Monday, 20 January 2014

{habits & happenings}

I haven't done one of these posts for a while, but this one is definitely becoming a habit! As summer settles in, evenings expand and swell with warmth. And that means more time spent on the veranda trying to catch evening breezes. It means quiet dinners out there because it's simply to hot to be indoors. It means watching as skeletal Frangiapani fingers darken against the fading sky. It means watching that moment at the end of the day when light drains away behind the horizon and there is a kind of switch of light from outside to inside; indoor lights twinkle on and slowly cast their leaked, geometric window patterns over the darkening world.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The end of reading? Part 2

To begin my second post on Nicholas Carr's book, The Shallows (read Part 1 here), I would like to return to E.B. White's essay on the future of reading, to a particular section where he acknowledges reading as a solitary interaction between reader and writer. He points out, "Reading is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy. As in the sexual experience, there are never more than two persons present in the act of reading - the writer, who is the impregnator, and the reader, who is the respondent. This gives the experience of reading a sublimity and power unequaled by any other form of communication."

In The Shallows, Carr looks at how reading online changes the act of reading and that this has made an impact on us. Reading online requires a different set of skills and has an altogether different character from the one described by E.B.White above. Reading therefore moves away from linear text towards shared, interactive reading rather than "deep" reading as a personal, solitary activity.

More specifically, what Carr writes about next is something I find particularly fascinating: how changes in reading style bring about changes in writing style. On the whole, the style of the internet tends towards the informal and accessible over the literary. Because information on the net is constantly updated and refreshed, writing becomes impermanent and can undergo countless revisions. Carr suggests that the pressure to achieve perfection will diminish as a result, "Our indulgence in the pleasures of informality and immediacy has led to a narrowing of expressiveness and a loss of eloquence."

The diminishing of reading as a practice of deep, solitary engagement with text raises some interesting questions: Will reading like this (or as E.B. White calls it in his essay: the Last Reader) become part of a small, elite group, a kind of "reading class"? Will reading be seen as holding a rare form of cultural capital or will it be seen as indulging in an arcane hobby? This might seem absurd, however this becomes less so when one considers how often people say they don't have time to read a book - the internet satisfies the need to read instantly and in bite-sized, manageable chunks that can be squeezed in between other activities.

Of course, it should be acknowledged that the world around us is constantly in flux and this ever-changing context requires new skills, which result in the loss of old ones. So, should we then mourn the loss of the literary mind or should we move with the intellectual and social trends that parallel the fast-moving, kaleidoscopic diversions that characterise modern life? Life really does seem too busy for solitary, extended reading (just ask a student) and Carr states, "In the choices we have made, consciously or not, about how we use our computers, we have rejected the intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration, the ethic that the book bestowed on us. We have cast our lot with the juggler."

So what does it mean to "cast our lot with the juggler"? What is the "juggler's brain" as Carr calls it? He returns to the notion that the internet changes our brains and points out that what we're not doing also has neurological consequences. He writes,
"Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don't fire together don't wire together. As the time we spend scanning Web pages crowds out the time we spend reading books, as the time we spend exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, as the time we spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart.The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones."
This becomes a problem when we consider how memory works. Carr goes into the differences between long term and working memory and how information is processed by our working memory which allows it to be stored in our long term memory. Our long term memory is virtually infinite, but our working memory has a limited capacity, so the more information it is bombarded with the less likely it is that this information will proceed to long term memory.

In opposition to the mass of information and distractions we face on the internet, reading a book provides a "steady drip" of information that can then be transferred to long term memory. As already expressed, information on the internet is the opposite: it is a flush of information, too much to adequately process, so only a small drop of this is transferred to long term memory. The internet often offers us a jumbled instead of a continuous, coherent stream of information from one source. Carr explains the impact of this, "The information flowing into our working memory at any given moment is called our 'cognitive load'. When the load exceeds our mind's ability to store and process the information - when the water overflows the thimble - we're unable to retain the information or to draw connections with the information already stored in our long-term memory. We can't translate the new information into schemas. Our ability to learn suffers, and our understanding remains shallow."

This is the crux of Carr's argument: that the way we read information on the internet leads to shallow understanding and that we lose the ability to engage deeply and extensively with information. A loss or a necessary adaptation? I guess it remains to be seen, but I definitely think that rushing headlong into the internet without looking back is something we might regret.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

The end of reading? Part 1

The other day I picked up E.B. White's collection of essays The second tree from the corner and read his essay entitled The future of reading which he penned in 1951. He states, "In schools and colleges, in these audio-visual days, doubt has been raised as to the future of reading - whether the printed word is on its last legs." He then puts forward the idea of the Last Reader, someone who continues reading in spite of the competition from new media. E.B. White wonders whether this Last Reader will become for society what the queen bee is to a hive, however comes to the conclusion that, "it is more likely that our modern hive of bees... will try to perpetuate the race through audio-visual devices, which ask no discipline of the mind and which are already giving the room the languor of an opium parlour."

Some time after that, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr found its way into my hands and piqued my interest because it not only proved to be strangely prophetic in terms of E.B.White's predictions about the place of reading in the modern world, but also because it confirmed an uneasy, niggling feeling I've had about our enthusiastic and (sometimes) reckless embrace of all things online.

Carr makes a compelling argument for how our brains change physiologically with use and that the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember and that this change is one that takes us from the depth of solitary reading to the shallows of distraction offered to us by the internet. Alarmist argument or fair warning? While I may write a blog, own a tablet and spend a fair amount of time online, I tend towards recognising this book as a fair warning. Reading is an issue that is close to my heart and I believe books to be fundamental in shaping our thinking and as a result, Carr's argument had my undivided attention from beginning to end. For this reason, I also felt that it deserved some space on this blog. I've divided my response to this book into two parts, firstly, the book as medium and secondly, the effects changes in reading habits have on us.

Carr begins by arguing that reading a page is different from reading a screen in that it lacks a certain tactile element to it. He writes, "The shift from paper to screen doesn't just change the way we navigate a piece of writing. It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it." One of the distinguishing features is that online reading makes use of hyperlinks. These hyperlinks don't just direct the reader to related works, but also offer a distraction from the main text, directing our attention away from it. Anyone who has suddenly found a whole evening gone as a result of the exploratory clicking of hyperlinks and the subsequent journey through the internet's rabbit-warren of interconnected texts will understand this.

The way that information is presented on the net is designed towards fragmentation rather than the engagement with the whole. Carr states, "A search engine often draws our attention to a particular snippet of text, a few words or sentences that have strong relevance to whatever we're searching for at the moment, while providing little incentive for taking in the work as a whole. We don't see the forest when we search the Web. We don't even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves." As a result, we don't engage with information in the same way we do with a book which follows a strongly linear fashion. Information on the net is synthesised, summarised, shortened, snipped, presented in graphics and generally made into more easily digestible, bite-sized bits. This, Carr argues, is having a profound impact on the way we think.

The Shallows is more than just a book about competing media (the printed word vs. online texts); it makes the argument that as we use technologies, these technologies actually change us. As a result, Carr remains firm that eBooks and printed books are not the same thing at all. Introducing connectivity and hyperlinks to eBooks fundamentally changes the book as a medium and how we experience it. The experience is ultimately diluted by a process of fragmentation. He quotes author, Stephen Johnson, to explain how this affects us as readers, "I fear that one of the great joys of book reading - the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author's ideas - will be compromised. We all may read books the way we increasingly read magazines and newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit there."

Since the rise of E.B. White's "audio-visual days" in the 50s and 60s, the internet has come along and surpassed these technologies, but his questions about the future of reading remain as relevant as ever. Are we now in the days of the Last Reader? Of course, the usefulness of the internet can't be denied; it is a tool that we can can use as we like and can even be viewed as an accessory to reading and writing. However, as tempting as it may seem, reading a printed book just can't be replaced.

Part 2 to follow soon!

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Hello 2014!

Happy 2014, everyone! A brand new year, a fresh sheet of paper, a blank screen with awaiting cursor... however you like to look at it, a new year does offer up an enticing freshness and promise. So, to ease into this brand new year, I thought I'd start off with some links to interesting things I've been reading around the web:


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