Nothing is more worth studying than human discourse. We are the language-using species and if we don’t understand how we use it we’ll never understand anything. Recently, courtesy of the Net, we’ve been using it in smaller pieces which require smaller investments of time and attention. These are new things; are they good things? [Warning: long.]
Credits · I wrote this after reading Nicholas Carr’s Clutter, which was provoked in part by my Empty Walls and quotes at length from Steven Johnson’s How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write. Go read Carr and Johnson; they’re both good. Carr says:
“Whatever its charms, the online world is a world of clutter. It’s designed to be a world of clutter - of distractions and interruptions, of attention doled out by the thimbleful, of little loosely connected bits whirling in and out of consciousness.”
That’s a great sentence and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
Also, I can’t ever write something of the form “If you don’t understand that you’ll never understand anything” without an indirect tip of the hat to Margaret Atwood.
History · Consider the 95% or so of the human time-span that predates writing, when language took one form: speech. Whatever is built-in to us about language and thought was built in by evolution, and that process was pretty well over by the time writing arrived.
Speech is remarkably plastic; at one extreme, the monosyllables of technical specialists or lovers; debate flowing around a meeting table somewhere in the middle; and at the long end, oration, notable examples of which extend in length from a handful of minutes to many hours.
There’s nothing much on the Net that’s without precedent in spoken language. What’s new is that written discourse is becoming less like oration and more like conversation. It’s not clear that this is bad.
What’s New? · The Net has had a twofold effect on short-form publishing: First, it’s cheap, verging on free. Second, it enjoys many routes to potentially large audiences. It’s the second that’s interesting. Until recently, you simply couldn’t find a large audience for your thoughts unless you had books on shelves in stores, and books had to be a couple of hundred pages long (usually more) to get on shelves in stores. This resulted, among other things, in many unnecessarily thick books.
Thus, books are now competing, on a fairly level playing field, with the Net media: blogs and Twitter and mailing lists and fora of other flavors. News Flash: Books are losing market share! Unsurprising, because when you start at 100%, there’s nowhere to go but down.
Length Matters · Pardon me for stating the obvious: A tweet, an essay-length piece like the one you’re reading, and a book-size work are essentially and qualitatively different in the reader’s experience. But I’m not sure it matters much whether the words are on a screen or a page.
Here’s one thing I’m sure of: there is no danger of all human discourse converging on the short, medium, or long form. One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich is a very short book and does not need to be a single word longer. At the other end of the spectrum, A Suitable Boy would be diminished by the omission of any of its thousand-plus pages.
Four minutes is the right length for a pop-music performance on YouTube. Forty-two minutes is the right length for a Lost episode. Three hours is the right length for a baseball broadcast.
Where the Words Are · Carr and Johnson, argue, essentially, that the medium is the message. Carr:
“A change in form is always, as well, a change in content. That is unavoidable, as history tells us over and over again. One reads an electronic book differently than one reads a printed book - just as one reads a printed book differently than one reads a scribal book and one reads a scribal book differently than one reads a scroll and one reads a scroll differently than one reads a clay tablet.”
I’m unconvinced. I have no direct experience with scrolls or tablets, but here’s a thought experiment. Let’s imagine different ways of doing Twitter in print: I imagine little slips floating out of a wall-slot, or old-fashioned paper-roll printers grinding away. As long as we preserve the essential characteristics — absolute user control over who you read, latency of less than a minute, and primitive but usable threading — would it feel different, qualitatively? It’s just not obvious.
And yes, I think Marshall McLuhan was not only wilfully obscurantist but also mostly wrong.
Johnson’s argument is subtler: that since a Kindle or equivalent isn’t one book but millions, reading on it is inherently more subject to interruption:
“Because they have been largely walled off from the world of hypertext, print books have remained a kind of game preserve for the endangered species of linear, deep-focus reading.”
Maybe. And maybe the lesson is that in a busy world, sometimes you need a little help in managing your attention. There are other approaches than limiting yourself to dead trees.
Distracted · The Carr and Johnson arguments converge on the issue of attention, and they’re not alone there; the hand-wringing is intense among traditionalists who lament the slipping-away of the Golden Age of lengthy undisturbed rumination. And, as always, Kids These Days are no good. The hand-wringers may be comforted by finding that their concerns are shared by many of us who live by choice in the thick of the thousand-channel flow.
Here is some raw unsorted evidence:
Linda Stone’s Continuous Partial Attention.
Wikipedia on The Flow.
Freedom enforces freedom. For up to eight hours at a time.
WriteRoom: “Distraction free writing.”
Inbox Zero; Doesn’t work for me, but it’s got buzz.
Guy walks into a doctor’s office:
“Doctor, it hurts when I do this.”
“So, don’t do that.”
I agree with the traditionalists: It requires an investment of serious amounts of fully-focused time to accomplish anything that matters. If there’s something you need to get done and you can’t make that investment, you have a problem. If one of the reasons is that you’re fast-switching between your email and your chat and your Twitter and your phone, you have to stop doing that.
But, speaking from personal experience, I’m not convinced there’s anything new here. There are two kinds of things that I need to do: let’s call them obsessions and chores. When I’ve got an obsession cooking, I have the opposite problem: a tendency to tune out not just the Internet, but my wife and children and finances and scheduled meetings and sleep. Hours vanish with no particular effort of will. I’ve learned by bitter experience that I really ought not pick up an interesting new book when, around midnight, I put work aside.
When, on the other hand, I’ve got a chore on the to-do list (I’m looking at you, travel expenses), I’ll let anything, no matter how trivial and stupid, distract me. It sure doesn’t take the Internet; I’ll actually find myself dusting my office or going through backlogs in mailing lists I don’t care about, or checking out my son’s baseball team’s grounds-keeping schedule.
If you need extra mental discipline or tool support to get the focus you need to do what you have to do, there’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose. But if none of your work is pulling you into The Zone, quite possibly you have a job problem not an Internet problem.
The world is distracting, and particularly when you’re open to distraction. But then, it always has been.