- Writing, American Literature, and "Media Ecologies"
From the summer through the fall of 2010, there was a flurry of publicity about Nicholas Carr and his just-published book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. There were articles by him and excerpts from his book in a variety of newspapers and magazines—with such titles as "The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains"—as well as scores of reviews of the book and discussions of his ideas. An elaboration of the controversial article he published in The Atlantic in 2008, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" the book clearly struck a chord with its argument that the internet is rewiring our brains, and not for the better. As Marshall McLuhan asserted in the 1960s, Carr writes, "media aren't just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation" (Shallows 6). If the printing press "made long and complex works of prose commonplace" ("Is Google"), and shaped our ability to interpret texts and "to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction" (Shallows 122), the Internet is replacing the neural equipment that enabled that ability with brain structures adapted to "cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning" (Shallows 116). To illustrate the power that technology has on thinking, Carr invokes Friedrich Nietzsche, who found, as his eyes were failing, that he could still write with the newly invented typewriting machine, but declared that "Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts" (qtd. in Shallows 19). And Carr quotes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler who writes that, influenced by this new technology, Nietzsche's writing [End Page 362] "changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style" (Kittler qtd. in "Is Google").
A scholar immersed in American literary history rather than in contemporary media theory might be forgiven, I think, for assuming that Marshall McLuhan had long since passed from the scene, along with grandiose declarations about how media and new technologies shape everything from ways of seeing and knowing to versions of being and the self. Neil Postman's similarly media-centric theory, as articulated in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business—that television turns serious matters into entertainment and rational discourse into decontextualized fragments, making us incapable of conceptual or logical thought—came out in 1985, seemingly a long time ago. His conception of "media ecology," too—that media constitute an environment that shapes human chances for survival and affects "human perception, understanding, feeling, and value"—seemed to occupy an academic backwater ("Reformed" 161). Meanwhile, an alternative, cultural studies model appeared to hold sway. It was anchored by Raymond Williams's Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974), a riposte to McLuhan that discounted technological determinism and cogently insisted on complex social and cultural analysis in place of the reductionist stress on the medium as the message. Williams's point was extended by Stuart Hall and the Birmingham School, who cogently argued that media tend to reproduce the power structure of the whole social system; that is, media have no ecology unto themselves, but are (over)determined—as are subjectivities and cultures—by social struggle (57–60). Cultural studies seemed to have laid to rest some years ago an analysis that characterized the inherent nature of a medium as a primary agent in social and cultural change.
But, of course, there is a familiar and persistent strain of general cultural anxiety about the effects of new media. Carr himself adduces Socrates's worry that writing would ruin people's memories, and, qualifying his own jeremiad, he notes that similar worries accompanied the invention of the printing press, as they have arisen after the invention of radio, film, television, and now the Internet. The throng of relatively new books...