listen, pay to view, or pay to run ads. Even if it not everything is free or accessible, something else just as good (or good enough, anyway) is free and instantly accessible so there’s no point. And there is really nothing that can be done about this. There is no working revenue model, as they say. Nobody gets paid. Words especially are rendered cheap as air.

The only revenue model anymore seems to be page hits. Every time a viewer clicks a link, a couple pennies change hands. So the only thing of any genuine financial significance on a website are links. Writing becomes nothing but content, stuff to fill the pages around the ads. Whether that writing is good or not is not of any significance at all. As long as it drives people to those ads, as long as it gets people to click the link. Music is no longer of particular importance in western civilization. It’s nice, but it’s not essential. And writing is quickly following. It’s nice to see good writing, but it’s no longer anything people really care about. It’s rather irrelevant. It’s time consuming. It certainly has no way to pay for itself. Writers made a dollar a word once because people once read all the words. If you wrote a five hundred word piece, they read all five hundred words. If you were a really good writer they demanded more. Now people read the first couple lines. Maybe the first paragraph. Sometimes the second paragraph. Sometimes they’d skip to the last paragraph to read how it comes out. They don’t with that bother anymore. Whatever they need to know has to be in the first paragraph or they will never know. And if no ones reads more than a few dozen words of a five hundred word piece, it is no longer worth a dollar a word. In fact, you’ll be lucky to get a dime a word.

It’s a weird time. There are few famous writers anymore, and almost no famous journalists. Everybody is a writer today, and the bar has been set so low by blogs and sponsored content that the very concept of good writing is becoming obsolete. Perhaps it is obsolete already, as people do not read enough of any single piece for the quality to matter. Writers have been trained by centuries of tradition to build up to the big finish, that memorable final line. But no one reads that far now. Everything past the first couple lines is probably wasted. It’s weird to think that of all the writing there is on the internet, only a tiny fraction of percent ever gets read. That is trillions of word wasted. Interesting prospect, that, in evolutionary terms. Our brains have, over the past five thousand years, developed this extraordinary talent for writing language. This is a really new thing. Mass literacy is only two centuries old (beginning in the United States and spreading globally since) and has had a profound impact on humans as a society and humans as a species. Cultures that can read and write thrive, those that can’t disappear. Languages without a written form will disappear quickly once a language with a written form moves in. Literacy has in a very brief time transformed the human world in many ways as profoundly as the evolution of spoken language itself. Yet suddenly almost nothing we use written language for is ever read. I suspect that much of the prose that has been written in this past decade has never seen by a pair of eyes. It is written, posted online in some form or another, and ignored. Texts, of course, are almost invariably read, but texting is more like speech than written language. But of all the writing on all those billions of websites? How much of that is ever read by anybody? Even individual page views mean in almost every case that only a couple sentences were read, nearly always at the top of the page. Most everything else on the page is little read and quite likely unread. Imagine if nearly all the words ever uttered were never heard. That’s what is happening with written language now, with nearly all the words being written never being read. Yet human beings are probably writing more now than we ever will again. This is the absolute apogee of the written word. There is writing everywhere, incredible amounts of it. But if no one is reading it, why is it being written? Language evolved as an ability to communicate. We talk to pass on information, basically. Written language evolved for the same reason. Yet now, in I would guess is most of the time, no information is being transmitted by written language because no one is reading what someone wrote. Semiotically written language is failing most of the time. You need to have a reader. Without readers, writing doesn’t have much of a useful function. Evolution, whether genetic or memetic, does not abide the unused for long. Frills fall by the wayside, forgotten. Nearly all writing is in that category now, useless and forgotten. There is simply no reason for it to exist at all.

In twenty years, perhaps in a decade, there will be less writers and less words. The trillions of words on the internet now will slow to a relative trickle. Everyone writes now because there used to be a profession called writing. There isn’t much of one now. Kids will not grow up to be writers when there are no readers. We will still read, and still write. But writing like we do it now, in books and stories and articles, that is probably ending. Perhaps the only ones of you who would adamantly disagree with that prediction are the handful who have gotten to this last sentence.

last line great gatsby

Ruminations on why you would rather look at a funny cat video than read this.

“Here’s another way of saying it: We are the first few generations to receive most of our sense of the world mediated rather than direct, to have it arrive through one screen or another instead of from contact with other human beings or with nature.”–Bill McKibben, The Mental Environment (2013)

Language itself totally changed and shaped our perception of the world, what we see and what we say our two dramatically different things, with what we see being much more accurate than how we say it. In many ways, information brought to us visually on screen–movie, television, computer–is more accurate and unfiltered than what we read in books, newspapers or magazines. Widespread literacy dramatically changed human perception. But visual information on our screens subverts language…a reversal of a long time trend. Language began to supplant vision, at first at the origin of speech itself a quarter million years ago and then again, dramatically, with the invention of writing. The printing press and widespread literacy began to change how people viewed the world and processed information. Sight and language battle for control in getting us information. For a couple centuries there as reading became universal (first in the United States, we were the truly literate nation after mandatory education was introduced with the founding of the republic) the written word took precedence and people would almost always believe what they read over what they saw. Movies, television and the internet are allowing the ocular part of our brain to increase its control of our information process. People read less now and look at video more. So what the internet has done is to weaken the power of language in our perception by allowing us to watch video. It has also, first through email conversation and then through texting and finally Facebook, made writing more akin to speech. Writers like me are constantly struggling with ways to get people to trust language again. So what we are seeing now is the retreat of written language in the brain as there are more ways now than ever before to watch instead of read things.

Another thing to consider is religion. Even in a world free from any sort of video or writing, as in the middle ages, when most people in Europe read not at all, their perception of reality was less accurate and direct than it is today because religion completely shaped the way people saw reality. You can see that just reading medieval and middle ages texts. Instead of seeing things directly as they were, everything was filtered though religious dogma and belief. So language had enabled religion and written language had enabled codified religious dogma which could be recited to people who couldn’t read, and which then severely limited people’s perception of reality even though few of them could read and there were almost no media at all. Free of ironclad and enforced dogma now (no one gets burned at the stake for blasphemy anymore in this country) we certainly have more appreciation of nature than they did then. People have been walking through the forests now for centuries. We preserve forests in national parks and lace them with hiking trails. But in the Middle Ages and even into the Enlightenment Europeans were terrified of forests. Mountains were a source of evil. Deserts full of ghosts and djinn. Nature more scary than it was beautiful. Even rainbows had their dangerous wee people.

The written word changed all of that. The more we read, the less scared we are. Now, with visual information coming to the fore again, via television and the internet, people seem to be more scared, or at least more wary, scared of each other. Partly, I think, because the brain takes in anything visual as self-experienced, it does not distinguish between you being in a car accident and watching a car accident on TV. It feels it viscerally as if you were in the crashing car. And now, when it sees scary video on the news or YouTube or even scary crime stories and reality programs, it automatically sets off fear and concern, often absurdly out of proportion, because our brain cannot analyze it the way we can with language. It sees everything as reality. Language does not do that. Reality programs are not possible as literature.

So today it is not so much that people who watch the internet all day long are out of touch with real life, it’s that the brain sees everything on TV or the internet as real life, no matter how ridiculous that is, or how out of context that video was. Just shoot it with a hand held camera and it looks real. Language can add context. When we read our language based analytical skills give context, and when we even listen to spoken words–news, for instance–we automatically add context. We look for raw footage of disasters precisely because there is no narrator to ruin the you-are-there sensation. 

The problem now is not the current internet drive world’s lack of direct contact with other people and nature. It is the lack of analytical context, which, unfortunately, is entirely based on language, whether written or spoken (or even thought–we think in language, but we do not see pictures and film in language.) You cannot have, apparently, a world full of video and simultaneous logical explanations. The two literally do not go together, since the parts or our brains that take in visual information and the parts that logically analyzes it are two different things, indeed are in different lobes (back and front, respectively). We haven’t yet figured out a way to merge the two.

I’m working on it, though.


Had one of those digital conversations on Facebook tonight about a map. A bunch of people talking about how and why a certain map had never been made. I said they had been made, I was looking at one, I had it in a book on my desk. The conversation continued about how and why one had never been made, as if I’d said nothing at all. I repeated that I have one of the maps they all insist had never been made, in a book on my desk. But apparently the map in the book, being tactile and analog, did not exist. Facebook is strictly digital. Analog is of no use whatsoever on Facebook.

Everywhere I look in my office are books, everywhere. Must be a thousands of them. Hundreds more in the closet awaiting shelving. And piles of maps. Yet the only portions of all these intellectual riches that exist to Facebook are whatever Google has digitized. I can link to those.

When the Phoenician alphabet caught on and transformed writing–and reading–it rendered cuneiform obsolete. Cuneiform was much more difficult than an alphabet. Mastering it took years of training. Within a few centuries of the introduction of the alphabets, cuneiform stopped being used at all and by 200 BC it was no longer a living writing form at all. It was extinct. No one could write it, no one could read it, no one could translate even a word. With its extinction, went all meaning in the content in millions of documents, documents written in cuneiform stashed, buried, entombed or gracing ancient walls. All of it, hundreds of millions of words, were little more than strange looking geometric patterns etched it clay or hewn in rock or written in ink. For all intents and purposes, the entire written history of civilization in the Fertile Crescent until then had vanished. Nearly three thousand years of it gone.

Think of it this way: if a writing system is a technology, then a new, improved technology had rendered an older, less user friendly technology completely worthless. A Roman staring at a cuneiform inscription was just as mystified as we are now. Though we at least, have experts who can read it. They are few and far between, though, those experts. To the rest of us, cuneiform looks like triangular gibberish.

Books aren’t gibberish. We can read them easily enough. Flip one open and you can begin reading aloud instantly. But you can’t read and turn the pages of an actual book on the web, nor post them in Facebook, nor link to them in this blog. And unless I take a picture–and I won’t–you’ll just have to take my word on that map. But it’s here, in a beautiful volume published in 1996. Which was the year I began working in the Internet industry, and using email and the web, and within just a few years saw my library, my magazine subscriptions, my box of handwritten essays and journals, my thousands of photographs, hundreds of maps, and my entire record collection vanish before my eyes whenever I turned on the computer. Analog isn’t extinct yet, but it’s getting there.

Behind the door

I once peeked at the source code on my Facebook page. It seemed to go on forever. I wondered just how many characters that was, so on a whim I copied it, opened up an MS Word document and pasted it in. Control a, control c, open doc, control p. Less than ten seconds. But nothing happened. The page was blank, frozen. I let it be and went back to something useful. A few hours later I went back to look. All the source code was there, 187 pages of it in dull utilitarian ten point font, single spaced. Alas, Word was trapped in a Sisyphean hell trying to proofread the thing. Hours later and it had only gotten to page 12. At 187 pages a word count was an impossibility, I knew, and a character count was one for the cosmos. So I put the beast out of its misery and deleted it. 187 pages vanished into electrons. I scooted back here, safely above all that HTML. But it’s weird, now that I’ve seen behind the door. What is all that code? What does it all do? As Facebook alters civilization itself, and perhaps, some excitable types say, our very evolution as a species, just what is that code, really? HTML, sure, but how many other HTML sources have changed us so completely? The internet is full of HTML, but very little of makes us unfriend each other. Or befriend people we don’t even know. Or get all worked up about nothing. Or post stupid cat videos, over and over. Perhaps we’re not supposed to know. I heard an old science fiction radio show once. A guy started wondering about things, like why was it they were all doing what they were doing, and started nosing around, where no one ever looked before. Turns out they were all part of a game in some advertising agency. He told somebody else, and soon everyone told everybody. Everyone knew it wasn’t real. The game was ruined, so the agency ended it, and thus ended that universe. Don’t blame me.