Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

July 27 2010

18:00

Uneven depths: Why the printed page has always had room for scholarly brilliance and dirty jokes

[Matthew Battles is one of my favorite thinkers about how we read, consume, and learn. He's reading and reacting to Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows. Over the next several weeks, we'll be running Matthew's ongoing twin review; here are parts one, two, three, four, five, and six. — Josh]

In a chapter called “The Deepening Page,” Nicholas Carr offers a swift and graceful account of the history of writing. He traces the rise of logic, coherence, and depth from magical formulae scratched on potsherds and wax tablets by the ancients, through the pious allusions of the middle ages to the graceful periodic sentences of the eighteenth century. Their prose represented not only a formal triumph, but a neural one as well. “To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought,” writes Carr, “one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object.”

The reading of a sequence of printed pages was valuable not just for the knowledge readers acquired from the author’s words but for the way those words set off intellectual vibrations within their own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.

To Carr, the story of manuscript, printing, and publishing is the rise of the “deep page,” with modern literature as the apotheosis of literacy. The process a grimy Gutenberg started in the mid fifteenth century culminates in Wallace Stevens, whose poem “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm” glories in the deep page: “The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind / The access of perfection to the page.”

The trouble is, it didn’t feel this way to many people going through these changes at various times in the past. Not to the manuscript bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci, who condemned the coarsening presence of printed volumes in libraries devoted to books in manuscript; not to Pope Paul IV, who started the Index of Prohibited Books during the so-called “incunable era” following the advent of moveable type; not to Pope Urban VIII, who tangled with Galileo; not to Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope; not to the French monarchy in advance of the Revolution.

The printing press never only produced the kind of deep reading we admire and privilege today. It also produced propaganda and misinformation, penny dreadfuls and comic books offensive to public morality, pornography, self-help books, and much that was generally despised and rejected by polite culture. Any account of the history of “The Gutenberg Era” that lacks these is incomplete — just as any picture of the Internet that privileges LOLcats and 4chan is insufficient. We must consider both — for pornography, misinformation, and sheer foolishness have thrived from the age of incunables to the advent of the Internet. And the deep-reading brain evolved in the midst of it all.

In his report about ROFLCon in last week’s New York Times Magazine, Rob Walker argues that open culture needs the slipshod, the shifty, and the shallow in order to maintain its health.

The more traditional pundits and gurus who talk about the Internet often seem to want to draw strict boundaries between old mass-media culture and the more egalitarian forms taking shape online — and between Internet life and life in the physical world…Sometimes the pointless-seeming jokes that spring from the Web seem to be calling a bluff and showing a truth: This is what egalitarian cultural production really looks like, this is what having unbounded spaces really entails, this is what anybody-can-be-famous means, this is how the hunger for “moar” gets sated, this is what’s burbling in the hive mind’s id. But the real point is that to pretend otherwise isn’t denying the Internet — it’s denying reality.

Walker references a talk the computer historian Jason Scott gave at the first ROFLCon in 2008 in which he discussed the shallow and seemingly antisocial memes spread by communications networks long before the Internet. Scott discusses electric media going back to the telegraph, but the printing press teemed with the shallow stuff well before the advent of telegraphy. Readers in the 18th century in particular were offered a tantalizing selection of bawdy images and tawdry tales. As the great book historian Robert Darnton has shown, the age of Voltaire and Rousseau was awash in erotica, dirty cartoons, and fancifully libelous tales of the rich and famous.

So where did the deep page come from? Not merely from ignoring the dross — for many alloys exist between poetry and pornography, and at any given moment, it’s never entirely clear which is which. Jonathan Swift, writing his “Battle of the Books” in 1704, didn’t even bother with the bawdy writers. Swift’s satire depicts a war between ancient and modern authors, with the ancients on the side of sweetness and light; it was Descartes and classicist Richard Bentley that drew his ire as much as any Grub Street hack. Swift and other early modern readers engaged in an encounter with a murky multiplicity of shifting possibilities in print. And it was the multiplicity that produced the deep page — presumably along with the brain circuitry underlying it.

At the edges of the deep page lie miles of shallow estuaries, stinking, muddy — and teeming with life. Our plastic brains have been navigating their effluents for a very long time.

July 07 2010

17:30

From prefab paint to the power of typewriters to the Internet: Distrust of the Shallows is nothing new

[Matthew Battles is one of my favorite thinkers about how we read, consume, and learn. He's reading and reacting to Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows. Over the next several weeks, we'll be running Matthew's ongoing twin review; here are parts one, two, three, and four. — Josh]

When factory-produced paint was first made available in tubes in the 1840s, it transformed the practices of painters. Previously, paint-making had been part of the artist’s craft (a messy task, ideally handled by assistants). Grinding pigments, measuring solvents, and decanting the resulting concoctions into containers (glass vials and pigs’ bladders were frequently used). The texture of the artist’s work was determined by the need to make paint, but the paints themselves also literally determined the palette, and even to a certain extent the subject matter, of their works. With the advent of cheap, manufactured tube paints, paint could be a sketching medium; it became easier to carry paints into the field to paint en plein air. Renoir even went so far as to say that without tube paints, the Impressionist movement would never have happened.

Looking through new tubes, so to speak, nineteenth-century artists found a new way to look at the world. Rarely will you find an art historian who will complain about the damaging effects of manufactured paints, or talk about ready-made pigments as if they determined the course of nineteenth-century art in some limiting fashion. Technological innovation made possible a creative renascence in painting.

Nicholas Carr begins the second chapter of The Shallows with a similar story, describing the transformation that took place in Nietzsche’s work when the beleaguered, convalescent philosopher purchased his first typewriter. A friend noticed a change in Nietzsche’s work after he began to use the machine — and Nietzsche agreed, noting that “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”

Observers have long noted the uncanny capacity of the typewriter to tranform the very thinking of its users. Indeed the typewriter transformed many aspects of life in the last decades of the nineteenth century, from correspondence and private literacy to the role of women in the workplace — changes both lamentable and liberating. But the machine’s cognitive capacity was particularly disturbing to writers and critics.

Carr traces the advent of the typewriter brain to the concept of neuroplasticity: the notion that the brain is susceptible to changes in structure and function throughout its lifetime. It’s a broad concept, as Carr allows, covering addiction, neural adaptation to the loss of a limb or the mastering of a novel musical instrument, and the sort of changes in working pattern, attention, and even aesthetic sensibility that seem to accompany the advent of new tools. Carr begins in this chapter to trace some of the history of our understanding of the brain’s adaptability, arguing that neuroplasticity is a relatively new discovery in the cognitive sciences. (It isn’t; as this post at the blog Mind Hacks shows, research into various aspects of plasticity has been going on for more than a century.)

Carr’s concern about the effect of the Internet on our brains hinges on the slipperiness of neuroplasticity as an idea. Because after all, there’s good change and bad change, and little way of telling whether the Internet will induce all one or all the other — or (far likelier, if history is any guide) a fair share of both the good and the bad. Carr puts it like this: “Although neuroplasticity provides an escape from genetic determinism, a loophole for free thought and free will, it also imposes its own form of determinism…As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit.”

I have no doubt that the Internet has changed my brain, and in a few of the ways Carr worries about. Some of those changes feel like transformations of consciouness; others feel like worrisome addictions. Thinking of Shirky’s cognitive surplus in particular, I can conceive a peril that Carr might agree with. Shirky’s surplus can be thought of as a newly-discovered resource — and it’s in the nature of capital to try and harness such resources. It’s becoming obvious that one way to harness it is by creating systems of reward that neurochemically goose our brains in exchange for access to our spare cycles. Cory Doctorow has aptly described the social media, and in particular Facebook, as “Skinner boxes” that reward our brain’s desire to communicate in return for access to our minds and our information.

So I agree with Carr to this extent: As users of new tools, we need to take care. But for our brains’ ability to adapt and change over time, we should be grateful. Looking to the past, we see that new tools have led to new possibilities, new ways of thinking and seeing, again and again. As a writer, I’m curious to find out where the tools of our time will take me; to the extent I’m an historian, I’m very skeptical that we can discern the form those transformations will take in aggregate.

To many art lovers in the nineteenth century, Impressionism looked like the Shallows in its obsession with surfaces and in its overturning of deep-rooted canons of painterly sensibility. But today, most of us are likely grateful for the changes the new tubes wrought in the brains of Renoir and Monet. Perhaps the tubes of our time should be approached in a like spirit.

July 02 2010

16:00

Papering over the bumps: Is the online media ecosystem really flat?

[Matthew Battles is one of my favorite thinkers about how we read, consume, and learn. He's reading and reacting to Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows. Over the next several weeks, we'll be running Matthew's ongoing twin review; here are parts one, two, and three. — Josh]

In Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky adopts the mode of a police procedural, analyzing the means, motives, and opportunities we have to use our cumulative free time in creative and generous ways. It’s a strange move, treating a notional good as the object of criminal activity, but it affords Shirky with a simple structure for his book.

Beginning with a chapter on “means,” then, Shirky looks at the tools we now have at our disposal for the sharing of stories, images, and ideas. He doesn’t immediately turn to the usual suspects — Facebook, Twitter, the blogosphere — but instead looks at outpourings of shared concern and interest that have erupted in surprising places. His first example is the explosive outbreak of protest that occurred in South Korea when US-produced beef was reintroduced to markets in Spring 2008. South Korea had banned American meat during the bovine spongiform encephelopathy or “mad cow disease” scare in 2003, later reopening its market in a quiet agreement between the two countries’ governments. Protests against this move began among followers of the popular Korean boy band Dong Ban Shin Ki. Exchanging messages in the decidedly non-political forum of the bulletin boards on DBSK’s web site, they ignited a nationwide furor and nearly brought down the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak.

As Shirky describes it, the fluid and soluble nature of the new media helped to leverage the power of the protests. “[M]edia stopped being just a source of information and became a locus of coordination as well,” Shirky writes, as protesters used not only the DBSK web site but “a host of other conversational online spaces. They were also sending images and text via their mobile phones, not just to disseminate information and opinion but to act on it.”

When I read such stories of burgeoning viral foment, I think of Arthur Machen, a British author of ghost stories writing at the time of the First World War. During the run-up to the bloody campaign of the Somme, Machen published a short story called “The Bowmen,” in which he imagined soldiers who died five hundred years earlier at the Battle of Agincourt, led by Saint George, riding out of the sky to rescue an outgunned British force at the Battle of Mons. The story appeared in the London Evening News in September 1914. In the months that followed, parish magazines throughout Britain reprinted the story; and soon, fragments of the tale began to circulate, virally as it were, in the form of rumor and testimony from the combatants themselves. The story grew: Dead German soldiers had been found transfixed by arrows; Saint George and Agincourt’s band of brothers had been joined by winged angels and Joan of Arc. Although Machen sought to publicize the fictional origins of the tale, it had gone viral thanks to the flattened transmedia of newspapers and church gossip.

We’re in Walter Lippmann territory here. In World War I and the World Wide Web alike, we come to the public sphere with a kit of reflexes and assumptions. Of course, unlike angels on the battlefield, mad cow disease is real. The extent of its threat to public health, however, may have more in common with the supernatural dangers faced by German soldiers in 1914; the ways the two stories engage our reflex-kit have much in common. From history, we can take comfort in the knowledge that public opinion could be infected with viral memes before the emergence of the Internet. Can history also help us to cope with the shocks and tremors such rumors induce? Are they the signs of a healthy public sphere, or symptoms of a viral disease? Shirky would proclaim the former; Nicholas Carr likely inclines to the latter diagnosis. But both sides lack a necessary degree of richness and complexity.

The flattening of the media — the Internet’s ability to break down barriers between broadcast and print, between advocacy and information — is recognizable to us all. But it’s worth questioning how truly flat it all has become. Shirky extolls the liberating frisson that comes from clicking the “publish now” button familiar to casual bloggers — but he fails to mention that invariably a few of those buttons are hooked up to more pipes than others. He talks about the end of scarcity: the resource-driven economics of print (and even the limits of the electromagnetic spectrum, in the case of broadcast media) are a thing of the past, he observes, and the opportunity to publish is now abundant. But we must recognize that on the Internet, large audiences remain a scarce resource — and they’re largely still in the hands of transmedia conglomerates busy leveraging their powers in the old media of scarcity to dominate traffic.

Is the notion of flatness truly descriptive, or does it merely paper over the bumps? Real differences in the power of platforms exist throughout the digitial media, as they did among the analog; the new political economy of communication is largely about shifting those differences around. The bumps used to lie before the doors of access, making it difficult to get published in the first place. Those bumps have been flattened out — but as with an oversized carpet, they’ve popped up elsewhere, in front of the audiences. Sure, you can “publish now.” But who will know that you have published? On the Internet, no one may know that you’re a dog, but they can tell from your traffic and your follower counts whether you’re a celebrity or a major media outlet lurking in the social media. When CBS News has a Facebook account and you can follow CNN on Twitter, there’s little point in pretending that the means of communication have truly been flattened.

But flatland is extending itself everywhere, according to Shirky. “Now that computers and increasingly computerlike phones have been broadly adopted, the whole notion of cyberspace is fading. Our social media tools aren’t an alternative to real life, they are part of it.” No doubt this is true — cyberspace and meatspace are everywhere meeting and interpenetrating. But just as in the “real life” of old, the tools are not created equal. Some still have more leverage than others.

“Ideology addresses very real problems,” Slavov Žižek has said with unaccustomed clarity, “but in a way that mystifies them.” Flatness in the media is an ideology. It mystifies the bumps and valleys of the real which, as ever, are composed of talent, power, and liberty.

What then is the answer? Carr’s mandarin approach — to leave great thoughts to the great thinkers, to preserve the fiction of another dominant style — isn’t so much idealistic as it is impossible. For the phenomenon that Shirky calls our cognitive surplus has proven (if proof were needed) that curiosity and ingenuity are widely dispersed throughout the population. And without a doubt, technologies that offer a means to furthering those qualities are worth promoting. But an ideology of flatness isn’t the way to promote them. We need to engage the new media tools as if our actions and ideas have real power in the world. The ethical implications of such a stance may be debatable, but they cannot be trivial.

July 01 2010

16:00

When “neuroplasticity” had a simpler name: Whispering books and other lionized memories

[Matthew Battles is one of my favorite thinkers about how we read, consume, and learn. He's reading and reacting to Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows. Over the next several weeks, we'll be running Matthew's ongoing twin review; here are parts one and two. — Josh]

In the first chapter of The Shallows, Nick Carr contrasts the curious ennui of his college’s computer lab with the sustaining calm of the library stacks:

Most of my library time…went to wandering the long, narrow corridors of the stacks. Despite being surrounded by tens of thousands of books, I don’t remember the anxiety that’s symptomatic of what we call “information overload.” There was something calming in the reticence of all these books….Take your time, the books seemed to whisper to me in their dusty voices. We’re not going anywhere.

Books, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, always speak in italics.

The whispering tomes resided in Dartmouth’s Baker Library (where I doubt they were allowed to gather much dust); they enlivened the halcyon days before computers took over Carr’s life. Beginning with a little beige Mac Plus in 1986, Carr began the technological joyride of upgrade and ever-increasing entanglement: from MS Word to AOL to Netscape to blogging, Carr was careening with the rest of us towards Web 2.0. By the time he started blogging, he had long since noticed the ways in which the computer transformed work, experience, even consciousness itself:

The more I used it, the more it altered the way I worked. At first I had found it impossible to edit anything on-screen….But at some point — and abruptly — my editing routine changed. I found I could no longer write or revise anything on paper. I felt lost without the Delete key, the scrollbar, the cut and paste functions, the Undo command. I had to do all my editing on-screen. In using the word processor, I had become something of a word processor myself.

This transformation — and the brain’s capacity for it — is the principal theme of Carr’s book. By the time the Internet had fully infiltrated Carr’s working life, he notes, “the very way my brain worked seemed to be changing….It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it — and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became.” Carr warns that brain’s susceptibility to such change leaves us open to being transformed by technology — and not in altogether positive ways. “[T]he Internet, I sensed, was changing me into something like a high-speed data-processing machine,” he writes darkly, “a human HAL.”

It’s a funny reference. For HAL, the deranged artificial intelligence at the center of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, intellectual inflexibility was his downfall: presented with seemingly incommensurable choices, his mind refused to expand, reflexively eliminating the variables (his changeable human crewmates) instead.

Again and again, Carr prefers to stack the deck against computers. The dusty books he extolls are quiet counselors, wise and infinitely patient. They refuse to intervene, to interact, as technology is wont to do; they prefer to wait until we’re ready to receive their gentle ministrations. But in fact books are no such thing. They’re seductive, manipulative, transformative. They’ve changed through time; they’ve changed us through time.

And we haven’t always agreed that those changes were for the better. Two hundred years ago, Washington Irving bemoaned a rising tide of newly-published books in terms Carr would find familiar:

The stream of literature has expanded into a torrent — augmented into a river — expanded into a sea…. The world will inevitably be overstocked with good books. It will soon be the employment of a lifetime merely to learn their names…. before long a man of erudition will be little better than a mere walking catalogue.

…which, I want to say, is perhaps an early nineteenth-century equivalent of a human processing machine. Irving was writing in a time when steam power was transforming the printing press from a craft into an agent of mass production, a book mill quite different from Gutenberg’s machine. With many of his contemporaries, he wondered whether we would adapt to the freshet of new books. But adapt we did. As intellectual historian Ann Blair has shown, early modern readers and writers worried about information overload — something Carr claims didn’t exist until roughly the time he bought his first Macintosh — and our strategies for dealing with it have been evolving for centuries.

The susceptibility to transformation that Carr discusses in The Shallows is real. It’s our native endowment — what the brain evolved to do. It is the vogue among scientists to call it neuroplasticity; before that, it was called learning.

June 30 2010

16:00

Not all free time is created equal: Battles on “Cognitive Surplus”

[Matthew Battles is one of my favorite thinkers about how we read, consume, and learn. He's reading and reacting to Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows. Over the next several weeks, we'll be running Matthew's ongoing twin review; here's part one. — Josh]

Putting The Shallows into dialogue with Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus, the latter book seems like the one with an actual idea. However smartly dressed, Carr’s concern about the corrosiveness of media is really a reflex, one that’s been twitching ever since Socrates fretted over the dangers of the alphabet. Shirky’s idea — that modern life produces a surplus of time, which people have variously spent on gin, television, and now the Internet — is something to sink one’s teeth into. Here’s his formulation:

This book is about the novel resource that has appeared as the world’s cumulative free time is addressed in aggregate. The two most important transitions allowing us access to this resource have already happened — the buildup of well over a trillion hours of free time each year on the part of the world’s educated population, and the invention and spread of public media that enable ordinary citizens previously locked out, to pool that free time in pursuit of activities they like or care about.

I remember reading an early essay Shirky wrote about this idea and finding it enormously compelling. Perhaps that’s because like Shirky I grew up in the 1970s, whiling away many a half-hour in front of Gilligan’s Island reruns. If only I had been able to pursue activities I liked or cared about, rather than burn off my extra cognitive cycles by consuming mass-market drivel…

Only hang on — I did pursue such activities, as I recall. I played in the woodlot near my friend’s house, fished in an actual river, worked a paper route, watched ant colonies go to war in the backyard. I rode my bicycle to the library.

Child’s play, right? Cognitive Surplus is about a specific kind of free time: not the Hundred-Acre-Wood or the endless summer, but the stock of leisure hours produced by modernity, and the rise of technologies that make it possible to spend that time in engaging ways.

And yet the notion of free time itself should be suspicious to us, shouldn’t it? “Free time” is something born of an industrial economics of time, a commoditized temporality. Leisure is a boon granted by the system — a perk, a benny. Compensation. And as long as it helps us recharge our batteries and never keeps us from being productive, high-performance workers, free time isn’t free.

What if this enormous new resource — billions of hours of “free time” — might actually be a product of a machine that’s constantly reproducing and extending itself through us? Gin at least was a release from the shops and trades of early modern life; TV too provides counterpoint to the workday. But with the Internet, for creative-class types at least, we entertain ourselves with the very tools we spend our work time using.

This is a good time to name-check Herbert Marcuse. It’s also where Nick Carr’s understanding of intellectual and creative work begins to seem more attractive. Because for Carr such things are not leisure-time activities; they’re at the heart of the human enterprise.

I’m still excited by Shirky’s idea. But I want to bring Carr’s highbrow concern for the vital uses of cognition, contemplation, and communication to bear upon it. The technologies Shirky celebrates present us with a choice: do we use them as the means of liberation, or as Skinner boxes to while away the off-hours? As liberators they can be incredibly powerful; as producers of auto-stimulation, they’re highly efficient, and incredibly seductive.

This choice — between labor and work, between alienation and freedom — is an ancient one. And in facing it, technology is only a means, and never an end or answer.

June 29 2010

16:00

Reading isn’t just a monkish pursuit: Matthew Battles on “The Shallows”

[Matthew Battles is one of my favorite thinkers about how we read, consume, and learn. He's a former rare books librarian here at Harvard, author of Library: An Unquiet History, and one of the cofounders of HiLobrow.com, which Time just named one of the year's best blogs. He's reading and reacting to two alternate-universe summer blockbusters: Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. (We've written about both.) Over the next several weeks, we'll be running Matthew's ongoing twinned review. —Josh]

Early in The Shallows, Nick Carr stirringly describes what he sees at stake in our time:

For the last five centuries, ever since Gutenberg’s printing press made book reading a popular pursuit, the linear, literary mind has been at the center of art, science, and society. As supple as it is subtle, it’s been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind.

It’s an inspiring image, this picture of the modern mind arrayed in the glories of progress and possibility.

It’s also wrong.

As readers of my site, library ad infinitum, likely know by now, I’m suspicious of any pronouncements that begin with Gutenberg. To say that the printing press was an agent of change, or that moveable type inaugurated a series of transformations in world culture, is reasonable, if very preliminary; but to treat the goldsmith from Mainz as modernity’s master builder simply is wrong: wrong on the biography, wrong on the facts, wrong from the perspective of a theory of history.

Biography

Gutenberg and his investors were trying to corner the market in Bibles—a market that already existed. Time made him its Person of the Millennium, but Gutenberg was no Leonardo, no Michelangelo, no Descartes. The fact that he wasn’t — that he was a man of no particular account in his own time — drives the subsequent story of his invention, moveable type, in interesting ways — ways too complex to boil down to the kind of simplistic formula Carr likes to proclaim.

Facts

Moveable type is not what made book reading a popular pursuit. That it played a role is not in doubt — although it may just as easily be said that the increasing popularity of book-reading spurred transformations in the technology, spurring inventors to find ways to increase the output of the press. But Gutenberg’s invention, however epochal it appears in retrospect, is rightly seen not as an origin point but as a station along the way — an important one, a real Penn Station or Kings Cross, with lots of branch lines and spurs sprouting from its many platforms — but a station nonetheless.

Theory of history

Here’s the most esoteric part, and the most vital. There is no unitary mind at work in history, neither a plan nor a Geist, no questing Spirit of Modernity or Truth or Righteousness. There’s a damaging irony at work in the model to which Carr seems to ascribe: for if the modern mind truly is the the direct descendant of Gutenberg’s invention, then so is the Internet. And like the host of cultural innovations that partook of the possibilities of the press — humanism, the Reformation, rationalism, the modern novel — critics fear its disruptive powers. In retrospect, we mistake those innovations for the charted course of history; to our counterparts in their respective eras, they looked like the Internet does to Carr: exciting but disruptive, soothing but dangerous, seductive but corrosive.

What is the four-sided Mind of which Nick Carr speaks — this imaginative, rational, inventive, subversive angel striding through the ages, showering the generations with its beneficence? Who is this promethean shapeshifter, whom we’re now in our churlishness binding to some rock for the crows to feast on its innards? What Carr is describing isn’t a historical reality — it’s a god. And it does not exist.

What troubles me most in the first chapter of The Shallows is the simplistic definition of reading Carr offers. It may seem strange to call it simplistic, as the epithets that characterize reading at its best for Carr all derive from the matrix of “complex,” subtle,” and “rich.” But he writes as if these are all that reading has been (ever since Gutenberg, anyway), as if the kind of reading he ascribes to the web — quick and fitful, easily distracted — is a new and disruptive spirit. But dipping and skimming have been modes available to readers for ages. Carr makes one kind of reading — literary reading, in a word — into the only kind that matters. But these and other modes of reading have long coexisted, feeding one another, needing one another. By setting them in conflict, Carr produces a false dichotomy, pitting the kind of reading many of us find richest and most rewarding (draped with laurels and robes as it is) against the quicksilver mode (which, we must admit, is vital and necessary).

In ecosystems like the Gulf of Mexico, the shallows are crucial. They’re the nurseries, where larval creatures feed and grow in relative safety, liminal zones where salt and sweet water mix, where light meets muck, where life learns to contend with extremes. The Internet, in this somewhat dubious metaphor, is no blowout — it’s a flourishing new zone in the ecosystem of reading and writing. And with the petrochemical horror in the Gulf growing daily, we’re learning that the shallows, too, need their champions.

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl