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Uneasy thoughts on our bookless future

Mark Bauerlein in Claremont Review of Books, in a perceptive review essay on Maryanne Wolf’s Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, with additional consideration of Leah Price’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading:

It won’t be long before all living memory of a time before the personal computer is gone. People will no longer address the meaning of screens from the remembered background of a computer-free life. Leah Price and Maryanne Wolf grew up with books; they had a print childhood, not a digital one. Price aims to soften the impact of the Digital Revolution, I suspect, because of a liberal impulse to accept cultural change with an urbane smile. That’s the going etiquette. I have witnessed many times my humanities colleagues receive news of popular culture drifting ever farther from their intellectual interests with a shrug. It is unseemly to them to criticize people for their cultural choices. But with every survey showing meager reading time and massive screen time in the leisure hours of the young, it is increasingly difficult not to share Wolf’s dismay.

More: “Our Bookless Future

Stephen King on writing, inner dictation, and his fears for the future of reading

There’s a nifty interview with Stephen King in last weekend’s edition of that bastion of substantive journalism, Parade magazine. It’s actually the cover feature, which knocks the usually fluff-filled magazine up a notch in my (probably immaterial) estimation.

Among the highlights are the following points of interest:

King explains why he’s not a horror writer:

Interviewer Ken Tucker: [Your new novel] Joyland has supernatural elements, but it isn’t a horror novel.

Stephen King: I’ve been typed as a horror writer, and I’ve always said to people, “I don’t care what you call me as long as the checks don’t bounce and the family gets fed.” But I never saw myself that way. I just saw myself as a novelist.

King explains the mysterious fact of inner guidance in the act of writing:

I’m a situational writer. You give me a situation, like a writer gets in a car crash, breaks his leg, is kidnapped by his number-one fan, and is kept in a cabin and forced to write a book — everything else springs from there. You really don’t have to work once you’ve had the idea. All you have to do is kind of take dictation from something inside.

King describes his uneasiness about the future of reading in a screen-dominated culture:

Tucker: Do you think that reading occupies the same importance for kids today?

King: No, absolutely not. I think it’s because they’re so screen-oriented [TVs, computers, smartphones]. They do read — girls in particular read a lot. They have a tendency to go toward the paranormal, romances, Twilight and stuff like that. And then it starts to taper off because other things take precedence, like the Kardashian sisters. I did a couple of writing seminars in Canada last year with high school kids. These were the bright kids, Ken; they all have computers, but they can’t spell. Because spell-check won’t [help] you if you don’t know “through” from “threw.” I told them, “If you can read in the 21st century, you own the world.” Because you learn to write from reading. But there are so many other byways for the consciousness to go down now; it makes me uneasy.

MORE: “A Rare Interview with Master Storyteller Stephen King

Note that in addition to reading the interview, you can listen to portions of King’s actual conversation with the interviewer, and also watch him posing for a Parade photo shoot,  in this brief “Behind the Scenes” video:

Downgrading humans in the age of robots

From a recent essay by University of Toronto philosophy professor Mark Kingwell, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education about “the dream-logic of all technology, namely that it should make our lives easier and more fun,” and the dark side of the age-old science fictional — and now increasingly science factual — vision of creating a “robot working class” that will free humans from unwanted labor:

We are no longer owners and workers, in short; we are, instead, voracious and mostly quite happy producers and consumers of images. Nowadays, the images are mostly of ourselves, circulated in an apparently endless frenzy of narcissistic exhibitionism and equally narcissistic voyeurism: my looking at your online images and personal details, consuming them, is somehow still about me. [Guy] Debord was prescient [in his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle] about the role that technology would play in this general social movement. “Just when the mass of commodities slides toward puerility, the puerile itself becomes a special commodity; this is epitomized by the gadget. . . . Reified man advertises the proof of his intimacy with the commodity. The fetishism of commodities reaches moments of fervent exaltation similar to the ecstasies of the convulsions and miracles of the old religious fetishism. The only use which remains here is the fundamental use of submission.”

It strikes me that this passage, with the possible exception of the last sentence, could have been plausibly recited by Steve Jobs at an Apple product unveiling. For Debord, the gadget, like the commodity more generally, is not a thing; it is a relation. As with all the technologies associated with the spectacle, it closes down human possibility under the guise of expanding it; it makes us less able to form real connections, to go off the grid of produced and consumed leisure time, and to find the drifting, endlessly recombining idler that might still lie within us. There is no salvation from the baseline responsibility of being here in the first place to be found in machines.

. . . To use a good example of critical consciousness emerging from within the production cycles of the culture industry, consider the Axiom, the passenger spaceship that figures in the 2008 animated film WALL-E. Here, robot labor has proved so successful, and so nonthreatening, that the human masters have been freed to indulge in nonstop indulgence of their desires. As a result, they have over generations grown morbidly obese, addicted to soft drinks and video games, their bones liquefied in the ship’s microgravity conditions. They exist, but they cannot be said to live.

The gravest danger of offloading work is not a robot uprising but a human downgrading. Work hones skills, challenges cognition, and, at its best, serves noble ends. It also makes the experience of genuine idling, in contrast to frenzied leisure time, even more valuable. Here, with only our own ends and desires to contemplate — what shall we do with this free time? — we come face to face with life’s ultimate question. To ask what is worth doing when nobody is telling us what to do, to wonder about how to spend our time, is to ask why are we here in the first place.

— “Mark Kingwell, “The Barbed Gift of Leisure,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 25, 2013

Also see John David Ebert in 2011’s The New Media Invasion: Digital Technologies and the World They Unmake, from the chapter titled “Robots, Drones and the Disappearance of the Human Being”:

[The rise of drones in warfare] is a syndrome of thought that is currently infecting American society as a whole and is eating away at it like a cancer. Everywhere we look nowadays, we find the same worship of the machine at the expense of the human being, who always comes out of the equation looking like an inconvenient, leftover remainder: instead of librarians to check out your books for you, a machine will do it better; instead of clerks to ring up your groceries for you, a self-checkout will do it better; instead of a real live DJ on the radio, an electronic one will do the job better; instead of a policeman to write you a traffic ticket, a camera (connected to a computer) will do it better. In other words. . . the human being is actually disappearing from his own society, just as the automobile long ago caused him to disappear from the streets of his cities. . . . [O]ur society is increasingly coming to be run and operated by machines instead of people. Machines are making more and more of our decisions for us; soon, they will be making all of them.

Our technological future according to Idiocracy:

My Own Personal Tesseract: Reflections on ‘A Wrinkle in Time’



Although my work as an author has been overwhelmingly centered in realms of darkness and horror, as cross-fertilized by my deep and personal focus on matters of religion, philosophy, and psychology, I have also been a lifelong lover of fantasy and science fiction. So perhaps it’s not surprising that one of the foundational books in my life has been A Wrinkle in Time, which wraps up all of these genres, themes, and concerns inside a story, a writing style, and a sensibility that together epitomize the word “wonderful.” Interestingly, over the past decade-plus of my involvement in professional writing and publishing, I’ve found that many other authors who likewise work in the field labeled “horror” count Wrinkle as one of their most cherished books.

Yesterday I caught wind of the fact that a graphic novel adaptation has just been released. I did a bit of looking into it. This involved reading several plot summaries and celebrations of the original novel. And, appropriately enough, it all sent my thoughts and emotions soaring backward and forward through time. Read the rest of this entry

Alfred Hitchcock and the domination of screen culture

Is it possible that the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock presides universally over our current and future image-based culture of screen obsession?

The late and legendary director is currently getting a lot of attention. HBO recently aired the original movie The Girl, about Hitchcock’s relationship with Tippi Hedren. The biographical movie Hitchcock, with Anthony Hopkins heavily made up in the title role, is currently playing in theaters everywhere. With this in mind, the editors of The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s weekly email alert have recalled to their readers’ collective attention a 1999 Chronicle article by Brandeis film professor Thomas Doherty titled “We Are All Hitchcock’s Children.” Doherty makes some points that are well worth considering, especially if he’s right about Hitchcock’s fundamental dominance over the collective sensibility of visual media culture. If we want to get a handle on the true nature of our current circumstance, then we may do well to recognize that the long shadow stretching over screen culture takes the shape of an iconic, portly profile.

The films are indelible, the surname is adjectival, and the silhouette of the portly profile is instantly recognizable. Nearly two decades after his death, Alfred Hitchcock still towers over American cinema. Like other geniuses of the motion-picture medium — D.W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, and F.W. Murnau — Hitchcock bequeathed not just a list of screen masterpieces but a lexicon for the language of film. Today, at the cineplex or on television, he calls the shots for the vistas of spectatorship: the dreamy, roving camera work; the unnerving jump cuts in editing; above all, the guilty pleasures of undetected surveillance, the eyeline match that locks the hungry voyeur to the object of the gaze.

… No other director from the classical Hollywood era — not John Ford, not Frank Capra, not even Charlie Chaplin — could attract such lapdog devotion from academe and audiences alike. It was not always so. For much of Hitchcock’s working career, critics regarded him as a glib hack — a gifted technician, perhaps, but too much the showman to warrant serious consideration … [But] shortly before his death in 1980, the British bestowed a knighthood. By then, Hitchcock had long since earned another title: the best-known, most-esteemed director on the planet.

To understand Hitchcock’s appeal — and why his private obsessions have become public property — is to appreciate the dominion of the motion-picture medium over the popular imagination. At times, Hitchcock seems to have exerted the final cut in the outlook of an incessantly optical, screen-centered culture.

— Thomas Doherty, “We Are All Hitchcock’s Children,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 6, 1999

Image: Studio publicity still of Alfred Hitchcock  by Connormah at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Joan Collins says tabloid culture has dumbed us all down

Who would have thought it? None other than Joan Collins, one of the living symbols of a former era in mass entertainment culture, deplores the catastrophic collapse of taste, intelligence, and attention span that’s been spawned by the current tabloid-ized version of that very world.

Just check out this excerpt from a recent interview in BlackBook magazine titled “Bling Dynasty,” dated April 17:

BlackBook: Any idea why the “tabloid” is back at the moment in culture, with people obsessing over every little detail about celebrity pregnancies, what they wear?

Joan Collins: Our civilization has become extremely dumbed down, with shorter attention spans. All they want are sound bites. People don’t have the concentration to read an in-depth article or a book, or watch a serious movie. I can’t understand it. And the tabloid magazines are exactly the same every week! People has the same cover as InTouch as OK! as US Weekly as Star magazine. They’re exactly the same! You never read about De Niro, Pacino, Harrison Ford… well, you do hear about him since he’s with Calista Flockhart. Meryl Streep. These new stars are appealing to a young audience, or a rather dumb audience.

The interviewer also asks Ms. Collins for her take on the current crop of young female celebrities a la Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, and she offers an extremely negative assessment of both them and the culture of carefully marketed narcissism and voyeurism that enables their pathological behavior:

BB: And what about their clothes, these celebrities like Britney and Lindsay and Paris who go out wearing trashy outfits and no panties?

JC: I don’t think she is well, Britney. I definitely think there is something wrong with her: depression, illness. No normal girl goes out and lets photographers shoot at that angle. It’s bizarre, isn’t it? We have these girls in England. Glamour models. And they will flash their breasts in a desperate attempt to get their photos in the paper. I asked my friend Glenda Bailey [editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar] why she would put Lindsay Lohan on her cover. And she said, “It sells magazines.

Perhaps it would be out of character for me to offer the hearty accolade, “You go, girlfriend!” But I’ll offer it anyway.

Gee whiz, Ms. Collins sounds a lot like Stephen Jones in my forthcoming interview with him for Cemetery Dance magazine, to wit:

Almost nobody reads these days. There are too many other distractions: cell phones, Playstations, reality TV….Nowadays, in Britain, at least, newspapers have become part of the “dumbing down” process. Here we now have “lite” newspapers that are more like MTV newsbites for people who don’t want to read about anything in-depth. And what they read about is the latest gossip surrounding such empty vessels as Paris, Britney, Lindsay or Angelina. They aren’t actually learning anything—except how not to behave in public and what the latest fashion accessory is.

She also sounds a lot like Morris Berman, Neil Postman, Daniel Boorstin, Ray Bradbury, and any number of additional culture critics, commentators, and writers of dystopian fiction who have seen what’s going on and recognized that the modern mass entertainment milieu represents an absolutely unprecedented and, as it so happens, cataclysmic cultural development in terms of collective intelligence, taste, emotional centering, moral outlook, and historical memory.

So, to repeat (because I just can’t help myself): You go, Joan!