Off the top of your head

Culture | Slacker's paradise and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Postmodern politics," Sept. 12, 1998

The babble-on captivity of computers
Does new technology increase literacy or does it simply make reading and writing less relevant? The question has been debated forever, but one clue can be found in the future of speech recognition. IBM is in head-to-head competition with a smaller company called Dragon Systems in a race to put a headset microphone on every desktop. By installing the software and spending some time training it to understand one's speech patterns, one can dictate messages, essays, and reports simply by talking into a microphone and proofreading the computer's dictation. For those suffering with weak hands, this is a dream come true. However, as this technology gets better and better, one wonders if this could create a slacker's paradise. More and more new computers and software suites include speech recognition software and headsets. Their marketing materials tout the increased productivity-particularly in the medical and legal fields-produced by taking employees' hands off their keyboards. It could also give us a new army of quick but shallow minds. We develop certain mental processes when writing-such as thinking through ideas, getting organized, choosing the exact word, developing logical connections-that are usually bypassed when we converse. Sure, a doctor can write a prescription or quick memo with the headsets, but can a poet conquer with products like Via Voice or NaturallySpeaking? The inattentive student with a fast enough computer can simply spend an hour or two babbling into a microphone instead of facing the terrors of a 1,000-word essay on "The Wasteland." Of course, some student papers are already virtual streams of consciousness, but things could become far worse. We need a revival of the old-fashioned lessons of rhetoric in order to rescue us from the coming tower of babble. The Beat goes on
Before alternative, before grunge, even before radical chic, there was Beat. In his new book, The Culture of Spontaneity, Daniel Belgrad traces a movement that stormed the art world between World War II and Vietnam. In music, poetry, and painting, men like Jack Kerouac, Willem de Kooning, and Allen Ginsberg sought a substitute for dead Old Left Marxism and cold-war liberalism. There were good reasons to flee both, but Beats and abstract artists veered far off in the wrong direction, toward Zen Buddhism, Jungian psychology, and American Indian art. Before psychobabble, multiculturalism, and the advent of the rant, these guys were letting it all hang out. As Mr. Belgrad details at length, these guys wanted a clean break with Western civilization and began digging endlessly inward. Old-fashioned Romanticism became spontaneous writing and bebop jazz. As Mr. Ginsberg put it, "Smart went crazy." The objective world was dead, self was dead, language was dead, and of course God was still dead. Mr. Belgrad makes a lively movement seem dull (260 pages feels like 500), but he connects a large cast of characters with one another and with larger historical trends. Beats saw themselves always as rebels, but they never understood their own elitism. Their movement ended with the rise of the anti-nuclear movement, which dragged them back into politics. At that point a subculture died and a counterculture was born. As a result, Beats left the world a little worse than the one they entered. Machen online
Copyrights eventually expire, and J. Gresham Machen's classic book Christianity and Liberalism is now in the public domain. Shane Rosenthal of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals has scanned the entire book and posted it to the Web at It sits on a site called Reformation Ink next to other great works by men like B.B. Warfield, Charles Hodge, and, of course, Calvin and Luther. Written in 1923, Mr. Machen's book distinguished orthodox Christianity from the anti-supernatural, anti-doctrinal creed that was taking over America's mainline churches. He made the clear-cut statement that the religion of the cross and the new American spirituality were separate religions. At the time the fashion was to sweep massive doctrinal differences under the rug in the name of peace, Christian love, and fellowship. Meanwhile, basic beliefs, from biblical authority to the resurrection to the deity of Christ, were going out the window. Mr. Machen said enough was enough. He saw that the rising tide of liberalism would institutionalize itself into the marrow and arteries of American society, in everything from the welfare state to public education to pop culture. Everybody would now be modernized and homogenized into one unthinking mass. "The truth is that the materialistic paternalism of the present day," Mr. Machen wrote, "if allowed to go on unchecked, will rapidly make of America one huge 'Main Street,' where spiritual adventure will be discouraged and democracy will be regarded as consisting in the reduction of all mankind to the proportions of the narrowest and least gifted of the citizens." Ideas have consequences, and Mr. Machen saw our current crisis from miles away. One of the few things he did not anticipate was the Internet. But having Machen online is a good use of the technology.

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