The Inanities of the Visionary

By | December 8, 2007

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 and 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.)

Nobel prize winner Lessing warns against ‘inane’ internet | Special Reports | Guardian Unlimited Books

6 thoughts on “The Inanities of the Visionary

  1. Constant Conversation

    And she won a Nobel literary prize?!?

    Jeremy, this is an excellent commentary on blogging.

    I have recently written a free ebook on the topic and would like to use portions of this posting in my next release of the book.

    Of course, what is quoted will be attributed to you. However, if you are opposed to that please let me know.

  2. anonymous

    Have you read her speech?

    She barely mentioned internet and gets quoted out of context. She isn’t concerned that amidst all this online inanity, books will die. She’s concerned that online inanity will not.

  3. Anonymous

    Anonymous, thanks for the comment. Yes, I have (the original posted at the Nobel web site) quotes her thus:

    We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women who have had years of education, to know nothing about the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers.

    What has happened to us is an amazing invention, computers and the internet and TV, a revolution. This is not the first revolution we, the human race, has dealt with. The printing revolution, which did not take place in a matter of a few decades, but took much longer, changed our minds and ways of thinking. A foolhardy lot, we accepted it all, as we always do, never asked “What is going to happen to us now, with this invention of print?” And just as we never once stopped to ask, How are we, our minds, going to change with the new internet, which has seduced a whole generation into 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 and blugging etc.

    I’d agree that she only once mentioned the Net, and yes, it might be unfair to focus on that, but I don’t see that she’s quoted out of context. I believe her message is that while she readily acknowledges the Internet as a revolution, she is concerned it has part of the superficiality that is our First World society. I think she is wrong.

  4. anonymous

    Since she only mentioned the Net briefly and jokingly, I think it’s just an example of the superficiality of our First World.

    She’s talking about the inanities on the Net, not the Net itself. And by books, I think she meant (the hunger for) knowledges.

    “I think it is that girl and the women who were talking about books and an education when they had not eaten for three days, that may yet define us.”

    So I said the quote is out of context because Knowledge-vs-Inanity is misread as Book-vs-Net. (And your remark in the PS is kinda… mean?) It’s also sad you try and “defend” blogging and blugging when she just told a harmless joke.

    But then, maybe I just like her reaction to winning the Nobel too much.

  5. Anonymous

    Anonymous, thanks, and good comments. I’m still not convinced her remarks about the Net were throwaway. She seems to be saying that the First World has lost its hunger for knowledge, whereas the developing world hasn’t. I actually wouldn’t argue with that, in some ways. I just think that she uses the Internet in the wrong way — to suggest that those people on the Internet are not there because of a thirst for knowledge, but instead just interested in its inanities.

    I don’t mean the remark about the lady in white to be mean, either to the woman in white or Ms. Lessing.

    But you’re right; her reaction to winning the Nobel is wonderful.


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