More on books, technology, Luddism

In response or in addition to the two essays this week on the future of reading and writing, we’ve asked the authors, as well as editor Mark Greif, to answer us two questions.

1. Along with everyone else, n+1 seems to have grown increasingly gloomy about the “future of the book.” How is the current bout of gloom similar to past worries about the destruction of mind by technology and other entertainments (the railroads, TV)?

2. How is it different?

Answers below.

Benjamin Kunkel:

I think probably people’s fears about the intellectual effects of TV and even the railroads were justified enough: TV would cause you to zone out and the railroad journey would mean you didn’t notice the same things about the countryside that Goethe did when he traveled to Italy by carriage. For that matter I think cheap printing was in its way a destructive technology, in that people presumably read less epic and lyric poetry and more novels, mostly bad ones, and certainly a lot more newspapers. They’d already entered the shallows.

So there are costs to all these technological gains. The great intellectual things about the internet are obvious–it democratizes knowledge and publication–and I think–I say this without any sarcasm–that we’re going to see some truly incredible blogging, beyond anything we’ve seen so far. If we could really gauge the effect of the internet on people’s minds, we might find out some good news–aren’t people funnier today, as in more witty, than adults were when we were growing up? I don’t know how you could find out, but that’s my impression–but it seems like everybody’s discovering, through introspection and surveys, that it’s getting harder and harder to read the sort of texts that reflect deep concentration and reward and train that faculty too. If that’s right, I’m going to miss a bookish world, and I think so will other people, a lot of them without knowing it.

Marco Roth:

I could barely get off the internet in time to answer your questions.

I don’t think our minds are being destroyed by technology. But the landscape of the mind is being changed. What’s new about this, at least I think this is new, is that never before has the “scribe” or “clerical” class to which we belong participated so fully in its technological destruction. I mean despite the railroads and highway systems there are national parks and places where you can go see “nature” artificially, the way it used to be, and book publishers and small magazines like n+1 are going to be what survives of old-fashioned books, and yet we keep calling the bulldozers down on ourselves.

Mark Greif:

During the mid-20th century era of radio serials and the rise of television, critics did note a “decline of attention.” That phrase even comes from the middlebrow Clifton Fadiman, not some highbrow critic. He seems to have been right. During that era we learned to take in more things in shorter bits. In the era when US railroads were new, the 1820s through the 1850s, critics noted the transformation of human perception by speed. Also a contraction of the sense of distance. Again, there’s no real reason to doubt that these changes took place. Not any more than one doubts that aerial photography changed people’s sense of land. Or that mass printing and home libraries changed the uses of memorization.

The question suggests that the perennial quality of cultural criticism undermines particular historical criticisms. That’s not so. What leads to misunderstandings are two classes of naïve and ahistorical or totalizing perennial criticisms. One: Those that claim the bulk of art X is now mediocre, whereas previously it was good. The bulk of any art in every age is mediocre; the bulk of the arts in previous times, if you look back, will be mediocre. Two: Those that claim that any innovation will destroy or rule out a previous art or competence, rather than shift its centrality. It is wrong to say that the continuing march of images, or trends of the internet, will keep literate individuals from the ability to read literature. It may be historically justified to say that the frequency and meaning of such reading will shift, both for many individuals and in aggregate. Unless, that is, trends in communication change again–which of course they may or may not. The history of thought can be viewed as fluctuating in areas such as this, rather than unidirectional.

The differences in criticisms today should be identified, therefore, as differences of specific content.

The new technologies of the “digital”–preferably broken down into a multiplicity of mundane functions, rather than lumped together–each have specific character. The subjects they touch, such as the “future of the book,” production of new texts, production of literature, habits of attention, conceptions of space and time, and “mind” judged as a function of personal and social experience, will enjoy specific effects.

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