Among the Disrupted, or: Get Off My Lawn!

Leon Wieseltier, the author, has written a cover essay for the NYT Sunday Book Review that is ostensibly a review of a book by Mark Greif but is actually a grumpy gripe-fest filled with overstatements, misstatements, and misunderstandings. While it generally fits the "things used to be good and then everything started changing" trope, I give Wieseltier credit for the fact it didn't become a "technology is making life so impersonal!" snoozefest.

Instead, the thesis was something like "humanism is really valuable and is being replaced by something else that's less valuable because of thoughtless technology worshipers". I didn't know what humanism meant but, apparently, it denotes both a "pedagogy" and "worldview". All that aside, it seems that what he's really arguing is that "critical thinking is super-important".

Being somewhat in the belly of the tech beast I can happily reply: No argument here!

Given the banality of the central thesis I have to wonder why Wieseltier felt compelled to spend tens of minutes of his life writing this essay. (Presumably his angst over tech and metrics cheapening thought comes out of all the recent turmoil at The New Republic.) I think he's spilled so much ink to say so little because he doesn't actually know what he's talking about, has a narrow point of view, and may not even realize he's arguing with straw men.

These are some of the tells:

"the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry"

That's a phrase from the first paragraph and I think he's referring to Amazon, or maybe it's just any company that distributes digital versions of books and music. In any event, in the light of the recent thuggery in Paris this phrase strikes me as a bit overwrought and just plain wrong.

I've read the reports about Amazon's heavy handed business tactics, many of which seem slightly thuggish, and I'm aware that it's very hard for an artist to earn a living off of Spotify plays but does he really believe that these companies and the people that work there are the greatest thugs in the history of culture?

I'm no historian but... Destroying the Library of Alexandria seems super-thuggish. Stealing the Elgin Marbles seems thuggish. But creating a really easy way for people to get access to the ideas and thoughts of the times? I see the downsides but it's just not thuggery.

this time is really different from all the other times

At the end of that same very long first paragraph Wieseltier writes "It was always the case the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous". It's not entirely clear what he's referring to but I think it's twitter (he may not know about other forms of instant communication), which he thinks is debased medium because "alacrity" and "terseness" are rewarded.

The funny thing is that he seems to make the same mistake that tech evangelists are sometimes accused of making: He thinks that the thing he's observed and has been a part of is exceptional.

How likely is it that this moment, of all moments in the several thousand year history you're situating the present moment within, is the truly and ultimately "ridiculous one"? Can't this just be another phase?

"the idolatry of data"

Wieseltier then spends some times arguing that data has become a god that is expected to provide answers and helpfully points out that there is a "distinction between knowledge and information". Unfortunately, he misses everything important about the current data movement.

Leon: In practice, no one misses that distinction and everyone understands information to be a building block for acquiring knowledge. Data isn't an idol, it's the thing we use to sharpen the chisel.

The humanities matter

The next critique of tech is that it devalues the humanities and deems them "soft and impractical and insufficiently new". It may be that tech companies fetishize tech skills and certain types of people - Kate Losse has tons of insights on this - but you don't have to dig deep to find the message that liberal arts matter.

I mean, you could check out the recent NYT archives and find Laszlo Block, head of hiring at Google, telling Tom Friedman that the liberal arts are "phenomenally important".

I could go on

The rest of the essay includes enormous hedges (his take "is not the whole story, but it is an alarmingly large part" of it) and additional attacks on straw men (Google's effort to catalogue every book is great but "is not the end of the story") but it doesn't seem worth fisking the entire thing since one thing is already clear: The Times and Wieseltier have written a very long and dense essay but forgot to use their humanities training: critical thinking, deep research, and all the rest.

Humanist, heal thyself!