What Means These Screens? Two More Books

Every once in a while our reliance on technology initiates a corrective or at least a thorough reassessment. In a sort of Moore’s Law of agentic worry, the intervals seem to be shortening as fast as the technology is advancing, and the latest wave is upon us.

Sometimes these assessments are stiflingly negative and sometimes they are uselessly celebratory. Jaron Lanier’s recent book flirts with the former, while other current thinkers lean toward the latter. For instance, where Clay Shirky sees the book as an inconvenience borne by an era characterized by a lack of access, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (W. W. Norton & Co, 2010) laments the attempt to shred their pages into bits and scatter them all over the internet, decontextualizing great paragraphs, sentences, phrases, words. Apparently Shirky would rather read War and Pieces than War and Peace.

For all of its astute observations and well-argued points, The Shallows sometimes exhibits a strange disparity between what Carr hesitates to claim and what he writes as common knowledge. For example, he states outright that language is not a technology (p. 51) – a claim with which I not only disagree but feel is rather bold – yet hedges when saying that the book is the medium most resistant to the influence of the internet (p. 99) – a claim that seems pretty obvious to me. Books, as a medium and as an organizing principle, just do not lend themselves to the changes the digital revolution hath wrought on other media. Their form nor their fragmentation makes near as much sense.

When we do research, we rarely read an entire book. We scour indices and tables of contents for the relevant bits. As Howard Bloom gleefully explains in his contribution to this year’s summer reading list:

…if you prefer playing video games to plowing through a thousand pages of Joyce’s Odesseus and falling out of your beach chair with periodic bouts of sleep, I highly recommend the Google Book Search e-approach, deep dives into the minds of philosophers you would normally never think of sampling between games of badminton.

As much as I’d love to be able to run a digitally enabled quick-search on all the books on my bookshelf, that doesn’t mean I don’t want the option of pulling one down in its entirety once in a while. The same could be said for the fragmentation of the album as the organizing principle for music. It doesn’t take a 19th century librarian to see that preferring the excerpts and snippets of research is not the same thing as never wanting a book to read. This is the thick thicket, as Matt Schulte would call it, of digitizing books.

Carr’s point though, is not just the dissolution of our books, but the dissolution of our minds. He claims that the manifold fragments and features of the web are preventing us from concentrating for a book-length spell, much less wanting one. As clear as his argument reads and as solid as his research seems (Carr assembled a firm foundation of writing history and media ecology on which to build), it’s difficult not to take the very point of it as so much pining for a previous era. He’s careful to blunt that point by praising the web’s usefulness and to self-analyze his own tech-habits just enough to soften the prickly parts of his argument. It’s a seductive read in spite of itself.

I thoroughly enjoyed all of The Shallows, but the last chapter, “A Thing Like Me,” is one of the more frustrating twenty-odd pages I’ve read in some time. Not because it was bad, but because it was so dead-on in-tune with my recent thoughts on media and minds. It was a lengthy and weighty I-wish-I’d-written-that experience. Damn you, Nicholas Carr!

Speaking of things I wish I’d written, Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (Pantheon, 2010) is a prefect model of how to write about something totally geeky, maintain the things that make it geeky, and still make it accessible to anyone. When I was a gamer, a self-identification I wouldn’t feel comfortable using even in jest today, there wasn’t such a category. Playing video games was a subset of the larger “nerd” label. Given my hiatus from said world, I should’ve been outmoded by Bissell’s admittedly narrow focus on recent console games, a focus he admits runs the “danger of seeming, in only a few years, as relevant as a biology textbook devoted to Lamarckism.” Thankfully, what this book’s subject matter lacks in breadth, Bissell’s intelligence, insight, writing, and wit make up for in spades.

Adult indulgence in video games begs questions of maturity and responsibility in the adult, but it also begs questions of the games as well. Bissell explores some of both, but mostly the latter. He thoroughly refutes Roger Ebert’s recent claim that video games can never be art (Ebert has since retracted his statements), snags insider insights via interviews with several top game designers, makes fun of Resident Evil‘s deplorable dialog, and descends into the depths of addiction and abuse — on the screen and IRL — with Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s a thumb-blistering journey through the screen and into the machine, and, in spite of its candor and seriousness, it’s damn funny.

What I can say for very few recent books, I can say for The Shallows and Extra Lives: They are as entertaining and funny as they are provocative and informative. Simply put, they are good reads. Carr and Bissell should be proud.