I have to agree with David Brooks, at least with regard to some of the observations he offers this morning in the NY Times, when he says that participating on the Internet is different from simply reading books. However, I disagree with nearly every specific point he makes, and the conclusions he draws.
He starts with Nick Carr’s polemic, ‘The Shallows’, which makes a case for the Internet ruining our minds and by extension, our culture. And then he heaps on some dime-store philosophy, and wraps it with an elitist bow:
David Brooks, The Medium Is The Medium
Carr argues that the Internet is leading to a short-attention-span culture. He cites a pile of research showing that the multidistraction, hyperlink world degrades people’s abilities to engage in deep thought or serious contemplation.
Carr’s argument has been challenged. His critics point to evidence that suggests that playing computer games and performing Internet searches actually improves a person’s ability to process information and focus attention. The Internet, they say, is a boon to schooling, not a threat.
In particular, Brooks does not touch on research that shows that reading on the Internet engages more parts of the brain that reading a book, which has led some to suggest it is a more intellectual activity than leaning back with the newest Harry Potter.
But there was one interesting observation made by a philanthropist who gives books to disadvantaged kids. It’s not the physical presence of the books that produces the biggest impact, she suggested. It’s the change in the way the students see themselves as they build a home library. They see themselves as readers, as members of a different group.
The Internet-versus-books debate is conducted on the supposition that the medium is the message. But sometimes the medium is just the medium. What matters is the way people think about themselves while engaged in the two activities. 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.
This last paragraph is a puzzler: a series of sentences that don’t add up.
First, McLuhan’s point is that exposure to a new medium — say, reading books, or participating on the Internet — changes those who are exposed. That change in the individual’s mind is the real ‘message’ of the medium, not the stories in the books, or the sports on TV. And isn’t that what he is trying to say? That kids exposed to books are changed? Then why does he say that sometimes a ‘medium is just a medium’?
He isolates the one dimension of the many changes that media induce in us — self-identity — but leaves out others, like the shift in values that generally comes along with being exposed to new media.
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.
Brooks focuses on the supposed ‘hierarchical’ nature of literature — a construct of his personal, or cultural feelings about literature — and seems to make that a law of the universe. I guess I buy that things like books are culturally situated, but they aren’t all in a single culture. There isn’t a single hit parade for all books ever.
Also, this allusion to the world of reading as if it is a Zen monastery is pure hyperbole.
A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience. The Internet smashes hierarchy and is not marked by deference. Maybe it would be different if it had been invented in Victorian England, but Internet culture is set in contemporary America. Internet culture is egalitarian. The young are more accomplished than the old. The new media is supposedly savvier than the old media. The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, antiauthority disputation.
Brooks offer up an image of an academic quadrangle where learned authors stroll, in gowns, chatting with eager young accolytes, and then contrasts it with the anti-authoritarian Internet which is — shudder — egalitarian.
These different cultures foster different types of learning. The great essayist Joseph Epstein once distinguished between being well informed, being hip and being cultivated. The Internet helps you become well informed — knowledgeable about current events, the latest controversies and important trends. The Internet also helps you become hip — to learn about what’s going on, as Epstein writes, “in those lively waters outside the boring mainstream.”
But 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.
Then, in a neat bit of legerdemain, Brooks uses a quote about being cultivated — and explicitly making the case that becoming cultivated — basically taking on the values and manners of the elite — is more important than being well informed or hip. He also insinuates that learning how to respect your elders (‘betters’?) and those who have been accepted by the elite as authoritative is one mark of becoming cultivated. And of course, he states that the Internet does not do any of that, which is why the Internet is a playground and not the haunt of the learned.
Right now, the literary world is better at encouraging this kind of identity. The Internet culture may produce better conversationalists, but the literary culture still produces better students.
It’s better at distinguishing the important from the unimportant, and making the important more prestigious.
So, it’s a culture war, and Brooks joins Nick Carr, Andrew Keen, and a long list of others who say that what we are doing on the web is immoral, illegitimate, and immature. They are threatened by the change in values that seems to accompany deep involvement in web culture, a change that diminishes much of what Brooks holds up for our regard in his piece. I don’t mean the specific authors he may have been alluding to — although he names none but Carr — but rather a supposed hierarchical structure of western culture, which is reflected in the literary niche is supports.
Brooks is actually making a more sinister case: to the young that would like to get ahead, avoid the rabble on the web with their egalitarian and multitasking ways. Read books instead, because it is the mark of aspiring members of the elite, the ruling class.