The Certainties of Ascension

At the Church of the Ascension in Manhattan, two things can be counted on in every service (the English ones, at least): words of welcome will be made with explicit mention of sexual orientation and Sibelius’s “Finlandia” will be sung, using the words by Lloyd Stone:

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
But other hearts in other lands are beating
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.

Every time it nearly brings me to tears. These certainties in the words are so obvious, yet every time I hear them it sounds, in this world, like a great discovery: other people have lives too that are worth living and worth keeping.

“Finlandia” is particularly moving to me after having lived at a co-op house at Brown University by that name.

Dialogs and Debates

Buckminster FullerThanks to Tom Gilson’s critique, I have already pulled back somewhat on things I said in my article this week at Religion Dispatches. And since it is a dogma of mine that there is truth in even falsehoods, I’d like to try teasing out what put me on a seemingly unwarranted attack. It all reminds me how little appetite or aptitude I have for polemics.

To review: my article was a critique of William Lane Craig’s cover article in Christianity Today. I alleged that, with regard to nontheists and his claims about a Christian “revolution” in academic philosophy: “Whispering to his coreligionists in Christianity Today, to his subculture, Craig does not do justice to what the revolution is up against.” Gilson responded, “It seems to me in view of this that Schneider is being singularly uncharitable with respect to Craig’s treatment of the arguments.”

I think Gilson, here, is right. In a Christian magazine particularly, Craig is perfectly justified in celebrating positive developments for Christian apologetics among Christian philosophers in academia. He doesn’t need to do equal justice to other positions, because that is not the point. You’d see the same thing in some humanist mag, and the same brimming excitement over the possibility that more of one’s intellectual foes might be vanquished.

If I might deign to some self-analysis (what else is a blog for?), let me speculate: my somewhat combative reaction comes from a frustration with this whole state of affairs. For goodness sake, I even rolled out a futile one-sentence refutation to hallowed teleological arguments! Though I understand it is necessary for the salvation of eternal souls, etc., it saddens me to see Christians so eager to dismiss the “intellectual muscle” of atheists, a community that is nothing if not steeped in intellectualism.

This doesn’t necessarily mean “let’s all get along” and so forth. Differences matter and are worth recognizing. It means, rather, remaining open to each other and trying to understand the worlds that others live in. Thanks to Gilson, I feel like I am making some progress in understanding William Lane Craig’s. Not to sound sappy, but it might be more interesting than the battle cries: not debate but dialog.

An email exchange with another blogger about my article reminded me about the wild miracle of human nature that intelligent people are able to go all sorts of ways on major questions; the harder people think, the more they disagree, which might come as a surprise. Indeed, forces like grace and hardness of heart would seem necessary to explain this fact, were it not that, statistically, people’s religious beliefs are so well explainable by historical, accidental context. Augustine pegs his conversion to grace, but who can help not seeing Monica, his Christian mother, ever at work in the background? Intellect is only part of the story.

In search of a mercifully different subject, I’ve been leafing through Utopia or Oblivion by Buckminster Fuller, a closeted-theologian if I ever saw one. There he makes the claim that Star Trek illustrated for me so well when I was a child: “Politics is, inherently, only an accessory after the fact of the design-science revolution” (p. 6). The idea is, no argument between people really gets solved by argument. It gets solved by a total transition in states of affairs, to a new plane of existence (so to speak), and with it, a new set of questions. For Fuller, of course, the answer is always clever technology. But it could be other things.

And of course, too, Fuller is a hopeless utopian. But he’s less wrong than hard to believe. Greek philosophers once argued to death about whether all matter was made from water or from air. On the new plane of existence we’ve been on since chemistry, that question has been totally out of bounds. Nor in those old days were people arguing about whether God existed; it was more a matter of which god, how many, and what kind. I find it a humbling exercise to think, which deathless questions (as the poet Robert Creeley used to put it to us in class) of ours will not die, not live forever in heaven or hell, but simply disappear into nothing, into unthinkability, and into nonsense? I wonder if this matter of the existence or nonexistence of the God to whom we owe all things will return to the nonsense from which it came.

Still Not Dead Yet, for Now, at Least

God Is Not Dead YetThe last couple of days I’ve been working on a response to “God Is Not Dead Yet,” the current cover article of Christianity Today. Since I’m working on a project about proofs for the existence of God, I couldn’t help but want to tackle this meaty piece by the prominent evangelical apologist William Lane Craig. Quite without being planned as such, what began as a post for The Row Boat erupted into an article that the folks over at Religion Dispatches were kind enough to pick up.

Craig’s feature article makes clear that he means something somewhat more decisive than “yet” might give on. God is not only hanging on for dear life against an inevitable death “yet” to come; rather, the evidences for His existence are causing, he claims, a growing “revolution” in the ivory tower. The scientism of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins is now obviously “bygone”: “Atheism, though perhaps still the dominant viewpoint at the American university, is a philosophy in retreat.”

In what follows, he combines a tango through some of the major traditional arguments for God’s existence (almost exclusively in terms of their modern celebrators) with a revealing discussion about the performative place of natural theology—the study of God through nature’s evidence—in modern culture.

Continue reading: [ link | pdf ]

A Questioning Teenager

Nathan Schneider in Providence, RIFor the last few months I’ve been playing around with this article for a popular (and rather self-helpy) religion website. The editor has stopped returning my messages, so I figure the deal is dead (this happens sometimes). So I sez to myself, why not share it with my Row Boat friends? It is more of a friend-thing anyway.

According to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, almost half of Americans claim a different religious affiliation from the one with which they were born. Today’s world is a bustling marketplace of spiritualities that compete for our attention and our faith. For many people, the toughest questions arise during the volatile teenage years.

I know about this first-hand. Starting when I was seventeen, questioning hit me like a tidal wave. Within a year I had signed up for a new religion and explored several others: flabbergasting my father, running circles round my mother, and saddening my grandparents. All the while, I was so immersed in my journey that only later could I stop to realize what all their fuss was about. And wonder if maybe they had been right.

Looking back on those years, I am amazed by my family’s lessons in love and openness. We made it through all right. These ten suggestions come straight from my parents’ and grandparents’ quivers. I hope what I learned from them can help transform this challenging experience into an opportunity for you and your family to grow.

1. Remember That Questioning Is Natural

You and your child are not alone. Teenagers in particular are ripe for exploring new ways of being, and during that time almost everyone begins questioning vital assumptions. Venturing into unknown territories, as questioning forces us to do, is a valuable and necessary part of growing up. When I began my exploring, it came like a force of nature, restless and resolute. As time passed and my curiosity became satisfied, the restlessness quieted down.

Whatever you do, she or he will probably question. Try to swim with this inevitable tide rather than against it.

2. Trust Your Child

I began my questioning just before moving away for college. As I look back on it, doing so was inseparable from moving away from home, making a new life, and the rest of it. Recognizing that, my parents left the decision up to me as an adult, even if I didn’t always act like one. As they soon realized, I was off on my own and they didn’t have much choice.

Learning to trust the person who has trusted in you so completely is not an easy reversal. But by questioning his or her faith, your child is declaring independence. You are still the parent, entitled to trust and respect from your child. Increasingly, however, there are limits to what you can control.

3. Don’t Feel Betrayed

Though it might seem otherwise, his or her reasons for questioning your faith may have nothing at all to do with you. Resist the temptation to take doubting personally. Whether it is about you or not, trust means letting go of feelings of guilt or betrayal. When my Jewish grandparents learned that I was going to be baptized, they felt as if I was rejecting them. Learning of this, I was completely surprised. Like most teenagers, I was so absorbed in myself that how others might react didn’t occur to me.

Soon after, when my grandmother was near death and unable to speak, I sat by her bed and tried to explain through my tears. I didn’t mean to do anything to hurt her, I tried to explain, however it might have looked.

4. Assume the Best of Your Child’s Instincts

Recognize that, even if you believe he or she is making a mistake by doubting, there are good instincts and desires behind the doubts. Probing questions about faith usually arise, deep down, out of a desire to address life’s most important questions for oneself and to be part of a supportive community.

In our conversations during that time, my parents focused on these aspects of what I was doing, the ones they could understand. My mother, for instance, assured me she was glad that I had undertaken a spiritual path at all rather than ignoring that part of life completely. She was always eager to meet my new friends and, for the most part, she liked them.

5. Ask Questions and Listen Carefully

Believing in someone’s good intentions makes it much easier to listen. Ask questions about his or her doubts and listen carefully, trying not to let your own ways of seeing the world lead you to misinterpret theirs. Not having your experience to draw on, your child probably thinks about faith in surprisingly different ways than you do.

I wanted so much to have everything figured out, and I wanted to be listened to. My mother and my aunt were particularly good at asking and asking and asking, as if there was real value in what I was saying. Doing so helped me trust them and, in turn, listen to what they thought about it all.

6. Be Open About Your Experience

One summer while I was in college, my father and I went on a road trip for a few days in our home state of Virginia, making up the route as we went. Along the way, we passed the headquarters of a famous psychic and decided to stop for a while. When he was younger, I learned, my father had been attracted to people like this. As we spent an afternoon going through the exhibits and testing our ESP, he told me about his explorations. It all seemed wacky to me, but also familiar. It became harder to assume that my father didn’t understand what I was going through.

Be open about your own encounters with faith and doubt. Rather than treating such exploring as wrong or strange, recognize that it is an inevitable part of life. For both you and your child, recalling what you have been through will make questioning seem less threatening.

7. Draw Lines

This is what many parents think to do right off the bat, but it works better if you try these first six suggestions first. Inevitably there are genuine dangers that your child can wander into without knowing it-drug use, violence, and commitments that are hard to escape. My father was particularly worried that I would enter a monastery for life and end up regretting it. Not an unreasonable concern at the time! The night after he came to see me baptized, showing in every other way his patient support, he insisted that I not take that extra step and explained, based on all he knew, why.

I listened to him only because he had trusted me this far. He had earned the right to make demands. I cooled it about monasticism and am glad I did.

8. Don’t Expect to Get Through It Alone

Chances are, no matter how much you know about your faith, you don’t have all the answers your child is looking for. As teenagers learn to think for themselves, advice from parents tends to be the last thing they want. Offer what help you can, but don’t assume that it will be enough.

Gently encourage your child to find trustworthy adult mentors and friends their age who they can bring their questions to, especially questions they might be uncomfortable bringing to you. Don’t demand reports from others, but respect your child’s right to a confidential ear.

In many respects, my parents were spectators. Among the most decisive people during those years were a college chaplain, an uncle, and a handful of friends who would to stay up all night talking in the dorms. All my life I had been hearing from my parents. This was my big chance to learn what others could teach me.

9. Be Willing To Learn

After my grandmother died, my grandfather, who had never been very religious, began attending synagogue. All of a sudden, he was delving into the most basic spiritual questions just like I was. Even though the traditions we probed were different, we had much to share with each other over cross-country phone calls. After coming home from an exciting Bible study, he would call and tell me about it. Seeing him as a fellow-traveler in this way made me begin to wonder if I had been too quick in writing off the traditions I had inherited. Both of my parents also evolved in their relationships to spirituality during that time, and they shared the experience with me as they did.

Without getting too much in the way, treat your child’s questioning as something you do together. His or her doubts can be an opportunity for you to broaden your mind and your faith as well. Try to sympathize with the doubts and wrestle with them as if they were your own. You might find that, in fact, they are.

10. Be Patient

Monica, the mother of the 4th century North African Augustine of Hippo, was a model of parental patience. She waited for decades as her son sampled philosophies and religions before finally becoming, as she was, a Christian. Later, in his Confessions, he celebrates her loving endurance and her trust in him. Whether or not he had finally adopted her faith, she would remain a saint in her own right for these things.

A few years ago, without planning it, I found myself on the same cliff in Tunisia where Monica had stood to watch her son depart for Italy. While he was away, just when she thought she had lost him for good, he ended up finding the faith he was looking for. Standing at that spot, I was filled with gratitude for my family’s patience. As time passes, I try to listen to all of them as best I can, carrying on in myself the faith each had shared with me and had in me.

Nonviolent Technology in Tehran

Iranian doctored missilesThe last few days have borne troubling omens for the future. The American and Israeli militaries have been conducting exercises that look a whole lot like strikes against Iran, and in response, Iran launched some of its old rockets in a show of force. (When one of them malfunctioned, the Iranians doctored the official photos, as shown, to give the appearance of success.) The closer these countries move to conflict, the less their leaders seem capable of thinking up sensible options or of seeing past the urge to obliterate each other needlessly. It has been depressing. At the same time, I’ve been visiting home in Washington, D.C., a place that stinks of geopolitics and makes it hard to think about anything else.

Being home also reminds me of a pet project I’ve been playing around with for about a year: DoNT, the Division of Nonviolent Technology. The idea with DoNT (rhymes with “font”) is to develop a military contracting company that offers nonviolent solutions military problems that can outperform and outsell traditional destructive technologies. It means to change the culture of the military industry from within. DoNT’s motto goes, “Security solutions for a world worth securing.”

In celebration of the present dour conditions, I’d like to offer three simple DoNT-style ideas for resolving the crisis in Iran, with an eye toward a future worth having.

1. Globalize missile defense. Remember the missile defense fiasco that the Bush Administration was so excited about way back in early 2001? Well, fears of terrorism has gotten the program up and running again, which is infuriating the Russians in particular. Despite how the United States is wielding it, though, missile defense is essentially a nonviolent technology. Instead of using it as an offense weapon, the U.S. should spearhead an international effort to provide missile defense for the entire world. Control of the system would be decentralized, ensuring that no one country or bloc of countries could prevent it from being used. Ballistic missiles would become an essentially irrelevant technology, and the likelihood of nuclear war would be vastly reduced. DoNT can offer international legal consulting to make this project possible, as well as brokering contracts between technology providers and local industries around the world to make global missile defense a truly global endeavor.

2. Negotiated disarmament. Particularly with a global missile defense shield underway, the U.S. will be in a position to commit to large-scale disarmament of its intercontinental ballistic missiles and their nuclear warheads. This can be used as an honest bargaining chip to encourage nations like North Korea and Iran to abandon their own nuclear programs. Dismantling American missiles would serve as an important diplomatic gesture as we broker disarmament in trouble zones like the India-Pakistan border and Israel. DoNT can facilitate safe, ecologically-sane methods for disassembling the weapons, while providing jobs to people in areas threatened by the silo closures.

3. Emergency cultural exchange. Sensing the rise in hostilities, the State Department and Pentagon should sponsor aggressive programs of cultural exchange between the U.S. and rouge states. In addition to a drastically expanded Human Terrain Teams program where there are military operatives, funding will be available for media personnel, artists, and scholars to travel to these states. High-visibility venues in broadcast media and traveling roadshows will facilitate the dissemination of what they produce back home. People of these professions from the same states will be invited to travel freely in the U.S. for equivalent purposes. DoNT can administer these grants and provide on-site services for participants the emergency exchange programs such as translation, medical care, and local contacts.

See more from DoNT at

Different Sorts of Skepticism

Sextus EmpiricusAmong Victorians, apparently, it was a kind of minor sport to Name That Hellenic Philosophical Movement. Your friend Charles the glutton would of course be the epicurean, pious William the stoic, and your father, deep down, a cynic. And so on. Since, as Alfred North Whitehead put it, all philosophy is really just footnotes on Plato, it stands to reason that everybody should be reducible to one Greek movement or another.

If that is so, I’d have to pin The Row Boat down as a skeptic.

But what does that mean? The term first became associated with the followers of Pyrrho of Elis, a traveling sage who spent his time refuting the certainty of whatever claims people tried to make about the world. Several hundred years later, his legacy was developed and preached by the Roman physician Sextus Empiricus in books with titles like Against the Professors, Against the Mathematicians, Against the Musicians, and so on. Despite being such a Negative Nelly, Sextus’s writings have a certain appeal. Like Pyrrho, he hedged most of his doubts on the recognition that people in different parts of the world from different cultures have different convictions about how the world works. How seriously, therefore, can we take our own convictions? And he carefully marked the limits of being skeptical. Just because you call into question the custom of eating three meals a day doesn’t mean you stop eating entirely and starve to death. You just don’t get so uppity next time you encounter a village that insists on having four.

European skepticism after the rise of Christianity was never quite the same. Being a skeptic could get a person in real trouble. The effort to throw off all that irrational dogmatism made it a rather deranged thing, prone to extremes. Descartes got it to a start, humbly suggesting that he could think himself to the point of making no assumptions except the fact of his own thinking. Hume came along , shunning miracles and special revelations. In the modern period their ideas have lead into a series of spin-offs in popular culture, all also under the banner of skepticism, though often forgetting the Classical sources. There is, for instance, the “stoner epistemology” that refuses to believe in the existence of the outside world and stays up all night arguing about it—this has become a favorite of Anglophone analytic philosophers before and after Wittgenstein. Or the Skeptical Enquirer folks who make it their mission to disavow others of their interesting beliefs about UFOs and paranormal powers in the name of scientific triumphalism. Then, at its opposite, is the brand of religiously-motivated skepticism of science that Phillip E. Johnson has so masterfully built into the intelligent design movement—all knowledge is so doubtful, why not give up trying and become a Christian? There are enough versions out there that a quick Google search comes up with a variety of varieties of skepticism.

In claiming a brand of skepticism for The Row Boat, however, I want to entertain my own taxonomy. By “my own,” rather, I mean to borrow a Heideggerian distinction: the worldless subject (which Heidegger associated with Descartes) and being-in-the-world (the Dasein of Being and Time). Non-Heideggerians, don’t get scared away—let me explain. I propose that there are two kinds of skepticism:

The first is a lonely skepticism. It treats the lone cowboy of a person, unsure about whether to trust the dusty world about him. Not even his horse. He points his gun at everything, shooting first and asking later. The truth of mirage-like appearances may be not what it seems. He is driven to search out the realities that lurk beneath, yet feels uncertain that his mind is capable of comprehending them. While skeptical of the world outside, he believes he can depend on himself—his instincts with a six-shooter and his convictions. This is the form of most scientific skepticism, as well as its anti-scientific outgrowths like intelligent design. It is analytic philosophy generally, with the possible exception of Wittgenstein, if only because of his ambiguity.

The second is busy skepticism—or cosmopolitan. Its mascot is a full-time city socialite, so immersed in clever conversation that she doesn’t think to question the reality or unreality of her world. She is thoroughly embedded in a social, artificial world, and can make no pretension of existing apart from it. In the course of her experience, she encounters people of all different sorts at fancy benefits and listens to their stories. As she takes a break from it all in the opera house bathroom, staring into a mirror, her existential crisis is not one of questioning the existence of the without, but of the within. Surrounded by the appearances of others, she recognizes herself as only appearance too. She is her world, bewildering as it is, and knows nothing apart from it. Rather than pretending otherwise, she throws herself into its contradictions. Her skepticism is of her own capacity to act authentically, though the actions of others are fascinating.

For better or worse, The Row Boat is more socialite than cowboy. As such, the goal is an empathetic posture that wants to grasp the perspectives of others because one’s own life depends on it. For that reason, her skepticism is worth struggling for. It is political. (See the treatment of political empathy in “Grounding Liberalism in Something.”) Rather than Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus, who made it their business to dissect the fallacies of others, The Row Boat’s socialite prefers to enjoy listening. The fallacies aren’t what’s important (though she assumes they’re everywhere); curious stories are.

But she’d love to have a fling with a cowboy.

Design Worth Defending

Since 9/11, it has been a national fad to link just about every agenda to security and the war on terror. The war in Iraq itself is only the worst example. This is an old tradition; Cold War strategy was once a big part of the justification for massive investment in the Interstate highway system and for taking science education seriously. But this talk, from the 2004 TED (Technology Entertainment Design) conference, is the first time I’ve seen national security used to justify better design.

Though I am firmly part of the large swath of my generation that has decided to blatantly ignore the fact that there is a war on, this question of a society worth defending strikes me as a moving one. All too often, I think, we approach the matter tautologically—thinking that by fighting (bravely, victoriously, etc.) we automatically become a society worth fighting for. This is one of the great fallacies of Iraq, a war fought for freedom that has made us less free. If we built a society truly worth defending, I betcha we’d have a lot fewer enemies to defend against.

At the Movies

Wall-EJust up on Religion Dispatches is my article on The Love Guru, which is one of the most pointless films I’ve ever seen.

There was wonderful thing about it, though: it was in seeing The Love Guru that I saw—witnessed, experienced—the trailer for Wall-E, which, after a week of fabulous anticipation, I finally got to see last night. The feelings it left in me are still working themselves through my system, so I have few words. It didn’t hurt, of course, that I am a big sucker for movies with spaceships and robots and imagined futures. But more, from first seeing the preview, was this sense of feelings even greater than the things of them movie themselves: friendship, loneliness, melancholy, gratitude. Platonism has never been much my practice—the belief that transcendent Forms are the truth beyond the things of the world. Yet, though I enjoyed watching the movie, the things that went on in it somehow seemed unable to measure up to the Forms that they simultaneously were making me aware of. They pointed to an abstract perfection, and thus a cause for deep, deep longing amidst a world that can never embody such perfection. What powers has Pixar managed to spin into its marketing schemes? Is this crass manipulation? Or divine truth, or both?

I woke up this morning in tears—also not my usual practice.

Back on the Safety Net

Here’s to healthcare—yesterday, apparently, marks the beginning of my health insurance coverage through the Freelancers Union, a fine internet-based organization that helps out the growing ranks of independent workers. It comes six months, just about to the day, from when my graduate school insurance cut off and I joined the 48 million uninsured Americans. My plan is a limited one, but at least I am back in the safety net. If I discover tomorrow that I have a rare disease requiring tremendously expensive treatments, it won’t be the ruin of me or my family. Things would have been different a week ago. I can even begin to consider going to the doctor if I feel a little ill.

The net is an odd metaphysical fact of modern societies, an imperceptible contractual reality that holds the scepter of life or death.

In his Homo Sacer, the Italian philosopher Gorgio Agamben explores the relationship between sovereign power and the capacity to define “bare life” from something else. Bare is the life that can be killed without committing a crime, yet cannot be sacrificed—a middle space between human and animal. He argues that the logic of European political power, since Rome at least, has revolved around the capacity to draw the line between bare life and human citizenry.

Being a citizen means having a net, or rather, being had by the net, being held in it. Killing a citizen is a crime, so citizens can consider themselves protected. The state serves as their divine, invisible bodyguard. A presence that can be felt but not seen, except in its works, on the lethal injection table.

Several years ago, I had a fascinating conversation with a friend in the Coast Guard about maritime law. He explained how utterly bare a ship without a flag is. In international waters, destroying it is not a crime. All that protects ships are the flags they carry and the web of treaty arrangements between countries that agree to recognize the sovereignty of one another. However beautiful your boat, without a flag, you are no longer a thing of intrinsic value (though your boat may be).

The net, Agamben makes clear, is the definition of citizenship—or more, of species. We stand as equals alongside those who share in the net that protects our lives from being mere flesh, that insists on its value and its worthiness of being saved.

In the United States, the healthcare net has been fashioned as an economic problem, even though the rest of the post-industrial world has shown it possible to make health a human right. This owes, in fact, to an historical mistake. The healthcare system developed in a postwar industrial culture that could depend on more or less stable employment. Benefits were distributed through employers, negotiated by unions, and regulated by government. Now, however, Americans can expect to work an increasing number of jobs over the course of their lives. Currently, I work three at once, none of which offers benefits. Though we have become a post-industrial economy, resting on the shifty ground of the service sector, the safety net has failed to keep up.

Politics has cast this historical mistake as a crisis of individual responsibility—the 48 million are apparently not responsible enough to put up for their healthcare costs. But of course the hurdles are innumerable and particular to every case. In my case, it took six months for me to assemble the paperwork I needed in order to join the Freelancers Union program, which, quite absurdly, was about a third the cost of buying the same policy directly from the insurance company as an individual. Some laziness was certainly involved, but it is amazing how little laziness it takes to be so utterly unprotected.

Politics then says the problem is economic. To keep the quality of care high, we need to ensure there is adequate market incentive for innovation and efficiency in the medical industry. By virtue of mathematical equilibria, there can be no better system than an open market. But an open market means that some people can lose.

No. The problem is metaphysical, which is to say a matter of human rights. If we are to be fellow citizens, protecting us from bare life must be the priority above all. The human problem must not be subjugated to the economic one. Just as free speech and the right to a trial must not be sold to the highest bidder, nor should the safety net that declares our fleshy, fragile lives worth protecting.

All the Web a Wiki

Web annotationFor a person who does lots of absorbing and creating on the internet, a big new thing can feel incredibly daunting. The specter of Being Behind always lurks as a possibility in the nightmare of waking up to discover that the internet has moved on and left you behind like an old Web 1.0 site. The changing internet means changing habits, ways of working, and language. Being in the present takes constant effort, a constant willingness to uproot and retool, to learn to absorb even more needless—but suddenly necessary—information. Fall behind and, well, you’ll know it. You’ll be like your parents.

This is the kind of feeling that hit me last week when I began to explore the burgeoning world of web annotation.

Don’t worry, it hasn’t hit the big-time yet, and perhaps it never will. But just the possibility is overwhelming enough to make one want to move to the desert. It also has the potential to make the internet a whole lot more interesting.

I am drawn to the internet—to keeping this blog, for instance—because of its capacity for conversation. I love conversation and will go to great lengths to get it. But you’ve got to admit, the possibilities for conversation on a blog are pretty limited. For the most part, it is the kind of conversation only the blogger can enjoy. The big main post sits on its throne at the top of the page while the little mere comments (usually in a smaller typeface) twiddle their thumbs at the bottom, hoping someone will look at them before posting yet another bit of inflammatory nonsense. It isn’t conversation, it’s a peanut gallery.

Web annotation changes the picture. Basically a ramped-up combination of a highlighting pen and social bookmarking, it enables users to write notes on webpages they visit and share what they write with friends and strangers. Web annotation tools usually take the form of browser plug-ins, as well as a profile page (i.e. Facebook or, where you can manage and share your annotations.

One the one hand, it is a neat personal tool to help you remember things that came to mind while reading. There is no substitute for a library full of books with your own scribbles in them, so why not have a scribbled up web too? On the other, though, the social networking aspect means that web annotation can change the way we approach the perennial problem of finding and organizing all the data that’s out there. In the process, though, an annotated web means a dizzingly wider worldly web.

The direction annotation takes the web—when carried to extremes, as everything on the internet is—leads to a phase shift. The current regime of Web 2.0 distinguishes between user-generated and “regular” content. A Web 3.0 based in annotation would blur this distinction. Cleverly organized, the miracle of Wikipedia could be replicated everywhere: an endless barrage of annotations, organized into something incredibly useful at a very small cost. It is the wet-dream of postmodern theorists: the annotations become the content.

(Meanwhile, things go in a rather opposite direction of one of the other proposals for Web 3.0, the semantic web. Rather than becoming more structured for machine comprehension, as the semantic web would have it, the web becomes less structured and even more webby. Machine comprehension, which will always be a holy grail, would have to be accomplished by making computers better at processing human language—which would be available in abundance on an annotated web.)

It is another thing to make your head spin.

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