The Inanities of the Visionary
I have a lot of respect for Doris Lessing but her recent remarks about the Internet reveal an ignorance and lack of understanding that is depressing and unbecoming of such a literary giant. Here’s what she said in her acceptance speech for the Nobel prize for literature:
We never thought to ask how will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging.
Frankly, I’m not sure Ms. Lessing knows what blogging is. And I am also one of those people who are concerned that the Internet is changing our society in ways we haven’t thought through. But it’s certainly not killing reading, learning and writing. In fact the opposite: the Internet is actually offering us so much information, and so much knowledge, the problem now is being able to judge what is important and what is not, and to retain a sense of mystery about the world.
If we can look down from heaven on any point of the globe via Google Earth, if we can look up any fact on Wikipedia, if we can communicate with any person in any country via voice for free via Skype, if we can listen to any radio station on the planet (and watch 100s of different tv channels) or read more or less any newspaper, if we can read tens of thousands of different books for free via Project Gutenberg, not to mention hundreds of thousands of excellent blogs, I can’t really see what is “inane” about the Internet.
Ms. Lessing is concerned that amidst all this online inanity, books will die. Of course books won’t die. Books as books (pbooks) won’t die. They come in a form that has proved perfect for their content. They will also be available as ebooks, too, and in forms we can’t yet imagine or create.
The point is that writing will continue. Online it may be shorter — but not always — and it may be interspersed with other media. But I would say that there are more people reading and writing now than any time in history. As Ms. Lessing herself says, according to The Guardian’s Maev Kennedy:
She contrasted her experiences in Zimbabwe and other parts of Africa, where people were hungry and clamouring for books even though they might have no food, where schools might not have a single book and a library might be a plank seat under a tree.
In a way the Internet is the solution to this kind of problem; in some ways it’s easier to bring knowledge to people and institutions via the Internet than by bringing them books. Or, failing that, bringing them the single biggest repository of free, community-based knowledge in the world: Wikipedia — printed out, or put on a CD-Rom and given via a refurbished $100 PC. I don’t think that the One Laptop Per Child idea is necessarily the correct way to go about it, but I do believe on the whole the Internet has brought people in the developing world closer to knowledge than any physical library ever has.
I’m sad that Ms. Lessing, who has been considered a social radical and has written some great science fiction, has not seen the Internet for what it is: a great leveller, redistributor and repository of information and knowledge.
( PS I just looked up dorislessing.com and dorislessing.co.uk: the first is up for auction (and sports a picture of a young woman in white with a white laptop in a white chair; definitely not Doris Lessing) and the second redirects to a radio and TV tuning website where you can tune in to dozens of radio and TV stations. Meanwhile anyone online wanting to know about her can find it on Wikipedia. It all seems somehow fitting.)