A Luddite’s Lament
Welcome to Curtis Library’s inaugural blog dedicated to readers! Content responsibilities for this weekly journal will rotate among the staff and this first one is mine. I lobbied for it. I won. I get to start. I must admit that my enthusiasm to blogging comes from a shameless urge to promote the monthly book group that I facilitate; Beer and Books at the Brunswick Inn. It meets on the second Wednesday of the month. I pick titles that interest me. Last month we talked about The Big Short by Michael Lewis. The upcoming discussion will be regarding The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. There is no democratic give and take in the choice of book. As you might imagine, attendance can be problematic. Sometimes, even the enticement of a cold IPA isn’t enough to draw readers to a subject that, though it may get my pulse racing, may put others to sleep.
The Shallows will not put anyone to sleep. Certain technological advances have momentous consequences. The developments of an alphabet and numbers, the printing press, the clock all have profoundly affected the way we view the world. He argues that our plastic brains physically change to accommodate our tools. The Internet is just such a world-shaper. Carr calls it the “single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.” It has given us enormous powers. It also has neurological consequences. One of those involves the balkanization of our ability to focus for long periods of time. For many Internet consumers, attention can no longer be paid. Sustained reading (the layering kind of reading, where nuance, shadow and depth develop) is eroding. It’s been replaced by “power browsing.”
On a related note: Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age by Sven Birkerts builds on Carr’s research in a series of essays. Birkerts sometimes comes across as a Luddite. He’s not! Honestly! But he does have strong reservations about the direction in which American culture (is American culture an oxymoron?) is charging. He has a poet’s sensibility in his approach and seconds Carr’s arguments that emotional growth, sympathy and empathy, come through immersing oneself in another’s worldview. Deep reading does that. So does looking at works of art. Birkerts is a big proponent of idleness and this is where he won me over. He contends that we vastly under-appreciate the flaneur. The ill-considered, unfairly maligned wastrel is actually a paragon of balance and sound mental health. It is in the natural order of things to idle away hours (okay, maybe not all of them) which leads (or meanders) toward inspiration and creativity.
As long as I was shaking my fist against the dark I took home Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age. It is a humanist’s call to put away your cell phone once in a while. Stop texting your mother. Grow up! She’s sitting right next to you.
If you feel strongly one way or the other about the Internet, pick up any of these books and come to Beer and Books at the Brunswick Inn on the 10th. We can discuss it over an adult beverage in front of the fireplace. Luddite, indeed!