Many authors and journalists know how to write, few know how to be read. Few writers have the gift of introducing the reader to the pleasure of reading. It's a gift we receive from select classics. In Italy, Idro Montanelli had the gift of knowing how to reduce concepts to the essential ideas without subtracting depth from his message. Thus starts a review of Massimo Mantellini's Low Resolution.
In the short book (Einaudi, 2018), Mantellini says with depth that the Internet has radically changed our approach to information, social relations, markets and culture. We traded higher resolution experiences with music, photography, and information sources for speed.
Memory is a funny thing
There's no question that listening to music live is preferable to vinyl, which is still a much higher resolution than digital. Do we remember what that experience was like without repeating it?
As for photography, does the reliable quality of the smartphone stand in contrast to the resolution and frame we could achieve with a Leica? Or does it stand in contrast to actually enjoying the experience before we snap the photo?
Should we reduce noise pollution in the kitchen with the same discipline and patience we use in sauce reductions? IKEA cabinets as new low resolution artifacts that fill our lives included.
There is a serious angle to the loss of memory and that is the loss of space between thought and action. Real time overwhelms caution because it engages our primal instinct to keep up.
It's true, technology cannot tell time, says Stewart Brand in The Clock of the Long Now. When we entrust our thoughts and artifacts to the archive, we forget the Internet doesn't have a resilient method of preserving those thoughts like paper and books did in the past.
As I wrote to a friend this past week, this is a good argument in favor of books (persistent) vs. blogs (evolving/ephemeral) because the latter lead to an explosion of content that doesn’t get used as much.
Like with the physical memory, exercise (or practice) is the best preserver. The most read, analyzed, discussed books get handed down to future generations because they remain persistent. Torah, Koran, I Ching get passed down through generations. Dan Pink ran a non statistically valid survey with his 140,000 readers this past year: The Bible is still most read book out there.
Every age copies, translates, analyses, critiques, uses those books.
Why practice makes sense
Practice makes perfect is a proverb that has been traced back to the 1550s – 1560s, when its form was 'Use makes perfect.' The Latin version is: Uses promptos facit.# I suggest in this meaning it makes sense, too.
We learn by use. It's the whole premise of critical thinking that we play with ideas to kick their tires, so to speak. Do they hold under the weight of opposing views? Can we prove the opposite?
In this sense, the Internet is a great place to practice ideas if, and that skinny word is quite important, if we do it with intent. That is recognizing that they're a work in progress, and appreciating our responsibility in editing, correcting, improving those ideas over time. In other words, being good stewards to the words that go into the archive.
Digital created the economy of the immediate, with grainy images, ready to disappear without memory. We're out of practice staying with the questions. Even worse, we're out of practice engaging in productive conversation and building connections that go beyond the usual superficiality.
Online, we're seeing a downward trend, so that everything can circulate more quickly. We might be asking better questions offline. The Internet has not canceled our desire to be social, in fact it has heightened it through our sense of isolation.
A counter-intuitive move
It's fascinating how we put on noise-canceling headphones as soon as we get on a plane, yet we manage to wade into the massive avalanche of inputs coming at us through the online stream without protection of any kind for the everybody that talks at us, bots included.
There's lots happening inside our heads. Only we are able to parse through it with practice using ideas, asking questions, before we jump to searching for solutions. In this, technology has permeated every aspect of our lives, prompting us through needs and taste. We do exist without TikTok or Facebook accounts.
We're interconnected. But in the lone place we occupy in front of a screen, we hardly see how we're interdependent. Says Mantellini (translation mine):
“Each of us is now alone, surrounded by many others who are similarly alone and lost: technology is the first breaking point of this loss of direction of complex societies.
Everyone today can say they know everything, and basically everyone knows they don't know much, in an atmosphere of mutual mistrust and arrogance left to flow under trace, which is one of the constants of our feeling at the same time modern and reluctant.”
It's cumbersome and complex to use a real camera. Smartphones are more convenient and take a reliably good image. Plus we can share it immediately. We could make a similar argument of portability with music.
Where to invest
Mantellini weaves technological themes with artistic, literary or historical references. This is a valuable exercise in a persistent medium, the book. Exercise in the sense of practice and use of ideas would benefit us in business.
When Italians fill piazzas and theaters to go back to the ideas of philosophers and poets – every year, people crowd in the piazzas of Modena, Carpi and Sassuolo for the festival of philosophy, the tour actor Roberto Benigni did reading Dante Alighieri was sold out and had great success later on TV – it’s a testimony to this desire to reconnect with culture, what is most enduring.
Heather McGowan says we're currently undergoing several dimensions of cultural change that are happening in society: racial demographics, age demographics, what gender means, what leadership is, what are the rules of education, which institutions to trust.
These changes are making it hard to answer the question of who we are. When we go from one situation to another, like a new job, for example, that makes us uncomfortable because we don't know who we are anymore. There's an identity piece we may quite never recover.
Technology is not inherently bad, it can facilitate connection. But it can shorten our attention span. Understanding how to operate within the tension between knowing and learning depends on a skinny “if.”