Saturday, April 29, 2006

Inconclusive Ramblings about Geography

A fellow faculty member at the high school where I teach informed me today that he'd come across my site on MySpace. One of his posts explained his reason for creating a MySpace site: He is studying the behavior of his students on MySpace as a kind of anthropological research experiment. He describes MySpace as a gathering place within their "sociological jungle". Combine this with the fact that Paige, Noah, and I are moving, so I am sitting in a room filled with labeled boxes, and a conversation I had with Joel yesterday about how the new NYTimes website is more navigable, and it's all got me thinking about geography. I'm acting out the R.E.M. song "Stand". "Think about direction/ wonder why you have it now."

MySpace isn't Space, strictly speaking. Given time and processing speed it could all be shoved through a single fiber-optic cable, right? I mean, in theory, given a powerful enough blender, enough pressure, and enough added liquid my apartment and all its contents could all be shoved through a piece of normal PVC pipe, but that doesn't sound very pleasant. But there is something quantitatively different about navigating a website as opposed to navigating this room filled with boxes full of books. I'm not just referring to the two dimensions of my computer screen as opposed o the three of the room, either. Data doesn't have to be spread out and navigated like space. What does it say about our ability to comprehend information that we like to have it defined in terms of space, even when it isn't, so that we can... well, navigate it?

This question is more vexing for someone like me who prefers to write in prose rather than poetry. Poets manipulate space when writing all the time.
on the page. Instead, I follow the rules of paragraphing and alignment. And yet, seen in the context of the "gathering place" in the "jungle" post, the new NYTimes site, and this room filled with boxes, I'm forced to consider the fact that any one of the books I've written could be read as a continuous line in a text file, with some editing marks to denote paragraph breaks and the ends of chapters, and no information would be lost. But I recoil in horror at the thought. Why? Is it merely because no one would go to the trouble of reading a mile of text stretched out rather than printed in block form on individual pages? I think there's more to it. I think that formatting itself might be a facet of this Witgensteinian language game all writers play without careful consideration. Sure, writing in Arabic of Japanese seems odd to me, because the text is navigated in the opposite direction, and I've heard that Chinese can be navigated in multiple directions (though my mind boggles at the thought) but I've never questioned why text must be presented spatially in the first place. Is this an outgrowth of our need to anthropomorphize ideas so that they relate to our physical world? Is it just convenience (at best pragmatism in the sense of Richard Rorty's?) Is it something else, some Kantian mechanism within the mind that Kant himself didn't explore? Is it a manifestation of a Platonic reality; true ideas being manifest as a navigable world like ours but better? I seriously doubt the latter, since we can all recognize that the arrangement of ideas is



So what does it mean? I don't know. But think about it: You, dear reader, didn't read this backwards. Even if ideas have a logical, sequential order, we could express them in a linear fashion in whatever direction we might choose. If our technology were capable, would we make use of a third dimension to express ideas? Would we pull important ideas towards us, to get our attention, or push them away to relate the fact that they are "deep"? I wonder.

As I advertised in the title, I have drawn no conclusions. What are your thoughts? When you stand in the place where you live (now face north) and you think about direction and wonder why we have it, what do you think?

P.S. Don't write your reply backwards or vertically. I am clever enough to appreciate the idea, but not clever enough to actually sail through un-navigable waters, so don't waste your time.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Dear Middle America: Quit Whining About MySpace!

Okay, that's enough! Stories about MySpace have been filling up everything from tech journals to reputable newspapers to tabloid TV. Last night the story made its way to my local news. It's got to stop.

I don't know when exactly this all started (I don't have Lexis search capabilities) so I don't know if David Brooks was the start of all this with his January 8th piece "Bondage and Bonding Online" in the NYTimes, or if he brought his credibility to this silliness and that helped give reputable news sources permission, but it's just ridiculous now.

There are two kinds of pieces on MySpace. The first go something like this: Look at this wild phenomenon. Kids are connecting with one another at an unprecedented rate on this site called MySpace. It's growth is phenomenal. This alone isn't that interesting, but it says something about modern kids' need to connect with others. Wow!

The second kind goes like this: Check out MySpace. Kids are posting sexually revealing pictures of themselves and sharing startling facts about their drinking and drug habits. What is America coming to? Sexual predators will take advantage of this. Run for the hills!

Both of these are garbage. As to the first, the growth of MySpace is the story, not kids' need to connect. Middle America, if you needed MySpace to let you know that American teens feel isolated and emotionally deprived, you deserve a solid smack to the head. Teens have been lonely and melancholy since the dawn of time. This isn't news. Historically, cultures have provided them with meaningful rites of passage (you know, like backbraking child labor, arranged marriage, and families to support) which forced them to ignore their angst and get on with adult life. We take responsibility away from kids, but instead of helping them cope with the feelings they are wrestling with, we create a purpose vacuum and expect them to navigate it. Has MySpace tapped into this? Yes. Has it filled the void? No. Kids are just as alone and in need. Now you can log on and see it for yourself.

Thank you MySpace.

As to the second, MySpace doesn't tell you anything you shouldn't have known, and your fear of it is more of an explanation than the site is.

Are sexual predators going to use it? Sure, just like they've used e-mail and telephones and the mail. Sickos find a way, but we don't get rid of mail or phones or priests training alter-boys because of a few whack-jobs. MySpace hasn't made kids more vulnerable to pedophiles (or peer bullying) than e-mail or instant messaging.

Are kids sexually active? Shocking. Are they far more provocative and promiscuous than the previous generation? Sure. Look at the role models they've been provided. First, there's Hollywood, and before you blame them, recognize that they don't make a single thing you don't pay for. Second, your kids get to see porn (both boys and girls). Third, when you don't talk to them about sex, they assume that what you do behind closed doors is whore it up just like the people they see in progressively more perverse films. Do you talk openly about it with them in your homes, your schools, your churches? No. You tell them to be abstinent. You say sex is forbidden. Have you forgotten that the very forbidden nature of sex, like any activity, makes it more attractive? If you are worried about your kids being overly fascinated with sex, talk to them about it. Trust me, nothing will take the fun out of sex faster than a kid being forced to imagine their parents doing it. Ditto with alcohol. You forbid it, so it's cool.

Your kids drink just like you did when you were their age. And, just like you, they exaggerate how much they drink. When they drink, they do so irresponsibly because it's a rare occasion and they haven't learned to pace themselves. Just like you, at their age. Then they brag about it. You bragged in a locker room, or on the phone. They do it on MySpace. Because you (like your parents) downplay the amount you drink, there seems to be a very large disparity between your alcohol intake and theirs. Don't worry. You still drink more than your kids. You pace yourself, you sip, you do it on a more regular basis. They sneak around and binge when they get the chance. The only difference is that now you get to read about it when they tell their friends.

Again, thanks MySpace.

There are some legitimate news pieces about MySpace. Some people are recognizing that musical groups have found a new venue. The quality generally stinks, just like any new medium, but there will be some gems that will rise up out of the gravel, just as great groups marketed themselves through cassette recordings once upon a time. Also, there's money to be made, and people ought to pay attention to who is winning and losing on that front. Most ominously, the site has been purchased by Rupert Murdoch (owner of Fox "news") so it will be interesting to see if people maintain the right to freely share political beliefs. That's something for journalists to watch.

Is there more we might learn about our teens from MySpace? Perhaps. But, so far, we haven't seen anything newsworthy. Middle America, put down your papers, turn off your TVs, and go check out your kids' MySpace sites. And please, for the love of all that's good and holy, quit your whining and talk with your kids about what you see there.

Friday, April 14, 2006


Welcome to Unapologetic Conjecture. We struggled mightily to come up with a name that perfectly suited our purpose here, which is to present ideas which are not born of expetise but also aren't encumbered by the biases that often come with titles. The collection of contributors that we'll assemble here will aim to entertain and enlighten (and, doubtless, irritate). Hopefully we will earn the time you devote to reading our posts. As some guy named Bill once wrote, "...if you with patient ears attend, /What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend."