It’s reading vs. screen culture — and screens are winning
Yesterday I posted some excerpts from and commentary on last weekend’s interview with Stephen King in Parade magazine, in which King says he’s uneasy about the future of reading in an increasingly screen-oriented culture. The main data point he cites in this regard is his experience of teaching a couple of writing seminars to Canadian high school students last year and finding that although the students were very bright, their written language skills — and by implication their reading skills — were dismal. (See “Stephen King on writing, inner dictation, and his fears for the future of reading.”)
Following on from this, and for what it’s worth, I can confirm King’s observations and worries from my own 13 years of experience as a teacher, first in high school and now in college. The scary things you’re hearing about the collective state of literacy, or rather a-literacy, among the screen-reared generation are not just hype, not just hand-wringing, not just empty Chicken Little-ism. It really and truly is the case that among people under, say, 30 years of age, the very idea of reading, the attitude and sensibility that says reading is something desirable or worthwhile or even, in many cases, tolerable, is locked in mortal combat with the psychic-gravitational pull of screens and visual media culture. And it looks for all the world as if the ruling idea from the Highlander mythos — that “There can be only one” — is fully in play. And reading is losing the war. Badly.
It’s not that screens and visual media are inherently evil, nor that reading is inherently virtuous and humane. All kinds of nuances and variables come into play here. But as a matter of historical fact, the great democratic revolutions of the 18th century really did rise directly out of the cultural transformations attending the invention of the printing press some 300 years earlier, including the rise of “print culture” — a heady cultural milieu deeply informed by, and in fact obsessed with, books, pamphlets, and more — and the advent of what Neil Postman famously called the “typographic mind.” And many of the best aspects of Western civilization that developed and manifested in the succeeding centuries were likewise linked to the intimate psychic centrality of this psychological and sociocultural innovation.
And as John David Ebert has pointed out so cogently and powerfully in The New Media Invasion: Digital Technologies and the World They Unmake, our headlong, giddy, and total transformation into a culture of ubiquitous and always-on electronic screens and digital media is effectively undoing all of this in a matter of mere decades. What’s more, the pace of the destruction is only increasing. Consider: How is it that in 2013 it boggles the mind to remember that Facebook and YouTube have only been around since 2004 and 2005? Less than 10 years after their creation, both feel like the very air we breathe: omnipresent, unquestionable, a part of our cultural-ontological substrate.
“It really and truly is the case that among people under 30 years of age, the very idea of reading, the attitude and sensibility that says reading is something desirable or worthwhile or even tolerable, is locked in mortal combat with the psychic-gravitational pull of screens and visual media culture. And reading is losing.”
Last week I called attention to a recent essay by James A. Pearson about his experience of dividing his time between Uganda and California, and of finding the American media environment to be fairly toxic with its all-pervasive bid for perpetual distraction. (See “American media culture as psychic predator and parasite.”). What I didn’t mention was Pearson’s introduction to the piece, in which he begins by talking about the specific impact of all this on his ability to engage in sustained reading:
Against my better judgment, I’m watching another episode of The West Wing as I write this. It’s streaming on Netflix in a window next to this one. It’s my third episode of the night, my 80th or so this month. When I left Uganda this winter I had finally broken the 300-page barrier in David Foster Wallace’s gargantuan novel, Infinite Jest. I’ve started it three or four times in the past and aborted each time for attentional reasons. But 300 pages felt like enough momentum, finally, to finish. Then I hit my first American airport, with its 4G and free wi-fi. All at once, my gadgets came alive: pinging and alerting and vibrating excitedly. And even better, all seven seasons of The West Wing had providentially appeared on Netflix Instant. I’ve only finished 100 more pages in the two months since.
He points out that the irony of this interruption occurring to this particular book is especially pronounced, since Wallace’s book is about a deadly media “parasite” that captures and devours people’s minds:
In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace imagines a film (also called Infinite Jest) so entertaining that anyone who starts watching it will die watching it, smiling vacantly at the screen in a pool of their own soiling. It’s the ultimate gripper of eyeballs. Media, in this absurdist rendering, evolves past parasite to parasitoid, the kind of overly aggressive parasite that kills its host.
Pearson closes with this:
An optimally adapted parasite takes as much from its host as possible without damaging the viability of the host. In order for us to stay viable hosts for the media parasite, we need only enough waking hours away from media to make money and to spend that money on advertisers’ offerings and/or media’s costs (and of course to feed ourselves and, like, stay alive). Media will gladly take all our other hours. Think about normal adult American life: After working, spending, and consuming media, how many hours do we really have left? Of course it will never get all of our spare time. But it captures more of our hours every year. Media is on an evolutionary trajectory, a curve bringing it closer and closer and closer to Infinite Jest.
Think about all of that — I know I’ll be thinking about it myself — as you reflect on the fact that you’re now staring at a screen full of hyperlinks and other assorted bids and opportunities to capture and scatter your attention. Reflect on the fact that before the day is out — hell, probably before the next 15 minutes are out — you will inevitably find yourself staring at several more screens in rapid succession, and will likely discover that you’re violently and irresistibly distracted by them and sheared clean away from the living reality of the present moment, not to mention from the possibility of slowing down and focusing, and picking up a (paper) book, and conforming your mind to the requirements of deep reading.
Like the psychiatrist at the end of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian science fiction story “The Murderer,” who is called in to treat an “insane” man who has gone around smashing up his society’s frantic multitude of noisy high-tech distractions, you’re surrounded by a cacophony of rings, buzzes, and chimes, all of them shrieking for your attention. Or else you’re pushed and pulled along like a junkie by an addictive inner compulsion to check your phone and Facebook timeline and Twitter stream, to download a new song and open eight more browser tabs while scrolling through your Netflix recommendations and clicking through your Pinterest boards. Or more likely you’re being puppet-led from both sides at once, the outer and the inner working in tandem, the environmental distraction playing perfectly into the psychologically and neurochemically imprinted inclination to respond to it, and even more, to crave it.
“Somebody has to kill the babysitter!” cries Jim Carrey’s human incarnation of cable television’s sick soul in The Cable Guy. “You’re television incarnate, Diana,” says William Holden’s tragically disillusioned network TV executive to Faye Dunaway’s inhuman void of a ratings junkie in Network. “Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You’re madness, Diana. Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you.”
If it’s not too ironic to link to a YouTube video after saying all of these things, I invite you to consider the following elegant object lesson in the conflicted relationship — a zero-sum game, really — between the attention-grabbing, distraction-based culture of digital-visual media and the act of book-reading, courtesy of writer-director Ben Stiller:
Posted on May 29, 2013, in Arts & Entertainment, Internet & Media, Society & Culture and tagged Books, Dystopia, image culture, mind and media, reading, television. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.