Waning of the Typographic Mind

Posted: January 6, 2008 in Culture, Literacy, Philosophy, Television, Writing

The New Yorker has a rather long but interesting article called “Twilight of the Books” about the decline of reading and literacy in the modern world. The article is far reaching in its attempt to summarize information from a number of sources, notably a book by Maryanne Wolf, a professor at Tufts University and director of its Center for Reading and Language Research, titled Proust and the Squid. The article begins with a litany of statistics demonstrating that reading is in decline.

I have to pause here to chide The New Yorker about its own writing, which is the flip side of reading on the literacy coin. Don’t all articles pass over at least two desks: the writer’s and the editor’s?

In January 1994, forty-nine per cent of respondents told the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that they had read a newspaper the day before. In 2006, only forty-three per cent said so, including those who read online. Book sales, meanwhile, have stagnated. The Book Industry Study Group estimates that sales fell from 8.27 books per person in 2001 to 7.93 in 2006. According to the Department of Labor, American households spent an average of a hundred and sixty-three dollars on reading in 1995 and a hundred and twenty-six dollars in 2005. [emphasis added]

Isn’t per cent better as one word: percent? Similarly, shouldn’t a hundred and sixty-three be one hundred sixty-three? Any experienced copy editor should know that we don’t write numbers (or numerals) the way we speak them. We may say one-oh-six, but we don’t write 1o6 (as opposed to 106 — the typographical difference is difficult to see with some fonts, but it’s there). There are lots of other style errors, contractions, and generalized clumsiness, but I’ll move on.

As I read the article, I was struck by the number of times I said to myself, Duh, that’s so obvious it doesn’t bear stating! But I realized that most of the Duh! moments aren’t in fact so obvious to anyone ignorant of even entry-level media theory, which is really what I have. So I’ll reproduce a few noteworthy items with comments.

A reader learns about the world and imagines it differently from the way a viewer [of TV] does; according to some experimental psychologists, a reader and a viewer even think differently. If the eclipse of reading continues, the alteration is likely to matter in ways that aren’t foreseeable.

This reminded (again) me of The Judgment of Thamus (PDF), a Platonic parable as told by Neil Postman. Thamus’ unique vision was to foresee that a fundamental alteration to the way we perceive and process information would have wholesale effects on the population and culture. If there was anyone with such wisdom at the dawn of the TV era, they were effectively silenced. That Pandora’s Box is now open, and there’s no going back.

Wolf’s article is discussed at some length, but I fear that for all her interdisciplinary acumen, she lacks crucial understandings in historical psychology. For instance,

[Wolf] points out that it is possible to read efficiently a script that combines ideograms and phonetic elements, something that many Chinese do daily. The alphabet, she suggests, entailed not a qualitative difference but an accumulation of small quantitative ones, by helping more readers reach efficiency sooner. “The efficient reading brain,” she writes, “quite literally has more time to think.” Whether that development sparked Greece’s flowering she leaves to classicists to debate, but she agrees with Havelock that writing was probably a contributive factor, because it freed the Greeks from the necessity of keeping their whole culture, including the Iliad and the Odyssey, memorized. [Why are these titles not in italics?]

This passage seems to me to miss the point. Improving reading efficiency doesn’t necessarily mean improved mental function, conscious or subconscious. It may simply mean that the mind is at rest more of the time, or it may mean a simple shift of priorities. Nor does outsourcing mental function to external memory represent the fundamental advancement of Classical Greek culture. Other cultures had writing systems, too, but they didn’t blossom the way the Greeks did. Rather, it was the subject-object distinction, or the ability of the Greek thinker to adopt a mental pose independent of an object of inquiry, that was the great leap forward. The article discusses mimesis and loss of objectivity (in reality an objectivity not yet fully achieved as a habit of mind rather than a loss of a standard aspect of cognition) in the very next paragraph but fails to put the ideas together successfully.

The discussion of illiterate cognition was especially interesting.

Aleksandr R. Luria, a Soviet psychologist, published a study based on interviews conducted in the nineteen-thirties [!] with illiterate and newly literate peasants in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Luria found that illiterates had a “graphic-functional” way of thinking that seemed to vanish as they were schooled. In naming colors, for example, literate people said “dark blue” or “light yellow,” but illiterates used metaphorical names like “liver,” “peach,” “decayed teeth,” and “cotton in bloom.” Literates saw optical illusions; illiterates sometimes didn’t. Experimenters showed peasants drawings of a hammer, a saw, an axe, and a log and then asked them to choose the three items that were similar. Illiterates resisted, saying that all the items were useful. If pressed, they considered throwing out the hammer; the situation of chopping wood seemed more cogent to them than any conceptual category. One peasant, informed that someone had grouped the three tools together, discarding the log, replied, “Whoever told you that must have been crazy,” and another suggested, “Probably he’s got a lot of firewood.” [emphasis added]

This passage is especially revealing. The functional nature of the illiterate mind (orality) is extinguished by the abstract reasoning that is the hallmark of the literate mind. For most modern thinkers, that’s merely the socialization process, or growing up. But from a psychological perspective, it’s a regrettable gloss over other, alternate ways of organizing cognition that focus on other skills. Going on:

[Walter] Ong synthesized existing research into a vivid picture of the oral mind-set. [!] Whereas literates can rotate concepts in their minds abstractly, orals embed their thoughts in stories. According to Ong, the best way to preserve ideas in the absence of writing is to “think memorable thoughts,” whose zing insures their transmission. In an oral culture, cliché and stereotype are valued, as accumulations of wisdom, and analysis is frowned upon, for putting those accumulations at risk. There’s no such concept as plagiarism, and redundancy is an asset that helps an audience follow a complex argument. Opponents in struggle are more memorable than calm and abstract investigations, so bards revel in name-calling [!] and in “enthusiastic description of physical violence.” Since there’s no way to erase a mistake invisibly, as one may in writing, speakers tend not to correct themselves at all. Words have their present meanings but no older ones, and if the past seems to tell a story with values different from current ones, it is either forgotten or silently adjusted … it is only in a literate culture that the past’s inconsistencies have to be accounted for, a process that encourages skepticism and forces history to diverge from myth.

These characterizations are significant for our understanding of what’s to come if indeed fewer people become fully literate. Stop reading books and process all information through the TV (visually and orally) rather than through typed text and those things that resonate and make sense will similarly shift.

In 2001, after analyzing data on more than a million students around the world, the researcher Micha Razel found “little room for doubt” that television worsened performance in reading, science, and math. The relationship wasn’t a straight line but “an inverted check mark”: a small amount of television seemed to benefit children; more hurt. For nine-year-olds, the optimum was two hours a day; for seventeen-year-olds, half an hour … The Internet, happily, does not so far seem to be antagonistic to literacy. Researchers recently gave Michigan children and teen-agers [!] home computers in exchange for permission to monitor their Internet use. The study found that grades and reading scores rose with the amount of time spent online. Even visits to pornography Web sites improved academic performance. Of course, such synergies may disappear if the Internet continues its YouTube-fuelled evolution away from print and toward television.

I have blogged on children and TV in the past. Only the intellectually lazy could possibly believe that if a little bit of something is a good thing then a lot of it must be better. It’s frankly embarrassing to admit that parents buy into TV as a wholly salutary influence or at least do little to stem its awful effects. But that’s the subject of another long diatribe I have not yet written.

The final remark about computers and the Internet evolving toward TV is actually trenchant, but I fear it’s lost in the overall sweep of the article, despite being reinforced in a remark three paragraphs later:

Emotional responsiveness to streaming media harks back to the world of primary orality, and, as in Plato’s day, the solidarity amounts almost to a mutual possession.

This is the crux of the matter, to be sure. It serves as the launching point for a few more academic findings and a final opportunity for the author to wax poetic.

[T]he N.E.A. reports that readers are more likely than non-readers [!] to play sports, exercise, visit art museums, attend theatre, [!] paint, go to music events, take photographs, and volunteer. Proficient readers are also more likely to vote. Perhaps readers venture so readily outside because what they experience in solitude gives them confidence. Perhaps reading is a prototype of independence. No matter how much one worships an author, Proust wrote, “all he can do is give us desires.” Reading somehow gives us the boldness to act on them. Such a habit might be quite dangerous for a democracy to lose.

It’s unclear what the author, after reporting so broadly, believes the implications for democracy to be. He closes with a rhetorical flourish, not quite a question, but definitely a provocation to further inquiry and consideration. I’m not nearly so ambivalent or judicious. If the waning of the typographic mind proceeds, I anticipate that the abstract reasoning and critical thinking skills that are the legacy of Enlightenment Man will be lost except to a few initiates who protect the flame. And with so many other threats cropping up before us, the prospect of a roiling mass of all-but-in-name barbarians ruled by a narrow class of oligarchs does indeed spell the total loss of democracy.

Change is inevitable. I don’t expect to forestall any shifts in the cultural mind, nor do I expect anyone or anything can direct those shifts more than a little bit. However, I can bemoan the loss of a worthy aspect of human culture — the capacity for critical thinking borne out of literacy and objectivity — even as I recognize that other modes of thought have their unique worthiness. As with biodiversity, it’s recognized that the disappearance of languages and dialects represents the loss of unique ways of thinking and perspectives developed over many generations. Similarly, when the masses are trained to think solely in terms of visual entertainment, we will have lost our capacity to maintain many of the institutions upon which our civilization depends. We will then have a different civilization — one that may be a faint shadow of our current one.

  1. Robert says:

    I remember reading somewhere about ethnologists who did similar tests with African tribesmen, who similarly resisted grouping the tools the way a Western person would. One of the ethnologists had a hunch, and he asked the next group to organize the tools “like a fool would do it”. They then divided them by function without prompting.

    They were able to form the logical chain to impose that organization; they just thought it was foolish to do so.

  2. obie1993 says:

    “As I read the article, I was struck by the number of times I said to myself, Duh, that’s so obvious it doesn’t bear stating! But I realized that most of the Duh! moments aren’t in fact so obvious to anyone ignorant of even entry-level media theory, which is really what I have.”

    you must always keep in mind that not everyone is as smart as you are, brutus.

  3. grasshopperkm says:

    Not all videos are entertainment. Often now when I buy a workbook, hoping to learn a new skill like Photoshop 6.0, the best tools and their effects aren’t offered in the 550 pages of text. The initiate no doubt benefit from watching the enclosed DVD, which show the advanced procedures: do this, then this, and this.
    Unfortunately for me, I’m of the dinosaur age and so remember instructions and patterns much more readily and clearly if I’ve read them, not watched.

    In my tiny world, the tide has already turned. Those who are video-smart, it seems, are far better prepared for the work force. My thoughts no matter how deep and intricate don’t really compute.

    Still, I wouldn’t trade thinking for watching, not for money, not for prestige. Call me a bookworm.

  4. Jennie says:

    It is easy to judge others when you don’t walk in their shoes. Try corralling a 2-year-old for an entire day with nothing but yourself for entertainment and THEN we’ll talk about the benefits of television and children.


  5. obie1993 says:

    teletubbies are my babysitters!

  6. Brutus says:

    I don’t mean to sound as though I’m judging others, but there are sometimes far-reaching effects to our behaviors, especially those to which we commit 10 to 25 hours per week. I also recognize that TV has become a parental tool for managing children’s behavior. It’s a fact. But parents have only had that option for 60 years or so. There were other strategies for managing children. In fairness, though, those were before the TV age, so many won’t apply now. And some (child labor, for instance) were downright cruel by our standards.

    I think Grasshopper has the right idea. Use technology, including TV and video, when it suits one’s particular needs, but forego a lot of it in favor of developing a mental life beyond mere watching.

  7. Robert says:

    And some (child labor, for instance) were downright cruel by our standards.

    Speak for yourself. I’d have my kid out in the yard right now sorting rocks by size if he hadn’t broken his knee, poor sprog.

  8. […] The introduction of the widescreen display for computers clearly moves the computer away from being a work machine towards being an entertainment device. Any argument that it can be both simultaneously strikes me as hollow, along the lines of the TV being an educational device. If the computer does eventually become the complete home media center and replace the TV and stand-alone stereo system as hoped by many technophiles, perhaps it will be fulfilling its destiny, with obvious implications for further debasing the literacy and erudition of the general public. […]

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