Monday, June 28, 2010


From the book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. The reader is describing the experience of reading, for a directed study, Elizabeth Bowen's short story "The Demon Lover" not in "a traditional linear-text format" but in "a version with links, as you'd find on a Web page" (unfortunately, Carr does not indicate whether those reading the story in the un-linked format did so while looking at a screen):

One hypertext reader complained, "The story was very jumpy." Continuing: "I don't know if that was caused by the hypertext, but I made choices and all of a sudden it wasn't flowing properly, it just kind of jumped to a new idea I didn't really follow."

What's nice here is that jumpy sounds the way it means. I can't quite tell what the reader of the linked "Demon Lover" was reading but of course if one clicks in and out, leap-linking within a traditionally conceived story, the experience does become a jumpy affair.

It also makes me recall how in the very late '80s or early '90s, I clicked around in a hypertext version of Ulysses for a company then testing a beta version of sorts. It was interesting but it wasn't attractive. I imagine my undermind was thinking something along the lines of "Yes, some of these links are interesting for a minute--or maybe five," but, ultimately, they're not as interesting as my own "links," my own accretive annotations and marginalia. Why would I want to follow a path I didn't create? That would be like watching a television program simply because it was on and not because I actually wanted to see it.

Somewhere in the Netosphere there are contemporary stories with links that perform particular narrative functions. For two old-media examples, the marginalia in Marianne Wiggins' novel John Dollar and the footnotes--most deftly ff. 4--in David Foster Wallace's story "The Depressed Person," gloss those texts in ways that hyperlinks should gloss current or future ones. The online narrative and its electronic medium should relate symbiotically.

Carr's book, which has only a few drawbacks, raises a number of interesting points.

One is the general idea of the Great Reading Divide and which group will wind up being the ruling "class." Will those who develop and nurture a capacity to think deeply and contemplate and ruminate--and remember--will they coagulate into a tiny coterie practicing a quaint, outmoded, and supposedly useless activity? Will power go to the scanners, the skimmers, the clickety-clickers?

Another: the value of "spending time in a quiet rural setting, close to nature." Carr states (in his characteristically sweeping fashion) that when people do this, "[t]heir brains become both calmer and sharper. The reason, according to attention restoration therapy, or ART, is that when people aren't being bombarded by external stimuli, their brains can, in effect, relax. They no longer have to tax their working memories by processing a stream of bottom-up distractions. The resulting state of contemplativeness strengthens their ability to control their mind." [I think he meant minds.] I believe this is true: Time spent away from one's BlackBerry (iPhone, iPod, television, or computer screen) and in nature actually works, even better than Google. For Homo sapiens, time + nature "deliver" a superior algorithm.

Imagine that AT&T commercial, rewritten: Where does your brain want to go today?

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