The opening keynote session turned out to be utterly refreshing. Rather than a stand-up act accompanied by PowerPoint, the audience witnessed a conversation. Better than that, it was, at times, an uncomfortable conversation, the kind of conversation most often lacking at IL. Paul Holdengraber, Director of Public Programs at the New York Public Library, wanted to do something else besides surf with Cerf. Holdengraber wanted Cerf to think. Cerf gave the impression that he preferred to be on autopilot for the morning, and was taken aback by Holdengraber’s thoughtfulness. This became clear early on when Cerf wanted to give canned responses to some of Holdengraber’s inquiries. The “grab” in Holdengraber exerted itself, and he insisted that Cerf engage in a higher order discussion, and occasionally had to drag Cerf up the intellectual hill with him. At one point, Cerf was uncertain whether he was being insulted, and by the end of the interview Cerf aimed some barbs back at Holdengraber, accusing Holdengraber of ignorance about the percentage of mail worldwide that reaches its destination.
One of the themes that Holdengraber insisted upon was multitasking, and it was fascinating to hear Cerf, the so-called evangelist of the internet, endorse multitasking, as if unaware that data show that multitasking is counterproductive. Since we are all in California, maybe it has not dawned on Cerf that California has banned drivers from driving while phoning or texting, because that kind of social networking endangers the lives of others.
On the other hand, Holdengraber interrupted the usual cheerleading atmosphere at IL to question whether multitasking and gobs of e-mail lead to a better quality of life when juxtaposed to the world of old-fashioned books and letters. Not that Holdenbarger came across as a technophobe or as someone clinging to the past. Holdenbarger wondered aloud whether our brains are at risk with so many technological distractions and so little time for thought. Doubtless Holdenbarger is aware of the neurological studies that have been performed on the brains of those who use technology, with the results appearing in places like Jonah Lehrer’s The Frontal Cortex.
The interview moved into matters of privacy on the internet, and it was interesting that Cerf avoided talking about Google’s role in helping to enforce the Patriot Act. Cerf did not address Google’s participation in censorship, or its storage of massive amounts of information to provide demographic and other forms of information to various sources. Instead, Cerf pointed to another company, Comcast, for his example.
While Cerf offered the audience numerous informative narratives — the story of his wife’s deafness being ameliorated by technology was so effective it caused spontaneous applause –, his bromides about the evolution of technology were uninspired and at least once inaccurate. That literacy depended upon scrolls and books in the ancient world leaves out amazing accounts of memorization (e.g., Plato’s Ion), among other things. Holdenbarger pressed for a more thorough consideration of the ways in which technologies themselves alter our thinking, à la Friedrich Kittler’s Discourse Networks, 1800/1900. Cerf wanted to leave the matter at the economic level — newsprint is cheaper than killing lambs for vellum. One expects an evangelist to opt for preserving the lambs. Holdenbarger pursued unsuccessfully a line of inquiry that was closer to what Jacques Derrida had in mind with his book about postcards. As much as the interview with Cerf was enjoyable, I wished that someone would have interviewed Holdenbarger too.