Thursday, May 12, 2005

Fahrenheit 451, Information, and the Blogosphere

Believe it or not, a meme made me read a book. I hadn't read F451, though I knew the basic plot, so when the F451 meme went around, I thought I should read the book it was based on. So I did and it was good. (Someone else around here just read it too. I can't remember who.) I'm thinking about using this book in my blogging course in the fall. We want to spend some time talking about information generally and I think the book is a good representation of information and its relationship to society. Vapid information in the form of television is okay, but literature and especially contradictory literature is not okay.

It seems to me that we've come to this point in terms of the media. I get so frustrated with tv news because they absolutely shy away from conflict. I have a little of my lawyer dad in me and I'm always yelling, "Ask the question, just ask the question." My dad says there's always some key questions in every case. If you figure out what they are and ask them in ways that get the answers you want, you win the case. 90% of the time, the media never asks the question. It's like the people they interview have told them not to (and I realize that's entirely possible). I also think about those town hall meetings Bush has been having where the only people who are allowed attend are people who agree with him. No contradictions. Don't confuse the people. Burn the books. I seriously often feel that they're hiding a lot of information from us. And the media focusing on runaway brides and cessnas that accidentally get into restricted airspace doesn't help the problem.

There's that aspect of information--misinformation and/or hiding of information. Then there's also information overload. Shortly after I finished F451, I ran into this article about information. He argues that, contrary to popular belief, we aren't actually taking in more information than we did 100 years ago, but it's just a different kind of information. Instead of knowing about farming conditions and trees and fauna and flora, we know about current events or literature or popular culture. The quote that struck me and reminded me of F451 was this:
Many of us have even let television or movie stars replace, for purposes of gossip and caring, the kinds of relatives and neighbors who would have filled those roles for us even only 100 years ago. Since what all those stars do is pretty intensely scripted, it’s like living in a gossip monoculture equivalent to 1,000 square miles of the same specific subspecies of wheat.
Of course, that's exactly what the people in F451 do; they watch "the family" on their walls of tvs. And [spoiler alert] while they're doing that, their government takes them into yet another nuclear war which destroys them all.

And that is my fear. And that is what is behind a lot of blogs. The attempt--not always successful--to find out what information is being hidden, when we're being distracted by certain information (is Social Security reform a distraction?) and whether the information that we read is true. We have many more ways of checking.

The article quoted above is actually about the freedom of information. To some extent a lot of information is free (that is available and at no cost), but there's an awful lot that isn't. When strict copyright laws prevent someone from preserving The Eyes on the Prize, does that chapter in our history fade? Does someone rewrite it? There are a lot of issues there. And I'm not sure I agree with his conclusion that we'll just figure it out. Corporate greed and a secretive government are not a good combination for creating an environment for information to run free.