We conclude Project 3 with a debate. Claim: The influence of digital media/the electronic age on literature (and more broadly, on communication and thinking) has been harmful; and we need to make changes, or at the very least be careful.
As we also turn toward the final project, consider this argument from Project 3 by a former student, revised and extended for the final project. (And note the digital extension at the end, Part II).
[Project 3, revised and expanded for Final Project]
Part I: Hypertext Literature’s Influence on the Modern World
Technology has been causing a shift in the way that people process information and deduce meaning from everything, especially when it comes to literature. Many, like outraged author Sven Birkerts of “The Gutenberg Elegies”, are concerned that the transformation that is occurring in our society may even spell out the death of the book and a decline in the amount of meaningful literature being created. While there is no extensive evidence as of yet, it is also widely believed that the changes occurring in the processes by which we read and absorb information may actually be causing the reshaping of the neural circuitry of our minds. Troubled author Nicholas Carr asserts in his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” that the accommodations that our brains have been making to assimilate new technologies may also be altering the mind’s ability to create and detect meaning in classical literature, (np). While it’s indisputable that technology has been causing a transformation in the world of literature and elsewhere, it’s very important to note that it is far too early in this new age to be passing judgment. These technologies are still incredibly young, not yet perfected, and are simply the result of the natural progression of literature. They cannot be and should not be written off before their untapped resources are explored. In fact, the internet–and the hypertext and multimedia literature that has been borne of it–may be opening us to a whole new world of untold possibilities.
Janet Murray–a humanities professor in the “world-class electronic toy shop of MIT”, a Victorian enthusiast, and an education-focused software designer–explains in the introduction to her novel, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, that not everyone is as wary about the transformation. She remarks that the projects that her “cyber-literature” students are coming up with are proving that the medium of technology may give authors–fresh-faced and seasoned alike–an opportunity to express themselves in a medium that does not limit them to just the printed page. Murray believes that multi-media literature has opened the door to untold possibilities in the world of literature, “The combination of text, video, and navigable space suggested that a computer-based microworld need not be mathematical but could be shaped as a dynamic fictional universe with characters and events,” (6). Murray sees the internet as an extension of our own capabilities, and as an incredible tool–still in its larval stage–that can bridge the gap between our desire to share and our limited ability to do so; to express both the most inner workings of a single individual and the vast complexities of the collective world simultaneously, “I see glimmers of a medium that is capacious and broadly expressive, a medium capable of capturing both the hairbreadth movements of individual human consciousness and the colossal crosscurrents of global society,” (9). She, like me, believes that the tools the internet continue to provide may allow authors and creators alike to reach previously insurmountable expressive heights.
In another particularly powerful moment, Murray points out after a wearying battle with an impassioned Shakespearean scholar that “we cling to books as if we truly believed that coherent human thought is only possible on bound, numbered pages,” (7). We wouldn’t limit ourselves and our thoughts to one medium in the three-dimensional world, so why would we treat literature–the brainchild of thought–any differently? And she’s entirely right to use the word “bound” here, as words printed on the page are completely static, and their meaning entirely dependent on the reader’s ability to infuse their own meaning into them. Hypertext literature allows its readers to explore its intended meaning straight from the source; as often the authors themselves are the puppet master behind every element of the story, including the coding of the text. As long as there are stories and as long as there are people to listen to them, every story will have as many different meanings as it does listeners. However, what the author gains with this new technology is the ability to make certain that their own meaning is not drowned out by the wayward interpretations of others. There will always be room in a story–hypertext or not–for a reader to infuse their own context, that is the root of accessibility, but with this new type of literature, readers will be building only on the foundations that the author has laid out for them. I truly believe this ongoing shift from printed to multimedia literature indicates that we are on the precipice of a revolution, one that will prove to promote innovation, creation, ease of use, efficiency, and countless forms of new technology that will mark the evolution of literacy, not the destruction of it. The death of the book is, after all, neither welcomed nor expected by the growing acceptance and use of these new mediums in our world. Common ancestors do not die out when they propagate new life, and in such the same way, multi-media will grow of the book, not away from it. The introduction of multimedia and hypertext literature will not nullify the achievements of printed literature, but will instead expand on them.
Sadly, however, hypertext literature has been confronted with just as much skepticism as its conduit. According to people like Sven Birkerts, hypertext literature cannot be considered “true” literature and therefore cannot be worth reading because it lacks the depth present in classic literature; but that simply cannot be true. While beauty is in the eye of beholder, it is widely believed that art–and literature as a facet–are successful only if they evoke something in their audience; some emotion, a hard-to-describe feeling, anything. And the hypertext poem “Faith”, written by Robert Kendall, does exactly what Birkert’s claims it is incapable of: it inspires. Kendall’s poem garners its very meaning from the use of technology. With the use of coding and magic, Kendall guides and inspires his readers through a step-by-step journey of his own writing process. In fact, without the use of movement on the screen–entirely credited to his use of the tools that these new technologies have provided–the poem would not have been nearly as poignant. I got so much more out of this poem by physically watching it unfold word by sentence by thought then I would have had I simply read it in its entirety printed on a page. Kendall uses technology to take his readers on an adventure from the birth of his idea to the final executions of the language he uses to shape, flesh out, and express it. The problem with a lot of poetry is, after all, that the author’s meaning, what he or she actually set out to express, often gets lost in the muddied interpretations of its readers. With this multimedia poem, Kendall’s true meaning rings out loud and clear. This poem is not read, it is experienced. Multimedia literature–as made evident by this poem and by thousands of others like it–provokes as much thought, evokes as much emotion, and involves the audience as much if not more than any classic literature I have ever read. And by meeting those standards, set out by perhaps hypertext’s most vigilant critic himself, it proves itself worthy.
However, my personal experience with multimedia literature doesn’t do much in the way of convincing, and as Murray points out, “The birth of new medium of communication is both exhilarating and frightening. Any industrial technology that dramatically extends our capabilities also makes us uneasy by challenging our concept of humanity itself”, and that seems to ring especially true with the opponents of hypertext literature. But what everyone seems to be conveniently forgetting is that technology is what started it all, especially when it comes to literature. The printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439, decades before even the American continent was discovered. At the time, thousands of people were wary about the infusion of literature into the everyman’s experience, as literacy tended to breed uprisings and all kinds of problems for the ruling class. But what no one could have predicted, however, was the absolutely enormous influence the printing press would have. It changed every single aspect of life for the people of the world. All of the sudden, entire populations were learning how to read, expanding their minds, inventing, exploring, discovering, creating, and all in the active pursuit of knowledge brought on by easy accessibility to the printed word. The invention of the printing press sparked the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, and led to so many countless new technologies, theories, and efficiencies that I couldn’t even begin to name them. This is the natural progression of our species; we sit and think on some problem for a great long while, we finally make some solution happen, nay-sayers and worshippers alike cry out, and then, often regardless of the public’s reaction, that new technology makes a shift in the world. Eventually, those changes have all proved to serve us and to improve our quality of life. The internet and hypertext, multimedia literature are simply in their “outcry” phase. I believe that once the dust settles, we will be left with a tool just as mighty and powerful as the printing press before it, we are simply following in the footsteps of our own ancestors before us.
All that being said, there are probably hundreds of thousands of people who are still unsettled by the shift occurring in our world right now. And to be entirely truthful, those concerns are not completely unfounded. For example, Nicholas Carr, a kind of spokesperson for the healthily open-minded and skeptical, believes that if we make efficiency and immediacy our priorities with literature, we “may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace”. And he’s got a point; the types of long, verbose novels that have come out of the invention of the printing press are definitely getting a little tougher to swallow. But I think the cause of that problem is a lot simpler than it may at first appear: just like a child’s favorite toy will inevitably be passed up for a newer, shinier version, so will it always be harder for a reader to engage in a long, complex, linear story printed on a page when they have experienced other complex worlds–co-authored by both writer and technology–that allow them to experience the same story with more than just their imaginations. Technology has made way for a way new kind of story-telling: an experience of the senses. Anyone who has embraced these new technologies has become accustomed to being completely engrossed; eyes, ears, and minds, into the worlds that are being created for them by a medium that uses multiple forms of media. Over time those changes in the way we experience our content have reflected themselves as changes even in the way our brains process new things. It makes absolute sense that people would have a hard time concentrating on and engaging with novels, because they are simply not as engaging as the new types of literature readers have been experimenting with.
However, Carr is right when he points out that “never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives-or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts-as the Internet does today.” But I don’t think he’s really considering the reasons why that would be happening. The internet is a tool that can make almost every single aspect of daily life go a little bit smoother. It’s a tool that can be used to do literally anything it is programmed to do. Could I sit in the library stacks, combing through text after text, running my finger and my eyes endlessly down the page searching for that perfect quote I read once in seventh grade? Absolutely. But, do I have the time or the inclination to be doing that on a daily basis? Not at all. The internet gives us the opportunity to explore whole world if we have a few minutes to kill. I know that the argument that Carr is making here is that that all that time spent doing one thing–like reading an 800-page novel–is incredibly valuable, and I think he’s entirely right. But should that mean that people should not also spend their time finding meaning in short little poems that quite literally sing and dance their way across the page? I don’t believe so. Time spent experiencing literature is incredibly valuable, but what Carr is missing is that literature doesn’t have to be experienced solely on the printed page.
Readers who experience hypertext literature are connecting sensory memories; like sound, and sight, with their thoughts and memories. With novels, you can only have thought. If anything, these new forms of literature are opening us up to deeper levels of contemplation. Birkerts takes Carr’s argument a step further: “[Hypertext forms of literature] are not only extensions of the senses, they are extensions of the senses that put us in touch with the extended senses of others,” (224). He is concerned that the Internet’s ultimate goal is to forge connections between every person in the world, turning the individual perspective into a global one. He goes on to say “The end of it all…is a kind of amniotic environment of impulses, a condition of connectedness,” (224), but I really don’t see a problem with that. He uses the image of an amniotic environment, and I think, like Murray’s use of the word “bound” to describe the words printed on a page, that he’s chosen a really appropriate metaphor. The internet and its brain children are still so incredibly young. The symbol he’s provided for us is one of growth, and one of hope. Absolutely endless possibilities have come out of this new form of technology already, and I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that Birkerts wants to stomp it out before it has even had a chance to grow. What might be happening is a sort of social adaptation, a change that will yield a possibly better world. To give all of that hope and opportunity away to revert back to our old ways would only seem to me to be simply barbaric and cowardly. It’s in our blood to move forward, to keep ourselves rooted in the past would be to deny our always striving minds.
So, to summarize: yes, changes are occurring. But are they deviating from the point of literature? Absolutely not. In fact, these new forms of literature are proving to be really promising mediums for expression. Just as a painting and a sculpture can be equally beautiful, a poem written with code and a poem printed in a book can elicit equally powerful responses in their readers, which is, after all, the point. The changes that technology is eliciting in our world–and their endless possibilities–may just yield greater opportunities for human expression than ever before. After all, shutting out and preventing change does nothing but assure that nothing better will ever come. Taking a chance with this new medium may leave us at square one or, as I believe, may take us much further than we’ve even been before. Kendall’s hypertext poem closes with the final line, “faith is nothing but a giant leap”, and I think it’s about time we make it.
Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994. Print.
Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Atlantic 1 July 2008: n. pag. Web. 23 Apr. 2014.
Kendall, Robert. “Faith.” Faith. Cauldron & Net, 1 Aug. 2002. Web. 23 Apr. 2014.
Murray, Janet Horowitz. “A Book Lover Longs for Cyberdrama.” Introduction. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: Free, 1997. 1-10. Print
WC Honor Code: Caitrin Doyle 5/7/14
So, is Google making us stupid?
Sven Birkerts, years before Google emerges, says yes: the web is trapping us in a world of shallowness, a web that erodes language, flattens historical perspective, and destroys privacy. I suggest Carr’s essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” offers some updating of Birkerts’ concerns, but also some possibility for counter-argument. For our purposes, I would emphasize that Carr’s rhetoric (how he writes and presents his argument) is, at any rate, stronger than Birkerts in key places. It is more effective in what it does, how it develops and complicates the argument–even as it makes a similar claim for a dramatic shift in how we read in the electronic age.
The scene from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey: the one discussed in the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The computer HAL being dismantled by Dave.
The article also refers to Plato’s “Phaedrus,” part of the section that opens up counter-argument. It reminds us that various technological changes stretch far back–and that writing was once the “Google” of ancient Greece. You will recall that McLuhan also refers to this famous dialogue, as does Birkerts and Joseph Harris and Dennis Baron.
Does my ability, or my desire, to access these ideas from the essay–I might call them, to use a loaded term, these links–in digital form, from the same screen with which I read the essay, constitute deep or shallow reading? Perhaps the problem is we need some different terms to describe what I am doing.
Think back to The Medium is the Massage and our discussion of the way that this print book extends or mediates the traditional book, one could say “hypermediates” the conventional form of an argument. Is this also something to fear–or does this return us to something more crucial and fantastic in storytelling or literature? Would lots more types of books like The Medium is the Massage make us stupid?
Carr has turned his article into a book titled The Shallows. Here is a review from the NY Times.
Some additional links to consider–and return to as you develop your argument for the third writing project:
A recent argument that cites Carr, but offers a more interested, hopeful vision for the ways digital reading is creating and influencing fragmentary readers and writers. “Fragmentary: Writing in a Digital Age”
A review of, and argument with, Carr’s book The Shallows (the book that emerges from his Google article).
A NY Times review of some new children’s books that blend print and digital; the reviewer suggests it as an updating of the Choose Your Own Adventure series.
Gibson, article in Wired on writing as cut and paste remixing.
Harris’s chapter on “Remixing” refers to the scholar Kathleen Fitzpatrick and the digital versioning of her later print book Planned Obsolescence. See it here. Does this type of reading counter Carr, or provide further evidence for his concerns?
And here is Birkerts himself writing in response to Carr’s book The Shallows.
As you can see, we are participating in a critical conversation with lots of forwarding and countering going on.
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.
The scene from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey: the one discussed in the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The computer HAL being dismantled by Dave.
The article also refers to Plato’s “Phaedrus,” part of the section that opens up counter-argument. It reminds us that various technological changes stretch far back–and that writing was once the “Google” of ancient Greece.
Does my ability, or my desire, to access these ideas from the essay–might I call them, to use a loaded term, these links–in digital form, from the same screen with which I read the essay, constitute deep or shallow reading? Perhaps the problem is we need some different terms to describe what I am doing.
By the way, here is a link to a book I am considering adding to the course for next year: The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I showed it to you when we were discussing film and the way some print books remediate or hypermediate the conventions of books. Is this also something to fear–or does this return us to something more crucial and fantastic in storytelling or literature?
Carr has recently turned his article into a book titled The Shallows. Here is a review from the NY Times.
Some thoughts and links that emerged from our initial discussions of Birkerts. I thought we made a great start in dealing with his ideas and his text deliberately–beginning to hear him for those ideas but also beginning to notice how the writing works, where it is compelling and where it is less so. I used the terms in class: ethos, pathos, logos. These are Greek words for three things that are at issue and in play in making a presentation (originally oratory, now to included writing) rhetorically powerful: the credibility represented or established by the speaker (ethos); the sympathy or empathy generated by the writer/rhetorician (pathos); the logic and sense and order of the argument (logos). On Friday, we began to see that if we take Birkerts to be hypocritical at points, it may be a problem with his logos: he argues one side and neglects or generalizes for the other. It may also be a pathos problem: he insults us or diminishes us (“non-reading horde’), not a good way to generate sympathy. At the same time, in the example I pointed to where he reflects back on his parents’ rural upbringing and distinguishes such reflection from shallow nostalgia, I would argue that the passage is compelling in its pathos: I can empathize with his understanding of slow time and can begin to share his concern for the speed of the electronic world.
We also began to consider ways that his hypocrisy is an issue of how he very narrowly defines reading (only books, nothing else outside of a book) and also narrowly defines technology as digital/electronic. The logos problem here is part historical: books are technology, a technology (print, movable type, mass reproduction of print) that revolutionizes writing and how we read. And before that, writing was a technology that revolutionized thought and communiation. And now, the digital/electronic reproduction of ideas is also revolutionizing how we think, read, communicate. We want to get a better grasp of the historical context for this: not generalize what book or print or reading or writing or digital means or implies. Begin to get a more complicated understanding–since all of these things are in fact complicated: complications and combinations of historical, social, technical, human ideas and things. Another word/concept we will being to use and better grasp by the end of the course: medium; all of these different things share a key characteristic–they are mediations, are media. In other words, all are extensions or machines for ideas, for thinking, for communicating. And when we work on our own writing, and work on revising that writing, a better understanding of the medium and the ways we can mediate (and remediate) the thinking and communicating is what we are after. In ancient Greece, rhetoric means an orator’s (later, writer’s) ability to manipulate the dials and levers of the machine, including those marked: ethos, pathos, logos.
By the way, I did find that Birkerts posts a blog sometimes for Encyclopedia Britannica. You might find it interesting–the ideas are familiar to what we are reading. In the post I have linked, reference is made to a recent article that asks “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” I have a link for that article and some thoughts on it here–and would note that the author of that article begins to provide, even in brief, more of the historical context for books as technology (rather than simply books vs technology) that we are looking for.
A note on the Glog. I am using them, in part, in place of a quiz on the reading: so one things I am looking for (though not the only thing) is how well you are engaging the reading. In that sense, you might think of the glog as a self-made quiz, where you demonstrate your reading. But in addition to this, the glog is also an extension of the journal writing and discussion that will work its way into your writing projects: notes and ideas you have from the reading. Having rich quotations and your paraphrase of several chapters and your interpretation of key sections and a sense of the questions you have–all this could work its way into a future writing project. With that in mind, it pays off to be specific and thorough now; at the end of the term, should you decide to bring Birkerts back for your final project, you won’t be left with a blank slate.
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?
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?