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The Gorman Shall Rise Again

This is brief, because I didn’t learn about this until I had written over 2,000 words on nonprofit IT management for an article that I need to wrap up. But how can I resist?

Having alienated most of his core audience, Michael Gorman has published a two part vent on Brittannica.com that demonstrates how ably he functions as a still point in a turning world. His hair is still blue (I didn’t know he actually liked that picture), he’s still using lots of long words to make small points, and he still hasn’t grokked the Web.

Jason Griffey, over on Pattern Recognition, does a nice job explaining the weaknesses in Gorman’s argument, and I expect more to come from various sections of the biblioblogosphere and beyond.

But I must point out that in the weird way that political extremes resemble one another, I agree with Gorman on some issues. I’m not convinced that the hive mind is always wise (the same mind that elected Bush at least once); I don’t fetishize Wikipedia, and am skeptical of the more woo-woo claims on its behalf; I appreciate the role of individual expertise. Nor do I think every text benefits from audience participation.

But as soon as I start to warm to Gorman’s argument, he turns his cannons toward “Web. 2.0″ — and immediately demonstrates he is fighting the wrong battle.

To start with:

  • “Bloggers are called ‘citizen journalists’”: Some bloggers are citizen journalists — as Griffey points out, so was Thomas Paine — but that statement is a simple rhetorical error (or dodge)
  • “Alternatives to Western medicine are increasingly popular”: Many reputable doctors encourage the use of alternative medicine; if cranberry juice can fix a bladder infection, do we really need to ask Big Pharm to pollute a river to do the same thing?
  • “Millions of Americans are believers in Biblical inerrancy — the belief that every word in the Bible is both true and the literal word of God”: This is true, but irrelevant; Christian fundamentalism predates the Internet by, hmmm, close to 2,000 years
  • “[S]cientific truths on such matters as medical research, accepted by all mainstream scientists, are rejected by substantial numbers of citizens and many in politics”: This may be the most inscrutable statement he’s ever made. It conjured up the presidential administration’s resistance to scientific thinking about climate change. But did Bush and Cheney really pick up their ideologies from instant messaging, Facebook and Twitter? “Say, Dickie, what caused global warming?” “IDK… my BFF Jill?”

Gorman’s real motive becomes clear when he makes reference to a Goya etching, El Sueño de la Razon Produce Monstruos, which he — to cut to the chase — looked up in a book. (Books are always and forever accurate, right?)

I know about this etching partly because I read about it decades ago and partly because I recently went to authoritative printed sources for confirmation of what I had read and for additional information and insights. These reference works were not only created by scholars and published by reputable publishers but also contained the paratextual elements (subject headings, indexes, bibliographies, content lists, etc.) also created by professionals that enabled me to find the recorded knowledge and information I wanted in seconds.

O.k., so enlighten me. What harm would be caused if I read this information on the Web, and not in a book? For that matter, what if I didn’t have to worry about “paratextual elements” and just found what I needed through a search engine, with a few contextual clues to reassure me this was a reasonably sound reference and not the work of some 12-year-old (or an outdated art book with old references…)? And what does any of this have to do with Web 2.0 (which in Gorman’s head seems to be the name emblazoned on the side of the firetrucks in Fahrenheit 451, ready to come burn down his bookcases)?

What’s most disappointing is that these “blog” posts (to the extent anything published by Britannica can be said to be blogged) should have been written by Gorman, and not by Jaron Lanier, on whose ideas Gorman extensively, but ineffectively, piggybacks. Lanier is a worthy hawker in this marketplace of ideas. Was his hair not blue enough? His language not fusty enough? (I leave the third question unstated, but while we’re on that general subject, note that fewer than 10 of the Britannica’s “blog” authors are female.)

This contretemps would be funny if it weren’t so annoying. There are important things to be discussed about authority and order and metadata and quality and such, but elevating Gorman to the level of expert pundit on anything related to the Web suggests that Britannica isn’t seeking the intelligent exchange of ideas, but is looking to build its Technorati rankings through the now-tiresome back-and-forth of Gorman-says-X, now-we-disprove-it; I am sure Britannica is now busy finding people to “respond” to their manufactured controversy, like one of those episodes on afternoon TV shows I see at the gym where after the wife tells all, the dazed cuckold is brought onto stage to stammer his chagrine. Yes, I too have now contributed to that weary business, and I wish it were not so necessary to have done so.

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15 Comments

  1. Laura wrote:

    I myself was thinking of referring Gorman to Strunk & White–one can only imagine what The Elements of Style would make of “paratextual elements.” Oh, and for extra credit, “Politics and the English Language”–the text of which–get this–you can find on the internet.

    Tuesday, June 12, 2007 at 3:55 pm | Permalink
  2. kgs wrote:

    See, that’s what makes him nervous about the Web: it’s so easy for anyone to read anything.

    Tuesday, June 12, 2007 at 4:33 pm | Permalink
  3. David Fiander wrote:

    Oh wow. I never even noticed the blue hair before! That just adds a whole new layer to the irony.

    Tuesday, June 12, 2007 at 4:45 pm | Permalink
  4. Besides the blue hair thing, MG REALLY needs to hire an editor to remove all the “pomp and circumstance” from his sentences – they’d read a whole lot better that way.

    Tuesday, June 12, 2007 at 7:13 pm | Permalink
  5. kgs wrote:

    Hmmm, yeah, it does beg a rewrite…

    Tuesday, June 12, 2007 at 7:59 pm | Permalink
  6. sharon wrote:

    Minor point but….it’s not at all clear that Bush was elected even once. He was effectively appointed once in 2000, and there will always be a cloud over the 2004 election results from Ohio and Florida.

    Tuesday, June 12, 2007 at 8:44 pm | Permalink
  7. kate wrote:

    My favorite part of the “blogs” (as he calls them) is this:

    a desire to avoid individual responsibility; anti-intellectualism—the common disdain for pointy headed professors; and the corporatist “team” mentality that infests much modern management theory. Consider, for example, the computer company’s TV advertisement that shows a tweedy professor trying to explain the difficulties of publishing and being deflated by a student who explains that, because of computers, everything can be published and we are all authors now.

    Oh, yes, I think all web denizens feel that a television commercial speaks for them, what with its new media trappings and collaborative creation process. Perhaps a book Gorman missed was Sellevision?

    Also, there’s a big difference between a meeting and a crowd. I don’t think anyone’s convinced that the wisdom of crowds is always right, but comparing the corporate team to a group of people loosely joined is just silly.

    Also, also, anti-intellectualism is hardly the fault of the web. sheesh!

    Wednesday, June 13, 2007 at 12:38 pm | Permalink
  8. Anne wrote:

    Apparently this was all discussed on meebo this morning? Oops! Meebo is blocked at my workplace so I don’t have access to any useful discussion that might occur there.

    Mr. Gorman almost missed a valuable audience – ME! Good thing blogs pointed the way to Gorman for me.

    Thanks guys! ;-)

    Wednesday, June 13, 2007 at 3:58 pm | Permalink
  9. While I find little value in Gorman’s you-kids-get-off-my-lawn rants, I’ve been a bit puzzled at the reaction to his “alternatives to western medicine” bit here and elsewhere. Yes, his assertion there is yet another bit of sloppy rhetoric, but I’ve seen in more than one reply an assumption that “western medicine” == “using patented pharmaceuticals to the exclusion of other kinds of treatments”. And that seems to me a caricature of western medicine. (Perhaps one that is unfortunately followed by some doctors, but as far as I know it’s not recommended medical training.) Dietary and physical therapy of various kinds have long been components of a good “western” physician’s repertoire.

    What is true, though, is that what’s marketed as “alternative medicine” includes a lot of quackery, unsubstantiated claims, and in some cases outright dangerous recommendations. A lot of this propagates on the Internet. But it also propagates in a lot of “respectable” channels, including public TV pledge-week programs, and drugstore bookracks. At least on the Internet (as in good libraries, I might add) you can see both the questionable claims *and* skeptical responses to the claims. The web-2.0 world makes this even easier, allowing claims and their rebuttals to appear side by side. You can talk back much more easily to a blog post than you can to, say, a Gary Null special on “educational television”.

    Thursday, June 14, 2007 at 10:31 am | Permalink
  10. kgs wrote:

    John, he didn’t say “snake oil is prevalent,” nor did he explain why the Web was any worse than mass media at promoting hooey. How many people have decided they have restless leg syndrome because commercials introduced them to this hitherto unknown crisis?

    He didn’t even say alternative medicine; he said alternatives to “Western” medicine. I think that was a slip, and a telling one. We have a lot to learn from other countries, and yes, I do think modern U.S. medicine tends to be of the big-pharm model, even when good doctors want it to be otherwise.

    Thursday, June 14, 2007 at 12:14 pm | Permalink
  11. Anne wrote:

    In re-reading Mr. Gorman’s piece, I believe we have missed the most important critique that could be made. To be truly effective, he would be well-advised to use the technique advocated by my high school English teacher: Eschew Obfuscation.

    Obfuscation is handy for confusing a code, and as a tool for covering up one’s own insecurity by over-dressing one’s speech.

    Eschew, Mr. Gordon! And Gesunheit.

    Thursday, June 14, 2007 at 12:24 pm | Permalink
  12. Anne wrote:

    …errr…that’s Gorman, not Gordon

    Thursday, June 14, 2007 at 12:26 pm | Permalink
  13. I don’t know if people simply don’t understand the phrase, or are being knee-jerk in opposition, but “Western medicine” is a common phrase meaning *scientific* medicine, contrasted to “Eastern medicine”, meaning everything from acupuncture to auras (please, someone don’t pipe up and say “Well, there might be something to acupuncture” – if you have to say that, it’s missing the point already). He’s decrying quack medicine. While that’s not an especially Web 2.0 phenomena, it IS true that the quacks travel along with the general caravan of the exploitation of gullibility and appeal to anti-intellectualism that makes up the Web 2.0 hucksterism.

    P.S. : John, no, one *CAN’T* effectively talk back to a blog post (over opposition), that’s utter nonsense. The blog-owner can zap any critical comments or disallow comments entirely.

    Thursday, June 14, 2007 at 6:01 pm | Permalink
  14. kgs, Seth: Thanks for your replies. I think Gorman most likely meant “western medicine” in the sense Seth says, but both that meaning and the “western medicine == Big Pharma” meaning are re-definitions. Yes, western medicine, that is, the medicine taught and practiced by generally recognized authorities in the west have been at the forefront of propagating both Big-Pharma treatments (perhaps too strongly in some cases) and scientifically-based treatment development and evaluation methodology. But to *equate* western medicine with either of those tends to be, if not just sloppy rhetoric, something I associate with medicine-show huckstering (of various varieties) on the one hand, and with cultural chauvinism on the other. Both of which are hot buttons for me, for various reasons. (As kgs points out, a number of efficacious medical treatments did not originate from traditionally authoritative “western” sources. You can see this, for instance, in current conflicts over patenting various traditional Indian treatments.)

    As for the notion that one can’t effectively talk back to a blog post if the blog’s owner doesn’t allow critical comments, this very thread, and the various other replies to Gorman I ran across in various other blogs and forums before I even read his own blog post, refutes that claim. “Side by side” in the online world can just as easily mean two or more sites side by side on a screen as a post and a comment on the same web page. And it’s increasingly easy to find such critical replies, whether same-site or off-site, with the tools we now have on the Web. Certainly much easier than it would be on TV, or even in a bookstore or library for many topics.)

    Friday, June 15, 2007 at 7:37 am | Permalink
  15. John, in terms of numbers, *effectively* replying to a popular blog is impossible unless you’re some sort a pundit yourself or have the support of gatekeepers. This is just a fact, and claiming otherwise is delusional propaganda. One could just as well assert “… in the print world can just as easily mean two or more BOOKS side by side”. That is, it’s a deceptive redefinition meant to make the favored side look good.

    This comment thread is both relatively obscure (sorry Karen), and on a blog by a person with some prominence (translating into attention) in the field.

    In practice, people who don’t have some sort of status – which often requires being connected to real-world centers of power, and/or doing the real-world conference circuit – might just as well be ranting on streetcorner for all the readership they’ll get by themselves. Again, that’s not arguable, that’s statistics.

    It’s sort of an absurd statement to say something like look, look, it’d be even easier for them to be read if anyone ever did read them (i.e. even though they won’t be read).

    Concretely, the fallacy you are doing is if a system consists of several factors, which lead overall to a bad result (no effective reply ability), pick one favorable factor, declare because that factor has changed favorably, it thus means the net result has changed – even if the net result is no different, and even if there’s arguably other factors which have changed negatively. But it’s the net result which matters.

    Friday, June 15, 2007 at 9:20 am | Permalink

5 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. the goblin in the library › Gorman With the Wind on Tuesday, June 12, 2007 at 6:30 pm

    [...] his two-part essay has already been said, and much better than I could have done, by Jason Griffey, Karen G. Schneider, Jessamyn West, and Meredith Farkas. This was written by josh. Posted on Tuesday, June 12, 2007, [...]

  2. LibrarySupportStaff.Org » Michael Gorman’s Sleep of Reason on Wednesday, June 13, 2007 at 10:25 am

    [...] on Free Range Librarian, also: good commentary on Librarian.net [...]

  3. [...] Range Librarian takes some well-deserved shots at Gorman here, and accuses Britannica of hyping up his criticisms in an attempt to boost traffic (people do that [...]

  4. Infothought on Thursday, June 14, 2007 at 7:58 am

    The Britannica Blog Learns to Link-Bait…

    I should write about Google and log retention, but as long as I haven’t quit entirely yet, the following is too good to a traffic-magnet to let pass. It seems the Britannica Blog is having a link-baiting party, I mean……

  5. [...] it. I was going to stay out of the discussion of Gormangate II (see this, this, this, this, and this, for examples) until I saw Scott’s post on the [...]

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