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Jul. 9 2010 - 8:20 pm | 207 views | 3 recommendations | 4 comments

Read a book, surf the web: You don’t have to choose

Cropped screenshot of Jimmy Durante from the t...

Image via Wikipedia

When it comes to asking how the Internet is changing us, Jimmy Durante, the old vaudvillian with the prodigious schnoozola, has it right, “Everybody wants ta get inta da act!”

The latest voice in the growing chorus of Google versus Gutenberg is NY Times columnist David Brooks whose morning column considered questions of whether Internet culture is good for kids and learning. He concludes that “Internet culture may produce better conversationalists … literary culture still produces better students.”

His rationale? Well, he waves in the direction of research. But as is always the case with research about the psycho-social consequences of the Internet, by the time a study is planned, the data collected and analyzed, the report written, submitted to peer review, and then published the technology has moved on; the world is no longer what it was when the study was planned. Brooks version of this inevitable not knowing, what I’ve tongue-in-cheek—but only a little—called the Essig Uncertainty Principle, was to cite a study  showing “broadband access is not necessarily good for kids” that is from “2000 to 2005 before Twitter and Facebook took off.” Does it still apply today? Who knows. All we have is uncertainty.

But I’m not being fair. Brooks is not offering a scientific review article. His is not really a research-grounded point of view. Instead, all he’s really doing is presenting a familiar conservative mind-set in which respect for traditional authority is good, undermining authority bad. Ultimately, his column is not at all about the Internet. It was merely another protest that they way things were, the hierarchies of knowledge and privilege that landed him on his lofty perch, is the way things should be; dammit, the world works better my way!

Lets look closer. Beneath his erudition is a rather simple dichotomy.

the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher.

via Op-Ed Columnist – The Medium Is the Medium – NYTimes.com.

In contrast,

A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience. The Internet smashes hierarchy and is not marked by deference

[snip]

The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, antiauthority disputation.

Smashes hierarchy? I guess when you write on the opinion page of the Times you never have to worry about page view counts, or count the number of FB friends you have, or at how many follow you on Twitter. When you actually spend time using the thing, you realize the Internet does not smash hierarchy nor is it disrespectful or antiauthority. It creates different hierarchies and authorities,”emergent” ones built from the billions of decisions the hive makes each day. Today’s Internet is about opportunity not revenge as Brooks would have it. Brooks and others with button-down white-male privilege—like me—have the same chance but no better than anyone else. The fact is that no one really confuses “icanhazcheezburger” with “Arts & Letters Daily” and it’s somewhat disingenuine to complain that they do.

Going further, his entire either-or premise is wrong:

A person who becomes a citizen of the literary world enters a hierarchical universe. There are classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom.

A person enters this world as a novice, and slowly studies the works of great writers and scholars. Readers immerse themselves in deep, alternative worlds and hope to gain some lasting wisdom. Respect is paid to the writers who transmit that wisdom.

A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience.

via Op-Ed Columnist – The Medium Is the Medium – NYTimes.com.

In a word, no. I’m sitting here, like I assume you are with dual citizenship. I’m writing this piece referencing lots of windows and both an e-book version of Nicholas Carr’s book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” and a paper copy (hardback no less!) of Maggie Jackson’s too often ignored and arguably superior “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.” The question is not which is better, Internet or book culture. Rather, the question is how to develop a flexibility of mind that will allow one to exploit and enjoy both.

Brooks project of preserving the human core of that which is old and traditional is just not helped by denigrating and misunderstanding that which is new. If our emerging post-human future is going to be more -human than post- we need to do better, whether the domain is attention, concentration, literacy, or, closer to my interests, love and relationships.

And finally, to show that the pre-Internet golden age that is the object of Brooks’s nostalgic lust was just as irreverent as any college humor web-site, I turn again to the Schnozzola, Mr. Inka Dinka Doo himself with his 1947 classic commentary on the literary world:


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  1. collapse expand

    I take your point, but as a mother of two children who witnesses every day the slow erosion of reading time in lieu of screen time, I think Mr. Brooks is onto something. Reading works of literature from beginning to end is becoming an activity that is only done within the context of school assignments, and is therefore associated with “work”, not pleasure. I’m grateful to the teachers who assign significant amounts of reading, because I don’t think my kids would otherwise read on their own, regardless of how much I implore them to do so. Personally, I think it’s a concern if we’re seeing declining reading scores.

    Now, you and I who grew up in pre-Internet times are perfectly comfortable switching gears, and our reading habits have already been established. Not sure the same will be true of the generations who come after us.

    • collapse expand

      I hear you IMHO, and I agree. SOMETHING is going on. I’m just not sure what. Jackson and Carr talk about screen time rewiring brains and degrading attention, Brooks now about the loss of intellectual authority and a disrespectful attitude. They’re all judging and evaluating before describing what’s going on.

      While I can switch gears I still have not found a capacity to play fantasy-fiction games like World of Warcraft. Sooner or later someone will come up with a massive multi-player game that is nothing short of a work of art and will do for the genre what Beowulf and the Cantebury Tales did for what became the novel. When that time comes, we’ll be be the ones left out!

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Todd, I’ve worked with some students who have looked into the specific examples of this phenomenon that concerns arts reviewing–books, movies, etc. Arts reviewing is dying, the traditional/professional reviewers contend, because everyone is doing it now.

    It’s a curious attitude. The same could be said of democracy: it was great until everyone got to vote.

    Among these privileged worriers is Martin Amis, who worries the public is trampling the garden — untrained individuals responding to literature by documenting their own feelings. “These feelings are seldom adulterated,” he writes. “They are admixtures of herd opinions and social anxieties, vanities, touchinesses, and everything else that makes up a self.”

    Whereas the feelings of the professional critic are pure? Especially if he’s born to the profession.

    Thank you for the Jimmy Durante, who must be one of your role models, with a sharp eye for, and quick tongue with, the penetrating truth. “There’s nothing like sitting at home before a fire with a pipe, a dog, and a book at your feet.”

  3. collapse expand

    Every person learns in different ways, at a different pace. In the debate about online learning versus book learning, there is only one certainty: it depends on the learner. Any commentator who goes beyond that certainty to generalize doesn’t know much about learning.

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