Monday, September 25, 2006

The Limitations of blogging

I'm currently rereading Quentin Schultze's Habits of the high-tech heart, trying to finish what I started a couple of years ago – having initially left it at home but now back in my hands(thanks, sis!). And I was really struck by some of his gentle yet firm observations of the technological society that we now live in. Among other things, he critiques our penchant for informationism, that is, a belief that somehow, more access to more information can somehow lead to progress and a better society. He also shows how our informational practices have turned us into impersonal observers rather than interested participants – thus the term “surfing” the net is particularly apt as it never gets beyond the surface. There are loads and loads more gems that I don't have the space to uncover here, but I just wanted to take some disparate threads of his and run with it to think about blogging.

In a way, it's a pity the book came out just before the blogging phenomenon had started gaining momentum, as I would have loved to see what he would have said specifically about this particular practice. Nevertheless, I doubt it would have changed much of what he has already written. Recently, the biblical scholar Andreas Kostenberger wrote on hermeneutics (that is, the study of interpretation) of the blogosphere and the genre of the “blog”. In that post, he ruminated on the very practice of reading a blog and the proper interpretive controls we need - “much would be gained if we were to intuit the proper genre of another’s blog and critique that blog in keeping with the authorially intended genre”. This is in keeping with what I have long thought. I wrote a long, long time ago about different genres of blogs and the different types of bloggers, and proposed a 4Cs model: creator, catalyst, chronicler or commentator. The creator, I opined, was the one who threw out original posts, a way of thinking out loud, roughly similar to Kostenberger's genres of the editorial and panel discussion. The catalyst, I thought, was one who picks up an idea and runs with it, again, perhaps similar to the panel discussion again, alluded above. The chronicler could either be one who is simply diarizing his own life, lovingly shaping it into a narrative, with its characters, point of view etc. Or he could also be helping us sort out what may be a jumble and put it into discernible order, like those who collate all the links to a particular issue. And the commentator is self-explanatory I guess.

Obviously these categories are rather loose and I'm sure you can think of some blogs that don't fit into those above. But my main point is that I think we are often still babies in our practice of reading blogs sometimes. The internet and blogging in particular has often been praised as allowing for the democratization of information, allowing for a plurality of views (polyglossia I think might be the appropriate technical word). Yet this has also resulted in a flattening that fails to take into account things like context, cultural difference, communication styles etc. For example, humour often doesn't seem to translate well on the internet. Neither does our whole personhood appear to be able to make the transition onto screen: often, bloggers, myself included, admit that what we are like in person and our online personas don't always match (the Jungians among you must feel vindicated now! :-p )

Schultze points out that ethical practice and technology seems to have become disconnected, or at least distorted, and often, we are so used to our technological society and the optimistic rhetoric of its proponents that we seek essentially technological solutions to essentially moral problems. So think of spam filters or in the case of blogs, the necessity of banning vulgar commenters. The point isn't that we can't seek recourse to such actions, but that often, we refuse to see that the problem is still that of our human hearts. It is a reminder that would serve us well.

I am not a Luddite; I don't think it means we should be running away from technology. But I don't quite share, to name an example, Hugh Hewitt's enthusiasm that blogging is going to be revolutionary. Blogging is hard work, and sometimes I don't feel like persevering when my energies might be better served elsewhere. In reading blogs and blogging, we have to work harder than ever to be graceful, to communicate cross-culturally, and it does give us the opportunity to expand our worldview and to be able to stay in touch and respond to each other in more interactive ways than previously imagined.

And to borrow the title of a Wendell Berry book which I have never read, I think we should continue to stand by words, and blogging is still about writing (with apologies to the many fine photo-blogs out there.) On the cover page of that particular book is this sentence: “such fidelity to the word, as evidenced by clarity of meaning and intent, would go far to reconnect language to life.” Hopefully we who are bloggers aspire to reconnect our blogging to life. Today in my quiet time I was reading the opening chapter of Colossians. In one magisterial sweep Paul declares the supremacy of Christ, that all creation is made by Him and for Him. He was Lord before blogging came to be, he will be Lord after blogging has passed away. We shouldn't forget.

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