Let’s begin with a story. One magical day in 1985, Marty McFly, freshly returned from an adventure in 1955, gets whisked off to the future to help his kids. 2015 proves a wondrous world of flash-growing pizza pies and hoverboards… as well as a famous pair of self-lacing sneakers. When Back to the Future II came out in 1989, there was still time to imagine the creation of such items in reality, but as 2015 neared, grumbling started to emerge among we disaffected Yutes–with our iPods and our GPS and our smartwatches and our 3D printers and our artificial hearts and our day-surgeries–about the ongoing disconnect between fantasy and reality.
Yeah, sure, we have all this cool stuff, but…
Where are our hoverboards?
Where are our self-lacing sneakers?
And sure enough, companies were inspired by this filmic reality to make tremendous advances. We do have hoverboards–they’re just not widely and cheaply available. We also have flying cars… for the right price point! And in a video that surely melted hearts among those of the right generation, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox, living with Parkinson’s) finally got his sneakers, care of the Self-Lacing Nike MAG.
But… at the same time, we in the “future” also discovered much easier workarounds for the problems these earlier ideas imagined. Flying cars were supposed to make travel easier, right? Except, they’re based on a private-car-ownership economy that we now realize has tremendous downsides for personal health, as well as the environment and urban design. As such, we now have electric scooters and self-driving cars entering the marketplace, as well as online delivery options that reduce the time we have to spend in traffic for secondary errands and even crisis scenarios.
Likewise, we’ve found a far simpler solution for self-lacing shoes: a no-tie shoelace that makes even a sneaker feel like a slip-on.
Simply put, speculative writers dream, but always within the confines of their immediate reality. (Except maybe William Gibson, the damned genuis of future-speak that he is–but even he kindly agrees that all scifi is a reflection of the present.) Policy wonks, scientists, philosophers–we can all be visionaries, inspiring each other with dreams of a better world to come. However, we still remain intrinsically tethered to the language and perspectives of our present moment. And this means that we need to expect that the future might offer different solutions entirely to the problems of today.
So where does this leave we bloggers on Patheos, and on the internet in general? We who tend to hash out our world’s problems in medias res by responding with essays to specific news items? Folks like us, who offer quick takes on our blogs, and then offer suggestions for what needs to happen next?
Personal Criticism Time!
I addressed part of this issue in another post, “The Commentary Game: Speaking Truth in a World of Spin“, where I essentially advocated for what is known in writing circles as “evergreen” content. I didn’t use this term exactly, but I encouraged bloggers to write pieces that are not so utterly news-item-specific that one’s audience needs your next hot take on a crisis to know where you stand in general as a humanist.
But even as I advocate for others to change their perspectives on the blog, I’m undergoing quite the learning curve myself here. And that’s great! There’s a lot to be learned, say, from trying something new (like rewriting a Grimm’s fairy tale to advance one’s own philosophy) and having it land with a thud. Or on Monday, when I posted an essay trying to talk more broadly about how to combat dishonest behaviour in popular discourse, and suggested that atheists today have an edge even over Socrates in terms of readiness for real-world discourse.
I thought that last part in particular would be rather flattering: a way of emphasizing that many of us are well-trained rhetoricians who simply need to engage other discursive spheres on their own terms. Instead, I was so focussed on that larger, figurative realm that I was caught by surprise when readers regarded the value of a particular debate in my opening anecdote as a hill to die on re: the value of formal debate unto itself.
Hadn’t predicted that! And I still wonder if the addition of a couple mitigating words would have assuaged the concerns of most. But I also have to laugh at my obliviousness, because the issue here is no different here than with fiction. When I publish a story, it’s not mine anymore: it belongs to the readers, who will impose whatever the heck they want on a tale. Think you’re writing a piece about the toxic nature of infotainment in relation to a crew of astronauts in transit to a doomed Martian colony? TOO BAD! Online critics are as likely to fixate on one Canadian history reference, and suggest it’s really just a story about space whores! (Not a hypothetical scenario–but hilarious.)I’d also kept away from online-forum comment threads for years due to their addictive “Somebody’s wrong on the internet!” energy. As such, now that I’m getting back into the rhythm of response, I notice I have trouble discerning when someone’s actively responding to something I’d said, or simply using the post as a springboard to talk about their own thoughts in relation to other, hopefully related arguments. This personal response amuses me, because my entire argument is generally for a shift away from antagonist debate. However, in practice I still tend to read more confrontation into comments than either necessary or present. I am tethered to the past in my present conduct, even as I try to imagine a different discursive future.
Haven’t We Always Been Bad Predictors of Good Forums for Discourse, Though?
At times like this I am reminded of one of my favourite xkcd comics, which pokes fun at a vision of the internet in Ender’s Game–a critical part of the story’s worldbuilding!–that absolutely has not aged well. For the visually impaired and also those who are disinclined to click on links while reading essays, here’s the gist of the comic:
Ender’s hyperintelligent, conniving siblings are idling away an afternoon, Locke playing with a squirrel while Demosthenes wonders, “Ender’s up there saving the world, but down here it’s falling apart politically. What can we do?”
To which Locke replies, “I know–we get on the nets and anonymously post political opinions. People reading our articles will see our intelligence, recognize how clear and logical our arguments are, and insist that we be put in charge so we can fix everything!”
“Brilliant!” says Demosthenes (the squirrel otherwise occupied with nuts).
An image of a blog, titled “LOCKE: Powered by WordPress”, is followed by a latest blog essay titled “Which is why we must reach out to the Russian leadership” posted at 3:15am with zero comments. And another, below it, is titled “The Problem with China”. In the sidebar of recent posts, titles include “A few thoughts on…” “Russian aggression…” “Trade policy and the…” “And one more thing…” “Everyone’s wrong about…”, all of which have either zero or one comments. Below them is a blogroll including DEMOSTHENES and, amusingly, fivethirtyeight.
For me, this comic perfectly represents our overconfidence in reason as a sufficient path to changing the world, and in digital technology as a surefire path to meritocratic outcomes in the marketplace of ideas. It’s an endearing fantasy, too–the idea that if we simply say the right thing clearly and logically enough, everyone will cede the point. Wars will end the world over! Predatory religious institutions will shutter their own doors! Nation-states will rally to face humanity’s problems head-on, together! Legs will spread in adoring gratitude!
…I mean, there’s got to be New Atheist costumes in your local sex shop, right? Because what could be more of a turn-on than erudite witticisms and attendant kernels of well-sourced argumentation?
The Blog as Discursive Pitstop, not Destination
One other aspect of blogging I still chafe at is the angry red icon telling me my sentences are too long, my average syllable count is too high, I’m not seeding my post’s SEO focus keyword (blog!) as often as I should, and I really need to keep my section lengths under a punchy 300 words. All of this does not feel conducive to real discourse: where ideas should be nuanced and exploratory rather than simplistic and definitive, and where the aim is less to “sell” a given idea than to create a platform for related theory and praxis, in which we can then tease out the underlying preconceptions and motivations that position fellow thinkers all across its spectrum of possible response.
Oof. Did I break the Flesch Reading Ease test with that last sentence alone?
But when I get grumpy about this new education–in blog formatting, in the multifaceted use of comment threads, and in the lack of full control over reader interpretations of one’s content–I remember those damned self-lacing shoes from Back to the Future II.
I am trying to write the future I want into existence… as is, I’m sure, every other blogger on this site, and every other hub of contemporary dialogue. Every online journalist. Every policy wonk carefully crafting a new government action plan or mandate. Every major philosopher, and every dear Facebook “friend” (okay, this is me, too) who occasionally posts whole treatises about their thoughts on a given cultural artifact or social philosophy.
But just as Back to the Future II could only offer possible futures, the world it inspired was invariably going to differ. Okay, maybe not enough when it came to a certain hotel mogul actually running the damned joint (thanks Biff). But certainly the future of discourse could offer workarounds even better than the ones we currently think we need.
So can we blog our way to a better discourse? Sure–we’re doing it already, right now: this post just one more wee pitstop in the winding, cacophonous road of human dialogue through the centuries.
The form of that “better discourse” in our digital future, though, will probably differ–wildly–from all our loftiest expectations.
So we can either lament that we didn’t get exactly the “shoes” we wanted, all while sitting amid the luxury of a thousand other completely unanticipated contemporary treasures…
Or we can embrace what’s emerged instead (the good and the bad of it alike), and focus on dreaming our way toward all the unexpected turns ahead.