Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/23/2011

You can delete, but you cannot hide

The Last Bastion of Scholarship

The Last Bastion of Scholarship

A member of the department in which I teach won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to finish his in-progress book. I think that’s absolutely splendid. I passed him in the hall on Friday and congratulated him. Then I made myself look foolish (I had good reason—I was dizzy from mistakenly taking a double dose of one of my meds, and I shouldn’t have been at the university at all) asking him what he was going to do with the grant. I knew full well what he was going to do—finish his book. 

What I meant to ask was if he will be teaching, or if he will go off somewhere more exotic and inspiring than Dallas to do his work. I could tell by his response he thought the question strange, if not foolish.  (I know from an experience a couple of years ago some of my colleagues think I’m too old to be teaching—mentally and physically over the hill. Or perhaps I should never have been teaching in the first place because I am not scholarly enough. )

Those of us who are not excessively brilliant and/or have not dedicated ourselves to the pursuit of academic minutiae cannot, I suppose, understand what it’s like to have all of our intellectual ducks in a row and be absolutely confident that our minds are working at the highest speed, efficiency, and cleverness evolution has brought the human brain size to be able to muster. I don’t have a clue what it might be like to be writing an “important” biography of someone no one has ever heard of (oops! Now that was bitchy—probably because I’m insecure). 

Oh, wait, I remember. I have written a biography of someone no one has ever heard of—and have a PhD to show for it. It’s not a great scholarly tome, but it is a thorough primary investigation into a little-known place and time in American music history. I don’t particularly like to read it because I have learned so much about writing (not so much about scholarship) since I wrote it, but that’s another subject altogether. [See ** below for the most important writing lesson I know to give.]

 At noon with Lord Brouncker to Sir D. Gawden’s, His [Alderman Sir Denis Gauden—food supplier to the royal navy] at the Victualling-Office, to dinner, where I have not dined since he was Sheriff [Sheriff of the City of London]:  His lady a good lady; but my Lord led himself and me to a great absurdity in kissing all the ladies, but the finest of all the company, leaving her [Lady Elizabeth Gauden] out, I know not how; and I was loath to do it, since he omitted it. Here little Chaplin [Francis Chaplin, an assistant to Gauden] dined, who is like to be Sheriff the next year; and a pretty humoured little man he is (1).

This is the entry for January 23, 1668 from Samuel Pepys’s (1633 – 1703) diary. Pepys was a Member of Parliament during the Restoration Period, and his ten-year diary is an important eye-witness account of such events as the Great Plague of 1665, the Great Fire of 1666, and the workings of Parliament under Charles II. He wrote in shorthand and carefully transcribed and bound the entire work in six volumes. When I was in college, my not-yet-wife and I would often find the entry for a given day (she being an English literature major) and read it with delight. Now it’s online, and if you Google it, you find entry for that day.

Short hand

Short hand

Pepys was not writing for publication, but he must have wanted someone to find his diaries or he would not have transcribed them and preserved them so carefully. They are, besides historical eye-witness accounts, descriptions of his private life, including his extra-marital affairs (in vivid detail) and his commentary on the personalities of the movers and shakers of 17th-century London.

I’m writing for publication—or, more accurately, dissemination—and I can never retract anything I have ever put on this blog. You can never erase from your electronic footprint the fact that you’ve read this. If you are on Facebook or use Google or link to your blog from here or from anywhere, you can forget privacy.

Evidence: when I began Facebooking, I did not indicate in my profile “male” or “female” and if I am looking for a male or a female (odd that should be one of the questions). Later I decided to click “male” and “looking for a male.” Within six hours, all of the ads on my profile were for gay hook-up sites. For fun I changed my residence to Finland, and within an hour all of the ads—including the gay hook-up ads—were in Finnish. You don’t really think you have any privacy, do you?

I decided long ago it’s pointless either to worry about that or to try to do anything about it. I do worry about one aspect of the situation, however. Lack of privacy and our lives-as-open-books-to-everyone are likely to lead to social conformity and uniformity that has the potential to make robots of us all. We may not need to develop mechanical robots. . . .

John Stuart Mill, that freakish old free-thinker, wrote that our desire to conform is likely to create

. . . a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself (2).

Mill warns that we should find ways to protect ourselves from this social tyranny.

[P]rotection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling (3).

Rosen carries the argument farther and posits that the tyranny of cyberspace has already affected our personhood.

. . . I have discussed the danger of being judged, fairly or unfairly, on the basis of isolated bits of personal information that are taken out of context. And to the degree that cyberspace has altered our conceptions of time and geographic space, it increases this risk (4).

Rosen wrote in 2000. An entire generation is emerging since then for whom the altered conceptions of time and space are not altered at all. Those conceptions are what they know. That what they know is the world of Facebook and the Patriot Act is a sobering thought to an old fart like me.

Too much information?

Too much information?

Perhaps for an academic (whether a play-by-the-rules-and-get-an-IEH-grant type or not) an equally distressing danger of the digital everyone-has-information-about-everyone age is that “changes in media technology have increased the risk of mistaking information for knowledge” (5). All of this flow of information, both about the “stuff” of the world and about each other may have made knowing, for example, “what it might be like to be writing an ‘important’ biography of someone no one has ever heard of” (supra) irrelevant. It may have made it worse than that.

Our flow of information and our altered conceptions of time and space (and The Truth) may have made such activity in our “formidable social reality” dangerous. The “tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling” may have made it unacceptable.
(1) “The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Daily entries from the 17th century London diary.” Ed. by Phil Gyford. Wednesday 22 January 1667/68. Web. 23 Jan. 2011.
(2) Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty, page 7. Quoted in: Rosen, Jeffrey. The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America. New York: Random House, 2000 (page 196).
(3) Idem.
(4) Ibid. 200.
(5) Idem.
I tell my students if they would master two simple rules, they would transform their writing overnight. My writing may not be important or scholarly, and it is certainly not organized and logical—but neither is my brain. It is, however, clearer and more readable than most—even the most scholarly among us.
     First: never write a passive verb [I mean NEVER]. Second: never use the expletive construction “there is,” “there are,” “it is,” etc. ” [The “it is” in the paragraph above is not an expletive construction; the “it” refers to and substitutes for “my writing.”] Those constructions accomplish the obliteration of the subject of the sentence. If a sentence doesn’t have a subject, how can either writer or reader know what the sentence is about? I challenge you to find such a construction in my writing. There. Writing lesson for today. I continue, even though, in the age of Facebook and The Patriot Act, it is absolutely irrelevant.


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