The Internet as we know it was born in July 1995 with the release of Netscape version 1.1. While the Internet per se has been around much longer (the ARPANET was first conceived in the 1960's), it wasn't until Netscape 1.1 was released and the subsequent release of the first version of Internet Explorer a few months later (which began the "browser wars") that the Internet displayed on personal computers as it does today.
To say that the Internet has changed our world in the last decade would be a profound understatement. The Internet has brought us its own vocabulary: web, www, surf, download, upload, chat, IM and much more. Likewise, email has revolutionized communication during the same time period. (Although email has been around much longer than the Internet, its development exploded with the integration of email into the web browser interface.) For many, it is inconceivable to imagine life without the Internet and email.
When my website celebrated its 10th birthday in February 2006, that milestone gave me an opportunity to reflect on those days when the Internet was new. Because I first came to email in 1995 and my website went online shortly thereafter, I have had an opportunity to observe, first hand, the evolution of both Internet and email technologies. I wrote about this in some detail in my article, Happy Birthday: A Look Back at 10 Years of Internet Presence.
Writing that article coincided with two other significant events that occurred in February 2006. The first was an interview I gave to Matthew Guilford, bass trombonist of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. Matt was my first trombone student at New England Conservatory when I joined its faculty (and the Boston Symphony Orchestra) in 1985. Matt asked if he could interview me and post the resulting article on his website. I found Matt's questions to be extraordinarily thought provoking, deeper than the "garden variety" questions I had answered many times in the past. While I hope Matt Guilford's interview of me is of interest to readers, I am certain no reader has gained more from it than I have myself. The thought I gave to Matt's questions set me into deep contemplation about my life, my past and my future.
The second event was the beginning of a significant process of self-evaluation and discovery. The details of that are not something I will share, but suffice to say that from February - July 2006 I found myself in consideration of many of my thoughts, actions, motivations and principles. Through that consideration I have emerged as a different person even as that journey still continues. As I write this, I am aware that the thoughts I expressed in my article about the 10th birthday of my website and in my interview with Matt Guilford have been morphing and that the self-evaluative process that began at that time has resulted in my implementation of new ways of thinking and doing.
Since 1995 I have participated in several email list-serve groups and have posted on a number of web based fora with my combined postings numbering, over that 11 year period, nearly 800. To some of you that may seem like an extraordinary number of posts, but that averages out to .2 posts per day. By comparison, there is a person on the The Trombone Forum who has, in a six year period, posted over 15,000 messages, representing more than seven posts a day. All of this is a lengthy introduction, a pedigree of sorts, as I establish for you, the reader, my credentials and credibility for the observations I make herein. I have been deep into the email and web-based world of sharing information and I confess that today I am increasingly troubled not simply with the changes this has brought to our culture but with the changes that is has brought to mankind - to people as individuals and how we interact with one another.
In my opinion not only younger players but also this site would greatly benefit from the input, topics and comments given by more than a the view professional players than those who are doing that already. I keep reading answers, topics, etc., from the same people over and over again.I began to think about this.
What I mean is: There are only a lot of amateur- (like myself) and student players involved and/or reading these topics and only a view Pro's. More involvement from more AND different Pro's would be good for everyone's learning-curve I think.
Once upon a time...
there was no Internet. That's hard for many of us to believe.
Before that time, the way trombone players got information was primarily through the quarterly International Trombone Association Journal. At one time that was the only game in town. Subsequently, various regional publications began popping up, such as the British Trombone Society and Internationale Posaunen Vereinigung. Those groups also began publishing regular Journals (which really were and are more like newsletters, not peer reviewed and, like their parent publication the ITA Journal, often suspect when it came to reliable historical information). The articles in the ITA Journal were mostly written by college professors. Very few professional players - recognized symphony and jazz players - would contribute. People would often ask, "Where are the pros?" The reason is both simple and complex:
They don't care.
They don't like to write.
They have other things to do with their time.
Soon the ITA Journal didn't have the trombone information market to itself. The trombone-l email list-serve group was first to give trombonists an opportunity to share widely. This was a tremendous resource for a number of years. Since the early days of the trombone-l there have been many, many more outlets developed for distribution of ideas, some of which I have referenced above. All of these and many more give people with something to say a way to be heard. But still very few professional players bother to contribute. The question remained: "Why?"
I've talked to a number of colleagues about why they don't bother to post or read trombone fora. Some give the reasons above for not bothering with the ITA. I can understand that. But there is something new. We have seen changes in how we speak to one another. Old "rules" about discourse, respect, propriety and modesty are being pushed, stretched, bent and broken.
The Internet is a powerful tool. It gives anyone on the planet more than, as Andy Warhol famously predicted, their 15 minutes of fame we would all have at some point in our lives. Write a message, make a point, hit "submit" and - BINGO! - thousands of people around the world are reading your words. This is heady stuff that people could only dream of a few years ago.
In the early years of the Internet, list-serves and forum membership grew slowly. Standards of conduct were developed by list and forum owners, members were screened (most fora and list-serves required that people register under their name and give their address for verification), and discourse was, by and large, mostly collegial and civil.
With the growth of the Internet we saw a parallel growth in the use of mobile phones. Once available only to those with deep pockets, mobile phones have become easily affordable and nearly ubiquitous. Text messaging has led to the development of a new kind of vocabulary, spelling and grammar, with shorthand (such as "cul8r") gaining traction since text messaging usually limits the number of characters that can be sent at one time.
Mobile phone usage has developed its own rules and anyone reading this certainly knows how the rules are not universally accepted and enforced. For thousands of years people managed to live without being contacted any time of the day and in any location. While mobile phones have made life more convenient in many ways (and there is no denying their usefulness in emergency situations which need quick attention), they have spawned a new kind of cultural annoyance as users fail to turn them off during church services, meetings or concerts, or people take calls in restaurants, public transportation vehicles or in stores. Often speaking loudly because they have a poor connection and can't hear the party on the other end clearly, others are subjected to one end of a private conversation. Have you ever tried to tell a person who is speaking loudly on a mobile phone in a small public space that it would be considerate if they would make their call later or step outside, away from those who simply do not want their thoughts interrupted by loud conversation on a phone? The "hairy eyeball" (Arlo Guthrie's delicious phrase) that comes your way tells you immediately that the rules have changed. It is no longer self-evident to disapprove of such patently rude behavior, or to comment on a person driving a large sport utility vehicle (SUV) with one hand while talking on a mobile phone held in the other. To even ask the question, "Is all of this good, right and appropriate?" is to bring condemnation from some quarters about your insensitivity. And, as we all know, insensitivity and intolerance seem to stand alone in our post-modern age as traits and expressions that themselves cannot be tolerated.
No, we are living in age where the rules of engagement have been redefined.
There was a time - not so long ago - when those with knowledge were respected for having gained that knowledge and their sharing their knowledge was a gift that was gratefully received by those with less knowledge. This has been the case with teachers and students throughout time and each of us functions in both roles - teacher and student - for most of our lives. Everyone knows more about something than someone else. But each of us always has more to learn.
Self-evident? One would think. But unfortunately it is not so.
Membership in web-based fora and email list-serve groups is easy to attain. While forum and list-serve administrators usually require that people register using their real name, this is by no means the universal rule. Many people sign up using a pseudonym. People are identified by a "screen name" which gives no clue as to one's name, age, location, or academic standing. As such, fora and list-serves can equalize the wise man and the fool - with no way to know anything about a person who posts a message.
This aspect of the Internet - the equalization of the wise man and fool - is a fundamental reason why so few professional trombone players have any interest in posting messages to fora and list-serves. They know that once they put themselves online, they run the risk of being called out by a 14 year old.
When you're 14 years old, you have a lot of questions. But not a lot of answers. Not yet. Having answers comes with experience. There was a time when inexperienced people listened, waited their turn, and learned a few things before thinking they were experts. The Internet shattered that. Cloaking behind the veil of anonymity, anyone - learned or uneducated, expert or novice, genius or idiot, wise man or fool, serious student or troublemaker - can post a message. If a learned person makes a point, anyone in the group can take them on, tell them they're stupid, that they don't know what they're talking about, that they know better. How many times have I cringed when I've watched some young, inexperienced player on a forum lay into the sound or technique of an accomplished, well-respected player? Many times. It's too easy to hit the "send" button. Instead of thinking about the consequences of posting a rumor, a vile opinion or an ill-considered thought, the words speed out over the bandwidth. And the professional player, who has spent years building his reputation only to see his playing picked apart publicly by people who really don't know much about what they're talking about says, "I don't need this." And they disappear. Or they don't come to start with. You do have to put up with "stuff" to be a professional on fora and list-serves today, having to watch yourself, your peers and colleagues being called out regularly by people who have no idea what they are talking about.
There is something else to all of this. A cursory look at the online presence of many people on various fora leads to one important conclusion: for many, participation in fora is not about asking questions or giving answers, or even trying to achieve a sense of "community" (think about it: what kind of "community" can be forged by a group of people who do not use their real names, reveal little about their true selves and post messages that consist mostly of idle chatter?). Instead, many use fora in their search for personal significance. One of mankind's greatest needs is to be needed, to be wanted, to be heard, to be significant. I know many people who have purposely tried to increase their number of posts on a forum not because they had something to say but because they felt if they could have a certain number of posts attached to their name, they would appear significant. Many people simply love to see their words in print, even if what's in print is banal. Others use fora to advance personal political agendas with a provocative message "signature."
And there is this: many who use online fora post provocative messages simply to see if they can get a rise out of someone else. They post a message (that often has no content related to the reason the forum exists) and then return sometime later to see if someone has responded. It is not hard to deduce that many people post simply for this reason - to see if someone else has a comment about their own comment. There was a time when someone who had something to say would say it because it would be helpful to someone. Today, many have the, "It's all about me!" attitude that has become so prevalent. When the whole purpose of participation in a forum becomes an ongoing attempt to be noticed, bandwidth is wasted, time is wasted and the forum degenerates into a selfish mess. It happens in all disciplines - not just music and certainly not just with trombone players. I hear all the time from colleagues in other fields who have left fora because they have been taken over by selfish people who drive away people who have honest queries and valuable input. The "shoot from the hip" attitude, the quick, coarse reply, the provocative signature, the "I can't believe you asked that question again" post, the public humiliation and denigration of another's point of view (which is a major reason why young players are often reluctant to participate in fora) and the gratuitous, meaningless posts - often done behind the cloak of anonymity - have caused many a forum to shut down. With such selfishness on the part of people who must spend hours and hours sifting through forum "threads" and posting, reading and answering messages, the "fun" and a great deal of the usefulness has gone out of the Internet for people who are earnest in wanting to be helpful or learn.
Then there is the vicious kind of attack, the hacker who deliberately breaks through to the server level to manipulate content of a website. Sometimes this is done randomly as the hacker simply hunts around to find a website with a weakness in its firewall. On other occasions, the attack is carefully targeted - this violation is no different than someone breaking into one's house. Privacy is invaded and people who are trying to do good through their website end up not only spending more money, time and resources to repair the damage but they themselves are wounded. This is truly the "dark side" of the Internet - people wanting to tear down the good others do.
Of all of this, most professionals, most people who remember the "rules" that were the glue that held together our discourse and communication for centuries - the rules of respect, kindness, propriety, caring and giving someone the "benefit of the doubt" - want no part. I find myself increasingly in this category as well. In 1996 I enthusiastically embraced email and the Internet as tremendous tools for communication, teaching and learning. For many years I have tried to do good with the Internet, striving to be a force for informed opinion and exercising my role as teacher to help others find their way. Today I am less inclined to participate in fora as I have seen their hard downside which is causing tremendous harm to individuals and to society. It has been several years since I have been a member of a list-serve; the flaming, arguing, personal insults, trolling and spamming simply took the fun out of what was, at "the beginning" of the Internet, a vibrant communication tool. And I no longer invite people to email me from every page of my website. I put my ideas out for all to read on my website but I simply do not have the time, energy or desire anymore to respond to every message - especially since over 80% of the email that had been coming my way consisted of demands, whining, over-familiar prying and lazy students wanting me to do their work for them.
More troubling is the amount of mis- and dis-information available on the Internet. In June 2006, the founder of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that is authored by anyone who wishes to create, add to or modify an entry, publicly recommended that people NOT use Wikipedia as a source for reliable information. Why? Because Wikipedia is not peer-reviewed. While there are many earnest and knowledgeable contributors to Wikipedia, there is no way for the casual reader to know if what he is reading is true. Whom do you trust and how do you know to trust them?
In the Summer 2006 issue of "Amplifier," the newsletter of the American Psychological Association's Division of Media Psychology, past president of the Division, Dr. Peter Sheras, wrote an article titled, "The Future. . . Internet Fears and Fixes." In it he says, ". . .Young people are learning the skills in schools to find. . .information [on the Internet] but we have not been teaching them how to evaluate or 'filter' it." Students who rely on the Internet for information are often surprised when their paper, based on data from websites, list-serves and web fora, results in a grade of "F." But it should come as no surprise at all. The generation that has grown accustomed to getting music on demand for "free" and demanding - demanding! - the "right" to free access to anything they want should not be surprised when they get burned for their laziness in looking for the easy way out. Those of us who recall what research actually entails - that original source research is the key to sensible conclusions - look at the Internet as a tool in the toolbox, but it is not the best tool for all - or even most - jobs.
Many of us wonder what will happen to all of this. I certainly have been giving it some thought. The Internet as we know it won't exist in 10 years. Information technology is changing rapidly. Once the owner of an Internet forum decides to stop managing it, he will stop paying his server and all of the forum posts will be lost. There will be no hard copy, no library, no database. When the server shuts down - and it will sometime, probably sooner than later - Google will find nothing that was written on the forum. The same goes for archives of a list-serve. When the piper is no longer paid, the music stops. Our postings and replies will evaporate like the dew in the sun, like they never happened. A thousand years from now, if there is a human race on this planet, it will not discover a virtual "Rosetta Stone" to unlock the thought of those who wrote pages and pages for the Internet in the early 21st century. A vast history is being recorded in completely disposable media. Clay tablets may have seemed crude to modern archaeologists who discovered the Phoenician alphabet but if the Ancients had written in a virtual medium, we would not know anything about them. Thank God for their clay tablets which survived for thousands of years. The same can't be said for 21st century mankind. What will document our time so those in the future will know about us?
For many years I have carried on a correspondence with one of my college professors. He is my mentor, a father figure, a friend. I am forever in his debt for what he shared with me and he has continued to share with me in the decades since I graduated from college. I have hundreds of letters that he has written to me over the years. His handwriting, his little cartoons and interlinear musical notations - they are treasures. I read them over and over, following the curve of his hand as he painstakingly wrote to me.
Several years ago, at the age of 81, he began writing email messages to me. While our communication increased and became more convenient, it is not the same. I can pass his letters to my children. But his email messages? They are full of his humor and style. But they print out in Verdana 12 point with a header full of gibberish assigned by servers. He is the same person but it is different. Something is missing. Something important.
This is not to say that there are not some fine people with good things to say that participate in fora and list-serves. This is the silver lining in the growing dark cloud. But they are exceptions, not the rule, and the more I talk with people, the more I find others who resonate with my thoughts. I have spoken with many who have forsaken fora and list-serves and who are turning away from the Internet for many different reasons. In my experience, today there are many fewer - not more - professionals and others with good things to contribute than there were even a few years ago. Think, first, about the time involved. Who has the time to read 10 fora in a day? When I go to a trombone forum and click "view posts in the last 24 hours" I usually have over 100 messages to sift through. A list-serve can dump dozens of messages each day into an email "in" box. Who has time for that? Who SHOULD have time for that!?
So, where does all of this lead us?
People who want to post to fora will continue to do so. People who don't want to post to fora won't. There is no arm twisting. But if those who lament the lack of an online presence by more truly knowledgable people as well as more respectful, courteous and helpful teachers and learners, would like to do something, I have a suggestion. A little more respect shown to elders wouldn't hurt. I am in my 50's; my students all call me Mr. Yeo. When a 14 year old starts a reply on a forum or begins an email message to me with, "Hey, Doug!" I have little incentive to reply. I have earned his respect with my lengthy career and he should show it. But respect does not just need to be shown to "elders." A higher level of respect to ALL would go a long way toward improving the quality of our online discourse. Each person has dignity and when that dignity is trashed by an anonymous person who fires off a harsh word, a dismissive comment or an invective-filled reply, society as a whole suffers.
Cutting down on the frivolous kinds of posts that are designed just to see your name in print or to let the world know, "I'm still OUT here, everyone!" will help, too. A long look in the mirror and an evaluation of the sheer amount of time spent trying to establish an online persona that has nothing more to it than one's own personal search for significance would probably result in more than a few personal decisions that might have life changing consequences.
There are those who say, "Times have changed." That I should cut people more slack, that the "instant messaging" way of writing is here to stay and I need to "get over it." I do not agree. Small things become big things. As I observe societal changes, I cannot say I am pleased or optimistic. We are in a time where some of the glue which has held us together is coming apart. I see greater tendencies toward selfishness, toward entitlement, toward recklessness. These trends are driving people - good people, informed people, helpful people - away from the Internet. In a sense the problems with the Internet and email discourse reflect general trends in education. The desire to build self-esteem has left many assuming all they do is excellent - alas, they have not been told the difference between feeling good about a job well done and feeling good for simply doing a job. New math curricula teach that 2 + 2 = 5 as long as you feel good about how you got to the answer. Please don't design a bridge with that kind of thinking. Many have forgotten that "tolerance" does not mean all ideas are right. The lie of post-modernity (that there is no such thing as objective right and wrong, only that which is right and wrong for you) has set individuals adrift in a sea of relativism.
All of these forces are at work in our virtual, online world. And astute observers of culture are pushing back. No, the Internet is not essential. No, the Internet is not the best tool for research. No, virtual relationships are not better than face to face friendship. Yes, it matters how we speak. Yes, it matters how we write. Yes, it matters that we have manners, that we show respect. C.S. Lewis wrote, ". . .there is room for people with very little sense, but everyone should use what sense they have." The rush many people feel when they see their words in print on a forum often leads to a suspension of good sense. A little (a lot of?) circumspection would go a long way. I have seen the hurt that the Internet can cause. It is troubling especially because it is unnecessary. It is not thicker skins that people need, rather we need an understanding that actions (and words) have consequences and that they have an impact not just to an individual but to society as a whole. Jacques Barzun titled his landmark book on the last 500 years of human history, From Dawn to Decadence. His words are wise and his title not merely provocative. The 21st is not the greatest of centuries just because we live in it and everything seems to be at our fingertips.
Then again, you might want to do something deeper. Something more consequential.
The computer had become a demanding master, requiring constant attention to keep up with responding to people. That has changed. I am calmer, more relaxed, more focused. My motivations for doing many things have been clarified. I am not looking to "get ahead" anymore; I have put aside the insatiable need to be needed.
In my journey of the past few months, I have learned much from the wisdom of Henri J. M. Nouwen. I share with you a page from his book, The Inner Voice of Love. Here, in his personal journal of his journey through anguish to freedom, he writes of putting old things behind and moving forward to a new place of true fulfillment. He writes from his Christian worldview; his words resonate deeply with me as if I wrote them myself:
You have an idea of what the new country looks like. Still you are very much at home, although not truly at peace, in the old country. You know the ways of the old country, its joys and pains, its happy and sad moments. You have spent most of your days there. Even though you know that you have not found there what your heart most desires, you remain quite attached to it. It has become part of your very bones.
Now you have to come to realize that you must leave it and enter the new country, where your Beloved dwells. You know that what helped and guided you in the old country no longer works, but what else do you have to go by? You are being asked to trust that you will find what you need in the new country. That requires the death of what has become so precious to you: influence, success, yes, even affection and praise.
Trust is so hard, since you have nothing to fall back on. Still, trust is what is essential. The new country is where you are called to go, and the only way to go there is naked and vulnerable.
It seems that you keep crossing and recrossing the border. For a while you experience a real joy in the new country. But then you feel afraid and start longing again for all you left behind, so you go back to the old country. To your dismay, you discover that the old country has lost its charm. Risk a few more steps into the new country, trusting that each time you enter it, you will feel more comfortable and be able to stay longer."
"The old country has lost its charm." I lived there for many years, but I am leaving it behind, crossing over the border. My website will continue to exist - at least for a time - but its content may be distributed by other, non-electronic media. While I will keep using email as a communication tool, its importance in my life has been greatly reduced. My accessibility to others has been limited; I control my drawbridge. I am free from the "tyranny of the urgent." I will be seen much less frequently on the fora I used to visit. Some will be disappointed in this; many won't even notice. But I have noticed.
My journey is taking me to the new country. Perhaps I'll see you there.
Original article written: March 13, 2006; July 26-29, 2006
Original article posted: July 29, 2006
Original article most recently revised: December 4, 2006