Saturday, 21 August 2010

Reading in Captivity

War and Peace at Project Gutenberg

- i don’t mean to sound bitter, cold, or cruel, but i am, so that’s how it comes out - bill hicks -

There’s been a new spate of fuss about the Nicholas Carr article over at The Atlantic, the one asking ‘Is Google Making us Stupid?’ (in no way connected to The Shallows release I’m sure...)  It spilled out into The Observer last week, with a host of commentators throwing in their chips one way or the other, and it shows no sign of abating.  There’s plenty of articles in a similar vein, more or less eloquently argued, more or less well backed up with data, and also plenty of arguments against the whole nature of the suggestion - Everything Bad is Good for You, Brian Chen’s iPad article at Wired, and Steven Pinker’s recent rebuttal all spring to mind. There are holes in all of these arguments, but it really isn’t for me to try and correct them, maybe because anything I say is likely to be just as wrong or more so, but also because no one really knows what the effects of adopting new, extensive, pervasive media will be.  The only thing that we can say for certain is that, whether culturally, politically, philosophically, or neuropsychologically, whether beneficial or detrimental, there will be effects.  That’s what makes these discussions so important: not that they’re accurate, nuanced, biased, or foolish, but that their mere existence is enough.  In fighting our corners in such debates we keep the issues alive, and make sure that people are looking out for the fine detail, even if, initially, it is just to trip us up or prove us wrong - “Your opinions about digital reading’s effects on the brain are clearly flawed; the evidence you cite is fabricated or fallacious; and your attitude in general clouds the whole debate...” “...this is fantastic, last month you didn’t even know what a Kindle was...”

So, I guess all I can contribute is another voice to add to the cacophony, another voice I’d like to keep alive: what if all of the “internet reading gives people ADD, they can’t focus on one thing for more then 10 minutes, it’s the death of long form reading” type of arguments actually mask an attack on the mediocrity of existing media?  An example: I’m stuck in an airport waiting for a delayed flight.  I’m in my third hour with a projected four hours to go and I have a copy of a newspaper.  That’s it.  My iPod is down, my laptop is down, I forgot to bring a book; all I had was a quid for a paper and cup of something warm.  Do I read the paper?  You bet.  Cover to cover.  Crossword: done, sudoku: done, ridiculous quiz: done.  I don’t care if that paper’s The Sun (No, I’m not linking to it, primarily because one of their cryptic crossword clues was “not dog (3).”  Also: Murdoch) or The Sunday Times with all the supplements, it’s getting read.  If I find an abandoned novel it’s getting read.  If all I can find is a three year old copy of Heat then sure, I’m learning the three hot tips for a bikini body in 2007.  Long form reading isn’t a measure of quality, it’s a measure of captivity.  If I have an amazing novel to hand then that’s a form of capture to; think of all the great things it’s distracting me from...

Reverse the situation: I’m alone in a copyright library, at least one copy of every book is available to me.  Surrounded by the best literature in the world do I settle down with one thing?  No, I browse and I flick and I plot and I plan and generally act like a kleptomaniac butterfly around the stacks, bringing back piles of essentials and rarities.  Nothing gets read as such.  “Ah,” Nicholas Carr and the rest would say, “this is the crisis of too much choice!  This is like your life on the internet”  “No,” I would say, “this is the crisis of not living in a copyright library.”

The internet, like much of the world, and like copyright library catalogues, is full of dross.  And the worst thing about that is not that the dross exists, but that there is no dross filter to leave only the undeniable brilliance of the minority of its contents.  Signal to noise filtering is a problem, I’m not saying that it isn’t, but maybe it’s the problem.  Does the internet cause ADD-like behaviour?  Sure, but only until you find something worth reading.  If I spend my morning following links, reading the opening paragraphs of things and hating them, or taking just enough information from them only to move on to somewhere better, but then I find an interesting article, like Carr’s, or some amazing archived work from David Foster Wallace, and I read the whole thing on my computer screen, and I take notes, how is that the death of long form reading?  Just because I browsed a thousand other things on my way to tracking it down?  This isn’t attention deficit, it’s a deficiency of things worth holding my attention.  If time is precious then doesn’t it make sense to put in a little effort to fill it with something good?

Perhaps people flit about online, not fixing on one thing or another, because they can’t find anything worth fixing on.  This is a problem very different to having our brains ‘rewired’ into infantilism by the internet.  In the mass exodus from the novels, newspapers, and magazines we’ve been recommended in the restricted-to-the-average-by-shelf-space world of print, I don’t think that we can immediately say that people are moving away from a certain form of engagement with the written word.  Perhaps we’re just not stuck in the airport anymore, instead we’re getting to grips with living in the library.  Once the novelty wears off I have a feeling that a lot of us will settle into deploying new, highly personal filters to get to whatever we consider to be content of quality, indeed that’s what a lot of us are already attempting to do.  When we’re promised something good we find it a lot harder to settle for something mediocre, and we’re also prepared to invest a lot of effort in seeking it out.  To suggest that we’ll always settle for the banal but familiar when we’re faced with an overabundance of new and exciting bounty (or worse, to suggest that we should) seems an unnecessarily cynical conclusion.

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