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Op-Ed: Literacy vs. Internet- Mixed signals from reality rev up debate

By Paul Wallis     Jul 12, 2010 in Internet
It’s hard to tell whether the seemingly endless snubbing of the internet by literati is credible or simply self serving. The moral high ground of literature is often surprisingly close to sea level.
A book called The Shallows by Nicholas Carr is now the main forum for this argument. The basic argument is that the internet produces a “brief attention span” culture. This is an almost cookie cutter argument, directly related to the whinings from "literati" about that other new-fangled invention, television. The argument is that the internet culture undercuts something called contemplation and deep thought.
The electronic world is described as “flat”, an expression coined by Thomas Friedman. Carr investigates the development of neural pathways in this context. The general contrast with literature is based on the belief that literature encourages mental development, and that the great writers and great books are the soul of the intellectual world.
I’m an internet writer. I’m also a book writer and a copywriter. I'm a second generation writer. It’ll be a cold day in hell before I hold up writers of any species as the epitome of great thinkers. Some are brilliant, some are unspeakable. It’ll be a lot colder before I accept the idea that the incredibly insipid, plagiarism-riddled, uninspired, lifeless literature of this time qualifies as any more than third rate toilet paper for unfussy corpses.
If writers were farmers producing food instead of food for thought, mass starvation would be one of the more likely scenarios in terms of nutrition. Food poisoning would also be far more common.
Consider these people as a character reference to the content of literature:
Karl Marx
Ayn Rand
Talkback radio hosts
Now consider these people:
Aldous Huxley
Charles Dickens
Mark Twain
Jack London
And these:
Danielle Steele
Joseph Heller
Alan Drury
David Beckham
The Dalai Lama
Not quite the most consistent list, is it? The myths of literature in its modern form are almost delusive. As many atrocities have been perpetrated by writers as mass murderers and cult leaders.
For modern literature to describe itself as the de facto epitome of intellectualism is like BP claiming to be the leader of the environmental movement. Readers aren’t respected, they aren’t even considered in terms of content, except in the most shallow of all media contexts, market demographics.
Nor are writers the ultimate intellectuals. If you’ve ever been to a writers festival, you’ll know what I mean. A pack of self-proclaimed martyrs, yes, but not desperate fighters for intellectual freedoms. Shopkeepers, possibly, but guerrillas, not often. The modern writer is a suburbanite, dragging around the garbage heap known as a human environment for his or her own purposes.
The modern book has another burden. The literalist, communication-zombie demand for spoon feeding which has turned literature and writing into a steadily decreasing lowest common denominator. Literacy is now a pitiful “cat sat on the mat” exercise, in which the entirety of any concept turns into a “Dostoevsky for Dummies” exercise.
Literacy, by the way, doesn’t mean the ability to read. It means the ability to understand what’s read. It implies the ability to develop ideas, which modern literature cannot possibly be accused of attempting to do. “Shallow” can also be applied as a description to endless rehashes of basic story lines, history by agenda, and similar crimes.
The internet isn’t exactly an democratic institution, either, except in theory. The internet is bigger, louder and messy beyond belief. Somewhere in the typos are the messages and the ideas. A Twitter version of Shakespeare isn’t likely, but nor is an equivalent of Mein Kampf. The superficialities of the net and its stronger content are as far apart as between any group of authors.
The process of thought when reading a book and using the net can’t be the same. Consider the process of using the net:
Page > search > link > page > link > link
That’s six stages of extended logic, usually related. A constant demand for judgment calls on which trail to follow, which requires contemplation and continuity to be effective. You can’t do that in a conventional book. They’re not the same thing. This is neither superficial nor deep thought, it’s all relevance-based. What gets the attention online is one thing, what maintains sustained interest isn’t necessarily the same thing.
I find from comments that readers are basically multitasking at many points. They both get and miss points regularly. They’re both skimming and reading at various times. Avoiding irrelevance is one of the primary tasks of reading on the net. There are literally millions of possible distractions, digressions, and diversions. The results are exactly the same as book reading, a sort of semi-absorption of information and bits and pieces.
“Thought leaders” is a description used for those who achieve success and notoriety by doing absolutely nothing but pontificating, and achieving no actual results in their field of study. It’s like management science, but even less relevant. Literature is covered in these vermin, not one of whom appears to be able to adequately even define the purpose of literature, or its huge advantages beyond nebulous references to the past.
What’s actually been produced is this staggeringly simplistic “debate”, a self serving effusion of praise of literature by writers. It’s like McDonalds executives writing epic poems in praise of cattle.
Meanwhile, literature has actually scored a point, for once, without the blessing and approval of so-called “Thought leaders”. A study has found that books help improve self esteem and achievement in junior school. The effects were marked in low-income groups.
David Brooks of The New York Times has written an interesting analysis of this study, which doesn’t require regurgitation by me.
The fact that kids benefit from books should get anyone thinking. The point is that the great purpose of literature is to allow the mind to learn and develop, to deal with concepts in abstract, to follow logic, and to appreciate the use of intellect. The mind is strengthened by real literature, and turned to a helpless bit of tissue paper by the pabulum of the present. In what environment were most internet and other writers trained? The tissue paper manufacturing environment, which has never even been questioned by the literati groups.
One further point or so:
Great books aren’t written by collegiate cowards. Hiding behind cultural mores is no indication of vertebrate status. An oblivious herd mentality which can’t even be bothered to acknowledge the environmental factors of the subject which it claims to criticize is hardly the basis for a real argument.
Wanna debate, guys?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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