Attention span as luxury item
In the latest issue of N+1, there is a long editorial on “The New Reading Environment.” The article aligns itself with the bemoaners. One passage in particular has attracted attention:
“The first decade of the 21st century was a transitional one in terms of reader-writer relations, its habits now as foreign as those of Edward R. Murrow’s America. Gone are the happy days when we dialed up to submit a comment to Salon.com, only to be abused by Glenn Greenwald or destroyed — respectfully — by the academics at Crooked Timber. Back then, we could not have imagined feeling nostalgic for the blogosphere… Even those who stridently disagreed shared some basic premises and context… Today’s internet, by contrast, is arbitrary and charmless. On social media, criticism once confined to the comments now comes as free-range abuse directed at other readers. Readers can address all parties instantaneously — writers, editors, publishers, and the world. And so writers who publish online peer into the fishbowl of readerly reception. Drop in some flakes and watch the fish swarm.”
Bemoaning “free range abuse” has become a shared hobby among media bigwigs, but it is a little jarring to see it in a magazine that started out as the new Partisan Review. The Partisan Review, from the 30s to the 60s, was the romper room of the New York intellectuals. Everybody – from Saul Bellow to Susan Sontag, from Elizabeth Hardwick to Norman Mailer – would show up on its pages at one point or another. Famously, the PR started out on the far left, with vaguely Trotskyist leanings. It slowly became more mainstream in the fifties, and then became cranky in the sixties and seventies. In its twilight years, it was reliably neo-con, white haired, and whiny.
N+1 also started out as a lefty publication, but it has obviously transitioned to the cranky phase in internet time. In the past, the fish swarming – i.e. the grassroots expressing themselves – was considered the point. But now it is all random abuse. Not, as with the sophisticated set, intentional and very clever abuse. The decline of abuse is the decline of civilization. Etc. Etc.
The trope that the Internet, and more specifically social media like Twitter, is massively injuring our attention skills and destroying literacy, borrows its form from earlier fears that literacy was becoming too common. Jonathan Crary, in his book, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture, has traced the convergence of various modernizing tendencies in the late nineteenth century with an elite perception that “attention” itself was being depleted, a vital resource that was squandered on spectacle and speed:
It was a problem whose centrality was directly related to the emergence of a social, urban, psychic, and industrial field increasingly saturated with sensory input. Inattention, especially within the context of new forms of large-scale industrialized production, began to be treated as a danger and a serious problem, even though it was often the very modernized arrangements of labor that produced inattention.
The “saturation of sensory input” was linked to two other phenomena: mass literacy and urbanization. The urban space was increasingly held together by writing, from licenses and contracts to signs and addresses, with a massive spillover effect in the entertainment sphere. Rural lifestyles were less dependent on literacy; learning to read and write often took away the free labor force (i.e. children) from seasonal work, and created a work force that was evidently meant to be deployed outside of the agricultural sphere. There is a reason that Marx and Engels spoke of rural “idiocy”. Conservatives like Matthew Arnold, on the other hand, saw the urban mob, with their lack of regard for the classics and their deplorably pulp reading habits, as an “ignorant army”. Best not to give that army weapons.
The internet is an extension of this urbanization, perhaps its ultimate extension. It has intensified sensory input and created spectacles that put into play not just reading, but writing. The N+1 article is balanced on a division between the writer and the reader – as if we were still in a space where this division was socially absolute. But that has long been swept away. Rather than fishes swarming, readerly reception is now transformed, almost instantly, into writerly reception. It is as if the dull kids in the back of the classroom, the ones who passed around notes, are now in the front of the classroom, writing on twitter. Which is just another form of classroom note. And the authors are not amused. Like teachers, they suspect that the amusement those notes are causing is distracting from the very important lessons being drawn on the blackboard.
The writerly revolution has still not been fully comprehended, I think. Literacy, until recently, has been thought of as largely passive. In the early modern period, learning to read did not necessarily entail learning to write: women, for instance, who formed even then the most ardent corps of readers, were often not instructed in writing. But both functions became one in the great literacy campaigns of the nineteenth century. Still, just as math beyond primitive algebra were taught to the masses and immediately forgotten by most of the masses, who had no practical use for them, the tools of writing were often used rarely after high school.
All of this has changed in a historical instance. The child who doesn’t know how to use the keyboard on the cell phone is now a rarity. Writing on the popular level has caught up with reading. Twitter is a fascinating place to watch the collision between an older form of literacy and a newer one. Far from being the “cesspit” that older media peeps – and the cranky formerly hip denizens of N+1 – like to despise, it is creating its own vocabulary, its audio-visual forms, its links, its infradig references. It is the old story of the modern: make it new.
Does this new atmosphere really threaten longer forms of reading the way that Punk’s get in-do/damage/get out three chord ethos led to the extinction of 70s rock of the lets-use-an-orchestra-and-some-free-form-jazz? Perhaps. But punk did us a service: it bled rock of its sap. It mocked rock’s painfully stupid machismo swagger. It sliced and diced it. It brought onto stage people who had just learned to play an instrument, backing singers whose lyrics were more graffiti than pop. Who knows? Twitter might be doing just that service for the Long Read.