The Future of Reading and Writing

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Catchfire Catchfire's picture
The Future of Reading and Writing

This will kill that.

Along this abstract vein: a history of cultural pessimism should counsel us to be cautious about our dismay. Take Q. D. Leavis, author of the stern 1932 jeremiad Fiction and the Reading Public, which bemoans over two-hundred years of declining cognitive abilities and standards.  Mass literacy, newspapers, and popular fiction were all for Leavis signs of the slow death of attentive reading.  In many ways Leavis was right—Miltonic prose couldn’t thrive in the 19th century, nor could epic verse.  But would we have it any other way?  Would we surrender the novel, say, so that we could learn to concentrate and memorize properly again?  And what did that concentration feel like, exactly?  (And how many people were capable of such attention?)  All the more ironic, then, that Richard Rorty, Martha Nussbaum, and others have made the classical novel a paradigm for engaged, attentive thought, while for Leavis it was a disaster for cognition.

We don’t know what it felt like to read before newspapers, before mass media, before printing.  We don’t even know what “attention” is; one person’s rapt, deep attention is another person’s dangerous trance, while what looks like constant distraction might also be an ability to synthesize.  Pragmatically, for intellectuals to stake a claim on such things as “attention” or “concentration” is an abdication of our best ground: content.  There is no valid reason to think that War and Peace teaches deep attention any better than a first-person shooter game.  There are plenty of reasons, enduring ones, to think that War and Peace aerates and nourishes our daily lives more fruitfully, and productively, than Call of Duty.  Which is to say that staking our claims on a format (the printed book), rather than on specific, lasting artifacts of a bookish culture is a losing proposition.

Not simply because digital formats are bound to win.  (“Win” what, anyway?  Older textual technologies never quite vanish.)  More importantly because by pontificating about the shame of declining attention-spans and the like, we ignore the very real social, economic, geopolitical causes that make bookish “attention” of the kind we like to imagine so hard to come by.  Raymond Williams once pointed out the same thing as a response to Q. D. Leavis: even if one grants that cultural standards of concentration or attention have declined, one has to ask what conditions of life for most individuals (industrialized labor, for a start) make it hard to “attend” to text.  The answer is not simply that technologies of text, or literary standards, changed.  It is a more complicated and possibly more discouraging picture of the needs and capacities of those outside the boundary of high-literate schooling.  As Williams put it: the question isn’t whether ephemeral, fragmented consumption of text or images is a drug of choice for many; it’s what social conditions make such a drug necessary—ways of life that produce no satisfactions, only a momentarily appeasable itch for sensation.  (A problem that the great novelists, Tolstoy included, made part of their explicit content.)  We should beware being sidetracked by issues like attention spans—fuzzy, ill-defined issues ripe for self-satisfied laments—from the main problems facing us.


Lovely! Thanks, CF. And I must admit that the final paragraph (of the full text) somewhat bolsters Fidel's thesis (in the Dawkins thread) about the role of the clergy in earlier times.



Unionist wrote:

BTW Fidel, have you read Catchfire's linked article [url=]here[/url]? There's a section which supports your point about the role of the priests.

Well I think that the past is what it was, and priests and monks played their parts in history. The kindle is just a gimmick for now I believe. I don't think it will play as large a role as what print and text books have been for the enlightenment period through to Sputnik and landing on the moon. They seem to be worried about students not immersing themselves in printed word hard and long enough to absorb everything. I don't know it it will matter down the road. It certainly does seem alarming now that kids can't spell or can't write an inter-office memo by the time they graduate from post-secondary. I think there is a real danger ahead, maybe 20 or 30 years from now when technology allows for speed reading, downloading of books and the entire works of some prolific writers and scientists into their heads by some sort of high tech machine-brain interface. Maybe they can access the uploaded info, but will they really understand what's on their minds? To me, this is scary.

Books are digitized now. Later the syllables and words will be atomized and aggregated for reading and interpreting by machines. Will those machines some day be able to absorb inflection and meaning of words where some large percentage of people tend to miss at first glance? For me, this is scary. But what isn't so scary is the expectation that silicon and whatever other technology they might invent will become cheaper than paper. That's a good thing me thinks. And I think that we will not recognize the world and society in the not so distant future. Perhaps it's true that while priests and big dusty books may become obsolete, science and religion may merge in the future or the former may replace the latter entirely. Who knows? I think the future holds big things for humanity if we are able to get there.