Stop The Presses: Writing In The Internet Age

Just a couple of days ago, I sought in vain for a “recall” function on my email application. Of course there was none. My message had already been delivered, to the wrong recipient and containing thoughts I wished it hadn’t. That person had sent me a note earlier, critiquing a community activity I am involved with. I thought I was forwarding the note, along with some commentary that, had I had my wits about me, I would not have committed to writing. Instead, I had replied. Intending my words for someone else, my commentary had opined that the original writer had sent the message in haste.

The irony, of course, is that my accusation of hastiness was itself made rashly, and I paid the price in remorse.

This was not the first time I had felt that twinge of panic, the desire for recall. Who among us has not wished we could un-say something?

* * *

I am a blogger. For years, I resisted using the word. While I might speak it, I would take pains not to write it, even when referring to the things. This was for philosophical reasons: I saw nothing fundamentally different about a blog from any other small, published work, like a newsletter. It just happened to be there on your screen instead of in a pile on your desk.

But, while there may be little difference between these two products, I have learned there is an important difference in how they get produced and consumed.

Like many writers, I typically ply my trade around the margins of a workday. Writing for pleasure, after all, pays little. So I write in the late evenings and in the early mornings, before the sun’s up. When I am on a roll, in the dark, with my coffee, there’s a certain adrenaline-charged intimacy. I craft and cut, finally reading the piece over a few times to make sure it’s right. The essayist’s euphoria, of having said something clever and in a clever way, mounts. I push the button, and you see it.

Too, too often, the piece would benefit from sitting, if even a few hours. When I save it and return later, I invariably find an unsupported point in my argument or an intemperate sentence that needs to be ratcheted back. Mostly, though, I don’t wait. It’s done. Get it out there!

But that essayist’s euphoria leads to hubris. I know that I should pass my words by another, that I should wait and re-edit when the flush and glow of creation has subsided. But my lower self, the self who is under the influence of that euphoria, knocks such considerations aside: “You’ve thought hard about this, and crafted carefully,” says this lower self. “There is nothing more to do. People must read it!”

The hubris lies in the fact that I have been down this road many times. It’s not an isolated slip.

The thing about blogs, publication under the influence is the norm. Large sites, like Pajamas Media and others, have editorial controls in place. But most smaller blogs have little, if any, apparatus to ensure quality. We self-publishers work alone, think alone, write alone. We must fabricate our own mechanisms to keep our hands away from the publish button. For many of us, this is a greater task than we are capable of.

Just a few hours, maybe a day, to separate the euphoria from the editing.

But the medium of blogging leaves little room for that. When I publish, I feel as if I am passing something directly to my readers. If I am to believe my statistics, many of my readers are reading at about the time I am writing. I want to keep that early morning (or late night) intimacy.

* * *

I got a note back from my mistaken email. It was very professional and we basically agreed to move on. Notably, my correspondent thought it important to respond to my accusation of “rashness” and pointed out that the original email took forty five minutes to write. That’s long enough, I thought, to write a very thoughtful email — but not long enough for the euphoria of creation to subside.

The World Wide Web, and the ubiquity of e-mail, have brought writing back into the culture of everyday people. There are millions of budding essayists across the globe. We have a medium that beckons us to share our thoughts, some deep, some shallow, some spiteful, some hilarious.

It will be a measure of our growth to see how many of us are able to moderate what we do and write pieces that, in the harsh light of day, stand up and sing as beautifully as they did in the twilight of dawn.


Brad Rourke writes a column on public life called Public Comments, produces a videolog called Taxonomies, is a founder of the Maryland neighborhood blog, Rockville Central, and is in a band called The West End.

(Image Pajamas Media)

Hard, Ain't It Hard

This column first appeared (with a different title) in Pajamas Media.

There’s not much I do that’s actually difficult anymore. It didn’t used to be that way.

When I applied to colleges, it was suggested to me that I create a number of tiers of schools: the long-shots, the probables, and the back-ups. I collected catalogs and applications from a number of schools in different parts of the country. To do this, I had to find telephone numbers, call admissions offices, get on mailing lists, and wait to receive my material. I wound up with a stack of applications, each one differently shaped, with different numbers of pages, and different requirements.

I dug in. The first application was a number of long, narrow pages. (It looked a lot like a real estate contract, but I didn’t know that back then.) It asked me to print my name and Social Security number at the top of each page. What a pain. I set it aside, and looked at the next application. This one seemed easier, until you got to the essay requirements. They were asking for multiple essays.

This was before the computer had entered the bedroom of every student, so rewriting essays was not just a small effort. I passed on that one.

Finally, I found a state school application that looked reasonable in what it was asking of me, and they had “rolling admissions” which meant that, if I applied early, they would tell me early. I shoved all the other applications in a drawer and filled out the state application, which had the added benefit of being far from home. If they said yes, I would be spared a lot of trouble.

Getting into college is just one example of the hoops we all used to go through without really thinking about it. Sure, we’d try to avoid them (just look at my college admissions strategy) — but we did not resent them.

Similar examples abound: I recall a time when, if something irritated me in the newspaper, I’d have to go through a number of steps before I could find any contact information for someone to tell. Even if I took the easiest route and wrote a letter to the reporter, I had no way of knowing if they would get it and even if they did, it would be days hence.

Nowadays, I routinely get messages fired off in anger, the sender secure in the knowledge that her or his opinion will immediately reach me. The children of my friends apply to multiple colleges in an afternoon. Job seekers turn resume-sending into a project unto itself, applying to hundreds of companies. If I hear a song on the radio that I like, I can download it into my iPod in less than a minute.

Choice. Ease. Speed. Bliss.

But, there are downsides. Intemperate opinions fly around and I send messages I might wish to have slept on, necessitating corrective action. The competition to get into colleges is through the roof in part because it’s so easy to apply. Employers seeking to fill positions must wade through hundreds of ill-fitting, scattershot cover letters that may or may not even get the company name right. And, perhaps worse than all that (at least for me), in seeking out only music I am familiar with, I miss the discovery of new bands that the record store used to bring me.

These drawbacks are all well-known and well-discussed. But there is another, more insidious and creeping downside to the culture of information-ease in which we now live: We resent anything that takes time or effort.

The New York Times discovered this when they tried to make a little money off of the popularity of many of their key columnists. They created TimesSelect, a subscription-based area where you had to pay if you wanted to read Maureen Dowd. People from across the political spectrum complained and jeered, and how! You would have thought the National Archives had decided to charge a sawbuck to look at the Declaration of Independence. The Times backed down.

The Gray Lady is just one example. But they’re all over. Journalists no longer pick up the phone to talk to a spokesperson, they quote from an organization’s web site instead. Young scholars would rather cite an article from the Web than a book – because getting books requires taking the trouble to mosey on down to the library, while I can get that link in just a few clicks. iTunes is only profitable insofar as it tends to provide the illusion of free downloads by making songs so inexpensive and the playback rights so liberal that I may as well have just pulled that tune down off of Gnutella. And woe betide Apple if it restricts overly much.

In our personal, day-to-day lives, where things really matter, how often do we choose ease over energy, and resent the notion that we might have had to put in some effort to get what we want? How many businesses have you growled at because they don’t have a good enough website, or don’t have a way to order online, forcing you to actually go somewhere to obtain goods or services? How often have you excoriated (at least inwardly) a government agency for not having public records online? How many gas stations have you passed up because they don’t have pay at the pump?

It’s this growing sense of entitlement that worries me. We are turning into a culture where everyone feels — and acts — entitled to know whatever they want to know, contact whomever they want to contact, and say whatever they want to have, whenever they want to. And we resent it when things are not this way. This feedback loop squeezes out deliberation, thoughtfulness, and restraint and, on a personal level, human development.

It’s hardship, large and small, that improves us and forces us to grow. As we shift from a culture of personal industry to one of personal effort-avoidance, what will spur us to reach further tomorrow than we did today? What will teach us that, no, we can’t always get what we want when we want it? What will push us to grow up?

From where I sit, easily typing away in my basement, I don’t see it.

Hard, Ain’t It Hard

This column first appeared (with a different title) in Pajamas Media.

There’s not much I do that’s actually difficult anymore. It didn’t used to be that way.

When I applied to colleges, it was suggested to me that I create a number of tiers of schools: the long-shots, the probables, and the back-ups. I collected catalogs and applications from a number of schools in different parts of the country. To do this, I had to find telephone numbers, call admissions offices, get on mailing lists, and wait to receive my material. I wound up with a stack of applications, each one differently shaped, with different numbers of pages, and different requirements.

I dug in. The first application was a number of long, narrow pages. (It looked a lot like a real estate contract, but I didn’t know that back then.) It asked me to print my name and Social Security number at the top of each page. What a pain. I set it aside, and looked at the next application. This one seemed easier, until you got to the essay requirements. They were asking for multiple essays.

This was before the computer had entered the bedroom of every student, so rewriting essays was not just a small effort. I passed on that one.

Finally, I found a state school application that looked reasonable in what it was asking of me, and they had “rolling admissions” which meant that, if I applied early, they would tell me early. I shoved all the other applications in a drawer and filled out the state application, which had the added benefit of being far from home. If they said yes, I would be spared a lot of trouble.

Getting into college is just one example of the hoops we all used to go through without really thinking about it. Sure, we’d try to avoid them (just look at my college admissions strategy) — but we did not resent them.

Similar examples abound: I recall a time when, if something irritated me in the newspaper, I’d have to go through a number of steps before I could find any contact information for someone to tell. Even if I took the easiest route and wrote a letter to the reporter, I had no way of knowing if they would get it and even if they did, it would be days hence.

Nowadays, I routinely get messages fired off in anger, the sender secure in the knowledge that her or his opinion will immediately reach me. The children of my friends apply to multiple colleges in an afternoon. Job seekers turn resume-sending into a project unto itself, applying to hundreds of companies. If I hear a song on the radio that I like, I can download it into my iPod in less than a minute.

Choice. Ease. Speed. Bliss.

But, there are downsides. Intemperate opinions fly around and I send messages I might wish to have slept on, necessitating corrective action. The competition to get into colleges is through the roof in part because it’s so easy to apply. Employers seeking to fill positions must wade through hundreds of ill-fitting, scattershot cover letters that may or may not even get the company name right. And, perhaps worse than all that (at least for me), in seeking out only music I am familiar with, I miss the discovery of new bands that the record store used to bring me.

These drawbacks are all well-known and well-discussed. But there is another, more insidious and creeping downside to the culture of information-ease in which we now live: We resent anything that takes time or effort.

The New York Times discovered this when they tried to make a little money off of the popularity of many of their key columnists. They created TimesSelect, a subscription-based area where you had to pay if you wanted to read Maureen Dowd. People from across the political spectrum complained and jeered, and how! You would have thought the National Archives had decided to charge a sawbuck to look at the Declaration of Independence. The Times backed down.

The Gray Lady is just one example. But they’re all over. Journalists no longer pick up the phone to talk to a spokesperson, they quote from an organization’s web site instead. Young scholars would rather cite an article from the Web than a book – because getting books requires taking the trouble to mosey on down to the library, while I can get that link in just a few clicks. iTunes is only profitable insofar as it tends to provide the illusion of free downloads by making songs so inexpensive and the playback rights so liberal that I may as well have just pulled that tune down off of Gnutella. And woe betide Apple if it restricts overly much.

In our personal, day-to-day lives, where things really matter, how often do we choose ease over energy, and resent the notion that we might have had to put in some effort to get what we want? How many businesses have you growled at because they don’t have a good enough website, or don’t have a way to order online, forcing you to actually go somewhere to obtain goods or services? How often have you excoriated (at least inwardly) a government agency for not having public records online? How many gas stations have you passed up because they don’t have pay at the pump?

It’s this growing sense of entitlement that worries me. We are turning into a culture where everyone feels — and acts — entitled to know whatever they want to know, contact whomever they want to contact, and say whatever they want to have, whenever they want to. And we resent it when things are not this way. This feedback loop squeezes out deliberation, thoughtfulness, and restraint and, on a personal level, human development.

It’s hardship, large and small, that improves us and forces us to grow. As we shift from a culture of personal industry to one of personal effort-avoidance, what will spur us to reach further tomorrow than we did today? What will teach us that, no, we can’t always get what we want when we want it? What will push us to grow up?

From where I sit, easily typing away in my basement, I don’t see it.

The Pressure of High Anxiety

This article first appeared in Pajamas Media.

They say Americans are under more pressure than ever these days. Students must pass high-stakes tests in order to graduate. Competition to get into top-tier universities is crushing. The middle class is squeezed economically. Schedules are hectic. Commutes brutal. It’s just harder and harder to get by.

This basic idea — that things are tougher than ever — is used to justify all sorts of egregious behavior. More kids cheating? Pressure. Stealing from work on the rise? Pressure. Freeway shootings? Pressure. Loutish behavior in airports? Pressure!

But take a closer look. By nearly every measure, life is better than fifty, twenty, even five years ago. People are living longer, making more, and getting better grades while they do it. Even with the housing bubble, the Dow is at levels that would have been laughed at a decade ago. My God, we even have robot vacuums.

Where is all this pressure coming from?

“Pressure” is something that happens to us, lets us off the hook. It’s a mitigating factor that everyone can relate to. In most cases, though, it is really just plain old anxiety. In particular, when it comes to explaining bad behavior, it’s a special kind of anxiety: that I won’t get what I want.

The “pressure” in so many hand-wringing newspaper feature stories almost always turns out to be this kind of anxiety. In otherwise well-wrought articles on cheating in high school, the culprit is the “pressure” to get into top-tier schools – which is really fear that I might have to settle for a school that is not top-tier. In articles on theft in the workplace, the pressure of a tough economy is often the excuse. Indeed, in one article, the advice that gets the last word is to be nicer to employees so they won’t steal: “If an employee feels like a valued part of the company, he or she is less likely to steal,” says the expert. Road rage is explained away by more traffic.

Almost always, there is an excusing voice calling for some government intervention to relieve this pressure. Road rage stories include a traffic planner’s a call for more public transit. Cheating becomes an excuse for a teachers union representative to excoriate President Bush for asking schools to prove they are performing. Workplace theft stories provide the opening for a call to redistribute income so the middle class doesn’t feel so “squeezed.”

But there is rarely a voice criticizing this behavior for what it is. It’s bad, selfish behavior, plain and simple. Behavior that will go away only when we stop tolerating it.

We live in a time when it is unfashionable to tell others, or to admit to oneself, that not everyone gets what they think they deserve. Sure, everyone wants to go to Harvard and to get where they are going faster, but not everyone gets to. That fact of life that, it seems, is too bitter a pill for many of us to swallow. And so we make excuses, excuses that pile up over time until each of us is certain that the reason we don’t have everything we want is that there is something wrong.

Ambition drives each of us to try to excel and compete. Yet we all have limits to what is realistically in our grasp. I will never, ever earn as much as many of my friends from school; I will probably never have that Master’s degree; my house will probably never be as fancy.

We all have human failings and limitations — and we all make excuses for them. Many of us (more and more, it seems) try to overcome them through trickery and deceit. But maybe, by ending the charade that cheaters and thieves are really victims of “pressure,” we can begin to right this creaky ship of a society.

If we don’t, I fear, personal responsibility will become as quaint an anachronism as standing when a lady enters the room: you respect those who do it, but rarely think to do it yourself. Because, we’re just under too much pressure to worry about such things.

Living Like Xerxes

When first we lay eyes on the evil Xerxes, in the visual revolution known as 300, he is riding a monstrous platform carried by a throng of people whom (we presume) are slaves. It’s a floating throne and court all in one, massive and imposing. He wants to get down, so he begins walking down the steps from his throne, to the platform. He keeps walking off of the platform, without breaking stride. The slaves jump to, creating a set of steps with their backs as he pads his way down.

It is an illuminating moment as we meet the Bad Guy: he thinks so highly of his own comfort, and so little of his people, that he expects they will literally place their bodies at his disposal for so trivial a purpose. It’s a great way of establishing the depths of his self-absorption and decadence. We get it. This guy’s a creep.

In daily life, though, many live like Xerxes without batting an eye, floating through the day on a cloud of comforts they don’t even see. Some feel guilty about this.

It is in vogue, of late, for people to extend this notion into the environmental arena. One of the byproducts of the last several decades’ worth of focus on ecology is the abiding notion that having any impact whatsoever on the world around us is a bad thing, to be shunned and avoided — and, whenever possible, atoned for. There appears at times to be a crushing guilt coursing through the land, that we’re doing something wrong and we’d better stop it.

In response, some people try hard to live in simple fashion, consuming little and leaving as little trace as possible. This approach is not limited to one side of the aisle or another. I admire these people, for they appear to be living their ideals.

Other people feel it’s enough for them to be aware of their shortcomings, They can congratulate themselves that they really see the impact of their well-progressed lifestyle on the environment. They don’t go much further.

But they still have that guilt, perhaps even more intensely for all their “awareness.” So, they try to make up for it.

This has reached its most ridiculous level when it comes to something called the “carbon footprint” and purchasing “offsets.” The notion is that every person engages in activities that are to blame for some portion of global warming, and that this is a bad thing. It rings true to many because it taps into the endemic environmental guilt so many already feel.

Some, notably wealthy and famous people who wish to continue using private jets and maintain luxurious homes, purchase “offsets” that represent mitigation for their carbon footprint. The offset supports some organization that, in turn, supports carbon-reducing (or, at least, non-carbon-emitting) enterprises.

Climate Care, one of the outfits that takes wealthy folks’ money, puts it this way: “Offsetting means paying someone to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere on your behalf.”

Win-win. The wealthy person gets salve for the conscience, and money changes hands. Sweet.

There are at least two, related, problems with this.

First, the notion of paying someone else to do what you yourself are not willing to do seems to undercut the whole point. Purchasing offsets seems a lot like the old practice of buying indulgences so the wealthy could continue on with their sinning, only remaining able to sleep at night secure in the knowledge that the Pope said they would not be going to Hell.

Second, few look too closely at the offsets and what they support. According to The Times of London, one of Climate Care’s projects involves using human labor in the developing world to pump water for irrigation, using “treadle pumps” that look not unlike Stairmasters. People step for hours on these things, pumping merrily along. Climate Care puts it this way: “One person — man, woman or even child — can operate the pump by manipulating his/her body weight on two treadles and by holding a bamboo or wooden frame for support.”

Treadle pumps used to be in vogue in British prisons — and were finally outlawed, according to Spiked Magazine, having been deemed too cruel a punishment. Here, they are being touted as suitable labor for a third-world child. All, ironically, so that guilty consciences can be set at ease.

Private industry, the pursuit of wealth, and the competition this engenders is at the root of much of what makes us a great nation. The flipside of this industry, which is privilege, entitlement, and lassitude, are just as strongly at the root of what holds us back.

Like Xerxes, many are addicted to comfort. We want our lifestyles to remain intact, so we hire others to do the heavy lifting. While they may well be grateful for the jobs, are we to believe we have improved our own moral standing in any real way? Or are we more like Xerxes, happy that others are there to lift us along on our platforms?

Porn Nation

As luck would have it, we have a late-summer camp-gap as we get ready for school to start. In our household, both my wife and I work at home. So, day-in, day-out, parents and children are spending a lot of time together.

I was reading what looked like an interesting blog post on some of the differences between the Western and Islamic worlds when it comes to women. The point was that women in fundamental Islamic cultures, who may only go out in public when fully covered from head to toe, may actually have more anxiety over their bodies and weight than do women in more permissive Western cultures. At least according to one report. Fair enough.

It so happened that my middle school age daughter wandered into the room at about this time. Just then, I clicked on a link that looked like it was a humorous aside to a Wikipedia entry. Oops. It opened up a Google image search page of paparazzi photos of celebrity nether regions. None of them were X-rated but they were all very, very R-rated.

There my daughter was, eyeing my computer screen. Of course, I panicked. I fumblingly tried to close the window. It seemed to stay open for hours before disappearing. My daughter asked me the question she wanted to ask, and wandered back out of my office.

It’s things like this that make me and other parents feel besieged by a culture around us of non-stop porn. In my gym there is a flyer advertising an “Urban Striptease” class right next to the flyer for a kids’ ballroom dancing class. In one of the most popular stores for middle- and high-school age clothing, Hollister, the images are all of bikini-clad beach babes and dudes with jam shorts down below their devil’s horns, a faint sense of making out in the rec room wafting through it all. Oh, and in our mall, this store is right across from a Victoria’s Secret.

None of it is explicit. Yet it all skirts the line. None of it is appropriate.

This is not an indictment of the Internet, nor is it a call for censorship. It’s a plea for us all to show some decency and remember how easy it is to pollute the environment around us.

I recall an incident from my past that shames me to this day. I was in my mid-twenties, attending a baseball game with friends. I was a nihilistic little punk, filled with bile for everything. Goodness knows how I ended up at an Angels game. Regardless, I amused myself with running, sarcastic, bitter commentary. I was on a roll. Recalling that I was in a public place, I was not profane and avoided George Carlin’s Seven Words. But, even without swearing, I was as graphic as a sailor. If you know me, you know my voice carries.

Finally, maybe around the fifth inning, a man behind me spoke up. He yelled at me to shut up. I turned and saw he had a young boy with him, maybe nine or ten years old, with a summer buzz cut and a baseball cap. Angry young man that I was, I laughed it off.

But I toned it down and felt inward remorse. It haunts me still, now that I am a father with children of about that age. I didn’t just ruin that man’s baseball game, I polluted his day with vitriol. He, no doubt, had to explain to his son why that man was behaving like he was, talking like he was. Or maybe he didn’t — maybe he just fumed on his way home, hoping his son would forget it.

I benefited from being taken down a peg, there in the moment. In today’s culture, there’s no one for me to take down, no single offender. Everywhere I turn tells my daughter to be sexy, my son to be violent, and both of them to disrespect authority simply on principle.

What is a parent to do? I really am at a loss. Some of my friends say the key is education and fostering an open relationship with our children. Others say there’s nothing wrong with sheltering our offspring longer than they would like. There are tools that help parents band together and make recommendations about appropriate movies to one another.

Sure, it’s all true. None of it is a real answer; none of it gets to the root of the problem which, from a parents’ perspective, is this: Our culture has run amok.

I feebly went to my daughter and asked her if she had seen the page on my screen. Yes, she said. I told her that I had gotten there by accident, that she ought to be careful too. She nodded, yes dad. It was all very lame. The horse was out of the barn, had left long ago.

Some days, it really does feel as if we live in Rome just before its fall.