Friday, November 06, 2009

Enduring truths and narrative coherence

Let us start with Plato and finish with Dave Pell, with a little Jeff Jarvis mixed in to help bind it all together.

Sometime around 370 BC Plato held forth against the invention of writing, a mere crutch that would cause memory to atrophy while offering only a pale reflection of discourse in its place.

The fact is that this invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves. So it's not a recipe for memory, but for reminding, that you have discovered. And as for wisdom, you're equipping your pupils with only a semblance of it, not with truth. (from The Phaedrus).

And he was right, of course. In the age of Socrates there must have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, who could recite The Odyssey from memory. Are there a dozen such today?

As he often does, Dave Pell offers a striking contemporary insight, clothed in exaggeration:

“I just became nostalgic for a tweet I read about two minutes ago but I’ve forgotten the subject matter and author because my brain is completely dead. I also planned for this to be a five page essay, but I could barely break 140 characters.” (from More Nostalgic By the Second).

And he’s right too, of course. As future media advocate Jeff Jarvis worries today:

I’m fretting about us all forgetting things because we’re using Twitter.
Twitter is temporary. Streams are fleeting. If the future of the web after the page and the site and SEO is streams – and I believe at least part of it will be – then we risk losing information, ideas, and the permanent points – the permalinks – around which we used to coalesce. In this regard, Twitter is to web pages what web pages are to old media. Our experience of information is once again about to become fragmented and dispersed. (from The Temporary Web)

And so it goes, medium and message, world without end.

The pattern is hardly confined to writing. In his day, Michelangelo created art much like Paleolithic artists in the caves of Lascaux: drawing on walls. Likewise a master architect and sculptor, his frescos and murals were huge. He was so much the master that other artists in Florence and elsewhere simply followed his lead.

But then the medium shifted: with the invention and use of oil paints and canvas surfaces, art went mobile. Though he dismissed the trend as worthy only of women and children (“Real men paint on walls,” you can almost hear him declaiming), the new wave emerged triumphant, mutating again and again through photographs, moving pictures, talking pictures and back again to drawings: computer animations displaying mastery of all those forms. Today's mashups and sampling performances extend the legacy even farther.

Unlike Jeff, I feel no cause for alarm as the paradigm shifts again. Form and fashion ebb and flow, technology marches inexorably onward.

Yet love today is no sweeter than that of Romeo and Juliet, no more deceitful than Samson and Delilah. The muscular, epic stories painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel lost none of their majesty to Leonardo da Vinci’s newfangled Mona Lisa, still less to Toy Story or Up.

Consistent through all these channels are steadfast truths constructed of human experience and the power of narrative coherence. The best work endures while the trivial fades. Society filters what it values – whether through editors or critics or curators – and sustains it.

World without end. Amen.


  1. Terrific insights. Thank you much~

  2. I am not convinced that the future of the Web will be as "fleeting" as Jarvis fears. There will always be some people who want to intelligently and fully develop ideas. This happened in the time of newspapers (even when there were/are tabloids), radio (NPR exists even when CrazyHatingShouting 92.piFM does as well), TV (CSPAN, NationalGeographic and Discovery exist alongside FOX and MSNBC) and the Web today (serious blogs are still frequented, even with Twitter happening).