Everywhere you look in the book world, technology is sinking in to the way that we read and write. Pioneers like Dennis Cooper introduced us to the ways the web can exist on the page and then took it a step further by anthologizing a whole new breed of writers who established themselves online. Dennis Cooper introduced message board conversations early on in his books. In Japan, novels written entirely as cell phone text conversations swept the nation for a short time. From Blake Butler’s truncated and scattered prose/poetry to Tao Lin’s stream of semi-consciousness fiction, it’s hard to hard to find a young writer who doesn’t weave technology into their books in some way.
At the same time, new technology has long been seen as a harbinger of the book’s end–newspapers were supposedly going to mean the death of the book, audiobooks, too, and now the internet. The book always lasts. Rather than being an medium for a moment, it’s a medium that reflects, and endures, an ever-changing world.
The question, for me, becomes, are we writing books in new ways in order to cater to a new world influenced by technology, or is technology actually changing our brains? The beat writers wrote in a style and cadence they thought reflected the jazz music of their time. Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney and the rest the brat pack writers of the 80s wrote short clean sentences aimed to enamor an audience whose attentions were almost entirely owned by television and movies. Today, the internet has us in a way that none of these mediums has before. In The Millions’ review of Tao Lin’s Taipei, Lydia Keisling wrote “I wondered why someone who hates words would take the trouble to arrange so many of them in a row.” But does Lin actually hate words or does he feel that he’s writing for a world that doesn’t have time for them? Similarly, HTML Giant has become a leading literary blog, even though it’s rife with short splinters of text, rather than long-form articles.
Perhaps our brains have actually changed. Ray Kurzweil claims that technology is growing exponentially–if that’s the case, how can the human psyche not shift as a result? Hundreds of years from now, people will look to the Tao Lins and Blake Butlers for evidence of these changes (I’m sure this infuriates some readers), because art always holds a mirror to the changes in a society. Below are three books that study the effect of modern technology on the human brain. They analyze things like attention and memory and see how they’ve changed in humans over time. The results tend to jibe with Kurzweil’s theory. Not only have they changed over time, but right now, they are changing faster than ever. Here are three books likely to give you some perspective on the changes in the people, the world and the art around you.
The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr
Written in a way that is both digestible and staggeringly rich, this book is an important mediation on this moment in history. By going back in time to help us understand how philosophers of the past dissected and analyzed technology, Carr helps us understand where we stand now that the type of digital future sci-fi writers have been imagining for years has actually come to fruition. He cites and explains numerous studies that give an eerie insight into the modern technological brain. For instance, he describes a reading study wherein scientists attached electrodes to the muscles in study participants’ eyes to understand how human beings read books, eventually realizing that there’s no discernible pattern, only a series of random bursts across the page. However, the updated version of the study, which sought a pattern in the way people read text on the internet, had different results. This time the electrodes found that human beings do follow a pattern as their eyes sweep across a page of internet text. In fact, they make an “F.” Reading the first few lines in full then skimming down to the bottom of the page. F–as in fast. Have you stopped reading yet? Why not? On many review blogs the article would be over by now.
In The Shallows Carr also describes the way in which our memories make it from short term to long term, and how the internet effects that process. He describes it as trying to fill a bathtub with a thimble. That being the case, its no wonder books have become short and detached. You can’t fit a Faulker novel in a thimble.
This book perhaps best digested both as an audio and a print book, as some sections will require a review, but it’s well worth the time–it will stick with you well into the very scary future.
You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier
Lanier is former writer for Wired Magazine and Silicon Valley pioneer who has had something of a change of heart in recent years when it comes to technology. The underlying idea behind this book is that the internet has been led astray.
Web 2.0 is an outdated term, but it’s mentioned quite a bit and cited as an unfortunate turning point for the internet. Lanier describes the pioneer days of the internet as a time of intellectual transcendence and values-driven progress. It was during the aughts, when aggregation began to rule, when web things got icky. The most basic way to look at is: Metacritic is evil. Collecting the opinions of 500 critics and averaging out their opinions into a score turns people with idea into numbers–people who went to school, learned about writing and film and worked their way up the ranks to a coveted and respected job, became numbers. Of course, this is a glib example and Lanier goes much deeper into the idea but it relates to the fiction market, wherein large publishers are limiting their releases and many agents have stopped taking on fiction clients. A great novel should feel like it couldn’t be told from the point of view of anyone else but the person who wrote it. But we are society obsessed with consensus. We simply don’t have time for a two-hour-movie that might be bad. Perhaps modern authors will feel like they have to take on the point of view of the everyman, or even of every man.
Lanier rails against this movement. He preaches that the future will regale in the ideas of the individual because before too long it will become the only thing computers are not capable of doing better than human beings.
The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kurzweil puts his money where his mouth is. What some may consider heavy-handedness could also be seen as confidence. Kurzweil makes specific, tangible predictions down to the year. The biggest prediction: not 30 years from now, human beings and machines will become one, this is “The Singularity.” Now instead of thinking Terminator, think nanotechnology. Kurzweil believes that in order to keep up with technology at the rate it’s moving we will need to swallow the technological pill as it were. He also predicted that by now we’d be adopting computerized clothing and accessories. (hello Google Glass).
If asked about literature, Kurzweil would be likely to tell you that technology is actually changing the way we write–that we are changing and thus our books are changing. However, he also likely believes that we’ll soon be able to enhance our ability to read and comprehend quicker through computer technology. That being the case, what’s a few extra paragraphs?