An Interview With Alan Jacobs

Poster for The Karate Kid (1984). Image from Snack to the Future.

Poster for The Karate Kid (1984). Image from Snack to the Future.

Over at The Infernal Machine, Chad Wellmon has been hosting a discussion of Dr. Alan Jacobs’s “79 Theses on Technology.” Jacobs also held a seminar here at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture to discuss his theses. We sent him some questions about his project, and he graciously took the time to answer them.

The Hedgehog Review: You’ve written seventy-nine aphorisms, or “theses for disputation,” on the Internet and technology more generally. Why this form? What does it open up about this particular topic?

Alan Jacobs: The form of the presentation—theses for disputation, as opposed to, say, an academic article—arises from a combination of humility and laziness. Humility because the disciplines relevant to the human experience of digital technology—psychology, sociology, theological anthropology, computer science, interaction design, neuroscience, behavioral economics, etc.—are so wildly varied that no one can possibly master (or even have an adequate familiarity with) them all, so that it makes sense to present one’s ideas as open to dispute or refutation. Laziness because I don’t have the time or energy to support all these ridiculous claims, and therefore will escape accountability by saying “I’m just interested in what you people think.”

THR: Thesis 1: “Everything begins with attention.” Every time I read this I go “hmmm…everything?” so I will ask: Everything?

AJ: Well…yes. If we’re thinking technology and personhood, and especially technologies of knowledge, in a context in which few if any technologies are definitively mandated—most of us could get jobs that did not involve the use of a computer if we really, really wanted to—then the best place to begin, I think, is by asking where my attention is going and why it’s going there.

THR: Thesis 26: “Digital textuality offers us the chance to restore commentary to its pre-modern place as the central scholarly genre.” A platform like Medium seems to be attempting to do just this, though on a popular level rather than a scholarly one. Is this representative of the direction you are hoping online publishing will go?

AJ: No. On Medium, commentary is definitely secondary. You don’t see the comments unless you specifically choose to click on them, and even then only the comments that are explicitly approved by the author. Medium is an extremely author-centered technology. (I understand why the designers took that direction, especially given that toxic wasteland that almost all comment threads have become. But still.)

THR: What platform do you think does the worst job at encouraging fruitful commentary?

AJ: I don’t know. I might have a better idea if I used more social-media platforms.

THR: You’ve experimented with a number of blog formats yourself—blogs with comments, without, hosted on different kinds of platforms, and so on. What have you learned from these different formats?

AJ: I have learned to be unhappy. I have learned that genuine human dialogue is rare and when found must be treasured.

THR: You have had a falling-out-of-love experience with Twitter of late. Here you are defending it from Jonathan Franzen, here you are retreating from it, and now you’ve settled into maintaining two Twitter presences, one (public) for promotion and one (private) for conversation. How has that shaped your understanding of online commentary? Would you still have the same response to Jonathan Franzen?

AJ: The problem with Franzen’s article was not that it was critical of Twitter, but that it was extremely uninformed and dim-witted. And still would be were he to repeat it today, for reasons I explain in my post. My critique of Twitter, by contrast, is extremely well-informed, balanced, and irrefutable. I don’t think my views have changed in any significant way over the past three or four years. Twitter itself changed, I think, as it scaled up into the stratosphere, a topic I explored here. I am so, so grateful for the friends I made on Twitter…but I don’t expect to make any new ones.

THR: The intimacy—or at least close quarters—between authors and audience on Twitter or in comment threads can produce some ugly results in the writing: grandstanding to your audience, contempt for your readers, excessive caution. How do you see a renewed emphasis on commentary changing how people write—if at all?

AJ: Genuine commentary is serious business. If you don’t believe me, look at a page from the Talmud. Note how the technology of the Talmudic page enables a range of detailed, thorough, specific commentary that exhibits both reverence to the biblical text and a willingness to engage it thoroughly and actively. What we need are digital technologies that do something similar. My search for that has led me to an experiment with a powerful WordPress plugin called CommentPress. I’ll be thinking over the summer about whether this experiment has been a success.

THR: More on commentary—here’s Thesis 73: “More striking even than the anger of online commentary is its humorlessness.” You are discussing comment threads, but one could say one very popular form of online response is satirically mimicking a form. Buzzfeed will even do this to itself (“18 Times King Richard III Perfectly Summed Up Your Struggle”).

That thesis made me wonder if there is a link there—both forms of response seem like a dead end—but I also wonder about the expansiveness of your understanding of “commentary.” Is Clickhole, for example, “commentary”? Is it performing some other role?

AJ: True confession: I have never knowingly clicked on a link to Clickhole, Gawker, or Buzzfeed. If I have now disqualified myself from further punditry about the online world, I accept my punishment in silence.

THR: You call the Internet a “failed state.” Can you go into that a bit more? This statement seems related to the theses on commentary—it forms the introduction to them—although commentary doesn’t seem be a solution to this situation.

AJ: I took that extremely provocative phrase from an ArsTechnica essay by Sean Gallagher. It seems right to me. The Internet had a democratic and decentralized organizational (governmental) form early on—to me, it operated largely according to the principles of subsidiarity—but that has been gradually undermined by special interests who have used plentiful capitalization. The first would-be tyrant of the World Wide Web was AOL, and for a while it looked like a successful Leviathan, but it eventually lost out to the forces of decentralization. The threat from Facebook looks more dangerous, more likely to last, but I try to take comfort in the hatred that teens feel for the service. We’ll just need to overcome employers who want to base hiring decisions on their scanning of potential employees’ Facebook pages.

THR: There’s a startling thesis early on (24) where you discuss “useful strategies of resistance.” Later, in Thesis 63, you say “Embrace the now intolerable” before making a case for writing by hand, “to recall what it’s like to have second thoughts before the first ones are completely recorded.” Is handwriting, in your thinking, a strategy of resistance?

AJ: Absolutely. But what does it resist? I use it to resist, or attempt to constrain, my own glibness, my own first thoughts, my own sense that I already know the answer to a question or the solution to a problem. When I slow my thinking pace to that of my hand’s movement across a page, I often—often—discover that my confidence was utterly misplaced and that I need to think more before committing myself to the public record.

THR: As an aside, in the discussion during the March seminar hosted at IASC on the 79 Theses, you discussed issues of embodiment—how much meaning is lost in textual communications. I know people who consciously employ selfies as a way of trying to restore a sense of embodiment. Do you think that can work—can selfies be “a strategy of resistance”—or is it too clunky a device?

AJ: Selfies strike me as self-assertions without actual embodiment: they merely signify “I was there” without committing me to any particular engagement with my lifeworld.

THR: I want to go back now to attention. In the seminar, you related the following story from an essay by Simone Weil:

The useless efforts made by the Curé d’Ars, for long and painful years, in his attempt to learn Latin bore fruit in the marvellous discernment which enabled him to see the very soul of his penitents behind their words and even their silences.

You left it somewhat ambiguous as to whether or not you agree with this claim, and whether attention is a habit we can cultivate on one object but use on another.

I think I have found this claim to be true for me in some sense—not with Latin, but with mathematics, which I enjoy doing but which I am not gifted at. I find working through a proof produces a sense of order that I can carry with me afterward—something like, I’ve done this essentially reasonable thing, so I know reasonable things exist even if nothing else seems to be that way. Like “discernment,” a sense of order is not exactly “attention,” but they seem to be analogous.

Chad Wellmon’s claim in his response to your theses seems to be that claiming attention is a transferable skill necessarily places too much stress on the autonomy of the individual person. So I think Wellmon would claim: Those useless efforts really were just useless (and my occasional math problems are a waste of time). I am wondering, however, if you think this idea requires stressing autonomy—or a managerial self.

AJ: I am not at all sure whether attention is transferable, which is why I began my presentation with that question. This may sound ridiculous, and may be ridiculous, but in this context I keep remembering the movie The Karate Kid. Remember how Mr. Miyagi keeps giving Daniel these pointless tasks to do, over and over and over again—“Wax on, wax off”—that turn out to be not just transferable to karate but intrinsic to it? Such attention as Daniel gave to those tasks was reluctant and not even half-hearted; and yet simply by doing them obediently his body attended, learned, and benefited. I can’t help thinking that something in that story is key to all of this…but I don’t yet know how. When I have achieved the ideal intellectual synthesis of Simone Weil and The Karate Kid I’ll get back to you.

THR: Or is what we cultivate in these practices not actually attention at all, but rather virtues or habits that are—so to speak—adjacent to it? Discernment, a sense of order, and so on.

AJ: I don’t think there are any virtues or habits without attention, and lots of it. See The Karate Kid.

Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors College of Baylor University, and his research interests explore literature, theology, and technology. He blogs at
Text Patterns for The New Atlantis. His recent books include The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford 2011) and The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography (Princeton, 2013). He tweets as @ayjay and his homepage is ayjay.org.

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  1. Pingback: 79 Theses for a Virtual Door | Space Enough, and Time

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