It seems that every few years something new is added to the list of cancer-causing products. Once thought ideally suited for fire-retardant insulation, asbestos was used widely in insulation, pipes, and building materials well into the middle of the last century. Gradually though, researchers discovered a trend of early deaths among those working with the material. As a result, the product has been effectively banned in the United States and many other countries. As recently as a few years back, researchers suggested there was a connection between brain cancer and cell-phone usage. While studies remain inconclusive, the news brought with it a noticeable shift to accessories that distance radiofrequency fields from the brain (headsets, earbuds, Bluetooth, etc.).
We can use a product for generations before identifying associated deleterious effects. This is unsettling. It also begs the question of whether and where the cycle continues in our present day? With such an impetus to living the examined life, what if we were to subject the present medium, that is, blogging itself, to such scrutiny? Twenty years from now, what will researchers be saying about the long-term effects of blogging and of reading blogs?
Mindful that such speculation is likely to wander far from the mark (who could’ve guessed that myspace.com would suffer such humiliating defeat?), we can at least try to project seeds into a harvest reaped. What virtues and vices do blogging and the following of blogs cultivate in a person, and where do these lead?
One potentially destructive strain visible in the blogosphere is the explosion of intellectual curiosity. Curiosity is a strain of intellectual intemperance opposed to studiousness. Studiousness denotes the “keen application of the mind to something” and the requisite moderation of the appetites that promote the cultivation of such knowledge. Curiosity denotes just the opposite. Whereas contemporary understanding envisions the curious person as open to knowledge, life, and new experiences in a kind of whimsical, impish, or carefree way, scholastic theologians saw curiosity as a wayward pursuit which impedes the studied application of the mind to worthy things.
Truth serves only its slaves,” wrote A. G. Sertillanges, whereas curiosity leads to a thralldom of superficiality and caprice. Sure, “all men, by nature, desire to know,” an aphorism that even Aristotle has grown weary of hearing repeated, but one must distinguish. “For the knowledge of truth, strictly speaking, is good, but it may be evil accidentally” (ST IIaIIae QQ. 167, a. 1). St. Thomas Aquinas lists reasons why the pursuit of knowledge may fail to promote our good by reason of some circumstance. One such reason is particularly interesting: “[T]here may be sin [in pursuit of knowledge] by reason of the appetite or study directed to the learning of truth being itself inordinate . . . when a man is withdrawn by a less profitable study from a study that is an obligation incumbent on him” (Ibid.). The rebuke is chastening. The pursuit of knowledge is not an unequivocal good. It admits of abuse like the pursuit of money or honor. At the end of the day it is answerable to the ultimate end:
Man’s good consists in the knowledge of truth; yet man’s sovereign good consists, not in the knowledge of any truth, but in the perfect knowledge of the sovereign truth . . . Hence there may be sin in the knowledge of certain truths, in so far as the desire of such knowledge is not directed in due manner to the knowledge of the sovereign truth, wherein supreme happiness consists. (Ibid., ad1um)
To be clear, I don’t think blogging is bad. What I do think is that, if left to its own devices, the medium can be coopted by sound bytes, content-generation-mania, inordinate urgency, and sensationalism. Note for instance how the threshold for word limits creeps lower and lower as the bazaar of ideas becomes more and more clamorous. As a result, the reader ceases to read deeply and succeeds only in reading widely, with a superficial and lazy gaze at headlines and first paragraphs. Over time, I fear we might lose the vigor to stand upright before the mirror of eternity when called to account for the intellectual pursuits we’ve undertaken.
Image from Chemical Heritage Foundation
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