Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Whasa matter with Lady Smatter?

I'm thinking a lot right now about "pleasure" reading, and what constitutes reading itself. In my classes at USC, my students and I are exploring the reading practices and knowledge acquisition inculcated by old and new media. In this unit, we're attending to the differences between sustained reading of a book or magazine versus gathering information from the various resources available via search engines.

There are lots of people puzzling over these sorts of questions just now. Nicholas Carr's piece, "Is Google Making Us Stupid" cogently frames the concerns shared by many who went to school before the internet was invented (hey--it was invented the year I got married).

[See Carr's terrific sources and notes for his article here.]

Carr and many others fret that online reading entails too much interruption, promotes skimming rather than focus, creates "pancake people" spread wide and thin. His opening paragraphs resonated with me: I, too, find myself skimming even relatively short blog posts that are just 500 words long.

Like this one.

Carr acknowledges that new technology which alters how (or whether) we read always sparks worry, and he quotes deft examples from Socrates' distrust of writing's supplementation for memory all the way through Guttenberg and TV.

One wonders whether this cultural moment--the Googlification of reading--is genuinely revolutionary or just another battle in the centuries-old culture wars.

When it comes to feeling secure in our knowledge, writers and readers have a long history of worrying that they don't know enough, that someone else always knows more, and that the cerebral smackdown is imminent. Any pose of mastery might expose us to mockery as frauds. How much reading is enough? In The Witlings, Franny Burney satirized a type of Bluestocking-literary-salon woman as "Lady Smatter." We've always snickered at people who cram for tests because crammed knowledge rarely survives the blue book. But is this incarnation of cultural anxiety about online reading qualitatively different? Is it just another nervous response to a new technology?

Has Google rendered us a nation, a world, of Lady Smatters?

I think the story's more complex than that.

The Googlification of reading has freed us into a more brutal meritocracy.

Will the smartest kids skim extraordinary amounts of information and read deeply where necessary and/or desired? Will average kids follow their whims and read semi-unconnected bits and bobs? Will the rest read only insofar as it is necessary to send text messages and mash buttons on game consoles?

Tune in as my students and I stretch through this intellectual yoga pose.

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