I see it in myself. I’m trying to write this article, but at the foot of my computer screen, the AOL icon is bouncing up and down. I know — I can be 99 percent sure — that whatever has popped into my inbox is useless spam. (Hey, I’m still on AOL.) And I’m trying my damnedest to ignore the bouncing symbol, to get my important work done … and I. Just. Can’t. I have to click. I have to see. I have to bite the apple.
Eva knows what I mean. “It’s like Facebook is an addiction,” she says. “If I’m trying to write an essay, I’ll just unhook my Internet connection and turn off my cell phone. It’s been working, actually.”
Eva’s on to something, surely. If kids would tune out the white noise of the virtual world, they could plow through Moby-Dick in no time. They just need to buckle down and put their minds to it. I mean — it’s not as though they’re birds at a bird feeder, right?
IN SEPTEMBER, the New York Times published an article on a young couple, Taylor Bemis and Andrea Lieberg, who serve as caretakers for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s former home in Concord, Massachusetts. In part, it read:
To connect with their long-gone host and his philosophy of individualism, freedom and self-reliance, the couple tried to read his essays and to listen to his work on audiotape, but it was only after watching a DVD about Emerson that they began to understand him.
“I felt like he was the first person, or one of the first people, to start thinking outside the box with his whole Transcendentalism and, like, God and nature and all that,” Ms. Lieberg said. “So we were like, okay, he’s cool, nonconformist. And we like that.”
The Times is clearly poking fun at Bemis and Lieberg: Ha-ha, the caretakers who, like, couldn’t even read Emerson’s work! But there’s another way to interpret the couple’s experience, and it goes to what’s happening with kids today. It’s not that Bemis and Lieberg were too stupid to read Emerson. It’s that their brains no longer function like that. They quite literally couldn’t understand Emerson’s philosophy until it was presented to them in a form that engaged them differently than just words on a page.
I know what you’re thinking- — it’s like reading The Great Gatsby vs. watching the movie. The movie has to be an inferior intellectual enterprise. But is that true, or has our culture just taught us to think that way?
Marshall McLuhan wasn’t the first to observe that how we garner information, or share it, inevitably affects the content. In an Atlantic article called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Nicholas Carr relates that in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche invested in a typewriter after problems with his vision made using a pen difficult. Now he could write with his eyes closed! What he didn’t anticipate was how the substance of his thoughts, as transmitted to the page, would change, moving “from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.” His experience wasn’t unique.