(This is second in a series of posts entitled, “Geese From Bottles”. The introductory post provides some context , though probably not enough.)
We love tools. Business loves them, government loves them, people love them. They are the progeny of our uniqueness as humans. Tools—technology—have always been a fulcrum in cultural evolution, but the enlightenment paradigm is almost completely conscribed by the concept of the tool.
Tools are the encapsulation of knowledge into a repeatable application. They are so simply useful that their seduction is the sense that they reflect the truth. Indeed, there are those who argue that everything—everything—is reducible to a simple mechanical system.
Discussion threads are legion. They are one of the more prominent exemplars of the new communications paradigm. Their existence in places where they heretofore have not existed is generally a welcome thing. I want to know what people think of that editorial on GISS weather data. The editorial alone is not enough.
There are lots of ways in which the discussion thread as a model could be improved. But I’d like to take issue with one very simple way in which I believe they’re misused; or rather poorly implemented. I’m talking about chronological inversion. I don’t want to read the most recent contributions to the discussion first. Who would?
Take this ESPN discussion thread about Barack Obama’s suggestion that the BCS add a playoff as an example. I can only assume that the strategic goal driving the decision to invert the discussion is the sense that always having fresh content at the top of the thread means more traffic. Which may be true; both my conjecture and the conjecture of my conjecture. But even so, I submit that the inversion severely undermines the quality of the discussion. In fact, I think it encourages grandstanding and truculence and discourages actual, y’know, discussion.
It is notable (to my mind anyway) that generally, blogs don’t do this. For the most part, it is the entrenched, old media that does this. Which makes sense. The entrenched media are like the adherents of phlogiston theory at a time when Lavoisier was demonstrating its failure. The entrenched media are like H.M Warner pronouncing in 1927 that, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” The entrenched media seem to think it will be 1992 forever.
There is a koan involving the master, Nan-ch’üan P’u-yüan (南泉普願) whom, in varying accounts, relates some arcane wisdom to some neophyte through the metaphor of a goose in a bottle. My favorite version is from the 1959 textbook “Zen Buddhism: An Introduction to Zen, with Stories, Parables, and Koan Riddles told by the Zen Masters“. Here Nan-ch’üan is in his Japanese guise as “Nansen”:
THE OFFICIAL Riko once asked Nansen to explain to him the old problem of the goose in the bottle. “If a man puts a gosling into the bottle” he said, “and feeds the gosling through the bottle-neck until it grows and grows and becomes a goose, and then there just is no more room inside the bottle, how can the man get it out without killing the goose, or breaking the bottle?”
“Riko!” shouted Nansen, and gave a great clap with his hands.
“Yes, master,” said the official with a start.
“See!” said Nansen, “the goose is out!”