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GP8Dec04: Authentic Conversations

If a Tree Falls in the Forest.  BBC News tells us that Merriam-Webster Dictionary finds “blog” to be the most popular word of the year, based on web inquiries about its meaning.  (See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/4059291.stm).  A blog, says Merriam-Webster, is short for Weblog and is a website “that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer.” For more on this new form of expression that has made everyman and everywoman an author, see our  “Webbing, Blogging, and Self Publishing,” 19 May 2004. 

But there’s less here than meets the eye.  A firm called Technorati tells us more than 4.8 million blogs have come into existence, with a new blog bubble cropping up every 5 or 6 seconds.  The truth is that nobody reads the darn things.  “Statistics by web influence ranking firm HitWise reveal that the most popular political blog racks up only 0.0051% of all net visits every day.”  These unstoppable, copious streams of  unconsciousness run off ever so fast into a virtual sea of oblivion. 

They remind one of the philosopher’s question: “If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody hears it, did the tree ever really fall?”  We ourselves have made countless efforts to read some of the more popular blogs and have found them to be a trial.  Often the language and the references are esoteric, the links lead to nowhere you have to go, and the biases are epidemic.  They are cultist, perhaps reminding us of the neo-Platonic period of Greece when the clear thinking of philosophers descended into mystical drivel from charlatans.  One supposes that the blogonistas demonstrate a vast need to be heard, even if nobody is listening.  Blogging is just one of many addictions that have arisen with the Internet: as we note in Wit and Wisdom this week, some Finnish soldiers have had to be drummed out of the services because of their Internet compulsions. 

Profit in Alienation?   The biggest moneymaker on the Internet is pornography.  It’s a high margin sickness.  It is almost axiomatic that the highest profits are wrung from products society could do without.  But perhaps there is also a dollar to be made from all the blogging lonelyhearts who have scribbled their confessionals on the web, even if nobody is really listening.  Tony Perkins, creator of Red Herring, a successful magazine of the dotcom era, now failed, is starting Always On, a quarterly magazine that will take its copy from Internet blogs.  See http://apnews.excite.com/article/20041203/D86O71200.html.  Perkins already has a blog on blogs at www.alwayson-network.com, which is sort of a launching pad for his new fad.  We wonder if this enterprise, not unlike the Herring, will have a short half life, since so many of the bloggers soon tire of shouting into the wind.  Deep breathing may not be enough after a while, and bloggermouths may move on to the next thing.   

Fusillade of Words.  But their babble is certainly no worse than the clatter that occurs in our traditional organs of public opinion—magazines, newspapers, TV, radio, universities, pulpits, government forums, etc.  Can there be much doubt that each of these old-style marketplaces of discussion have been polluted by people with an axe to grind and a scheme to sell?  Loudmouths.  There is not the sense that reflective people are trying to search for common truths.  Amidst this wasteland of word warriors, it is heartening that an Internet has come into being, at least creating the possibility of genuine conversation where nobody is obliged to flog boilerplate pre-recorded on the shallow disk recesses of the mind. 

Secret Agents.  It’s bad enough that canned messages are booming at us from loudspeakers, or meeting us on billboards, or slipping into our postboxes and emails, largely because of technology run amuck.  There are many other forces at work that crowd out genuine dialogue.  For instance, human “cookies,” people who are called agents in the parlance of the trade, now come up to us in the post office or at a barbecue at the local church to plug products.  Word-of-mouth marketing firms have huge battalions of volunteer “agents” who peddle shampoos, second rate books, and other consumer wares in settings where we think we are free of commercial hype.  In a tough economy that has been rather flat for many years, desperado consumer product companies are leaving no stone unturned in their tortured quest to grind out revenue growth. 

While unpaid, the “agents” generally get rewarded with free products and services based on their effectiveness.  Apparently many of the volunteers don’t care about the goodies, getting plenty of gratification from their furtive careers as pitchmen.  Not unlike purveyors of pyramid schemes, these agents are a step up (or down) from the Avon Ladies and Tupperware Parties where ordinary folks were enlisted to push merchandise onto their friends.  Now, with these secret agents, you usually don’t know they come bearing a pushy agenda they will paste onto the conversation that violates ordinary canons of friendship, discourse, and civility.  Some call them “buzz makers,” but others may choose to call them invaders of privacy or moral lightweights.  Read more about “The Hidden (in Plain Sight) Persuaders” in The New York Times Magazine, December 5, 2004, pp. 68-75. 

The Big Kahuna.  Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, and Peter Facinelli made The Big Kahuna in 1999, a low budget, affecting movie about authentic conversation.  Hardly moving out of a hotel room in Wichita, three industrial lubricant salesmen engage each other in a round of conversation that finally pushes aside the automated, Pavlovian aspects of their personalities.  As DeVito suggests at one point, the challenge is to get beyond what you are selling—be it lubricants or religion or anything else—to engage another human being with full self-awareness of the potholes in one’s own life.  You cannot have an authentic conversation with another if you cannot transcend the rehearsed character you trot out in ordinary conversation or understand the inherent contradictions in your most deeply held beliefs.  Blogs don’t achieve this liberated estate, but genuine conversations that do are happening elsewhere just offstage, in little noticed movies, marginal TV, or offhand emails.    

Booknotes Demise.  Brian Lamb’s Booknotes came to an end on December 5 in its 801st   session on C-Span.  Booknotes aired every Sunday at 8 p.m., with Lamb querying non-fiction authors about their works in a deadpan fashion that much enlarged our understanding of the work under consideration.  (See The New York Times, December 4, 2004, A17 and A22).  His last was with a Virginia professor who had a book out on why we should read, the ultimate raison d’etre, we suppose, for Lamb’s weekly look at a significant book.  By far the best program on TV and certainly the highlight of C-Span, Booknotes took high advantage of Lamb’s non-polemical personality whose careful probing always showed that there were 2, 3, or 4 sides to every story, even making the authors think more deeply about their subject matter.  We suspect that Booknotes, much more than C-Span, is Lamb’s unique contribution to America, always demonstrating that meaningful conversation flourishes when the goal is mainly to find out about the other guy.   It has been one marvelous example of how dialogue, squeezed out of traditional forums, has cropped up in unexpected places.  Who would have thought that the cable networks would become the sponsors on C-Span of such reasoned intercourse. 

The Promise of the Internet.  Back when, the people at DARPA (Defense Advance Research Projects Agency) devised what came to be the Internet as a tool to facilitate academic and scientific conversation.  Though for many it is an archive for everything, including blogs, we find that its ability to foster informed conversation is its quintessential blessing.  It creates rapid exchange of knowledge, and, when at its best, the intercourse has no other goal than knowledge sharing—the modest little goal is enlightenment.  Below are some recent examples that have crossed our desk. 

More on Feynmann.  In our recent letter on “Living Treasures,” we mentioned in passing the remarkable physicist Richard Feynman.  By reply mail from Germany, we had back a comment from William Grossmann, a plasma physicist and global consultant, who told us of the special place Feynman enjoys amongst physicists: 

A mathematical autodidact that went on to define and explore reaches of physics with results that had extraordinary consequences.  Marc Kac, the brilliant Rockefeller U physicist known for his work in probability theory, once said (I remember his quote almost verbatim) in a seminar that I attended at the Courant: “[I]n the world of scientists there are the good, the near great,  and the great or genius with Einstein as an example—but Richard, ah, he is simply a magician.” 

Feynman’s magical, playful spirit was on display right up to the end of his life, incidentally.  We recommend that you take a peek at Feynman’s Last Caper, which you can find on the Global Province. 

Naturalist Explorers.  On Agile Companies, we discuss naturalist, explorer, impresario,  and artist John James Audubon.  Lo and behold, Eugene Schlanger, known to many as the “Wall Street Poet” (see “Abolition of Memory” on Poetry and Business, wrote to tell us about William Bartram, another adventuresome early American naturalist.  Schlanger has written about Bartram in a poem, “The Naturalist,” remarking that “Some Eighteenth Century men / Sought flowers and the newest signs of life / On an Earth unfolding its order.”  Bartram, as it turns out, gives an excellent accounting of his journey through the South in Travels and Other Writings, setting the stage, if you like, for Audubon. 

Global Warming.  At several points—to several people—we have asked whether good science supports the idea that global warming has come about because of human deeds, particularly our vast effusion of carbons into the atmosphere.  Or, we ask, are there alternate explanations of warming?  The problem here is that warming has not always corresponded with the moments when we have been burning up huge amounts of carbon substances and throwing fumes upwards.  This has nothing to do with whether we should be cutting back on our polluting: there are many, many reasons for cleaning up our water and the atmosphere that don’t have a thing to do with this global heatwave.  Aside from that, the goal on warming should be to get much clearer about its causes, rather than twisting the science to fit our social or political objectives.  Such shoddy attempts at falsification only lead to mental gridlock and terribly flawed policy decisions. 

John Maulbetsch, a California engineer who has long worked on all the questions associated with electricity generation, has followed the warming tempest from the sidelines.  In his most recent note to us, he says there is still a big question mark as to whether CO2 in the atmosphere and global warming are cause and effect: 

Everybody agrees on two things.  First that average temperatures, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, appear to be increasing at a greater than usual rate over the past two to four decades.  Second, that the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are at historically high levels and rising.  The frequently stated consequence—that the second is the cause of the first—is less agreed to than many would have us believe.  (A tech writer for the San Jose Mercury, quite a good paper here in the Bay Area, said the other day that this view was held by “all but a few flat earthers.”)   

I don’t think the causality has been firmly established, although it may turn out to be correct. 

Again, we have to cut pollution.  But it’s far from clear that such a course of action will put a brake on global warming.  

Straight Talk.  In our consulting practice, we advise a host of management consulting firms.  As you know, those consulting factories are addicted to hiring young MBAs out of all the major business schools who are low on skills and seasoning but high on euphemism.  Often as not, we have seen these young hirelings blast each other with emails when working on a business issue, even when the people they want to communicate with are just across an office partition.  A long, straggly, ill-conceived email takes the place of a simple talk and quick back and forth.  In effect, they are creating blogs and sending them out as letters.  Motormouthing is replacing conversation.  We’re blogging each other to death. 

Better a little straight talk.  Where we think before we touch the keyboard.  Where we husband our words.  Where we are looking for a response.  Where our agenda is to see things as they are.  Where we are looking for better ways to connect fewer dots.  Where we don’t ape the politicians, pundits, and hidden persuaders—robots all—who are aping the apes.  Fortunately, there is still an abundance of people of good will who do want to hold a conversation. 

I Talk to the Trees.  In 195l, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical Paint Your Wagon delighted Broadway habitués with a little song called “I Talk to the Trees,” the first lines of which ring in our mind as if they were just recited yesterday: 

I talk to the trees
But they don't listen to me
I talk to the stars
But they never hear me
The breeze hasn't time
To stop and hear what I say
I talk to them all in vain

Has our society become too busy to just talk, one on one?  All the developed nations of the world, not just the United States, have been struck with epidemic rises in their rates of mental depression?  Is this the cost, and it is monumentally costly, of losing our ability to just talk to each other?  In business and politics the trivial and the absurd often shove to the side questions about the future?  What is the economic cost of our idle chatter about molehills that leaves no time for mountains?  For more on these wonderful, sophisticated collaborators Lerner and Loewe, who said and heard a whole lot filled with charming significance, see http://users2.ev1.net/~smyth/linernotes/personel/LernerAllanJay.htm.  

P.S.  Michael Crichton is out with a new book, State of Fear, which shows how information is manipulated, on global warming and several other issues, to heighten our anxiety levels.

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