Posts Tagged ‘Nicholas Carr’

Nicholas Carr has a pair of thoughtful new posts at his blog Rough Type (see blogroll) under the tag “infinite media.” The second of the two is about context collapse, restoration, and content collapse. I won’t review that particular post; I’m merely pointing to it for you to read. Carr is a journalist and media theorist whose work is especially interesting to me as a partial antidote to what I’ve been calling our epistemological crisis. In short, he offers primers on how to think about stuff, that stuff being the primary medium through which most people now gather information: via screens.

Relatedly, the other media theorist to whom I pay attention is Alan Jacobs, who has a recent book (which I read but didn’t review or blog about) called more simply How to Think. It’s about recognizing and avoiding cognitive biases on the way to more disciplined, clear thinking. I mention these two fellows together because I’ve been reading their blogs and books for over a decade now and have been curious to observe how their public interactions have changed over time. They have each embraced and abandoned various new media (particularly social media) and adopted more stringent media ecology. Carr posts ocassionally now and has closed comments at his blog (a shame, since his commentariat was valuable, quite unlike the troll mob at most sites). Jacobs is even more aggressive, starting and abandoning one blog after another (was active at multiple URLs, one formerly on my blogroll) and deleting his Twitter account entirely. Whatever goings-on occur at Facebook I can’t say; I never go there. These aren’t criticisms. We all evolve our associations and activities. But these two are unusual, perhaps, in that they evaluate and recommend with varying vehemence how to interact with electronic media tools.

The wide-open Web available to Americans (but restricted in some countries) used to be valorized as a wholly democratic, organic, grass-roots, decentralized force for good where information yearned to breathe free. Though pioneered by academic institutions, it wasn’t long before the porn industry became the first to monetize it effectively (cuz duh! that’s there the money was — at least initially) and then the whole thing was eventually overwhelmed by others with unique agendas and mechanisms, including commerce, surveillance, and propaganda. The surfeit of information demanded curation, and social media with algorithmic feeds became the default for folks either too lazy or just untrained (or uninterested) in how to think for themselves. Along the way, since a surprisingly large portion of human activity diverted to online media, that activity turned into a resource mined, harvested, and in turn monetized, much like the voting public has become a resource tracked, polled, channeled, activated, disenfranchized, corrupted, and analyzed to death.

An earlier media theorist I read with enthusiasm, Neil Postman, recommended that curricula include the study of semantics as applied to media. (Use of a word like semantics sends nonacademics running for the hills, but the recommendation is basically about thinking critically, even skeptically, regarding information, its sources, and its means of distribution.) The rise of handheld omnimedia postdates Postman, so I can only surmise that the bewildering array of information we confront absorb every day, which I liken to drinking from a fire hose, only compounds Postman’s concern that students are severely overmatched by media (especially advertising) intent on colonizing and controlling their minds. Thus, today’s information environment is a far cry from the stately slowness of earlier eras when teaching and learning (to say nothing of entertainment) were conducted primarily through reading, lecture, and discussion.

A comment came in on this blog chiding me for still blogging after 14 years. I admit hardly anyone reads anymore; they watch (or listen, as with audio-only podcasts). Preferred forms of media consumption have moved on from printed text, something USA Today recognized decades ago when it designed its print publication and sidewalk distribution boxes to look more like TVs. Nonetheless, the modest reproach reminded me of a cry in the wilderness by Timothy Burke: why he still blogs, though quite infrequently. (There’s a brokeback can’t-quit-you joke in there somewhere I’ll leave unformulated.) So this blog may indeed be past its proper expiration date, yet it remains for me one of the best means for organizing how I think about stuff. Without it, I’m afraid thoughts would be rattling loose inside my head, disorganized, only to be displaced by the next slurp from the fire hose.

I’m reading The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, which describes how technologies we use affect brain/mind function. He surveys several inventions (the clock, the map, the printed book) that had significant effects on how we think. The history behind the book (pre-Gutenberg) surprised me. As Carr reports, the transition from cuneiform and other logographic forms to the phonetic alphabet and then to fluent, silent reading as we now do was protracted. He notes that prior to the Middle Ages, phonetic presentation of text was variable and had no spaces or punctuation. It was called scriptura continua, and the act of reading was an intensive cognitive process akin to deciphering the text, which was accordingly always done aloud, typically one reader to a plurality of listeners.

Reading aloud accounts for the presence of carrels and cloisters in ancient churches and libraries to accommodate the privacy needs of readers/listeners. In contrast, modern libraries have reading rooms — large open spaces filled with tables and chairs (see here and here) — precisely because silent reading requires no such privacy. Silent, personal reading was therefore a shift away from oral cultures that still used text as a tool within the wider context of orality. Later, the printing press and the economic effects of publishing gradually transformed oral culture to print culture by inaugurating the trend of private, personal knowledge newly and widely available to everyone.

Somewhat later in his book, Carr circles around to say that modern media, especially hypermedia, have returned us to the era of scriptura continua — not because everything is necessarily experienced aloud but because the variety of parallel channels and distractions returns media consumption to a deciphering process that blocks full comprehension. We’re often unaware of this fact, since most cognitive activity is subconscious, but the increased cognitive load may account for excitement we feel by being overstimulated. The irony is that learning occurs best when the mind is in a paradoxical state of relaxed concentration, which is what we experience during deep reading.

Many of us over the age of 30 or so, who remember a time before the Internet and its bounty, intuit that some part of our mental faculties has been lost. Regrettably, those below age 30 typically cannot know the loss of something they never developed. The world changes, of course, and we change with it; so in a sense, transitioning from one style of consciousness to another is inevitable. It’s happened numerous times before. If the failure of the electrical grid and the disappearance of all our pseudo-connectedness is as inevitable as doomers believe, I wonder what will happen when people are returned to the mental state where today’s constant stream of mostly irrelevant inputs is gone. Will they have the capacity for any depth of thought?