Quite often people point at me and laugh because I blog and twitter and even engage with friends on Facebook or Linkedin.
Mainly, I suspect, their derision is based on the idea that the internet is a bad thing - a medium inferior to say, the novel or newspapers, where the traditional literary narrative. And by the way I am one of the most hungry consumers of books among my peers and currently have 15 books stacked at my bedside waiting to be read.
Given the wealth of information available in the web I am always stunned by the accusation that internet has cut our attention spans, dumbed us down and reduced the literary narrative to text-speak - LOL.
So I was cheered to come across Clay Shirky’s interview with the Columbia Journalism Review. Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everybody, is one of the brainiest people on the planet who deftly anwers the question - is the web shortening attention spans? Here it is:
But people made the same complaint about comic books, they made the same complaint about paperbacks, and they made the same complaint about the vulgarity of the printing press. Whenever you let more people in, things get vulgar by definition. And people who benefited under the old system or who dislike or distrust vulgarity as a process always have room to complain. But, the interesting thing is, when you say so many people believe this, in fact almost no one believes this, right? There’s a tiny, tiny slice of the chattering classes for whom “Life was better when I was younger” is an acceptable complaint to make, and they have these little conferences or whatever and agree with one another about that phenomenon. But when you look at the actual use of the Web, it is through the roof. And it has continued in an unbroken growth from the early ’90s until now. So, in fact, almost everybody thinks it’s a good idea because they’re embracing it and they’re experimenting with it and they don’t really care what we think.
And when I say “we,” I mean—I am a member of the Chardonnay-swilling East Coast liberal media elite. But I also recognize that anything I might have to say about the utility of the media actually isn’t going to influence whether or not people are going to adopt this. And so once you get out of the idea that basically the previous avatars of the cultural good, and the world that George W.S. Trow chronicled so beautifully Within the Context of No Context—once you grasp that those people are powerless to that effect, powerless with regard to the adoption curve—the question really becomes, “How do you point out an effect where something has been damaged?” And that’s where I think a lot of this conversation about reading breaks down, because if you assume that reading Tolstoy is an a priori good, your world crumbled in 1970. And it’s hard to point to the Web as responsible for any of that because that was a done deal for some time.
If you want to point to more proximate harms, it would be very hard to argue, for example, that innovation, inventiveness, new intellectual discoveries had slowed as a result of the Internet, and so people are left with these kind of mealy-mouth cultural critiques, because nostalgia becomes the only bulwark against change. The actual effects of making more information available to more people have been enormously beneficial to society, yet not to the intellectual gatekeepers in the generation in which that change happened.