Relay Failures

Years ago I heard someone say that many arguments would be averted if only we would use the word merely more often. Case in point: I titled my last post “Don’t Be a Relay in the Network.” My point could have been more appropriately stated, “Don’t Be Merely a Relay in the Network.”

The difference is not insignificant. Being a relay in a network is not necessarily problematic. We receive and pass along information, digital and otherwise, all of the time. Problems arise when we function merely as a relay, or, even better, when we function merely as a passive relay.

My concern stems from the habits I felt taking shape as a result of my own online reading practices. I found myself reading not for the enjoyment or value of reading, but simply to have read. I owe this formulation to Alan Jacobs, who, in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, observes that we sometimes read simply to be able to claim that we have read something.

Jacobs had in mind lure of the prestige attached to being known as the sort of person who has read War and Peace or In Search of Lost Time or whatever happens to be trendy at the moment. There’s that, to be sure, but I have in mind the desire to have read which translates into seeing my RSS feed at zero. It is reading motivated by the pressures of keeping up with the digital news feed or fear of missing out.

When this sort of reading is coupled with the desire, variously motivated, to share what has been read, then it becomes reading to have shared. And it’s not just reading, of course. All forms of online content are subject to this dynamic. When this sort of dynamic drives our experience with online content, then we are acting merely as relays in a network. There’s something of Eliot’s “Hollow Men” in this dynamic: we’re shaped by the network, but we have no form of our own. Stuff passes through us, but we remain hollow.

Thoughtless passivity is one of the problems that attends being a mere relay in a network. The pattern of habitual receiving and sharing within the temporal horizons of digital culture tends to preclude the possibility of internalizing the information so that it is appropriated as genuine personal knowledge. Apart from this sort of internalization that is, in part, a product of time and method, what we are left with is a vague, generic awareness that we have at some point come into contact with some information. “Oh, I think I read about that a few days ago” or “I saw a link to that on Twitter” or “Didn’t someone post that on Facebook not too long ago.”

I would go so far as to suggest that the apathy or inaction in contemporary culture that many lament is partially a function of this kind of ambient awareness that does not quite sink in and become personal knowledge. Involvement and action are a product of personal knowledge. The ambient awareness that comes from functioning as mere relays of information lacks the power to motivate, inspire, outrage, etc.

The other danger is what we could call the conditioned passivity of being merely a relay. This describes the subtle temptation to pass along information that will be well-received by your audience. This is not unlike the “filter bubble” problem in which our personalized streams of digital information enclose us within a filter bubble or echo chamber that mirrors and reinforces our prejudices and blind spots. The risk of being passively conditioned when acting as a mere relay arises from the temptation to share and disseminate what will resonate or play well with the audience we’ve fashioned for ourselves. The temptation, in other words, is to tacitly bend to the shape of our bubbles or tune our online voice so as to achieve maximum echo.

None of this necessarily follows from reading online or sharing information through social media; but it is a temptation and it is worth resisting.

10 thoughts on “Relay Failures

  1. Loves this!! Yes, does not merely suggest an onlyness that comes from the speed in which we move from this to that? Technology drives culture. Not sure if I’ve already said that here, and it begins to sound like my presonal prejudice and blind spot. Speed is what we are now experiencing, and we are tempted to react to technological speed (traveling, surfing, eating, conversing) with our own speediness, or hurried reactions. It’s harder to take anything in, digest it, listen and take time to be affected or changed by events, experiences, relationships, conversations, etc. So, we all want more time, because we are trading off genuine experience and authenticity in ourselves and others for speed and, for quantity instead of quality.

  2. Hmm, I agree to some extent about the conflict between sharing an article quickly, and truly understanding it and internalizing it as personal knowledge. I definitely also have the experience of “Oh, I think I read about that a few days ago” without a true memory of the article’s contents. But I don’t think that’s due to sharing; I think it has more to do with the article’s length. When I read a short article (like this one), I am only engaging with it for five or ten minutes. Even if I spend the entire day reading articles with similar content as part of an organized research effort, it will still be hard to remember this particular blog post, unless I explicitly compare it to other work, or file it away under some manually-constructed article-categorization scheme. With a book, on the other hand, I am engaging with it for days or weeks at a time, and so it has a chance to firmly cement itself in my memory. Could ease of writing style contribute as well? When I’m reading a book, I often have to puzzle over sentences to get the proper parse or interpretation. But blog posts are usually written in a sort of “pre-digested” style, like refined carbohydrates. Each sentence slides smoothly into the mind with minimal processing. Does it engage less of the brain as a result?

    I suspect articles are hard to remember because they’re _out of context_, and human memory is extremely context-based. It’s similar to how I’ll be standing in the bedroom, thinking I need to retrieve something from the kitchen, and as soon as I walk into the kitchen, I forget what I was doing there. It’s only after I walk back into the bedroom (the physical context of the original thought) that I can remember. But there is no physical context for an article. If I just read the article and then move on, there’s no lattice of memory to affix it to. It helps if I discuss the article with a friend, and it helps even more if I file the article away in some kind of “Articles” folder in my browser. Then it feels like I have some kind of physical copy of the article. It feels like I am holding onto the article, instead of letting it slip back into the distant roar of the internet ocean. But a link saved in a browser folder doesn’t have the same physical quality as a printed-out article, or a book on my shelf. I save a copy of every book I read, and I print out every single academic article. I won’t get a Kindle. People call me old-fashioned, but I wouldn’t be able to remember anything if I didn’t have a physical representation of the knowledge. Perhaps my memory is unusally bad, though? I don’t want to generalize from my experiences to the whole human race.

    I actually think that sharing helps me remember articles better, because it’s a way of marking an article as important. My Google+ feed serves much the same purpose for me, memory-wise, as my browser folder entitled “Articles”. I can look back at it and see what I’ve read.

    I am not trying to disagree with your post, by the way. It seems reasonable that a desire to “have read”, instead of a desire to actually read, would discourage people from internalizing knowledge. I just think that the format of an article (short, out of context) contributes to its lack of internalizability as well.

    Also, am I supposed to write “Excellent post!” or something when writing a blog comment? It seems so obsequious, as if I need to flatter you, the blog-author, into giving my comment an audience. However, I really do think your blog post is excellent, or else I wouldn’t be commenting on it, so I hope I have not been too blog-impolite.

    1. I’m not sure if this is still true these days, but back in 1997 Jakob Nielson was recommending that something written for the web should involve 50% less text than something written for print due to the relative physical unpleasantness of reading from a screen, and that it should be assumed that people would scan more than actually read: http://www.nngroup.com/articles/be-succinct-writing-for-the-web/

      Also, I know what you mean about ebooks not fitting well with the contextual nature of memory. When reading non-fiction I often want to re-read bits of a book: with a physical book I will tend to know automatically roughly where to look (how far through the book, left- or right-hand page). But with an ebook, there is no “where” to look for: even the line breaks can change, if you change the text size. Whereas I assume that part of the point of illuminating medieval manuscripts was to furnish them with recognizable landmarks/loci.

      [ As a way of summing up the difference in character between “tangible” and “weightless” knowledge, I rather liked the remark made in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer by the librarian Rupert Giles, where he said that he didn’t like computers because he didn’t like their smell (or rather, their lack of smell): http://rdn32.com/2012/11/09/a-reasonable-question/ ]

      With regard to the particular dynamic of blogs, they are somewhat like conversations – if you don’t engage with something quickly enough then your chance of joining in meaningfully may pass you by. However, it is conversation that is rather poor in explicitly phatic expressions (“Excellent post!”).

      1. My guess is that recommendation from 1997, still holds. Although it is also true that there’s been a lot done since then to try to cultivate longform reading on the Internet. I’m not sure how successful those efforts have been, or even if anyone has attempted to measure their success. Thanks for that quote from Buffy, by the way: quite true, I think.

        Also, may be someone ought to develop a browser or app that allows users to illuminate web pages in the style of medieval manuscripts – there’s an idea for any artsy web designers out there reading this.

    2. No need to write “excellent post,” I assure. But thanks for saying so. As to your points about length, or duration of engagement, and context. I agree entirely. So also with the connection between physicality and remembering (no Kindle for me either). Your comment, then, is a valuable supplement to the concerns I expressed. I was focused a bit more on a particular frame of mind that I sometimes find lurking in my case; you’re targeting more concrete practices. Very useful. “Excellent” comment.

  3. I can think of a few strategies to enrich ourselves when our online reading habits start to leave us feeling empty. The first is to look more closely at the graph metaphor that underlies this network imagery. Ok, I am a node on a graph. What is the nature of this node? How many connections does it really have? What are the properties of these connections? Does this node have some internal structure? Thinking this way will soon show the limited validity of the network model in describing ourselves. Perhaps it is powerful, useful and valuable in some ways, and very unhelpful, and even harmful and distorting in other ways.

    We might also counter the network metaphor with some of the other powerful reductionist metaphors to remind ourselves that there are many ways to see ourselves. We can imagine ourselves as merely a cog in a machine. We can imagine ourselves as merely data. We can imagine ourselves as merely a collection of atoms. We can imagine ourselves as merely an optimizer in a Darwinian fitness landscape.

    Perhaps we can gain most from engagement with a given media when we remember that we are much larger than the representations of our self that media suggests. And it could serve as a rule of thumb as to when one is using a certain media too much- when one starts to think of oneself solely in the terms of that media. One should remember not to “lose oneself” in any given media or activity or mode of being.

  4. Just a short, belated comment…to take information, letting it ferment in our head, and then sharing our take on it is what’s meaningful. We add color to information by our own perspective based on experience and personality. By just “relaying”, we deprive others of what we can add to the bucket!

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