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Curmudgeons Should Keep Their Sites on Television

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Curmudgeons Should Keep Their Sites on Television"

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Kevin Drum waxes curmudgeonly:

I’d love to be wrong about this. But I’m not. If you want to understand the world, not just collect endless factlets, you still need to read books. If you do, the internet makes you smarter. If you don’t, it makes you dumber.

Two things about this. One is that to an extent only time will tell. At the moment, even though a lot of people write on the internet, a great many people who write aren’t writing on the internet. And many of those people are extremely smart and you can learn an enormous amount from them. If you really want to understand what Christopher Leinberger has to say about urban policy, you really need to read his book just as if you want to understand Donald Shoup’s ideas about parking there’s no substitute for reading The High Cost of Free Parking. But a big part of the reason is that those guys aren’t writing blogs. If they were writing blogs, their blogs might be good sources of information about their work. But they’re not. So the books are vital.

In the future, thanks to generational turnover, I think we’ll see a higher-and-higher proportion of the smart people doing writing on the internet. So the internet will become a more valuable resource.

So I don’t entirely want to prejudge this issue. A really knowledgeable person, writing day-in and day-out about the issues he’s expert in, can convey an enormous amount of information via sustained blogging. But my guess is that Kevin’s right. I follow Mark Kleiman’s blogging very closely but reading his book was still hugely valuable. But my guess is that books and the internet are mostly complements. I think the internet tends to mostly crowd out reference books (which are a special case and clearly made obsolete by digital technology) and other kinds of “newsy” writing like newspaper op-eds and magazine articles. And I think that’s largely as it should be. There are good op-eds out there, but that’s primarily because good people get asked to write op-eds sometimes—there’s nothing virtuous about the format.

At any rate, if you want to be curmudgeonly about anything, I think television is still the right thing to be curmudgeonly about—just as it was fifty years ago. TV, unfortunately, is pretty awesome. And modern developments like high-definition, 300 channel digital cable, Tivo, and Netflix-on-demand make it all the more awesome. But it’s really not very informative at all. But it sure does suck you in. If televisions somehow all vanished, I bet we’d all be twice as smart within a year.

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