Archive for August 18th, 2011

The Web and the World

Wooster, Ohio, where I work, recently opened a new, state of the art library. It is much larger than the old one, and while it has extensive audio-visual resources and a couple of dozen computers, it actually has less shelf space for books. Indeed, the library had a huge book sale…to make room for the new, bigger library.

This reflects a trend throughout society, as schools and libraries turn increasingly to electronic media and away from traditional books. And Border’s, the behemoth book chain- which I first discovered in my youth as a single,  great independent bookstore in Ann Arbor- has announced that it is closing, in large part because of this massive conversion to online sources.

Meanwhile, we hear more and more about the increasing ignorance of the populace, and not only among the young.

Which is very interesting to me, as some of my children have begun to attend school after years of homeschooling. The schools, if you don’t know, are setting higher and higher standards, even here in Massillon, which every year does poorly in state assessments, but just bought a million dollar scoreboard for the high school football field (football is a religion here). More is expected of children than when I was young, yet by all measures kids in my day were better educated.

How can this be?

I would not dismiss widespread cheating, to be sure, but I also believe that the internet is partly to blame. In fact I have seen this; my eldest quickly looking up the needed test answer on the web, which he does not assimilate or understand, just memorizes for a minute.

At any rate, in spite of increasingly difficult curriculums we hear time and again that incoming college freshmen do not possess the necessary skills and knowledge for what lies ahead.

Not to mention that they also lack the ability to reflect and reason, the ability to reflect creatively on what knowledge they do have.

This goes with the territory; the internet is about information, not reflection or wisdom.

I realize the irony of writing this criticism on an  internet blog;  if you had told me in the heady Luddite days of the magazine that I would be doing this I would have thought you were crazy.

But the publishing of a paper magazine is beyond me; it is nice not to have to worry about getting enough subscribers to keep it afloat, and it is nice not to have a deadline. This is free, and not so time consuming.

And I assume that my readers were formed by literary culture and still read books, as I was and as I do.

The internet is not evil, but it does have grave dangers to the intellect, particularly for those formed by it and not by books. I appreciate what is good about it, but I have no illusions about what is being  lost.

Sven Birkerts says it better than I can:

The order of print is linear, and is bound to logic by the imperatives of syntax. Syntax is the substructure of discourse, a mapping of the ways that the mind makes sense through language. Print communication requires the active engagement of the reader’s attention, for reading is fundamentally an act of translation. Symbols are turned into their verbal referents and these are in turn interpreted. The print engagement is essentially private. While it does represent an act of communication, the contents pass from the privacy of the sender to the privacy of the receiver. Print also posits a time axis; the turning of pages, not to mention the vertical descent down the page, is a forward-moving succession, with earlier contents at every point serving as a ground for what follows. Moreover, the printed material is static�it is the reader, not the book, that moves forward. The physical arrangements of print are in accord with our traditional sense of history. Materials are layered; they lend themselves to rereading and to sustained attention. The pace of reading is variable, with progress determined by the reader’s focus and comprehension.

The electronic order is in most ways opposite. Information and contents do not simply move from one private space to another, but they travel along a network. Engagement is intrinsically public, taking place within a circuit of larger connectedness. The vast resources of the network are always there, potential, even if they do not impinge on the immediate communication. Electronic communication can be passive, as with television watching, or interactive, as with computers. Contents, unless they are printed out (at which point they become part of the static order of print) are felt to be evanescent. They can be changed or deleted with the stroke of a key. With visual media (television, projected graphs, highlighted “bullets”) impression and image take precedence over logic and concept, and detail and linear sequentiality are sacrificed. The pace is rapid, driven by jump-cut increments, and the basic movement is laterally associative rather than vertically cumulative. The presentation structures the reception and, in time, the expectation about how information is organized.

Further, the visual and nonvisual technology in every way encourages in the user a heightened and ever-changing awareness of the present. It works against historical perception, which must depend on the inimical notions of logic and sequential succession. If the print medium exalts the word, fixing it into permanence, the electronic counterpart reduces it to a signal, a means to an end.

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What Did They Expect?

The human psyche can only take so much:

“The Army suicide rate has nearly doubled during a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, which has seen more-frequent overseas deployments for soldiers and a broader range of recruits.”



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