On Reading and Writing

Not to rehash an old debate, but a recent article in The New York Times outlined the ongoing debate about whether or not the Internet makes us better readers. On one side, you find those who are passionate defenders of the book, who claim that the rapid and constantly shifting nature of online communication is stunting our mental growth. On the other side, you find those who argue that the very fluidity and mutability of the Internet is stimulating more people to read, think, and write on their own.

The article also links to another recent article in The Atlantic, simply titled, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" The article - nowhere near as sensational as the title might suggest - attempts to work through the possible implications of the evergrowing mediation of the Internet. Reading the article again, I was struck by the closing passage: "...as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence."

Of course, for every naysayer there are those who celebrate the present. As the NYT adds: "Some literacy experts say that reading itself should be redefined. Interpreting videos or pictures, they say, may be as important a skill as analyzing a novel or a poem."

Both articles are fascinating in their own way, but trying to think beyond them for a moment, it's worth asking about what happens as we become more and more comfortable with texting, email, blog posting, twitter feeds, RSS, google reader, hyperlinks, so forth; and when books, library stacks, and handwritten letters seem dustier, more distant with each passing day. In particular, I wonder how this evolution (or devolution, depending on your point of view) will affect our understanding of the past.

One of the ways - if not the way - the past is accessible to us is through texts. In this current debate about Internet and reading, it seems as though there are two linked questions: First, can fluency in reading and writing on the Internet stand in for being otherwise literate? It seems so. But second, and perhaps more problematically, what are the implications of a society which is unable to read that which has come before?

Strangely enough, the easiest example I can think of is the modern Turkish state. One of Ataturk's modernizations was the transformation of Ottoman Turkish from a language written in the Arabic script to a language written in the Latin script. New Turkish words were sometimes coined or otherwise refashioned to replace Arabic or Persian cognates. All in all, the goal was to align Turkey more closely with Europe, and it's a goal that has by and large been succesful. While a handful of Turkish letters are pronounced differently than their Italian or English counterparts, the syllabary is consistent and easily intelligible. An interesting - and perhaps tragic - byproduct of the whole situation has been that whole swaths of Turkey's Ottoman heritage have been rendered literally and metaphorically illegible to today's Turks. Thus because Turks cannot read their past, that Ottoman history - full of rich contradictions - is accessible only through mediators.

At the risk of being pessimistic, we may be at the point of a new divide: Between those who can read books and between those who can't. The implications are significant, I suggested, not so much for people's ability to interact with each other in present company, as they are for people's understanding of the past. For someone to whom reading "omg i lmao wen i red it" is second nature, I really wonder how you deal with a textual legacy which is of a functionally different order.

And returning to Nicholas Carr's article in The Atlantic, his last passage suggests something important about language and literature: In a very material sense, books have heft. There is something burdening about them (Text, Benjamin suggested, from the Latin textum, meaning web), a kind of texture to their spines, to the actual words on the page. And if language is a means - our only means, perhaps - of self-presentation, what happens to our understandings of ourselves as individuals when the language accessible to us is no more than omg, brb, imho, and what have you? In an perhaps less obvious way - and I think as Carr was trying to suggest - the ever-increasing mediation of the Internet has the effect of flattening language out in an effort to make it smoother, faster, more readable (and then the critical project of Spivak, for example, her efforts to read against the grain).

The spur to write all of this was an email from a friend of mine. He'd been walking down the street in Washington D.C. when he heard someone tell her friends to wait a moment, "I'll brb". He reminded me of an op-ed piece I wrote for my high school paper years ago talking about instant messenger speak, and that he'd thought of that. I hadn't remembered the article until he mentioned it, but I can remember the outlines of that article: That the speed which the Internet tends to require of us - back then it was AIM - is not always everything it's made out to be.

Sometimes there's something to be said for writing long-hand; or at the very least, writing slowly.


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