There is a great deal to argue with in David Carr’s Media Equation column today, but I wonder if it’s worth the trouble even to begin. Something is terribly missing from the piece, with its bland, hopeless/helpless acquiescence to the irrelevance of printed matter in today’s world: any sense of personal responsibility. To see what I mean, substitute “alcoholic beverages” for “the shimmering immediacy of now,” and similar terms for online immediacy, and watch the essay collapse into an apology for addiction.
I keep coming back to this:
Last month, researchers at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand published a study that found that comprehension, concentration and retention all went off a cliff when information was taken in online. (Then again, there are those who say that we see everything and remember nothing because we don’t have to, that the web now serves as our memory.)
If Western Civilization were a toddler whom Carr was about to drop into the boiling pit of a volcano, my horror would be more vivid but perhaps less resounding. Carr’s statement is a kind of Ground Zero for the expression of thoughtlessness. If, as I believe it is generally conceded, non-human forms of intelligence remain incapable of reflection, abstraction, imagination, and synthesis, then I am at a loss as to how thought is to occur in human minds no longer capable of “comprehension, concentration, and retention,” all of which are essential to the development as well as the criticism of ideas.
Carr writes as though there were nothing to be done, but at the heart of his argument there is nothing but the bad habit of watching things that aren’t actually in front of him.
Think about what happened when the Malaysian airliner was shot down in eastern Ukraine. No matter where you were, or what you were doing, an ambient feed of information pulsed and heaved all around you. Graphic images soon appeared in social media feeds and breathless news alerts arrived in the inboxes of anyone with even a casual interest.
“Think,” indeed! I heard about the plane, very incompletely, from a friend who called from a busy office and hung up before delivering the entire message. I took a look at the Times‘s Web site, saw roughly what had happened, and went back to what I was doing. The explosion of Malaysian Flight 17 is an awful thing, posing a terrible danger to world peace. Here we are, in the anniversary of the July Crisis that precipitated World War I, and the deaths of hundreds of perfectly innocent airline passengers cry out even more loudly than those of an archduke and his wife. But who is to blame? That was the question then, as it is now. The crash is precisely the kind of news that calls for considered restraint, checked impulses, and fully articulate responses. There is nothing to be gained from an immersion in the actualities of the tragedy.
I am more than ever convinced that vision at a distance poses the greatest environmental danger to humanity that we have yet introduced onto this planet. At some point in the very distant, just-prehistoric past — this was indeed the event that would create history itself — we learned the amazing blindness of reading. When we read — if we’re fluent at it — all consciousness of vision falls away. We tumble into a use of one of the senses that is not sensual, and in the ten millennia or so of our literacy, we have developed an ability to learn from the written word that has little or nothing to do with other ways of knowing about the world. I am convinced that, if our brains have not adapted to reading, they have adapted reading to our mental capacities. Literacy, like everything human, has a history, and it is a history that reflects the optimization of the written word to suit our inborn faculties. The mind of a literate reader, moreover, reads actively, interpreting words even as they are being read, placing them where they belong in an already furnished mind. Without literacy, there may be powerful impressions, but they never rise to the level of thought, much less thought that can be shared and disputed with others.
We still need to see what is actually around us. Cluttering our minds with the mediated visions of remote cameramen is an inexcusable and degrading substitute for reading, and for the thought that can’t take place without reading.
Roger Ebert once described film as “a machine that generates empathy.” I am a devoted believer in the power of film, but for the moment I want to turn Ebert’s statement around. Any visual material that does not generate empathy is rubbish. Everything from televised news to cat videos on the Internet to “educational” features of pseudoscientific intent is rubbish. Whatever does not elicit feelings of care for or solidarity with other human beings leaves you in the position of an idle, dirty voyeur — a rubbernecker of roadkill. Pornography were preferable.
I included sportscasts in the first draft of the foregoing denunciation. I have a terrible problem with sportscasts, but it does not involve a want of empathy, as I learned from personal experience during the World Cup. I watched none of the matches myself, of course — I really do take zero interest in other people’s balls — but I was elated by the excitement in the streets. During the US-Portugal game, the neighborhood was roused by cries of victory that set me to thinking what the churchbells and Te Deums of old must have been like. I heartily wish that the attraction of sports could be matched by a worthier source, but I understand that worth itself is not going to have a widespread appeal in the foreseeable future. I also wish for a kind of victory that did not involve loss. But the World Cup made me happy while it lasted.
What enrages me about David Carr’s fecklessness is his — what? Incapacity? Refusal? What enrages me is his failure to acknowledge his responsibility for upholding the worthwhile — a responsibility that ought, in an educated mind, to be cheerfully and eagerly embraced. I am not talking about broccoli here. I’m talking about Shakespeare and Churchill and Preston Sturges, Mozart and Verdi, Titian and Tiepolo. I’m talking about Jean Arthur singing the Iowa state song with a gang of GIs, or John de Lancie playing the oboe concerto that Richard Strauss wrote for him. I’m talking about joyful beauty that is not difficult to apprehend, no matter how much sharper a bit of learning can render that apprehension. I’m talking about Proust and remembering your own life. I’m talking about the endless puzzling pleasure of reducing complication to complexity.
David Carr again:
Nothing can compete with the shimmering immediacy of now, and not just when seismic events take place, but in our everyday lives. We are sponges and we live in a world where the fire hose is always on.
That is an obituary for humanity.
Daily Blague news update: Inescapable Regulation.