Is the Internet Making Journalism Better?

The polls have closed over at The Economist debate. At issue was the following motion: “This house believes that the internet is making journalism better, not worse.” And Nicholas Carr, of “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” fame, instead of a concession speech, provides readers with a post on his Rough Notes blog containing a list of links to sources he used to help prepare his strategy. I’ve not finished perusing all of Carr’s references yet, but his post is obviously a valuable resource for students of the “stupid” and beyond debate. Read Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” article in The Atlantic. Follow the debate at The Economist. Sift through Carr’s sources. Carr supports his claim that the effects of externalizing our central nervous system (as McLuhan put it) include negative neurological changes with what is considered by some (Jonah Lehrer) to be soft evidence.

Private Music, Public Music: Vandals Trash Kumbaya – Is Music Making Us Stupid?

I’m shocked to find the lovely, spiritual folk song Kumbaya trashed by pundits and politicos alike in a bipartisan effort to discredit one of the solid gold traditions my generation sought to carry on – the healing power of music. Yet it should come as no surprise, for music, like politics, suffers from an infection of the big, the bad, and the rowdy. Perhaps it was always so; one’s affections are often awakened by market reality, but we must get to the bottom of this Kumbaya business.

First, to the phrase Kumbaya (“Come by here” [Lord]) has been added the increasingly popular “ing,” so we now find ourselves Kumbayaing, though hopefully not in public. Kumbayaing is pundit-lingo for working together in teams for the mutual benefit of community members – and what could be sillier than trying to work together? The neologism distorts the song, ignores the music, and mocks the efforts of those who would organize peacefully, all in one cynical, dismissive, and cranky attitude – to Kumbaya is to waste time; holding hands betrays weakness.

It seems that what we today call Christian Music isn’t liturgical music, or music to gather by, as much as a music market. The religious experience is marketed through music. This isn’t the same thing as music creating a religious experience. Do we not want the Lord coming by here anymore? For “The spirit will not descend without song,” as LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) explains in his study Blues People (1963). Jones explains that the first Christian music in the US was black music born of the slave experience and developed as communal, healing, and organizational. Of course, time and distance also distort, and, as Gary Snyder explains, when ritual is moved from its source it loses some of its power. But the beauty of the music that Jones describes is its very resourcefulness.

Richard Rodriguez’s influential essay “Private Language, Public Language” went against the grain of the bilingual education movement by insisting that we shouldn’t publicize our private language, the language of our family. Just so, perhaps we shouldn’t market something called Christian Music, for the idea adulterates the tradition and allows the pundits to infiltrate the community without understanding or respecting the values of the community. Consider the following example, where the word spiritual becomes so watered down that it loses all its color and power: Elizabeth A. Brown writes a short review, published in the April 5, 2010 Christian Science Monitor, of The Best Spiritual Writing of 2010 (edited by Philip Zaleski), and what do we find as an example of not just spiritual writing but the best spiritual writing? Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Someone’s sighing, Lord. Come by here.

John Cage and Attitudes Toward Reading Today

In John Cage’s A Year from Monday, a 1969 collection of his then New Lectures and Writings, we find a delightful, short piece titled “Seriously Comma,” and we are told the article was in answer to an inquiry regarding “attitudes toward Serial Music Today.” We find it difficult to pass on articles with the word “comma” in their title, seriously. In addition to our interest in commas, we are still concerned with the “reading crisis” topic The Coming of the Toads jumped on at the inception of the blog.

“Seriously Comma” is an arrangement of 18 paragraphs separated by irregular spacing and layout and given further unity using Cage’s rhetorical mode of varying type font. Each paragraph might be read as a different voice in a contrapuntal arrangement – the piece might also be seen as the mosaic layout of a newspaper page. The second paragraph, quoted in its entirety (italics Cage’s):

McLuhan insists on the newspaper front-page as the present existence type. Reading, we no longer read systematically (concluding each column, or even turning the page to conclude an article): we jump” (26).

McLuhan’s work sums the effects of technology on the human sensorium – technology changes us. For McLuhan, the great example was the printing press. For Nicholas Carr, it’s the personal computer. Carr believes that internet skimming is changing our brain for the worse; the idea is getting ink, but it’s still a hypothesis. Do we read differently on-line? Yes, but as Cage on McLuhan illustrates, our jumping around somewhat skittishly while reading predates the personal computer. Perhaps the mosaic of the newspaper prepared us in some way for the mosaic of television and computer screens. What will happen next? The disappearance of newspapers and our adaptive brain evolving to a new way of  reading:

“Invade areas where nothing’s definite (areas – micro and macro – adjacent the one we know in). It won’t sound like music – serial or electronic. It’ll sound like what we hear when we’re not hearing music, just hearing whatever wherever we happen to be. But to accomplish this our technological means must be constantly changing” (27).

We are all musicians whenever we make noise; what are we whenever and however we read?

“Dealing with language (while waiting for something else than syntax) as though it’s a sound-source that can be transformed into gibberish” (29).

What is “computer literacy,” and how does it differ from traditional reading? In the late 30s and early 40s, the WPA produced posters encouraging, among other activities and ideas of benefit to local communities, reading, traditional reading, the book you’ve always meant to read. We agree with Carr that traditional reading slows things down; why not kick back and enjoy a slow Spring with a book? When we make noise we make music; when we read, we make time.

Nicholson Baker, Nicholas Carr, and Googling Clothespins

Nicholas Carr might argue I got stupider this week, and I admit that I did spend more time than usual on Google. Carr’s influential Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (July, 2008), has been picked up by the English teaching gaggle to promote reading. I’m going to save that argument for another time and place. One of the first to use Carr’s article, I did not use it to promote reading, but to discuss the elements of argument; for now, I want to explain why I spent more time than usual on Google this week, and show what I found. The first is easy to explain; I discovered Google Patents. The second is easy to show – clothespins. Here’s what happened.

I came across one of my old Joseph Mitchell tri-folded reporter note sheets and realized I had never followed up on a note I had made to research a section in Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, a novel about a procrastinating poet, whose ruminations, while stalling to write an introduction to a new poetry anthology he’s put together and found a publisher for, produce, in the end, the introduction itself. My note was to research something I found interesting on page 116 of Baker’s novel. Baker’s poet, Paul Chowder, staggers into a discussion of clothespins, and makes this claim: “There was a factory in Vanceborough, Maine, that made eight hundred clothespins a minute in 1883.”

I boarded Google but failed to find the factory. Growing stupider by the minute, I looked up clothespins in Wiki, where a claim is made that the Shakers invented the clothespin, but they didn’t patent their inventions. Patented or not, it would seem that the clothespin, technologically an extension (as McLuhan might explain) of the human finger and thumb clamp, must surely predate the Shakers.

The paperclip might be an evolutionary relative of the clothespin, as shown by my research in Google patents. To the left, is a drawing of a patent by A. W. Burch, dated July 2, 1907. The pin is made of wire, and appears to have been inspired by the paperclip.

Many patents seek to improve upon ideas already patented and manufactured; for example, Roy V. Shackelford, of Long Beach, California, was granted a patent in 1939 for a clothespin that “attached to a line in such a manner that the clothes which are fastened in the pin never come in actual contact with the clothes line.”

Sarah J. Miley, in 1898, wrote a patent that discouraged traditional one piece bifurcated wood clothespins from splitting in half, through the addition of a metal  “stay plate” in the handle end (drawing left).

It might have been a stupid week, but I will never look at a clothespin the same again, nor a paperclip, for that matter, nor the possibilities for the extensions of the human for inventions that we call technology.

As for Nicholson Baker’s factory, how many clothespins do we need? The answer to that might be found in A. R. Stewart’s invention (drawing below), patented in 1874. It’s not a clothespin; it’s a machine to make clothespins. The Shakers didn’t need to patent their clothespin because they had no intention of mass producing and marketing it; if they needed another clothespin, they would simply make a new one. Manufacturing, like specialization, leads to extinctions.

Stewart’s patent application, titled “Improvement in Machines for Making Clothes-pins,” does not mention the number of clothespins the machine is capable of producing per minute, but instead describes a machine “capable of forming a perfect clothes-pin at each downward movement of the saw and cutters, and, as the finished pins are removed by the same upon their upward stroke, no other attention is necessary except to supply the blanks to the hopper.” The improvement seems to be found not in the quantity of clothespins produced, but in the saving of labor required to produce them. I thought of Melville’s Bartleby: Ah technology! Ah, humanity!

Where readers eSurface but authors lose control

One advantage of the eBook is lightness. And library books “just disappear” from the little light box on the due date – so no overdue notices, an article in this week’s Christian Science Monitor (print edition) illustrates (we’ve noticed our print books disappearing occasionally, reminding us of bumbling Polonius’s advice, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”).

We read a gloomy hope, for at least reading is in the headlines: gloomy in that “deep reading” is failing; hopeful in that readers appear to be surfacing. Some consider that’s a problem. The CSM article references Marianne Wolf, whom we first glimpsed in Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” still concerned about the loss of “deep reading.” But “deep reading” may simply be floating, detachment: “The alphabet and print technology fostered and encouraged a fragmenting process, a process of specialism and of detachment,” McLuhan said.

Carr, Wolf, and others are concerned that electronic reading is changing brain circuitry. Of course it is: “All media are extensions of some human faculty – psychic or physical…Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act – the way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, men change,” McLuhan argues: “Electronic circuitry is an extension of the central nervous system.” If that’s so, then what? The end of books?

The eBook returns us to the middle ages, before copyright, before individual authors, before fixed points of view. The problem for some is now authorship and ownership: “Medieval scholars were indifferent to the precise identity of the ‘books’ they studied. In turn, they rarely signed even what was clearly their own…Many small texts were transmitted into volumes of miscellaneous content, very much like ‘jottings’ in a scrapbook, and, in this transmission, authorship was often lost” (McLuhan). Sounds like blogging.

“We’re not going to change the code,” Reid Lyon says. No, we’re not, but perhaps readers will, or non-readers – perhaps the code is changing (under our very ears), for, as McLuhan argues, it’s impossible to be illiterate in a non-literate culture. We may be coming close to “the end of the line.”

McLuhan, M. (1967). The Medium is the Massage. Bantam Books.

This Is Your Brain On Books

Over at the Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer has posted his review of a new book about the effects of the brain on reading: Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain. Lehrer says that the “moral of Dehaene’s book is that our cultural forms reflect the biological form of the brain; the details of language are largely a biological accident.” We’ve not read Dehaene’s book yet, but Lehrer’s summary seems to suggest a symbiotic relationship between the brain and the brain’s environment.

To understand the effects of reading on the brain, one must go to non-literate cultures, and study, as Marshall McLuhan researched, the changes that occur in both the brain and the culture as reading is learned. “The most obvious character of print is repetition,” McLuhan said, “just as the obvious effect of repetition is hypnosis or obsession” (p. 47). It’s impossible to be illiterate in a non-literate culture, and non-literacy has its advantages.

When we read, we are hypnotized, the eye becomes master of the sensorium, the remaining four senses impressed into eye-service. The hypnosis blinks when the eye sees an unfamiliar word, and the tongue and ear have to help out: “we’re forced to decipher the sound of the word before we can make a guess about its definition, which requires a second or two of conscious effort” (Lehrer). This means that the new reader must mouth his words as he reads (since all the words are unfamiliar to the new reader); he must hear them first. This is why, according to McLuhan, “the medieval monks’ reading carrel was indeed a singing booth” (p. 115). They had not yet learned to read silently. They had to say the word and hear it; the words entered the brain through their ears, not through their eyes. (This supports using a phonics method to teach reading.)

Lehrer says that Dehaene “also speculates that, while ‘learning to read induces massive cognitive gains,’ it also comes with a hidden mental cost: because so much of our visual cortex is now devoted to literacy, we’re less able to ‘read’ the details of natural world.” Again, this ground was covered by McLuhan in The Guttenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man.

“Literacy,” McLuhan argued, “affects the physiology as well as the psychic life” (p. 45). McLuhan said that “every technology contrived and ‘outered’ by man has the power to numb human awareness during the period of its first interiorization” (p. 187). And this is the ground that Nicholas Carr has been sifting though with regard to the effects of the internet on reading and on the brain.

It’s curious to hear Lehrer, not quite a neuroscientist (which is one reason we like him; he’s a non-specialist), say that “the brain is much more than the seat of the soul…,” curious in that he resorts to both metaphor and the metaphysical in a single phrase. “The seat of the soul”: surely that’s your brain on books.

June 6, 2010 Update: Jonah Lehrer takes some of the wind out of Nicholas Carr’s neuro-sails in a Times review of Carr’s book The Shallows and in a follow up post on his blog.

Double Shot, Hold the Book

The end of books is closer than we thought. A short article in today’s Christian Science Monitor discusses a private high school that has replaced the books in its library with a $12,000 espresso machine, three sports bar like TVs, Kindles with e-books, and laptops.

Apparently, the old, hard copy books were not being checked out and read, anyway. Though the article does not mention Google, we look forward to a riposte from Carr. He thinks Google’s giving us the jitters now; imagine adding a little espresso to the formula.

While we’re on the subject of books disappearing, another related piece in today’s mail threatens to amuse, from the New Yorker’s Book Bench blog, a review of cartoonist Bruce McCall’s new book, Fifty Things to do with a Book (Now that Reading is Dead).

And our brief survey and latest Reading Crisis entry would not be complete if we didn’t remind readers of our own past post, “What we will miss when newspapers disappear.”  

But doesn’t the espresso disturb their nap time?