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. Read the rest of this entry
“[T]he internet seizes our attention only to scatter it. We are immersed because there’s a constant barrage of stimuli coming at us and we seem to be very much seduced by that kind of constantly changing patterns of visual and auditorial stimuli. When we become immersed in our gadgets, we are immersed in a series of distractions rather than a sustained, focused type of thinking … There are messages coming at us through email, instant messenger, SMS, tweets etc. We are distracted by everything on the page, the various windows, the many applications running. You have to see the entire picture of how we are being stimulated. If you compare that to the placidity of a printed page, it doesn’t take long to notice that the experience of taking information from a printed page is not only different but almost the opposite from taking in information from a network-connected screen. With a page, you are shielded from distraction. We underestimate how the page encourages focused thinking — which I don’t think is normal for human beings — whereas the screen indulges our desire to be constantly distracted.”
— “Information and Contemplative Thought: We Turn Ourselves into Media Creations,” Interview with Nicholas Carr, The European, January 31, 2012
“Has it really come to this? In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug. Like teenagers, we appear to have gone from knowing nothing about the world to knowing too much all but overnight. Internet rescue camps in South Korea and China try to save kids addicted to the screen. Writer friends of mine pay good money to get the Freedom software that enables them to disable (for up to eight hours) the very Internet connections that seemed so emancipating not long ago. Even Intel (of all companies) experimented in 2007 with conferring four uninterrupted hours of quiet time every Tuesday morning on 300 engineers and managers … [T]he average American spends at least eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen … The average American teenager sends or receives 75 text messages a day … We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say … The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make the best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual.”
— Pico Iyer, “The Joy of Quiet,” The New York Times, December 29, 2011
“I am encouraged by services such as Instapaper, Readability or Freedom — applications that are designed to make us more attentive when using the internet. It is a good sign because it shows that some people are concerned about this and sense that they are no longer in control of their attention. Of course there’s an irony in looking for solutions in the same technology that keeps us distracted.”
— Carr, “Information and Contemplative Thought” Read the rest of this entry
Here are some highly interesting remarks and reflections on the rise of electronic reading and the shape of the literary future (and present) from Yale University literature and reading scholar Jessica Pressman, whose “current research focuses on how 21st century literature — both in print and online — responds to the threat of an increasingly paperless and multimodal society.” The excerpts come from a recent installment of the always-worthwhile series of “FiveBooks Interviews” published by The Browser. Note that Dr. Pressman references several specific texts that are pertinent to the question of what books and literature can and may become.
We’re talking about digital textuality and what happens to literature when it interfaces with the prospect of the digital — of digital technology and digital culture. And we’re talking about readers who are becoming literate, and perhaps even more literate, on the screen rather than on the page … [P]eople are just reading in different ways online. Rather than engaging with a single book and a single author for a sustained amount of time, people are reading in the kind of Web 2.0 social networking ways … [T]hey’re reading hypertextually across web pages, and they’re also producing their own content … I think the place to look to see these changes is the location where conventional print literature and digital literature meet. That’s where these works live — House of Leaves , The Raw Shark Texts , and digital literature too — at the interstices.
— “Jessica Pressman on Electronic Literature,” The Browser, October 18, 2012
Image courtesy of adamr / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
A recently published essay by University of Virginia professor Chad Wellmon in The Hedgehog Review stands as one of the most elegant, incisive, and persuasive entries I’ve yet read in the great debate over the effects of the Internet/digital media revolution on human consciousness and culture. And I’ve read a fair amount of them.
On the one hand, there are those who claim that the digitization efforts of Google, the social-networking power of Facebook, and the era of big data in general are finally realizing that ancient dream of unifying all knowledge…[They say] Our information age is unique not only in its scale, but in its inherently open and democratic arrangement of information. Information has finally been set free. Digital technologies, claim the most optimistic among us, will deliver a universal knowledge that will make us smarter and ultimately liberate us. These utopic claims are related to similar visions about a trans-humanist future in which technology will overcome what were once the historical limits of humanity: physical, intellectual, and psychological
If you, like me, are feeling more and more haunted in our information-glutted age of universal online connectedness by T.S. Eliot’s famous lines “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” then maybe you’ll find this 1997 episode from Season 3 of The New Outer Limits to be as compelling as I do. Written by TV writer and producer David Shore (who later created House), “Stream of Consciousness” is a brilliantly conceived and effectively executed dystopian science fictional meditation on the clash between the computer’s “craving” for pure information and the human values and realities of the people who, if we’re not careful, may allow ourselves to become enslaved as instruments for the furtherance of this inhuman imperative.
Here’s the official description, followed by the full episode. If you watch it, notice that at one or two points the dialogue seems to indicate that Shore wrote the episode with Eliot’s words explicitly in mind.
Due to a brain injury, Ryan Unger cannot enjoy the benefits of a neural implant that allows other people to tap into The Stream — a direct connection into all human knowledge. He tries, unsuccessfully, to keep up with everyone else by using a long-forgotten skill: reading books. When the Stream develops a virus causing people to die, Ryan, being the only one that is immune, must use the knowledge he has gained from books to save the world.
Opening narration: We quantify our world in order to learn. We break it down into facts, numbers, information. But how far dare we go before we destroy its mystery?
Closing narration: We make tools to extend our abilities, to further our reach, and fulfill our aspirations. But we must never let them define us. For if there is no difference between tool and maker, then who will be left to build the world?