Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Internets, Time, and Brain-Rot

Nicholas Carr dares to ask if the reading and writing practices of the internets are forever shortening our attention spans and intellectual capacities. He notes that Nietzsche had the same worries about the typewriter:

[T]he machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”

“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”
I used to worry about the effects of typing on my writing style, and I suppose I still do, although the worry is more and more vestigial with every passing day of blogging and other keyboarding. I can't remember the last time I used pen and paper to write anything of any length, so I no longer have a clear sense of the difference between my longhand and keyboard writing style: if anything was lost, it's no longer visible enough to be missed. I do know that when I pick up a pen to write something down, it feels labored and graceless -- I feel like a chimp clutching at a stick, and the penmanship is nothing short of tragic. My junior high self would scoff at the handwriting I do today.

But I wonder if Nietzsche is selling himself short, or at best misidentifying the pathology: perhaps the more terse style of his latter years reflects a decline in patience and enthusiasm with his underlying subject matter, which is to say, life itself. I wonder if it became harder and harder for him to generate the kind of manic energy it required to produce the likes of The Birth of Tragedy or Thus Spake Zarathustra regardless of the writing instrument. His failing eyesight could only add to the burden involved in rattling on at length; if this is right, the typewriter is a symptom, not a cause.

I wonder if the internets make so much so instantly available that we face an abyss of abundance: when everything is in reach, surely any failure of attention, enthusiasm, patience, persuasion, or insight falls more heavily on us -- it must be that we're simply too lazy or too stupid. Or still worse: it's not worth the effort because it has already been said and ignored at least a dozen times, including, no doubt, every last thought expressed herein.

(via German Joys)


Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

That's an insightful observation.

Since the advent of my blogging obsession, I wrote daily in a diary. I still do, but not as daily. I still obsess over which pen I'll be using to write with (I swap off between a Pilot Precise V5 roller ball, by far the best value in a roller ball pen (gel pens are just as beautifully black but run out way too fast) and a nifty latter-day Parker fountain pen.

I also obsess about my handwriting. I don't write words so much as I draw individual letters based on their context. My handwriting is quite nice and expressive, and I'm not saying that because I'm arrogant (I am, but that's not why I'm saying it). I've had acquaintances come to me and write out quite mundane things - recipes, lists, and such - because they like to be able to read what they've got in front of them.

But handwriting is labor intensive and I do tend to write shorter and more succinctly when I'm writing by hand than here.

I mean, look at the enormous amount of verbiage in this one comment. Did I need to rattle on at length? Probably not. Did the technology (I am also a rather quick typist) for data entry and storage (infintesimal for even this long discourse) make it possible? You bet!

Bpaul said...

I used to chew my nails over this stuff too. I spent two summers in a fire lookout, and wrote longhand every day I spent up there. Lots. Lots and lots. I reveled in poems and essays that expounded the virtues of writing "by hand," I felt cool.

In the end, however, I found that it wasn't the quality or worth of my writing that different when I used different mediums to get the words down -- just the style. Both my style and cadence is different when I keyboard than when I write longhand, but at this point I truly think that neither is better or worse. They are very different, though.

I'm more loose, open and flippant when keyboard. I'm less precise and my grammar is less strict. I'm more prone to experiment, but could easily be accused of intellectual or stylistic laziness.

When I write longhand, the writing is much more contained, tighter, and quieter. Nicer in some ways, but on the edge of too uptight in others. I have much more work to do shutting up my internal editor because he's got so much time to speak up.

I'm more likely to write longhand when writing verse (rare nowadays) and more likely to keyboard everything else.

I worried for a while about similar issues when I started blogging. I, as some kind of weird rule, write extemporaneously when I blog. I rarely edit for content, but do comb for egregious grammatical and stylistic errors (repetition seems to be the big one). I still worry sometimes that it's ruining my writing somehow -- but then again, I've maintained a writing regimen every day by blogging, whereas being so pinched by school I don't know that I would have been journaling this whole time.

This comment is too long.