Once on a rock by the sea sat five boys singing. I was one of the boys and so was my friend Kyle Billing. The others were bashful at first, but Kyle and I raised our voices and soon everybody joined in. Against the sound of the crashing surf we sang unselfconsciously, anything we could remember: “A Fugue for Tinhorns” from Guys and Dolls, “Be Our Guest!” from Beauty and the Beast, and Row, Row, Row Your Boat. We recited tongue twisters and lines from movies, told stupid jokes, and argued about the existence of God. After the sun set, we crossed a dark road by starlight and stayed up late in the beach house, talking and playing games.
I was fifteen and a freshman, and the other boys were seniors in their first summer of life after high school. I had been allowed into their circle by its leader, a dashing blond boy who had been both captain of the tennis team and the lead in the spring musical. I idolized that group as my high school’s artistic elite. One of them designed lighting for the school plays, another played the jazz saxophone and had read everything, another had a caustic wit, and another wrote a column for the school paper. Kyle painted and drew and he was good. His paintings not only looked like what they were supposed to, but they had style. Looking back, I imagine that I was tolerated by that bunch more with kindness than real affection, but with Kyle I remember always feeling like an equal.
He was tall and slender, with floppy brown hair which he was always running his fingers through in a kind of befuddlement with everything. He managed to crack everybody up without quite trying to. His impression of Steve Martin as Ruprecht from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels cracks me up even now. In a school of sunny courtyards and boys in athletic gear, Kyle gave me permission to sit in the shade in rumpled khakis and a black blazer. (more…)
Back in the Spring, I took up an offer to take a backstage tour of NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, aka “The Center for the Recently Possible.” I think of it as a Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory of new media and technology graduate programs. What the kids there are doing is what we’ll all be thinking about or plugging into in the near future.
My strategy was to hang around with a notebook, bug the students standing next to crazy looking contraptions, and write down what they said that I could (mostly) comprehend. The result was this piece for PBS MediaShift. Did I stumble on any everlasting gobstoppers? You be the judge.
Why does it do such a poor job of providing free resources to help children learn how to read?
What is BuzzFeed doing to provide an engaging and well-curated browsing experience, akin to the best retail environments?
How is BuzzFeed adapting itself to be more relevant to low income, minority communities who need help finding jobs?
Why can’t I find free, reliable, well-written information on BuzzFeed about deep dive topics like history, politics, and science?
Why doesn’t BuzzFeed provide free, live, in-person assistance if I want to learn about a particular topic?
Why doesn’t BuzzFeed break down paywalls and let me read the latest articles in the top newspapers and magazines for free?
What is BuzzFeed doing to improve its user experience, like providing free physical spaces where the public can consume their content?
This list is intentionally ridiculous. I don’t expect BuzzFeed to do any of these things.
This list does, however, describe what libraries do well, not flashy click-bait websites.
So, if it is absurd to ask BuzzFeed and its ilk to be like libraries, why is the reverse an endlessly repeated argument? Why do we deem libraries irrelevant unless they come to resemble the open Internet?
This post was provoked by an old but particularly odious post by Seth Godin, in which he says that we should close down libraries and instead spend public money on training people who will help the public get more “aggressive” about hunting down information online. Since all information is free now, Godin argues, we don’t need libraries anymore. We just need people who know how to hack their way through the Internet to the right information at the right time.
In other words, we should take all the money and cultural energy that we have spent creating libraries and training librarians and divert it instead to the purchasing of technological products and training an army of evangelists to promote their use.
In a world of physical libraries, communities get durable, multifunctional spaces which provide local employment, and are already partially devoted to providing free access to the latest technology and training people to use it. Libraries have long been and will continue to be adapted to future needs, while fulfilling their traditional role. In Godin’s universe, all of that is vaporized and converted to an endless stream of rent to Silicon Valley.
I’m not in favor of censorship. But I do believe that the questions raised by the “right to be forgotten” highlight our need for noncommercial search, or for making sure there is more than just one dominant player.
Because of my habit of saying awkward things to famous people, I was determined not to say anything to Al Gore last week. We were in the same room because he was getting an award at the Interfaith Center of New York’s annual dinner, where I was filling out the table of a friend and donor to the center where I work. Despite my determination, at the cocktail reception I found myself turning around and suddenly shaking hands with the most famous person in the room.
As he took my hand in his, he looked right into my eyes and greeted me with respect and openness. For a long moment, I felt as if I were the only person in the room with him. It was dazzling. This is remarkable when you consider how often he has had to greet strangers. Summoning the psychic energy to do so over and over again with genuine respect, or even its convincing simulacrum, must require monastic levels of strength and discipline. I once saw the performance artist Marina Abramovic make a moving piece out of honoring strangers one by one with her full attention in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art. Gore’s presence was equally striking.
I had a front row seat to his remarks later in the evening. He was introduced and humanized for the crowd by his daughter Karenna Gore Schiff. She recounted her childhood admiration of her father’s ability to balance large objects on his nose for long periods of time. He had once, she said, explained the theory of nuclear disarmament by using salt and pepper shakers at the dinner table. As a girl, she had confronted him one morning with the front page of the Washington Post, showing the picture of a woman suffering in the Bosnian conflict, and asked why America wasn’t doing more to help. That same day Gore told this story to Clinton’s national security team, kicking off a conversation that eventually changed US policy. From the surprised reaction of James Parks Morton, a Gore family friend sharing the stage with her, I surmised that this wasn’t the usual patter trotted out to personalize her father’s public appearances.
Then Gore got up and cast his spell over the room. Because of my time in the Whiffenpoofs and my work in New York’s not-for-profit galaxy, I have been to my share of fancy dinners with the 1%, and one of their tribal quirks is to talk through events where basic politeness would require silence (as when the Whiffenpoofs are singing, for example). I can’t explain this behavior, but I have come to expect it, so the silence in the room during Gore’s remarks surprised me.
Practicalities aside, money is also how our culture defines value, and being told that what you do is of no ($0.00) value to the society you live in is, frankly, demoralizing. Even sort of insulting. And of course when you live in a culture that treats your work as frivolous you can’t help but internalize some of that devaluation and think of yourself as something less than a bona fide grown-up.