From Noun to Verb: The Consequences of our New Idea of “Text”
With the limitless opportunities for intellectual exploration and convenient communication the Internet offers man, one might expect an age even greater than that which Gutenberg’s printing press brought about in Renaissance Europe to burst forth upon the modern world’s stage. Fostered by the positive rays the Internet’s democratization of knowledge seems to promise, why would we not headed towards a more intellectually and aesthetically rich age in our trek through time? And yet humanity has not entered an age intellectually, aesthetically, or creatively as dynamic as any of the revolutionary eras spurred on by Gutenberg’s press in human civilizations of the past. In fact, as writer Nicholas Carr indicates in his book The Shallows, human culture is actually regressing; we are delving deeper into the ethically suspect hunter-gatherer forests of the Web’s woods instead of the vast interior realm of human being’s full potentiality which the static text helped to cultivate (Carr 138). One reason for this regression lies in the fact that our understanding of what constitutes a “text” has dramatically changed from Gutenberg to the Internet. We have transformed what used to be understood as static, internal, and physical in to a verb that is superficial, electronic, and circuitous. The Internet’s “text” seduces us with the promise of deep feeling, but that is only a consequence of our experience of convenience and efficiency. In actuality, the very structure of the Internet and the “text” as a verb, which the Internet fosters, tends us towards a regression in our lived experience, bringing us away from the highly developed capacities for deep meditation that were necessary skills cultivated in writing and reading a static text.
Our very understanding of what the word “text” signifies has changed dramatically with the modern Internet era. Indeed, no less an authority than the Online Etymological Dictionary shows this change, for when one searches “text” the first result will be the 2005 entry: “to send a text message by mobile system, 2005” (OED). The sense of the word “text” in its static “noun” form, which was conceived around 14thc., is increasingly being lost with the new conceptualization of communication via the Internet (OED). This brings about deeply troubling intellectual and aesthetic changes in how we view the world. Our main mode of communication is mediated through the screen rather than the page, letter, or even voice. With such a shift necessarily comes a change in our expectation of the human and human communication, one that replaces tactile physical presence for the separation of the screen.
The description of “text” given in its noun form is deeply related to the actual texture on which the written symbols were put (OED). The Latin “textus” means “style or texture of a work,” literally “thing woven” (OED). This sensitivity to the actual texture of language as a static, yet, paradoxically, endlessly interpretable innovation with the Gutenberg printing press is being lost in the ephemeral and always active verb of texting on the Internet.
The intellectual value of having the ability to read a static text, however, is never taken for granted in scholar Maryanne Wolf’s extensive studies. Throughout her work, Proust and the Squid, Wolf reminds her reader just how “miraculous” the act of “learning to read” is and how our acquisition of this skill literally changes “brain’s…circuitry” (Wolf 114). The intense training the human brain needs to go through simply to acquire the ability to read is something we need to work towards. The act of deep reading is an active and time-consuming process. As Nicholas Carr notes in his text The Shallows, deep reading with a Gutenberg printed text is a “symbiotic” act of “intellectual and artistic cross-fertilization” (Carr 74). The act of writing and reading, with the increased syntactical innovations of the printed text, was meant to enhance the expression of “ideas and emotions with superior clarity, elegance, and originality” (Carr 75). The static text promoted innovations which have served to further develop our written expression. The idea of the struggle to read and to attach one’s self to another’s deeply thought out printed text is something that is lost with the instant gratification of the constantly shifting Internet of texting.
We are not suggesting here that it is better for humans to be living their lives like monks sequestered in an endless dialogue with books. Since we know the act of reading is un-natural to our species and that it requires a great amount of effort, the need to walk away from the static text once we run into a problem that is too great for our comprehension is essential to our psychological well-being. Some part of the unconscious mind need time to sort things out in a relaxed environment. But, without any struggle at all there can be no hope for the great accomplishments we know humanity is capable of achieving through the written word. We have traded discipline required in the Gutenberg era for the convenience the Internet texting offers, and with this necessarily comes a loss. The convenience of texting makes us more lazy and sloppy in our expression by allowing the machine correct our expression for us. This convenience dulls any sense of discipline from our own minds which alone could rewards humanity with the grand artistic masterpieces and scientific innovations of the past.
The need to re-charge our human potentiality must come from within, not from computer screen. If we are the ones re-charging then we are cultivating our own intellectual well-being naturally, and, by extension, cultivating our shared human culture for the better. If we rely on the computers so much that they become the ones needing to re-charge for our own well-being then we must confront the question Wolf raises in her text: “[w]hat happens to…children when the electricity goes out…?” (Wolf 75). If our communication is mediated by the text of the screen rather than the page, then what is the difference between man and his machine? Once the convenience to Google disappears from the human race, we become aware just how much our mind has retained, or has lacked retaining. We come face to face with the real reason we are obsessed with the image of the zombie in modern popular culture, for the zombie is us, and the computer is, to a large extent, where we have exported our minds.
This is one reason why writer Carl Shirky is mistaken in saying “[n]ow that the Net has granted us abundant ‘access’… we can at last lay those tired habits [of reading books such as War and Peace] behind” (Carr 112). Shirky’s use of the word “habit” in describing reading such a mammoth static text as War and Peace is intellectually misguided. Shirky seems to be suggesting that having such a “habit” for reading is a negative thing and that one can gain more intellectual enrichment from the abundant information and opportunity of the Web.
But this “habit” for reading challenging texts is something we should not discourage in our youth, rather it must be fostered from the very moment a child is born, as Wolf notes empirically in her studies of childhood reading development (Wolf 82). Wolf notes that “[c]hildren with a rich repertoire of words and their associations will experience any text… in ways that are substantively different from children who do not have the same stored words” (Wolf 9).
Nicholas Carr documents this troubling trend within the anti-intellectual wing of academia today from scholars like Shirky who see the “screen rather than the page” as having “always been the conduit of information” (Carr 113). Having such a powerful source of information in the palm of our hands, as the screen presents itself to be, makes all the more apparent the de-valuation of Gutenberg era skills such as memorization and close reading that Shirky and other academics have suggested (Shirky 100). But with such a limitless fount of information, there also comes infinite distraction and perpetual cultural amnesia. Why remember on my own when our man-made Google-god remembers for us?
Carr notes that those who read static texts have great activity in the brain’s “regions associated with language, memory, and visual processing” yet they do not activate regions associated with “decision making and problem solving” (Carr 121-122). The conversation between a static text and its reader has been a mystical and liberating experience for generations in the past; but reading “texts” from Shakespeare, Dante, or Keats are deemed much less worthy of our new-found “texting” time than the texts from our friends and from ourselves by the anti-intellectual wing of academia today. If we are to follow their advice, the texts of Shakespeare are just unnecessary space in our mind, not the very discipline needed to unlock the human mind’s greatest potentiality.
The reason for the anti-intellectuals’ reaction against the static text might come from the findings that reading texts on the Internet fosters quicker reading and activates both problem-solving and decision-making regions of the brain (Carr 122). Yet, interestingly, because the book disengages the senses associated with ethical evaluation and practical problem solving (such as one might have to do by pushing the right buttons or downloading the right software) the conversation between a static text and the reader could be said to be more of an actual authentic conversation than the mechanical chat through the filter of the inhuman screen.
This de-valuation of traditional static text learning practices such as memorization also has to do with the understanding the current generation has on “knowing.” Wolf raises this concern when she watches her “two sons use the Internet to finish a homework assignment, and then tell [her] they ‘know all about it’” (Wolf 77). The new generation’s understanding of “knowing,” as seen in this passage, is attached to a reliance on the pool of ethically suspect and, perhaps, logically unsound Internet knowledge. Our brains, in this sense, are our machines, and our sense of knowing and remembering is facilitated by how we store our memory cards.
Certainly, now we can communicate non-stop without having to worry about remembering history, math, or literature because we have all of this knowledge right at our fingertips. This could be seen as liberating, as Shirky certainly sees it, by allowing us to do what we want to do, which he envisions as following our desires in the pathos-ridden Facebook (Shirky 101).But with this reliance on the Internet’s accessibility comes an actual regression in our species’ development. Our very brain is literally changing, and as Nicholas Carr notes: “[a]s the time we spend scanning Web pages crowds out the time we spend reading books…the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart” (Carr 120). There is a very obvious threat to how we and our future generations are physically wired to perceive the world around us, which is to say not to perceive it at all save through the filter of the screen. The question we must ask ourselves is: do we believe re-wiring ourselves to better utilize the machines we have made is a good trade-off for the convenience they offer us? Is it better to relegate the human race to a servant of his miraculous technologically wrought artifice and pay perpetual homage to the Google-god which knows all? Or is it still worth the strain to use our brains to read, to write, and to know that which we have relegated to the machine?
With all this information and free time on our hands, we must question if it is all for the better to spend it online. Writer Jaron Lanier notes the troubling trend the structure of the Internet lends itself to with the increase in what he calls “Trolls” which refers to “an anonymous person who is abusive in an online environment” (Lanier 60). Texting on the Internet is seductive not so much because it allows us to cultivate our own inner dialectic as books do, and as Wolf notes in Lev Vygotsky’s studies of the static text; rather, the modern digital texts allow for avatar creation and the protection of anonymity (Wolf 73). In another sense we could imagine just how different writing in a journal is from writing on Facebook or Youtube. Lanier notes that the designs of “…ubiquitous invocations of anonymity and crowd identity” which the Internet allows “tend[s] to reinforce indifferent or poor treatment of humans” (Lanier 75). A text without a strong sense of self-identity behind it in the performance space of Facebook will be more likely to harm strangers than to aid them. Couldn’t this leisure time have been spent cultivating the self with an inner dialectic of static text production; or is it really for the best that our self-identity is formed in the performance realm of Facebook?
To better understand how the changing nature of our texts is changing us, we must turn to scholar Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. Turkle’s interview with a senior at Fillmore high school named Deval is very revealing in what is lost in communicating more regularly through texting. Deval notes that he avoids talking to his cousin on the phone because he sees texting as being “more direct” (Turkle 201). Deval interacts with his cousin on a purely informational level; there is no need for what he calls “conversation filler” as one might have to do on the phone (Turkle 201). The act of texting here reduces Deval and his cousin’s relationship to mere transactions. They have become their own machines to a certain extent. This ties into what Jaron Lanier notes in his work You Are Not a Gadget: there has to be a reduction of the human potential in order to interact on the Web as it is designed today (Lanier 75). The very structure of the medium we use to know and communicate (be it the Internet or the printed page) always structures our mode of knowing and relating to the world and others around us. The efficiency of the rapid fire texting we participate in today very clearly comes at the price of de-valuing humanity itself.
The texts we now send are obviously very different from the texts sent in Gutenberg’s era on printed pages. In the print era humanity underwent rapid revelations in science, the arts, religion, and politics. The human’s intellect was idealized by the Renaissance man, and competition was not over who could have the most friends but who could push his/her mind to the brink in artistic and scientific expression. The Renaissance was not fostered by the idealization of progress we currently have towards an untenable and invisible future, for the Renaissance depended on re-reading and rediscovering the Ancient World in the printed text.
The works of the Gutenberg print era are still with us today, tangible evidence of our species’ intellectual history. This emotional connection between the present and past, as Sherry Turkle beautifully documents in her book’s Epilogue, will be lost if all our conversations take place over the web and with purely information based texts. While Turkle looks over letters between her and her mother forty years later she comes to wonder whether her daughter will have anything to remember her by in the future since all of their transactions are via Skype (Turkle 298). The ephemeral quality of the Internet mixed with the constantly suspect ethical validity of online communication makes for a great change in how we communicate with each other from the days of handwritten letters and the Gutenberg press.
The very way we understand the word “text” has undergone a revolutionary change in the past decade. The image that comes to mind when we mention “text” is inextricably tied to our act of “texting” on mobile devices. We have traded the static noun sense of the word “text,” which dominated the textual landscape of the Gutenberg book era, for an ephemeral verb in which we must constantly participate in to stay in contact. The result of this is we have become shallower readers and speakers because we have relegated the discipline that once was a requirement of printed expression onto the machine. With the ease and convenience the Internet allows our modern text messages become more sloppy and purely transactional, resembling and relegating power to the medium of the Web we are all now woven into. Instead of the personal and painstaking inner dialectic one had to go through in order to write a Gutenberg style text, one now simply has to project outward a textual creation in the ephemeral and, at times, anonymous world of the Internet. We have no need for inner dialectic, and thus our inner world is in a gradual process of both literal and philosophic decay. This dramatic shift in how we understand “text” leads us away from the deep creative thought the Gutenberg era fostered and brings us back to the information based relationships of our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ past.
Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010. Print.
Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. New York: Vintage Books, 2010. Print.
Online Etymological Dictionary. Online Etymological Dictionary Search: “Text”. 2012. 1 March 2012 <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=text&searchmode=none>. Web.
Shirky, Clay. Cognitive Surplus. New York: Penguin Press, 2010. Print.
Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011. Print.
Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008. Pint.
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