In this experimental essay, Ezra Butler offers a critique of Megan Garber’s recent column in The Atlantic about the TED conference, drawing on Talmudic scholarship and a wide-ranging survey of Garber’s past writing.
Over a decade ago, Jonathan Rosen wrote a memoir called The Talmud and the Internet. His goal was to illustrate some uncanny comparisons between the two, seemingly inexhaustible, corpora, highlighting both their interlinking natures and how everything could be found in both. The internet, back then, was static, and filled with, in his words, “recipes, news briefs, weather bulletins, chat rooms, university libraries, pornographic pictures, Rembrandt reproductions and assorted self-promotional verbiage”.
As mentioned in the New York Times book review at the time, Mr Rosen did not claim to be an expert in either, rather more of an interested party looking to make connections. Skimming through this book confirms this: the author freely uses terminology from the Talmud and the internet to help narrate his own life story, while taking the occasional artistic licence with both bodies of knowledge.
But Mr Rosen’s hypothesis was not incorrect. The similarities and correlations between the Talmud and the internet have only been heightened with the maturation of the latter.
Study of the Talmud is a multi-disciplinary activity that requires understanding of multiple languages, arcane concepts, subtleties of relationships and laws, and the ability to sythensise many streams of information. The Talmud was compiled as a record of the conversations, arguments and discussions which took place about the status of the various laws that were not necessarily clear from the reading of the Bible or the Mishna, a collection of legal texts and biblical exegesis redacted in Palestine at the beginning of the third century.
After a majority of the Jews were exiled from Palestine, two different geographically split corpora, the Palestinian Talmud (written in a Judeo-Palestinian Aramaic dialect) and the Bablyonian Talmud (written in a Judeo-Babylonian Aramaic dialect) were compiled between the fourth and seventh centuries, respectively. The two canons represent the oral realities of two divergent cultures which had begun as one. Talmud studies have revealed communication between the two communities.
David Weiss Halivni, formerly of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Professor of Talmud and Classical Rabbinics at Columbia University, employed a similar source-critical analysis on the Talmud to the method scholars would use to interpret the Bible. He identified the redactor of the Talmud as a prominent actor who formed a unique point of view, not simply an aggregator of masses of conversations and arguments. The flowing logic of the Talmud, he maintained, is the work of the anonymous redactor.
A redactor, much like a modern day journalist, is able to extract sentences from context, while appropriating the name of the person who wrote them.
For instance, an author trying to convey the universality of ideas could quote a line by Gabriel García Márquez from Of Love and Other Demons, in which he writes: “ideas do not belong to anyone”. Of course, Márquez placed those words in the mouth of an eighteenth century Bishop who famously refused to receive medical treatment for his chronic asthma.
In the introduction to his seminal work The Path of the Just, prolific Italian rabbi, kabbalist and philosopher, Moses Hayyim Luzzato wrote
I have written this work not to teach men what they do not know, but to remind them of what they already know and is very evident to them, for you will find in most of my words only things which most people know, and concerning which they entertain no doubts.
It is a tip of the hat to Ecclesiastes’ bold statement that “there is nothing new under the sun”.
A conclusion: the best way to get a radical idea accepted is to insinuate that one’s work is simply a derivative of others. It is upon that authority which other people can then quote and reuse.
Original authority is important. It is the basis of pseudepigrapha. For millennia before the creation of Gutenberg’s printing press, pseudepigraphic authorship of popular, mostly religious, works were wantonly composed and fully accepted.
Ideas were spread on the basis that a particular wise man had previously said it. Ecclesiastes was purported to be the work of Solomon; Psalms, the work of David. Solomon was considered to be the wisest of men, and David, a poet extraordinaire. By ascribing authorship, whether real or imagined, people have vehicle of an authority to lean on.
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A little while ago, award-winning journalist Megan Garber wrote a scathing critique in her column in The Atlantic about TED, more specifically saying that TED is “anachronistic”; that it is a proponent of laying “private claim to a public concept”. She took to task individuals like Malcolm Gladwell, with his apparently perverse attempt to own the concept of varieties of spaghetti sauce, and Chris Anderson, with his aberrant owning of the conceptualisation of “the long tail”.
She complained that as we live in a world of networked knowledge (a concept put forth in a book by internet theorist David Weinberger), a world in which ideas are never birthed fully-formed – rather, they are the result of discourse and interaction – ideas should not be owned or claimed by any one individual. Ms Garber blames Gutenberg’s invention for allowing ideas to be “claimed and owned and bought and sold”.
Perhaps Ms Garber prefers a Wikipedia-centric, crowd-sourced reality: a place where name means nothing, and content is created by the magic of consensus. Where, to quote the completion of Márquez’s rhetoric about ideas, they “fly up there like the angels”.
Mr Gladwell wrote a brilliant essay about the concept of varietisation in food marketing, which was later included in a book of essays, and Mr Anderson subsequently wrote a book called The Long Tail. Both were published before their TED talks. Their talks were points of exposition for their theories, and not the pinnacle of their genesis.
Another of Ms Garber’s examples, Eli Pariser, delivered a TED talk about “online filter bubbles” only after researching and writing a book on the topic. The book was published the same month the talk was placed online.
For these individuals, the TED conference is used as a location of initial reflection, which then is fleshed out in future, in-depth, publications and in debates and newspaper articles.
Mr Gladwell’s books, The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers teem with research based on the work of behavioural scientists and interviews with numerous experts in a myriad of fields. His contribution is in making this work palatable to the public.
Mr Gladwell’s skill is to analyse and distill what we already know, but do not know how to verbalise.
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When studying the Talmud, especially in the hermeneutic fashion as prescribed by Professor Halivni, one becomes highly aware of the various schools of thought and regions of the original conversations. Whereas, in a traditional seminary, one would not be bothered in the slightest where (or when) two participants of an argument were located, the source-critical analysis method does require it.
It makes a significant difference what school of thought an amora (a rabbi quoted in the Talmud) belonged to. Collections have been written attempting to map and chart the relationships, the biographies and the schools of thought of all the major and minor characters mentioned in the Talmud. Thoughts and opinions are not created in a vacuum, and it is imperative to identify who influenced whom.
Certain characters in the Talmud are always quoted near each other. Others always maintain a similar point of view, regardless of the issue. At various Talmudic junctures, after identifying the players in argument, it becomes apparent that they had never actually met each other or heard each other’s side of the argument. Rather, the redactor juxtaposed their respective claims into a coherent bilateral argument.
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The theory that TED talks are anachronistic and the ideological basis of the conference flawed is, to again paraphrase Ecclesiastes, “nothing new”.
In 2010, a year after TED created a free franchise model called TEDx, Mr Jeff Jarvis, associate Professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, presented a talk at TEDxNYed, in which he proposed that TED talks “are bullshit”. He explained how the lecture circuit was one of vapid validation, rife with ego. [He should know. — Ed] With no disrespect intended to Ms Garber, it seems she and Mr Jarvis share the same point of view.
It would be easy to mark this up as a bad case of the Zeitgeists. Yet before writing for The Atlantic, Ms Garber wrote for the Nieman Journalism Lab. It was there she began to assemble the lexicon which supports everything she writes today, for example her piece on why Wikipedia succeeded where other encyclopaedias have failed. One of the key reasons she mentioned was “the [de-emphasis of] social ownership of content” which lowered the pressure to “contribute something stellar”.
Less than ten days later, Ms Garber defended Mr Jarvis against a bad review of his latest book by Evgeny Morozov, stating that “books are [not great] at actually propagating ideas”, saying “books don’t go viral”, and echoing Marshall McLuhan’s thesis that “the future of the book is a blurb”. She views books “as community [and] conversation”.
To distil her 1,514 word essay into a pithy adage: “Books are long; time short.”
Naturally, Ms Garber raised TED talks as proof the book was extinct. Ideas can be succinctly and sufficiently conveyed on the TED stage, as well as on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Amazon and a litany of other online resources, according to her atomistic approach to knowledge.
It is logical to be confused as to why a bad book review might be cause to call the industry flawed and books defunct. But what really concerns this reader is Ms Garber’s enthusiasm about how discourse in a public forum was occurring. She dismissed Mr Morozov’s criticisms as “wildly unfair” but “refreshing”, apparently because a discussion was happening about a dead medium.
In academic journals, there are three potential stages a hot-button book will go through. The first is the review. The next is the response of the author. The final is the rejoinder, where the reviewer is able to respond to the allegations and critiques from the author’s response.
This did not occur in the case of Mr Jarvis. He responded on Twitter, then on Google+, and then he published a Google Doc highlighting how he felt Mr Morozov had mischaracterised him. In other words, Mr Jarvis responded by preaching to the choir of which Ms Garber is a member.
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Understanding Ms Garber’s overall Weltanschauung is difficult and not dissimilar from ascertaining that of a Talmudic rabbi. She bangs on about the “conversation”, Wikipedia, mid-century futurist Marshall McLuhan (or someone from his school), and former goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg rather a lot, but beyond vague waffle about conversations it can be difficult to pin her down.
The concept of “conversation as pinnacle” recurs when Ms Garber writes about the discussion which took place on Wikipedia to black itself out over the issue of SOPA. In her article, she introduced the word “conversation” without actually naming any of the interlocutors. A strange way to report human interaction.
Authority only matters, it seems, when the authority figure is Mr McLuhan or Mr Jarvis.
Conversation seems to be Ms Garber’s touchstone – as is her peculiar love affair with Mr McLuhan. Consider the article she wrote on the centennial anniversary of McLuhan’s birth. One of the primary accomplishments of Mr McLuhan’s life was to give us “the language that made ‘media’ into a thing”, she says.
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At first glance, Ms Garber’s indictment of Gutenberg, in the anti-TED piece, seems irrational and misplaced.
While at Nieman Lab, she interviewed Thomas Pettitt, the father of a concept called Gutenberg’s Parenthesis, whom she quotes subsequently in numerous articles, though she calls his ideas “controversial”. She links to a New York Times article about Gutenberg, with reference to the newly released iPad. In it, she mentions McLuhan’s book The Gutenberg Galaxy and how McLuhan asserted that society moved from the aural to the visual with Gutenberg’s creation.
By the time Ms Garber writes about TED, her view changes. Matter of factly:
The author-ized idea, claimed and owned and bought and sold, has been, it’s worth remembering, an accident of technology. Before print came along, ideas were conversational and free-wheeling and collective and, in a very real sense, “spreadable.”
This is all Johannes Gutenberg’s fault. Almost a year before Ms Garber’s interview with Mr Pettitt, Mr Jarvis wrote an article in the Guardian which alluded to a Post-Gutenberg Age: an apocalyptic vision heralded by Rupert Murdoch’s paywall. A few months later, he describes the end of Murdoch as the end of Gutenberg, and then continues his obsession with Gutenberg while researching his absurd book Public Parts. His love affair with, cum appropriation of, Gutenberg reaches a hysterical peak when he published an e-book titled Gutenberg the Geek less than a month ago.
That other celebrated purveyor of pseudery, Clay Shirky, wrote about Gutenberg in his book Here Comes Everyone and in blog posts and speeches promoting it. He viewed the printing press as a disruptive force, much like the internet. He concluded that, just like the age of the printing press, we were “living through 1500 right now”, with the internet in its infancy. Like most of his and Jarvis’s pointed observations, this one falls into the “no shit, Sherlock” category of aperçus.
Ms Garber’s worldview is regrettably informed by this small group of somewhat desperate individuals, and while the sources she quotes may appear diverse, they are simply the same rhetoric repeated in different packaging. It is rhetoric that looks impressive, but which reveals little.
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To take a cue from Mr Morozov, one could posit a Garber 1.0 and a Garber 2.0. In Garber 1.0, our author lauds how “authors are, increasingly, products”. But Garber 2.0 derides “the speaker, himself, becoming the manifestation of the idea”, as though they were somehow separable. “In the name of spreading a concept, the talk ends up narrowing it”. The most charitable thing one can say about this philosophically dubious claim is that it is pungently fishy.
Ms Garber’s package of regurgitated opinions is reminiscent of Thomas Kuhn’s duck-rabbit image which he used to demonstrate the concept of the paradigm shift. She is adept at looking at the same facts and extrapolating a different conclusion, dependent on her current agenda. (Or on what Jeff Jarvis has most recently written.)
As we have seen, Ms Garber has a pantheon of authorities she prefers to name, leaving others in the shadows: while reviewing The Social Network for the Nieman Journalism Lab blog, Ms Garber invoked her Holy Trinity of new media “minds”: Shirky’s “cognitive surplus”, Jarvis’ “network economy” [and] Rosen’s “people formerly known as the audience”.
Mr Weinberger is chosen on a shortlist of names she quotes an Elon study, though many others are not mentioned. Clay Shirky is mentioned her article, but not mentioned by name on the link she includes. Mr Shirky is mentioned exactly once in the PDF associated with the study. She had mentioned Mr Shirky in numerous articles previously, and reviewed his “fantastic” book.
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Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, Ms Garber once lauded the importance of an echo chamber. It seems that in order to make sure that everyone understands what the other is talking about, the echo chamber serves a purpose. “Of what value is discourse, after all, when we’re unable able to talk about, and act upon, the same things?” It’s an ingenious answer to an absence of discussion, not unlike Garber’s other approaches to philosophy, literature, history and science.
It is laughable Ms Garber found it noteworthy to announce a study in which, based on “surveys with more than 1,000 thought leaders”, Elon University and Pew Internet and the America Life Project has ascertained that “neuroplasticity is, indeed, a thing”. Cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists have, of course, never insinuated otherwise. Indeed, they even maintain that, pre-technology, people multitasked all the time.
The study, as it is presented in The Atlantic article, is a traditional case of a misdirect driven by a logical fallacy. Because all the experts agree that neuroplasticity is true (something which no one disagrees on), we should trust these same experts in their assessment that education must be reworked.
It seems self-serving that the people who propose that the educational system should be overhauled and changed are the same people who stand to financially benefit in a myriad of ways. But such is the way of every echo chamber, particularly those with a Leftish tinge.
An echo chamber makes it impossible for its prisoners to realise there already exist volume upon volume of educational literature that a group of “internet gurus” has had no cause to encounter.
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When one familiar with Talmudic education reads a brief prepared by the thousand intellectuals on the needs of the student in 2020, he or she cannot but say: “I was prepared for this” – be it the “problem-solving through cooperative work”, “the ability to search effectively for information”, “the ability to distinguish the quality and veracity of … discoveries”, “the ability to synthesise, or combine facts and details from different sources into coherent narratives”, or any of the other reinventions of the wheel.
In the Jewish lexicon, the Talmud is part of the oral tradition, one of the alleged bases of Mr Pettitt’s understanding of how the Gutenberg Parenthesis operates. But even he would rather speak of folktales, ballads and superstitions than a millenium and a half of oral to written transmission. The pseudo-sociology of his presentation is weak; potentially racist; offensive.
Not once did Ms Garber question Pettitt’s methodology. She only desired her headline. She did not care that Mr Pettitt’s theory seems solely based on an outsider’s view on internal African American oral stories. Or that that outsider has never apparently worked in the United States and based the theory on written sources.
Mr Pettitt asked in a video: “How did people in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries sort out the truth? How did they decide what they would rely and what they wouldn’t rely on?” Unfortunately his answer did not include the word “authority” even once.
Like Mr Rosen writing on the Talmud and the internet, one cannot be sure that Mr Pettitt is the best authority to expound theories of news communication based on whatever research he may have done in African American Folklore while based in Denmark.
Unlike, of course, Messrs Gladwell and Anderson, who clearly outlined multiple explanations for their theories, and have their works expanded, by others, into innumerable fields. The purpose of Anderson’s Long Tail, Gladwell’s studies in varietisation and Pariser’s filter bubbles is bound by the reality that we live in an era where we recognise each other’s differences, and not only accept them, but also market to them.
These are theories one should like to see being used to improve education.
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When Mordecai Kaplan sought to revamp Jewish education in the 1960s, he turned both to the works of the contemporary educational theorists and to the historical works of Jewish education. He created a syncretised framework which answered the problems of new with the solutions of old.
In the end it appears that Ms Garber’s views are a combination of the regurgitation of the views of the echo chamber and a few other truisms which have worked their way into her consciousness.
This is not to downplay Gutenberg or the printing press, nor to negate the contributions made by Mr McLuhan. These concepts and people attract apathy because they are mentioned ad nauseam and without research or proof beyond conjecture. When conversation is raised to be an end within itself and discourse is considered to a goal over innovation, we have a problem. Academics and writers from outside the chamber are looked upon askance, unless they somehow add to the agenda of the inside.
The post-Gutenberg has latched on to the publicity of the iPad and Kindle, devices which really did revolutionise printing, but ignore the fact people are still reading traditionally formatted books on those devices. Using any opportunity to prognosticate the future based on mostly unsubstantiated rhetoric is a waste of pixels.
* * *
TED was crafted to be an educational, informative platform. Every single aspect is perfect choreographed, from the length, the tone to the style of speech. In a way, it is an edited work where, just like in the Talmud, the hand of the final editor comes through.
Yes, it is the individual who conveys the information and takes on the ownership of the idea, but that is a good thing. In most notable cases that person has spent extensive time perfecting a cohesive theory in private, so it would be ready for prime time. Anyone can go back and question the methodology and the premise. It provides a good foundation for others to come and build theories upon.
Having always considered The Atlantic a publication which praised intelligence, it is unsettling that it now appears to be a platform for the rhetoric and propaganda of buzzword-laden self-promoting denizens of the internet guru echo chamber.