Paper vs. Purpose

Often, when something comes to an end, I find it meaningful to go back and look at its beginning, so as to get a sense of how things have changed throughout the process. A minute ago, I reread my first post here on Lector, “Electronic Readers . . . and Destiny!”, and I’d like to touch on it, just to bring things full circle.

First of all, in that post, I discussed how these Sony e-readers differ from the Amazon Kindle I had used before. In general, my opinion on electronic readers hasn’t changed; I will probably always be a fan of reading from paper, if simply because that was the experience I had first. I still think the Kindle is preferable because of its internet capabilities. But after regular use of Sony’s device throughout the past few months, I found that most of the objections I had sort of melted away as I began to consider it less as a novelty and more purely as a tool. Yes, the e-reader lacks certain features that would make it niftier and somewhat easier to work with, but in the end I honestly don’t care nearly as much about the buttons or pages I’m holding in my hand as I do about the meaning of the words I’m reading. Because they do offer advantages in terms of price, space, and environmental repercussions, I imagine that electronic readers will eventually replace paper books almost entirely–and I think that’ll be okay. It won’t be exactly the same experience, but all in all, I believe the ideas and their expression are what matter, not the specifics of the medium.

Actually, I think that point–that commitment to ideas matters above most other things–has been the theme of our reading material in this class, as well.

In Outliers, we read a lot of different stories about people who accomplished more than most, and Gladwell did his best to convince us that, as he wrote, “It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like.” He asked us to stop focusing on ill-defined and changeable things like people’s characteristics; how can success stem purely from traits when traits themselves depend on all sorts of outside factors like one’s parents and schooling and when one happens to be born? Instead, what makes someone an expert is that, throughout the complicated twists and turns of his/her life, that person has managed to accumulate an unusually large amount of experience (10,000 hours’ worth) in one specific skill, towards one specific goal.

WAR gave us a closer look at adversity and just how good we humans are at adapting in order to overcome obstacles. Junger offered insights into the powerful phenomena of group loyalty and desperation. He points out that what we think of as “acts of courage”, when looked at in the context of war, often seem simply like what must be done in order to ensure everyone’s survival and the accomplishment of a set goal.

And both The Facebook Effect and Iran Awakening presented in-depth examinations of how individuals accomplished outstanding things by being extraordinarily dedicated to their ideals. Mark Zuckerberg created a program with the intention of improving modern communication. He had help from powerful friends, but these same people could have easily held Facebook back by diverting attention to profit or other matters–were it not for Zuckerberg’s remarkable concentration on what he was trying to achieve with the program as a tool. Similarly, Shirin Ebadi refused to flee Iran like many of her colleagues did, opting instead to remain in constant danger and fight one battle after another to try to mold the Islamic system into one that respects women and intellectual freedom.

Zuckerberg, Ebadi, the men in WAR, and the outliers in Gladwell’s book all had one thing in common: tremendous dedication to ideas–even to the point where they were willing to sacrifice other aspects of their lives in order to make progress towards those ideas. I think Gladwell was right when he encouraged us not to look at the people who accomplish things, but it seems to me he was still missing the point when he told us to look at where these people come from. I think the bigger question to look at when contemplating extraordinary achievements is “why?” or “to what end?” Ebadi, summed it up best when she wrote about her winning the Nobel Peace Prize: “Such lofty recognition could only be intended for what someone’s life symbolized, the path or approach they had followed in pursuit of some higher purpose.” That’s what I’ll be taking away from this class. Whether in the case of our e-readers, where people get caught up in disagreements over paper or electronic ink, or in the case of remarkable accomplishments, where we tend to focus on specific people and events, the specifics of the medium that holds the ideas don’t matter all that much. The ideas do.

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