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The Essay in the Google age.

One of the assignments given out to my class in a creative (non-fiction) writing course
was “The Essay”, a form of writing made popular by the classical essayists of the 17th and
18th centuries; men (because there were few women) like Edmund Burke, Michel de
Montaigne, Francis Bacon and Blaise Pascal.

The subjects they picked to write about were universal, often philosophical, topics, such
as “”Mind and Style’, “The Sublime”, Truth and Beauty”, and “The Misery of Man
without God”.

These were typical themes of “The Essay” in its classic form. It had to be a topic of
interest to the reader, and back then, it seemed as though readers actually were interested
in universal themes. However, the essay was a popularizing form. It was necessarily
short, written in ordinary language that could be understood by those who had basic
literary skills. It was the individual writer’s point of view, not necessarily that of the
establishment, and it had be true to his thoughts and observations on the topic of choice.
Truth was the writer’s word(s), writing from a place of knowledge, experience and
ethical conviction. In his Pensees, Blaise Pascal wrote in 1660;

“ One must know oneself. If this does not serve to discover truth, it at least serves as a
rule of life, and there is nothing better.
The vanity of the sciences.-- Physical science will not console me for the ignorance of
morality in the time of affliction. But the science of ethics will always console me for the
ignorance of the physical sciences. “

Because it was short and had a certain entertainment value for the educated classes that
were growing rapidly at the time, the essay became a suitable form for a newspaper or
journal. In the 17th Century, these media were mostly print, newspapers, pamphlets and
books. The circulation of ideas took place slowly, over months and years. Oral exchange

and other life enhancing stuff. bits and bytes flying out into the cybersphere. “On the essay as a form in the electronic age. on-going house renovations. I also kept thinking about the impact of the digital medium. I wanted to pick a very large topic too. work. but still pretty big. but also scientific and technological ideas. After all. in all . Well. An explosion of information. I thought. who picked just about the most enormous subject a writer could pick – Infinity! Mine would not be as vast. The fundamental difference brought on by the electronic age. one daughter’s soccer. is that this exchange of ideas now happens in real time. So I decided that for my assignment. I realized that the subject of my essay had picked me. Why should I not try too? At least I had a laptop. just like those 400 year old writers. in the manner of those classic essayists. how it has evolved. As I thought about the essay as a form. the writing process for my assignment started off slowly because I got very busy. we have had four hundred years to observe and discuss those topics. which in turn were subjects developed and discussed by the first human writers in Africa and the Sumerian deserts. The last four hundred years has seen a massive expansion of science and knowledge.also took place in literary cafes and salons but was confined to where and how long they flourished. in the age of Google and the internet. But then as I was traveling – plane trips are great for thinking – I was reflecting on the fact that today. On clay tablets and papyrus. my other daughters home from their university to attend a Neil Young concert with their aging parents. and run with it as far as I could. has accelerated to warp speed. the circulation of ideas. a trip to New York City for a seminar. what has happened is the equivalent of the Big Bang. I was encouraged in this direction by a classmate in the writing course. Not just the exchange of café society chit chat.” In terms of the exchange of ideas.

validates the essay. which he was beginning to rail against. The massive acceleration of information exchange facilitated by the internet has contributed to a globalization of economies and markets. It was called “The essay as Form”. That is. Paradoxically. It is not scientific research. It embodies the true form of individual intellectual freedom because it is powerless. and aesthetics. in short form. In the Google age. an open . sociology. it is considered a classic study of the genre. It is the point of view of the writer. Its power is conferred upon it by the reader. from millions of individuals sitting in front of keyboards. nor an empirical statement of fact. Theodore Adorno. considered the essay a trivial exercise. Only the reader can decide the “truth” of its content. Adorno wrote in an extremely hermetic German style. magazines journals and newspapers have been forced to go electronic. the electronic essayist has tremendous tools and advantages. Even today. on any topic. a German sociologist. nor a learned treatise. I did some research and learned that in 1958. The print media. He wrote lengthy tomes on philosophy.directions. can distinguish it from lies and propaganda. The bastions of institutional science and learning. The reader. Adorno was writing from the relative safety of North America after having lived through the worst forms of intellectual and human repression during the Nazi period. Much has happened in the fifty years since 1958. written using the argument of words. It is not a work of art. though subsequently. Google and other companies have monetized the new medium with an advertising model that helps them make money from this expansion. he made the argument that the best form of writing is the essay. others have argued that it is. wrote a definitive essay on essay writing. but in doing so have developed audiences and readers that go far beyond their traditional reach. the essay is also very powerful because of its weakness as a contribution to scientific advancement. in both speech and writing. assuming an exchange of essays takes place in an open society which allows freedom of expression. books. and any ensuing social debate. But in that essay.

October 28. CNF class. those readers may choose to engage the writer in an ongoing dialogue.. a global reach. Its contradictory attributes of power and powerlessness are amplified in the same way as those other forms of traditional media print have been. an opportunity to engage in real time with her readers. 2008. Theresa Carbonneau. For research on the topic. comfortable life preservers when wading into the ocean of cybersphere. In turn. . or totally ignore the author’s attempts to get her point of view out into the public forum. The individual writer has an opportunity to reach millions of readers. The essay is a perfect form of writing for this new medium. there are the search for publishing.