Saturday, September 19, 2009

Baron on dumbing down debate

Dennis Baron's new book "A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers and the Digital Revolution" brings a historical perspective to the "internet is making us stupid" debate. An excerpt from a Salon interview:

How is the criticism directed at computers, instant messaging and Facebook similar to the negative reaction directed at previous communication advances, from pencils to typewriters?

Historically, when the new communication device comes out, the reaction tends to be divided. Some people think it's the best thing since sliced bread; other people fear it as the end of civilization as we know it. And most people take a wait and see attitude. And if it does something that they're interested in, they pick up on it, if it doesn't, they don't buy into it.

I start with Plato's critique of writing where he says that if we depend on writing, we will lose the ability to remember things. Our memory will become weak. And he also criticizes writing because the written text is not interactive in the way spoken communication is. He also says that written words are essentially shadows of the things they represent. They're not the thing itself. Of course we remember all this because Plato wrote it down -- the ultimate irony.

We hear a thousand objections of this sort throughout history: Thoreau objecting to the telegraph, because even though it speeds things up, people won't have anything to say to one another. Then we have Samuel Morse, who invents the telegraph, objecting to the telephone because nothing important is ever going to be done over the telephone because there's no way to preserve or record a phone conversation. There were complaints about typewriters making writing too mechanical, too distant -- it disconnects the author from the words. That a pen and pencil connects you more directly with the page. And then with the computer, you have the whole range of "this is going to revolutionize everything" versus "this is going to destroy everything."

(lesson from history: books and bicycles turned out to be compatible after all!)

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