Universities for artists: Know your purpose, know what you’re getting

A friend is in his 20s and wants to be a writer. He’s mucked around in college some without amassing enough credits to count towards anything, and he thinks he might want to start at a university again in order to become a better writer. I’ve been discouraging him, because of his age and his state goals. He started classes again this semester but seems disenchanted with them, and after talking for a while the other night, I wrote a long e-mail that summarized my views and why college is probably the wrong route for him:

If you said to me that you’re tired of working in coffee shops and want an office job in a corporation or government, a degree should be your number one priority. Not only is that not your goal, but your goal is to be a better writer. To accomplish that, school is at best a mixed bag.

At anything below the most elite schools, most students in intro-level writing courses are not particularly good writers or interested in becoming good writers (and even in elite schools, bad writers but good hoop-jumpers abound). Intro courses won’t necessarily be of much help to you. Most intro-level non-writing courses (like “Rocks for Jocks,” AKA geology) are likely to be even worse. My honors students say their classmates in classes like “Love and Romance in the Middle Ages” and “Intro to Art History” are barely literate; the honors students turn in bullshit they’ve slammed out the night before and get 100% because they are, most of them, functionally literate. They complain about not learning anything about writing in their other humanities classes. You will probably have to wade through at least a year or two of courses that provide almost no value to your stated goal—becoming a better writer—before you get a real shot at, say, English classes.

Once you are there, however, many professors aren’t especially interested in teaching, even in English classes, and the effect of many English classes on your writing skills might be small. Does reading Paradise Lost and Gulliver’s Travels and the Romantic poets in a Brit Lit I survey make you a better writer of contemporary fiction, essays, and criticism, if your professor / TA spends no time covering the basics of writing? Will sitting through a lecture on Beckett’s role in the Modernism / Postmodernism divide help you understand better metaphors in your writing, or help you construct a plot that has any actual motion?

The questions suggest the answers. I’m not saying these English classes will hurt you. But I’ve sat through a lot of those classes, and few have anything to do with writing, which is one of my many beefs with English departments and classes; too little time is spent building concrete writing and reading skills, and too much time is spent discussing works of some historical value and very little contemporary value (I’m not convinced Sister Carrie, which is one massive violation of the cliche “Show, don’t tell” will make you a better novelist today, any more than studying the math of the 1850s in its original context will make you a better mathematician).

Some professors teach close reading and who will really work with you to develop your writing skills, especially if you follow the advice I offer. But those experiences are at best hit-and-miss, and more often than not misses. They depend on the professor, and you won’t know if a class might be useful until you’re already in it.

Plus, getting to those classes will probably take a long time and a lot of money and hoop jumping. The more direct route for you is through a writers’ workshop, which almost all communities of any size have.

That’s the learning part of the equation. From the job/status/credential part of the equation, and as I’ve said before, the effect of school on labor market outcomes is quite binary: you have a degree and make a lot more money in the aggregate, or you don’t and you make a lot less money. Starting a degree without finishing it is one of the worst things you can do, speaking financially and in terms of opportunity cost. That’s why it’s so vital for you to either start and finish or not start.

If you were 18 and didn’t know what the hell else to do, I would tell you to go to college because your peers are doing it and most 18-year-olds don’t know anything and waste most of their time anyway. You could noodle around in a lot of classes and maybe learn something and at least you’ll finish with a degree. Beyond that, a lot of college happens between the lines, through living in dorms and developing a peer network. But you’re not 18, you already know something (you do), and you have a (presumed) goal that you don’t necessarily have to go through school to accomplish. If your goal changes—i.e. you decide you don’t want to work in retail or coffee or unskilled labor and you want to get some other kind of job—then my advice will change.

A distressingly small amount of actual learning goes on in college classrooms. You can see this in Arun and Josipka’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. You can read a different take by searching for “The Case Against Education,” which is the title of Bryan Caplan’s book concerning signaling / credentialism in education. Or you can look at the people around you, who might be the most compelling argument. People who are really determined to get education do get it, but outside of the hard sciences, there’s a LOT of bullshit. The stuff that isn’t bullshit will be hard for you to find. Not impossible, but hard. And you don’t get the monetary benefits without finishing.

The college wage premium is still real, but it only applies to people who actually want to work at jobs that require college degrees. If you want to be an engineer, go to college. In “How Liberal Arts Colleges Are Failing America,” Scott Gerber points out that “A degree does not guarantee you or your children a good job anymore. In fact, it doesn’t guarantee you a job: last year, 1 out of 2 bachelor’s degree holders under 25 were jobless or unemployed.” I look around the University of Arizona, and it’s clear to me that a variety of majors—comm and sociology are the most obvious—provide almost no real intellectual challenges and hence no real skills, whatsoever. The business school at the U of A seems better, but it’s still hard for me to ascertain, from the outside, if what goes on there really matters.

To recap: I don’t think going to school is bad or will hurt you. But I’m also not convinced that going to school is an optimal use of time / money for you.

I still think that, if you really want to be a writer, the absolute number one thing you have to do is write a lot—and want to write a lot, because the writing itself comes from the desire. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he discusses the research on the “10,000-hour rule,” or the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery of a skill. I’m not totally convinced that 10,000 hours is the magic number, or that anyone can deliberately practice for 10,000 hours in a given field and master it, but the basic idea—that you have to spend a LOT of time practicing in order to achieve mastery—is sound. To the extent you want to be a writer and that you spend time in classes that are at best tangentially involved with being a writer, I think you are making a mistake in the way you’re allocating your limited time and resources. You might be better off, say, going to the library and reading every Paris Review interview, going back to the beginning, and writing down every quote that speaks to you.

All of us have 24 hours in a day. Any time you spend doing one thing can’t be spent doing another. If you want to become a writer, I think you should allocate most of your time to writing, not to classes, unless you want to be a writer in some officially sanctioned organ, like a newspaper.

Finally, if you want to be a better writer, write stuff (blog posts, novels, essays, whatever) and send them to me. I will give you more detailed feedback than 99% of your professors. With me, the price is also right.

Beyond that, I want to emphasize just how hit-and-miss my education was, especially now that I look back on it. This was clearest to me in high school: as a freshman and sophomore, I had three really good English teachers from whom I learned a lot: Thor Sigmar, Mindy Leffler, and Jack someone, who taught journalism but whose name now escapes me, though he was very good at what he did and had a very dry sense and hilarious of humor. He also drove a black Miata and was clearly in the closet, at least from the perspective of his students. Then I had two terrible teachers: one named Rich Glowacki, who, distressingly, appears to still be teaching (at least based on a cursory examination of Google, and another named Nancy Potter. The former did an excellent impression of a animatronic corpse and was fond of tests like “What color was the character’s shoe in Chapter 6?” Moreover, one time I came in to talk to him about the “literary terms” he wanted us to memorize for a test. He couldn’t define many of the terms himself; in other words, he was testing us on material that he himself didn’t know.

That moment of disillusionment has stayed with me for a very long.

The other, Nancy Potter, was so scattered that I don’t think anything was accomplished in her class. She also wrote a college letter of recommendation for me that was so screwed up, and so strewn with typos and non sequiturs, that my Dad and I had to rewrite it for her. When your 18-year-old student is a better and more competent writer than you, the teacher, something is seriously amiss.

In college, I went to Clark University, where pretty much all the professors in all the departments are selected for their interest and skill in teaching. I ran into few exceptions; one was a guy who appeared to be about a thousand years old and who taught astronomy. He has trouble speaking and didn’t appear to know what he wanted to speak about on any given day.

Now that I know more about universities, I can only assume he was on the verge of retirement, or was already emeritus, and had been given our class of non-majors because a) he couldn’t do much damage there and b) the department knew it was filled with students who were taking the class solely to fulfill the somewhat bogus science requirement. He didn’t do much damage, except for some infinitesimally small amount to Clark’s reputation, and I assume the other people in the department were happy to avoid babysitting duty.

He, however, was very much the exception at Clark.

Most public colleges and universities are quite different than Clark, and the teaching experience is closer to public high schools, with some good moments and some bad. If your goal is to be an artist, or to learn any kind of skill in depth, you could spend years paying tuition, taking prerequisites of dubious utility, and struggling to find the right teacher or teachers, all without actually accomplishing your goal: learning some kind of skill in-depth.

I don’t think this applies solely to writers, either. If you’re a programmer, there are hacker collectives, or user groups, or equivalents, in many places. Online communities are even more prevalent. I have no idea how good or useful such places and people are. But the price is right and the cost of entry is low. Determined people will find each other. If you’ve got the right attitude towards receiving and processing criticism, you should be ready to take advantage. Knowledgable people should be able to point you in the direction of good books, which are hard to find. You should signal that you’re ready to learn. If you do those things right, you can get most if not all of what you would normally get out of school. But you also have to be unusually driven, and you have to be able to function without the syllabus/exam/paper structure imposed by school. If you can’t function without the external imposition of those constraints, however, you’re probably not going to make it as an artist anyway. The first thing you need is want. The second thing you need is tenacity. The first is useless without the second.

Stories like “Minimum Viable Movie: How I Made a Feature-Length Film for $0″ should inspire you, especially because you need even less money to be a writer than you do to make a movie. Arguably you also need less money to be a musician than you do to make a movie, although I’m less knowledgable on that subject and won’t make absolute pronouncements on it.

Again, I am not anti-school, per se, but it is important to understand how much or most school is about signaling and credentialing, and how easy a lot of school is if you’re willing to stay quiet, keep your ducks in a line, and jump through the hoops presented. It’s also important to understand the people who benefit most from offering arts training: the instructors. They get a (relatively) light teaching load, the possibility of tenure, a cut of your tuition, and time and space to pursue their passion, while you pay for their advice. Getting a gig as a creative writing professor is pretty damn sweet, regardless of the outcomes for students. That doesn’t mean creative writing professors can’t be very good, or very helpful, or improve your work, or dedicated to teaching, but it does mean that you should be cognizant of what benefits are being derived in any particular economic transaction. When small amounts of money are involved, it’s easy to ignore the economic transaction part of school, but now that tuition is so high, it’s impossible for anyone but the stupendously rich to ignore financial reality, like who gains the most when you enroll in a creative writing seminar.

As a side note, I think we’re already starting to see a shift away from the college-for-everyone mentality (that’s what the posts by Gerber and others are doing). Ironically enough, the universities themselves are involved in a perverse loan-based system whose present incentives are eventually going to drive their customer base away through price hikes. Universities are still going to be good deals and useful for some people, but those people will probably turn out to be more intellectual and analytical—the kinds of people who will benefit from knowledge dissemination and who will ultimately feel the need to create new knowledge. I also suspect a lot of non-elite private schools are going to have even larger problems than public schools. This isn’t a novel argument, but that doesn’t make it any less real, or any less likely to happen.

Anyway, I’m broadening the view too far here. The important thing is that you understand yourself and understand the system that you’re entering and how it incentivizes its participants. If you understand that, I think you’ll increasingly understand my skepticism about the utility of college classes for someone in your situation.

Thoughts on the TV show “Revolution”

I watched the first two episodes and like the premise. But it’s too poorly acted and plotted / silly, though the best line definitely goes to the nerdy, bearded guy who says that the blackout “totally cornholed the laws of nature.” The world itself doesn’t make enough sense; they should read Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories,” Umberto Eco, and SF / fantasy writers on the subject of creating a world.

Everyone in the show is too well-coiffed and scrubbed; people underestimate just how dirty life was before consistent running water and good plumbing. In agrarian and hunter-gatherer societies, virtually all healthy post-pubescent women are / would be continuously pregnant or breastfeeding. It’s also unlikely that enough food could be grown to support large, standing armies, like the one led by the villain with the silver pistol. Very few women would be effective in hand-to-hand or sword combat against men because of the size/strength differential. Notice how in a show and book like Game of Thrones, very few women engage in direct fighting (with the exception of Brienne of Tarth, who is uncommonly strong). Men are larger, heavier, and generally more muscular than women; the average male has about twice the overall strength of the average female. None of these issues on their own are fatal, but taken together they destroy the show’s realism.

On a technical level, a lot of the music is schlocky and sounds like TV music; good TV music shouldn’t sound that way. The actress who plays Charlie is extraordinarily bad, or she’s been thrust into a situation where she’s doing the best she can with the material she’s got.

Links: Quiet, neuroscience, do-it-yourself art, writing, and more

* Neuroscience: the new phrenology?

* The Joy of Quiet, which I often seek. Still, I think parts are overrated, like this:

Around the same time, I noticed that those who part with $2,285 a night to stay in a cliff-top room at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur pay partly for the privilege of not having a TV in their rooms; the future of travel, I’m reliably told, lies in “black-hole resorts,” which charge high prices precisely because you can’t get online in their rooms.

It’s not hard: if you don’t want to listen to the TV… turn off the TV. Phone interrupting? Turn off your phone. Ditto for Facebook and its analogues.

* What Does it Mean to Be Poor?: The consumption of the poor is much higher than their incomes. Is poverty falling, or not? The answer is often, “It depends and how you measure and what you’re measuring.” In material terms—which the right likes to focus on—the poor are arguably doing better than ever. In health, public safety, and living experience terms—which the left likes to focus on—the poor are doing pretty poorly. This is also more of a class than income-based issue, despite me using income signifiers / descriptors her.

* Movies About Porn Shouldn’t Be This Boring, regarding About Cherry.

* Minimum Viable Movie: How I Made a Feature-Length Film for $0.

* Why Sex and Violence May Be Good For Young Adult Books.

* Writing Rules! Advice From The Times on Writing Well.

The GeekDesk / writing space 2012 post:

Since my 2010 writing space post, quite a bit has changed. Here’s the new setup, viewed from a couple of angles, with an explanation below the photos:

Those of you who looked carefully, or even not very carefully, probably noticed something unusual: the desk is at two different heights. That’s because I’ve been using a GeekDesk for long enough to form an opinion on it, which is that I’d be reluctant to go back to a regular desk or a purely standing desk. I’ll write a longer review when I have more time, but the preceding sentence tells you most of what you need to know.

The other salient upgrade is from a 24″ iMac to a 27″ iMac with an SSD and a conventional hard drive. This machine inspired me to write “Mac OS 10.7 is out today, and I don’t care because ‘In the Beginning was the Command Line,’” because computers have now, finally, become “fast enough” and “good enough for my purposes. It’s taken a long time! I keep meaning to get a better stand than a pair of books, but that’s the sort of project that’s very easy to delay, indefinitely, until tomorrow.

The keyboard remains the same, and it’s hard to see what could make me replace the Kinesis Advantage. Its keys still feel new. The speakers aren’t very interesting, although they are external and thus better than the built-in ones, but they’re probably wasted on me because I don’t listen to music all that often, and they’re overkill for movies or TV shows. The external monitor is a 23″ Dell with an IPS display, although I can’t remember the model number and don’t feel like looking it up. It’s a fine panel, but not very interesting. The lights on the back of the iMac are cheap Antec Halo LED lights, which are supposed to reduce eyestrain in dark rooms. Not sure if they actually do. I suspect turning down the iMac from “blinding” to “tolerate” would have as strong an effect.

You can see a Canon s100, which usually rides in my pocket. Sony now makes a better version of the s100—the RX100—but the RX100 is also $300 more. In a couple of shots there’s also a boring iPhone. If I weren’t on a family plan, I’d probably get a cheap Android phone, because I use maybe 5% of its features. Unless you’re doing a LOT of sexting, I don’t think I see the point in getting a more expensive “smart” phone over a less expensive one.

There’s also an Aeron, which is better for me than their recent Embody. Reasons for why I say that will follow when I have more time.

The Stupidity of What I’m Doing And the Meaning of Real Work: Reading for PhD comprehensive exams

Last weekend, I wrote a flurry of posts after months of relative silence because I needed to do real work.

This might sound strange: I am doing a lot of things, especially reading, but all of it is make-believe, pretend work. That’s because the primary thing I’m doing is studying for PhD comprehensive exams in English lit. The exam set is structured in four parts: three, four-hour written segments, and a single oral exam, on topics related to stuff that’s not very important to me and probably not very important to most people. The exams also aren’t very relevant to being an English professor, because the key skill that English professors possess and practice is writing long-form essays/articles that are published in peer-reviewed journals. The tests I’m taking don’t, as far as I can tell, map very effectively to that skill.

As a consequence, the tests, although very time consuming, aren’t very good proxies for what the job market actually wants me to do.*

Consequently, PhD exams—at least in English—aren’t real work. They’re pretend work—another hoop to be jumped through on the way to getting a union card. Paul Graham makes a useful distinction in “Good and Bad Procrastination,” when he says that “Good procrastination is avoiding errands to do real work.” That’s what I’ve done through most of grad school, and that’s part of the reason why I have a fairly large body of work on this blog, which you can obviously read, a fairly large body of fiction, which you can’t (at the moment, but that’s going to change in the coming months). To Graham, the kind of small stuff that represents bad procrastination is “Roughly, work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary.” Passing exams has zero chance of being mentioned in my obituary. Writing books or articles does.** PhD exams feel like bad procrastination because they’re not really examining anything useful.

They’re also hard, but hard in the wrong way, like picking patterns out of noise. Being hard in the right way means the soreness you get after working out, or when a challenging math problem suddenly clicks. The quasi-work I’m doing is intellectually unsatisfying—the mental equivalent of eating ice cream and candy all day, every day. Sure, they’re technically food, but you’re going to develop some serious problems if you persist in the ice cream and candy diet. The same is true of grad school, which might be why so many people emerge from it with a lugubrious, unpalatable writing style. Grad school doesn’t select or train for style; it selects and trains for a kind of strange anti-style, in which the less you can say in more words is rewarded. It’s the kind of style I’m consciously trying to un-cultivate, however hard the process might be, and this blog is one outlet for keeping the real writer alive in the face of excessive doses from tedious but canonized work and literary theory. Exams, if anything, reinforce this bogus hardness. If I’m ever in a position of power in an English department with a grad program, I’m going to try and offer an alternative to conventional exams, and say that four to six publishable, high-quality papers can or should take their place. That, at least, mirrors the skills valued by the job market.

The bogosity of exams relates to a separate problem in English academia, which I started noticing when I was an undergrad and have really noticed lately: the English curriculum is focused on the wrong thing. The problem can be stated concisely: Should English department teach content (like, say, Medieval poetry, or Modernist writers), or skills (like writing coherently and close reading)? Louis Menand describes the issue in The Marketplace of Ideas:

[C]ompare the English departments at two otherwise quite similar schools, Amherst and Wellesley. English majors at Wellesley are required to take ten English department courses [. . .] All English majors must take a core course called ‘Critical Interpretations'; one course on Shakespeare; and at least two courses on literature written before 1900 [. . .] The course listing reflects attention to every traditional historical period in English and American literature. Down the turnpike at Amherst, on the other hand, majors have only to take ten courses ‘offered or approved by the department’—in other words, apparently, they may be course sin any department. Majors have no core requirement and no period requirements. (Menand 89-90)

Most departments right now appear to answer “content.” Mine does. But I increasingly think that’s the wrong answer. I’m not convinced that it’s insanely important for undergrads to know Chaucer, or to have read Sister Carrie and Maggie: Girl of the Streets, or to have read any particular body of work. I do think it’s insanely important for them to have very strong close reading skills and exceptional writing skills. Unfortunately, I appear to be in the minority of professional Englishers in this respect. And I’m in grad school, where the answer skill mostly appears to be “content,” and relatively few people appear to be focusing on skills; those are mostly left to individuals to develop on their own. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone discuss what makes good writing at conferences, in seminars, or in peer-reviewed papers (MFA programs appear to be very interested in this subject, however, which might explain some of their rise since 1945).

As Menand points out, no one is sure what an “‘English’ department or degree is supposed to be.” That’s part of the field’s problem. I think it’s also part of the reason many students are drawn to creative writing classes: in those, at least the better ones, writing gets taught; the reading is more contemporary; and I think many people are doing things that matter. When I read the Romantic Poets, I mostly want to do anything but read the Romantic Poets. Again, I have nothing against the Romantic Poets or against other people reading the Romantic Poets—I just don’t want to do it. Yet English undergrad and grad school forces the reading of them. Maybe it should. But if so, it should temper the reading of them with a stronger focus on writing, and what makes good writing.

Then again, if English departments really wanted to do more to reward the producing of real content, they’d probably structure the publishing of peer-reviewed articles better. Contrary to what some readers have said in e-mails to me, or inferred from what I’ve written, I’m actually not at all opposed to peer review or peer-reviewed publications. But the important thing these days isn’t a medium for publishing—pretty much anyone with an Internet connection can get that for free—but the imprimatur of peer-review, which says, “This guy [or gal] knows what he’s talking about.” A more intellectually honest way to go about peer-review would be to have every academic have a blog / website. When he or she has an article ready to go, he should post it, send a link to an editor, and ask the editor to kick it out to a peer-reviewer. Their comments, whether anonymous or not, should be appended to the article. If it’s accepted, it gets a link and perhaps the full-text copied and put in the “journal’s” main page. If it doesn’t, readers can judge its merits or lack thereof for themselves.

The sciences arguably already have this, because important papers appear on arXiv.org before they’re officially “published.” But papers in the sciences appear to be less status-based and more content-based than papers in the humanities.

I think this change will happen in the humanities, very slowly, over time; it won’t be fast because there’s no reason for it to be fast, and the profession’s gatekeepers are entrenched and have zero incentive to change. If anything, they have a strong incentive to maintain the system, because doing that raises their own status and increases their own power within the profession. So I don’t foresee this happening, even if it would be an important thing. But then again, academics are almost always behind the important thing: the important thing is happening in some marginal, liminal space, and academics inhabit a much more central area, where it’s easy to ignore stuff at the margins. I don’t see that changing either, especially in a world where many people compete for few academic slots. In that world, pointless hoop-jumping is going to remain.


* There’s a vast literature in industrial organization on the subject of hiring practices, and most of that literature finds that the most effective ways to hire workers is to give them an IQ test and a work-skills or work-practice test. The former is effectively illegal in the U.S., so the best bet is to give workers a test of the thing they’ll actually be called on to do.

** I also consciously ask myself this question set:

In his famous essay You and Your Research (which I recommend to anyone ambitious, no matter what they’re working on), Richard Hamming suggests that you ask yourself three questions:

1. What are the most important problems in your field?

2. Are you working on one of them?

3. Why not?

I have an answer to number three, but it doesn’t seem like a very good one.

How to do ersatz Ezra Pound:

I’ve had the misfortune of reading Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, and, while complaining about them to a friend, she explained how to produce ersatz Pound:

Start with something nautical. Then hyphenate two words that are only tangentially related to each other. Then use that word to describe something that it has nothing to do with, making it seem like a brisk, obscure metaphor. For extra points add a second line containing the name of a Greek hero and invoke an out-of-fashion God in the middle of a mundane line about the blandness of the morning gruel/porridge. If it reminds you of Barth meets Game of Thrones, you’re doing it right. If not, add an additional grizzled old man and a reference to the Iliad. (The Odyssey is an almost, but still, a miss.)

I wish I’d written down her spontaneous production of mock-Poundian verse.

The Facebook Eye and the artist’s eye

“We are increasingly aware of how our lives will look as a Facebook photo, status update or check-in,” according to Nathan Jurgenson in “The Facebook Eye,” and the quote stood out not only because I think it’s true, but because this kind of double awareness has long been characteristic of writers, photographers, artists, and professional videographers. Now it’s simply being disseminated through the population at large.

I’m especially aware of this tendency among writers, and in my own life I even encourage and cultivate it by carrying around a notebook. Now, a notebook obviously doesn’t have the connectivity of a cell phone, but it does still encourage a certain performative aspect, and a readiness to harvest the material of every day life in order to turn it into art. Facebook probably isn’t art—at least to me it isn’t, although I can imagine some people arguing that it is—and I think that’s the key difference between the Facebook Eye and what artists are doing and have been doing for a very long time. I’ve actually been contemplating and taking notes on a novel about a photographer who lives behind his (potentially magic) camera instead of in the moment, and that might be part of the reason why I’m more cognizant of the feeling being expressed.

Anyway, Michael Lewis’s recently gave an NPR interview about his recent Obama article (which is worth reading on its own merits, and, like Tucker Max’s “What it’s like to play basketball with Obama,” uses the sport as a way of drawing larger conclusions about Obama’s personality and presidency). In the interview, Lewis sees Obama as having that writer’s temperament, and even says that “he really is, at bottom, a writer,” and goes on to say Obama is “in a moment, and not in a moment at the same time.” Lewis says Obama can be “in a room, but detach himself at the same time,” and he calls it “a curious inside-outside thing.” As I indicated, I don’t think this is unique to writers, although it may be more prevalent or pronounced in writers. Perhaps that’s why writers love great art and, in some ways, sex, more than normal people: both offer a way into living in the present. If writers are more predisposed towards alcoholism—I’m not sure if they are or not, though many salient examples spring to mind—getting out of the double perspective might be part of the reason why.

I think the key differences between what I do, with a notebook, and what Facebook enables via phones, are distance and perspective. My goal isn’t to have an instantaneous audience for the fact that I just did Cool Activity X. Whatever may emerge from what I’m observing is only going to emerge in a wholly different context that obscures its origins as a conversation, a snatch of overheard dialogue, a thing read in a magazine, or an observation from a friend. The lack of immediacy means that I don’t think I’m as immediately performative in most circumstances.

But the similarities remain: Jurgenson writes that “my concern is that the ultimate power of social media is how it burrows into us, our minds, our consciousness, changing how we consciously experience the world even when logged off.” And I think writing and other forms of art do the same thing: they “burrow into us,” like parasites that we welcome, and change the way we experience the world.

Still, the way we experience the world has probably been changing continuously throughout human history. The idea of having “human history” is a relatively recent idea: most hunter-gatherers didn’t have it, for example. The changes Facebook (and its analogues; I’m only using Facebook as a placeholder for a broader swath of technologies) is bringing seem new, weird, and different because they are, obviously, new. For all I know, most of my students already have the Facebook Eye more than any other kind of eye or way of being. This has its problems, as William Deresiewicz points out in “Solitude and Leadership,” but presumably people who watch with the Facebook Eye are getting something—even a very cheap kind of fame—out of what they do. And writers generally want fame too, regardless of what they say—if they didn’t, they’d be silent.

I think the real problem is that artists become aware of their double consciousness, while most normal people probably aren’t—they just think of it as “normal.” But then again, very few us probably contemplate how “normal” changes by time and place in general.


Thanks to Elena for sending me “The Facebook Eye”.

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