Cued no doubt by the mysterious invisible hand of cyberspace, I received an email this evening from Brittanica pointing to an online debate among Nick Carr, Kevin Kelly, Clay Shirky, Sven Birkerts, and other worthies that ties back to both the post with Camus and my earlier rant about Carr’s stoopid arguments. Catch this action:
Ironically, my research suggests that one of the chief values of print library research is its poor indexing. Poor indexing—indexing by titles and authors, primarily within journals—likely had the unintended consequence of actually helping the integration of science and scholarship. By drawing researchers into a wider array of articles, print browsing and perusal may have facilitated broader comparisons and scholarship.
On first reading his posting, it seems as if Birkerts is arguing for the exceptionalism of reading, wherein all goodness resides. But he then breaks down that distinction by correctly reminding us that we do indeed read on the internet. Well then, maybe greatness lies not in reading per se but in books. Here again, the problem is that reading books online is not that uncommon. I read many books in PDF form now. And I read many parts of non-fiction books on my computer without noticing I have gone from a web page to a book page. Books are part of the web.
Do great stories have the ability to transport us to a different place than the web? Maybe. Is this place which Sven incorrectly calls the “reading space” not the same as cyberspace? It may not be. Can you get there if you listen to a great book? I believe so. Do you get there if you watch a great movie? Probably.
But to return to Nick Carr’s proposition. His claim — as far as I understand it — is that surfing the web outside of this literature-space not only alters our brain during that time but somehow unwires the hard wiring we have for stories, so that later on we are unable to re-enter that literature-space as easily.
As for my own views, contra Carr, I do not in fact believe that “the ‘ability to concentrate’ will return even as the Net changes so much else.” Our previous powers of concentration were aided enormously by being in such a relatively empty environment, a state that I don’t believe we could ever recreate. My argument instead is that technologies that make writing abundant always require new social structures to accompany them.
It’s not as if books and periodicals as we know them began to flow from Gutenberg’s studio in the 1450s. Among the things that needed to be invented after books got cheap were the separation of fiction from non-fiction; the discovery of new talent; the index; numbered versions of the same work; and so on through a host of inventions large and small.
We have a challenge before us in figuring out how to keep the distractions of the net at bay, now that new material is no longer hard to discover or access. Perhaps Carr is right that this time we will fail. Perhaps a medium that radically expands our ability to create and share written material will end up being bad for humanity. But that would be a first, in the three thousand years between the Phoenician alphabet and now.
One last note — the allusion in my calling the net a “garden of ethereal delights” is less religious than Carr makes out. In Bosch’s triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, most of the overt religious references are in the side panels showing the extremes of Eden and Hell, but it is in the secular middle ground — the garden of earthly delights, suspended between utopia and dystopia — where things are getting really weird.
I think Carr’s premises are correct: the mechanisms of media affect the nature of thought. The web presents us with unprecedented abundance. This can lead to interrupt-driven info-snacking, which robs people of the ability to find time to think about just one thing persistently. I also think that these changes are significant enough to motivate us to do something about it. I disagree, however, about what it is we should actually be doing.
William Sayoran once remarked, “Everybody has got to die … but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.” Luddism is a social version of that, where people are encouraged to believe that change is inevitable, except, perhaps, this time. This wish for stasis is bad for society, though not because it succeeds. The essential fact of Luddite complaint is that it only begins after a change has already taken place, so Luddites are mainly harmless whiners (except, of course, for the original Luddites, who were murderous thugs.) The real problem is elsewhere; Luddism is bad for society because it misdirects people’s energy and wastes their time.
The change we are in the middle of isn’t minor and it isn’t optional, but nor are its contours set in stone. We are a long way from discovering and perfecting the net’s native forms, what Barthes called the ‘genius’ particular to a medium. To get there, we must find ways to focus amid new intellectual abundance, but this is not a new challenge. Once the printing press meant that there were more books than a person could read in a lifetime, scholars had to sharpen disciplines and publishers define genres, as a bulwark against the information overload of the 16th century. Society was better after that transition than before, even though it took two hundred years to get there.
And now we’re facing a similar challenge, caused again by abundance, and taking it on will again mean altering our historic models for the summa bonum of educated life. It will be hard and complicated; abundance precipitates greater social change than scarcity. But our older habits of consumption weren’t virtuous, they were just a side-effect of living in an environment of impoverished access. Nostalgia for the accidental scarcity we’ve just emerged from is just a sideshow; the main event is trying to shape the greatest expansion of expressive capability the world has ever known.