Sunday, 5 June 2011

Maybe the Dumbest Generation Came Before Us

- many people have a tree growing in their heads but the brain itself is much more grass than tree - deleuze and guattari - a thousand plateaus - 17 -

UPDATE: Mark Bauerlein replied over at and I'm waiting for my comment to pass moderation.  I've added the exchange to the bottom of this post, and I'll update if there are any more replies.

Recently I've been trying to make my way through Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation (2008), but now...I've given up. I just couldn't face it. As part of my research I've been collecting people's accounts of resistance to reading on screen from blog posts, newspaper articles, conversations etc., and I thought that Bauerlein's work would provide me with some interesting anecdotes for my research, on the assumption that the plural of “anecdote” is sometimes, if you're lucky, “data.”

From the first few pages, The Dumbest Generation smacks of the worst kind of get-off-my-lawn resistance to change, and Bauerlein often bashes “pro-technology” commentators, as if the printed book reading that he exalts somehow wasn't a technology itself. But I was kind of expecting this, it's the rhetoric which sells these kinds of books (see also Keen's The Cult of the Amateur). I was fairly shocked, however, by the large number of studies that Bauerlein cites, about literacy, language skills, and cultural engagement in America, which seem to report huge drops in quality (of various measures) whilst completely neglecting to take into account the effects of increasing numbers of non-native English speakers joining the country over the course of the sometimes decades long data collection. He mourns, for instance, that only “one in 10 [18-24 year olds] attended a jazz performance [in the last year], and one in 12 attended a classical music performance. Only 2.6 percent of them saw a ballet, 11.4 percent a play...One in 40 played a classical musical instrument...” (p24). But, it seems like these are (with the exception of jazz) (a) cultural activities associated (rightly or wrongly) with the heritage of the white middle classes and (b) (often including jazz) expensive pursuits. Maybe less young people in America (in the absence of data from other countries) do see less ballet or classical music now, but what of the rise of Salsa or Mariachi; of ethnic, artisanal, and slow food movements; of live (increasingly esoteric) popular music; or a few hundred other more diversely cultured pursuits? And what about the growing division between the disposable wealth of an ever expanding poor and the middle classes, couldn't this also impact on these particular forms of cultural participation?

Again, maybe I should have expected such data analysis. The broad brushstrokes of these kinds of interpretation aren't designed for sustained attention or interrogation, they're for telling people who already hold certain opinions about the state of a nation, or a generation, or a cultural product that their views are well founded. Selling people's prejudices back to them can be brutally efficient.

But I digress. I mostly hated Bauerlein's book because I couldn't finish the damn thing (I went through anger, which kept me reading, to boredom, which couldn't). Rather, I hated that, for a second, it seemed like I was bearing out his thesis: that, as a member of the digital generation, I was unable to concentrate on sustained linear arguments due to the hypnotic and anaesthetising effects of “the screen” (Bauerlein talks a lot about “the screen”).

All of this got me thinking about the kind of data such writers cite when disparaging the abilities of anyone under 30 (subtitle of The Dumbest Generation: “or, don't trust anyone under 30,” no joke). Take the “f-shape” reading that I'm apparently meant to employ when I read online: when faced with a screen rather than a book I won't read in neat lines, I'll read the first line or two, just the start of the next few, then maybe have a dig through half of the next few lines, and then go back to just looking at the first words until I hit the bottom of the page (the eye-tracking software that captures this kind of reading reports this data back as the f-shape).

So, is this how I read? Yes! All the time. I skim maybe two or three hundred articles a day if my RSS is clogged, maybe 50 emails, and 500 or more tweets (and I paired down who I was following to get to that). Most of this content doesn't even get an f-shape, more an equals sign, a title and a blitz of the first couple of lines. But this doesn't mean that I'm a drooling, clicking, screen-sapped victim of technology, it means that I go to all of those things to dig out information, and that they're an imperfect source of it, at least as far as my interests lie. I've learnt to filter an RSS feed of 300 items in half an hour, cutting out the irrelevant (from my perspective) and bookmarking the potentially enlightening. That, for me, is a new skill and it keeps me up-to-date with roughly what's going on in the major stories of the world, and in the worlds of the things that particularly interest me, and it also provides access to a relative diversity of opinion on each subject. It's not perfect (I know because it's getting slightly better all the time), but it's the best system I've found.

The “real” (read: “traditional”) reading, however, is interspersed with the hunting, or comes later, when I read books (on screen and off), and I read those book-marked RSS finds (with relative degrees of intensity), and sometimes I can't help but read something as soon as I find it, and what mostly manifests is linear progression. Why? Because what I've found, to me, is interesting. For no other reason does my eye track each line onward, one at a time. I've just finished reading a collection of writing on Husserl, a paper on the neuropsychology of gripping objects, an article about a comic book series, and an unpublished short story, all on screen, and I read every word because they were fascinating. But someone else, someone who couldn't care less about Husserl or my taste in fiction, would have f-shaped them into oblivion in the absence of something which truly gripped them.

Leaving aside whether we would have preferred them to scan material we might consider more elucidating, I wonder how many teenagers, the dumbest generation after all, just flipped through Twilight (or Harry Potter, or any book that catches their attention) rather than reading every page? If they read it on a Kindle or an iPad did they pay less attention, or did they remain rapt, learning every scene well enough to complain at what the film scripts left out? In short: does any screen have the power to make something which grips you lose that grip?

The mistake that Bauerlein, and a thousand other commentators make is that a big lump of printed prose is not an inherently good thing in of itself. If people are reading things poorly, or reading poor things, then we have bigger problems than the existence of screens, and it's to these wider issues that we should (we must) turn. If readers are just skimming the surface of words they choose to turn to, and only skimming (because skimming isn't the end of the world in an information rich environment, it's a necessity on the path to finding quality content), then there needs to be both in-school education of how to read in multiple ways in such a space, and compelling content needs to be produced.

Something that never seems to come up in the denigration of the new generation's reading habits is what it says about where they came from, that when faced with the largest repository of human knowledge and creations ever conceived of they choose to select materials out of the morass that the past generation, its progenitors, feel is beneath them. In a world where the internet archive exists and yet people watch grainy re-runs of tired shows on youtube maybe we need to ask questions of the society, what it has valued, and what values it passes on, rather than saying screens are corrupting our children (or our adults). This isn't to say that we shouldn't enjoy our time online in whichever fashion we choose, that the latest memes are worthless or to be avoided, that you shouldn't enjoy the media which gives you pleasure, guilty or not. But everyone asks, at least once in a while, whether what they consume is sufficient, whether they could be improving themselves with other content, and is it really the sheer numbness of the screen which makes us ask such questions? Or is their still some flicker from our education, from our culture more broadly that makes us wonder what we could be missing out on? Surely the more interesting challenge is how to amplify that flicker, rather than how we can get people away from a screen which, after all, as with radio or television, or even books, can present the best or worst of what our species has to offer, more or less at our request.

If people are going to keep being asked to publish books on the problems with our cultural productions then I'd like to see more of these missing arguments, arguing why people might turn to certain things, arguing for the provision of quality materials, arguing for why they're quality, and arguing convincingly, continually. We need that flicker in our midst to send us down the new paths that the screen has enabled us to follow. If readers are skimming everything they come across then maybe what they're being guided to isn't doing a good enough job, maybe it's not holding their attention, not because it's too hard, too complex, too challenging, but because it's saying nothing new, nothing compelling, nothing challenging at all.

Maybe that's why some things get skimmed, maybe that's why some books just don't get finished.

From Teleread:

Mark Bauerlein says:
A weak analysis of the data in the book. All you cite are the numbers from the SPPA on arts participation (and your assertion that opera, classical, and jazz listening have been “middle class” pursuits in US history is flat wrong–and the survey asked about listening, too, not just attending, so the “too expensive argument” doesn’t wash). What about NAEP reading scores, college remediation rates, employer surveys, SAT writing scores, etc., which are in the book? What about leisure reading rates in SPPA, NSSE, HSSSE, American Freshman Survey, etc.? Sorry, but the rates of immigration don’t come close to accounting for the declines. And to cite yourself and your own habits as contradiction isn’t even anecdotal. It’s ego. Finally, didn’t you get the joke of the sub-subtitle?
Mark Bauerlein
My reply (with a couple of typos fixed!):

I apologise if you took my piece to be an analysis of the data in the book, that wasn't my intention, I was just trying to explain my frustration with a certain kind of data analysis that seems to be repeated in the discourse associated with popular books on the decline of "preferred" cultural participation; I only held your work up as the example I had most recently engaged with.  There seemed to me, to be a neglect in the book of wider cultural issues (perhaps by necessity of a particular assignment?) which would just as significantly impact on the reception of particular cultural forms as any technology, and this frustrated me enough to write asking why such things never appear to be considered.

To address your other points: I realise that jazz, and to some extent opera and classical music more generally have not always been deemed middle class pursuits, in the case of jazz very obviously not.  But to say that they are not frequently seen that way now would naive.  I do not think they should be middle class pursuits (and I certainly don't think that no one outside of the middle classes enjoys them), so why has this become the perception?  I don't think that "the numbing effects of the screen" is a good enough answer.

More importantly where is the defence for these being more valuable cultural activities than any others?  There's a reason that these are picked out as examples of "quality" activity, it's a complex of race and class based prejudice.  This can be seen in the breadth of the claim which renders it banal, for instance: will any jazz do?  Would we rather our children listened to, or worse attended gigs of smooth jazz rather than listening to some of the challenging, complex, innovative work in hip-hop, dub-step, folk, etc., etc.?  Are we talking about Miles Davis or Kenny G here (hardly the worst of his peers, but you get the point)?  In short, I was wondering why your book, and others like it, choose to be complicit with this kind of received wisdom of quality?

As for the issue of expense, granted home listening is clearly less expensive (but, as my quotation showed, there's no doubt that you and the original study chose to pick out declines in the more expensive aspects of the pursuit of these forms).  But why was there no mention of the fact that educating yourself in listening to classical or jazz is not cheap from the perspective of a great many families?  Far too many people are unable, even if inclined, to shell out for CDs, CD players, or internet connections for their children.  This isn't uncommon, and this does affect participation rates.  The increasingly niche status of classical music in particular also pushes up CD prices making it an even less attractive avenue for those who do have a disposable income for music.

I didn't go into the other ratings that you outline in the book because a) I'm not arguing that there isn't a problem with what we seem to value culturally (only that the screen isn't to blame, and the mere availability of content we might agree on as facile or, at best, irrelevant cannot be held up alone as what guides people toward it) and b) because, again, it wasn't the intention of my piece to do a blow by blow analysis of the book, simply to share the thoughts that it promoted.

Finally, citing myself as evidence.  It was an article based on my report of reading on screen, so there's that - "I hated that, for a second, it seemed like I was bearing out his thesis: that, as a member of the digital generation, I was unable to concentrate on sustained linear arguments due to the hypnotic and anaesthetising effects of 'the screen'."  I did worry about this, it was the thought that prompted the piece, so I thought it worth spending two paragraphs out of 12 on.  Also, in the absence of data on new reading modes we *have* to rely on personal report.  I offer up my reports, other writers offer up theirs, and then we look at the official data which says "you're doing reading all wrong now" and some of us are able to say "no, we're just reading in different ways sometimes."

It would surely be odd to use a new technology in the exact same way as an older technology, but as we haven't settled on the new form's received wisdoms yet I think it's best to be as vocal as possible so that we can compare notes (incidentally, most reading used to occur out loud, standing up, and with a finger following the text?  How stupid they must have looked with their different reading mode!  Or maybe to those early scholars we'd have looked like we weren't paying enough attention when we settled down on the couch?).

To be honest, I think we'd probably agree about a lot if we were ever to meet in person.  We both seem to worry that people could be engaging with more significant content in the age of the internet, and we both worry, of course, whenever we see that children are struggling in school, and later as adults, in whatever way.  But I think that laying the blame at the foot of technology lets too many systems off the hook: lets off education at all levels; lets off a media which has lost its way and serves only a clearly failing status quo; lets off increasingly fractured communities; and lets off an economic system which causes the disparities which create and/or further all of these problems and more.

Having the platform to have your voice heard by so many, and in so valued a medium as a printed book, seems an enviable opportunity to address some of the problems in the field you chose to tackle.  But there have been too many books recently which (rightly) question the new technology, but leave everything else alone, and become complicit with data collection and interpretation which promulgates old prejudices at the expense of nuance or elucidation.  I felt that this was worth writing about, even if I couldn't do justice to all of the material you presented.