Sven Birkerts has been our central guide in the argument against the transition from print to digital forms of reading and writing. We are also thinking about ways to counter an argument–our own as well as others.

We found one example in Carr’s article: recall when he turns toward the end and admits that he might be worrying too much and invites us to be skeptical of his skepticism. That is a basic form of counterargument, located at the end; in effect, it is his last section of the argument, leading in to his conclusion.

Janet Murray’s introduction to Hamlet on the Holodeck, “A Book Lover Longs for Cyberdrama,” presents the whole of the argument as a counterargument. Note how she sets this up with her title and the epigraph, quoting Birkerts. She then extends counterargument by also entertaining an objection toward the end (much like Carr does): admitting (p. 7) that new technologies can be frightening, despite (or in counter to) her own argument that the computer is a “thrilling extension of human powers” (6).

For another example of countering the argument that the electronic age represents a “Frankenstein’s monster,” consider Robert Darnton’s “5 Myths About the ‘Information Age’.” There the approach is to counter, point by point, and very strongly, assertions made by the likes of Birkerts regarding the influence of the information age on reading and books.

This is your brain on Google

Are you smart or stupid as a result of using Google or Wikipedia or Facebook or other social media for the last 5 or six years of your life? Are you stronger or in some way a different reader or writer as a result of such digital media than say you might have been beforehand (if there is such a thing for you)? Smarter, as a result, than a parent or grandparent?

We will end our course thinking and reading more directly about these issues of digital media and literacy–as they come up in Birkerts’s concerns about the “fate of reading in an electronic age” that we will explore in our third writing project (The Future of Wreading). I also want to begin here, since these questions provoke some reflection about our own practice and processes as readers and writers. And this course, from start to finish, is very much about better understanding and improving upon that practice.

Two recently published works that take up the question that concerns Sven Birkerts (author of one of our texts, The Gutenberg Elegies) and that we will be exploring throughout the course: what becomes of our brain and intellect (generally speaking), and of our ability to read and write (more specifically)?

Birkerts, we will see, argues that the answer is disturbing.

Clay Shirky, in Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, argues very much in opposition to Birkerts: things are better–and things were much worse with the invention of television. [link to a review of this text]

Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, offers something of a middle ground. The internet and digital technology have affected the ways we think, write, read–and some are unsettling; but writing itself is a technology that has served other disruptions in the past (including the invention of the printing press). This book originated as an article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid.” We will be reading the article toward the end of the class when we focus on the emergence of digital and electronic literature. [link to a review of The Shallows]

In our initial readings and writing, we will be reflecting on our own histories as readers and writers. I suspect that like more and more of us these days, your history is a blend of the old (Gutenberg’s machine, the book reproducible in print) and the new (digital reproduction and networked communication). What about that experience? How have they informed how you read and write? What might you do with them, now?

In response to Gerald Graff’s notion of “hidden intellectualism” (a way of ‘forwarding’ his thinking into this topic of digital literacy), I am beginning to wonder if the use of Google, and more broadly, the various ways we read, write, and think in digital media, is another form of hidden intellectualism. That is to say, is the fear that Google is making us stupid really just another discounting of non-book smarts, of alternatives kinds of intelligence that a student might develop just as he might with a book?  Is there hidden intelligence, for example, in the use of Facebook, a blog, a video game, and so on?

I am not a gamer, and have limited use of social media, primarily blogging. However, I have come, more and more, to make extensive use of Google for my scholarship, for the reading and writing that I do as a literary scholar. I spend a good bit of time reading books, particularly from the 19th century, in Google Books. Later in the course (when we read the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid”), I will share with you some of my Google insights. For now, I leave with that implication: that the fear of Google or Wikipedia or other newer media sites for literacy–the end of the book fear–may be, at least in part, just more of the same fear of intellectualism (as Graff puts it) by non-traditional means.

Reading online?

A article from a recent series in the New York Times surveys the debate about new media and literacy, “Online, R U Really Reading.” This debate was also stirred this past year by a cover article in The Atlantic Monthly, provocatively titled “Is Google Making Us Stoopid.” [the original article is linked to a glog I posted last semester in response to it].

Is Google Making Us Stoopid?

Such is the title of a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly. You can (if you dare risk the neurons) read it here.

I post the link, in part, because I want to get back to it–yes, reflection and further reading is possible (at least for me) in digital spaces. In fact, since I don’t subscribe to the magazine, I wouldn’t be reading the piece at all if not here. It is also the case, by the way, that I have been meditating on this piece since I stumbled upon it earlier today; and have returned her to add to this posting several times. What, then, in this technology doesn’t open up to a kind of thinking and reading we also do, when we can get our hands on them, with books?

There are ideas in this “Google” article that speak to some of our reading from the past week, and also look ahead: from Birkerts to Shelley to Hayles. I noticed that several of you in your glogging, and in class discussions from Friday 9/5, started to turn to the style of Hayles and how that differed from Birkerts. Glad to see that attention (as you know, I want us all to pay attention to style and then play with it in writing). One implication that emerged from the initial reading of Hayles: that the ease of her style (or as the case may be for some, the difficulty of her style) is in some way influenced by the computer and the world of computation that she is embracing. Denise, for example, explored that implication in her recent post. I am fascinated by that implication–and look forward to exploring it with you as we continue to read and also as we begin to give more attention (the first writing project coming up) to the ‘machinery’ of our own writing. Remember, writing is already a technology, an invention, a medium that relies and builds upon other media: language, print, pen, press, paper, book, goat skin. The Google article gets briefly into a reminder that writing technology has a longer historical life–did not begin, or come under threat, only with the internet. But as with any communication medium, I agree with the author (he cites McLuhan on this point), the medium comes to shape not just the message but its production–shapes the messenger. Our brains have been wired for writing and literacy and (since 1500) for writing in rows of print. And our brains are being wired and re-wired, I assume, now, for the different processing of information and writing (still, writing) we find in the digital library.

On this issue of a longer historical perspective on the technology of writing, Birkerts falls short. I saw this especially in chapters 3-7, where at key points I noticed that he makes brief reference to print as technology, but doesn’t elaborate (pages 70-71 are one location). There is very little discussion or understanding expressed regarding Gutenberg (and the technological revolution the printing press brings) in a book with Gutenberg in the title. Birkerts earlier distinguishes between reflection and nostalgia–and is guilty here of the kind of quick and immediate nostalgia for the book and the way writing used to be. His argument falters. The charge was also made that books and writing itself would make us stupid–it is in Plato’s “Phaedrus,” for example. So I am suspicious of Birkerts for not bringing that into his argument. Isn’t he “stupid,” in a sense, for failing to connect with this? (If only he would spend more time on wikipedia–lol! but seriously, you can at least move around in that networked environment among discussions of printing, writing, Plato, technology). Here, a problem with his logos (argumentation) affects his pathos and ultimately, his ethos. I trust him less, am suspicious that he is either not intelligent in his views of reading/writing or stacking the deck.

Katherine Hayles, to my mind, is a thoughtful guide in this regard. She published an article recently about the kind of “hyper-attention” that digital literacy develops and its difference from the kind of deep attention that tradition print-based learning cultivates. [she posted a copy of this article on her blog for her Media Theory course at UCLA; she too uses wordpress. Yet she doesn’t value one to the exclusion of the other (the move Birkerts makes). She recognizes value in both; and suggests teachers in the humanities reflect both in their teaching. Something to keep our eyes on when we read her further. And this coming week, working on the writing project, something to keep our hands and eyes on: to what extent are we influenced by the machines we use to communicate? and what are some ways we can learn to use those machines more effectively and imaginatively?

the medium is the message

After my 9.30 class Friday morning, I stopped in the library to browse some books. I went there looking for a book titled Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace and while in that section of the stacks (roughly, media and language studies, some history of writing mixed in), I cruised a few other titles–something I enjoy doing in libraries, as I enjoy doing in Google books or other online databases of books; both take up time and can be refreshingly distracting. One book I brought back with me was Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, a famous book from the 1960s by a so-called media guru. I got it to browse a few items that I felt would be worth bringing into our discussion. McLuhan defines media in that book as “extensions of man.” Contrary to someone like Birkerts, who neglects the medium of the book and tends to view media only as the new, the electronic, McLuhan understands that a medium is anything that extends the capability of a human who uses it. Thus any and all forms of communication tools are media, starting with language itself: writing, pencil, book, printing press, variety of computer mediated forms of writing and language. And in this book he extends this notion of extension: literally any tool that can be considered an extension: clothing, wheels, houses.

In the same book, McLuhan repeats a saying he made famous (perhaps you have heard of it): the medium is the message. He means in large part that the significance of any  medium  is the mediation it provides; he also means that a new medium contains aspects and traces of the old medium it supposedly replaces. A bit later in the course we will get back to this idea that has come to be called “remediation.”

Perhaps another way of putting this is to say that  a medium such as writing (print or electronic) is significant and meaningful in part (McLuhan a bit more boldly might say entirely) for the way it pulls back the curtain on the communication (or extension) it provides. This foregrounding of the medium is on my mind in the readings this week. We have Birkerts who is focused so intently and intensively on the privacy of print and writing, on the qualities of a book to be a medium of transport and self-extension–yet thinking very little about the medium (machine) of the book or even the writing that goes into it. At the other end, with Hayles and the reading we start for Friday (Writing Machines), we find an author similarly transported by literature and the private life of reading, yet who insists upon the material encounter with the medium of writing, of print, and of electronic text. And in the middle, Frankenstein. A story, it seems to me, about the mediated nature of creativity, authorial and biological; about being consigned, as humans, to the workshop of filthy creation.

McLuhan highlights for me the ways that Birkerts is neglecting to define and consider and reflect upon and understand the mediated nature of new media (instead of generalizing, too quickly brushing them off). And though he does do a better job being more deliberate and reflective regarding the media of print (all the reading and writing he discusses), there is still this problem. He gets, I think, the medium of print wrong. Consider this paragraph from McLuhan that evokes Birkerts’ senses of passivity vs. activity, except it locates the passive not with television but with the technology of literacy.

Western man acquired from the technology of literacy the power to act without reacting. The advantages of fragmenting himself in this way are seen in the case of the surgeon who would be quite helpless if he were to become humanly involved in his operation. We acquired the art of carrying out the most dangerous social operations with complete detachment. But our detachment was a posture of noninvolvement. In the electric age, when our central nervous system is technologically extended to involve us in the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us, we necessarily participate, in depth, in the consequences of our every action. It is no longer possible to adopt the aloof and dissociated role of the literate Westerner. [Understanding Media, 4]

I see a good bit of Birkerts in this image of detachment. Ironically, McLuhan gives us to imagine this scenario at home: parent yelling at child to put down that book, stop being so lazy, and get on the internet and do something.

What do you think?