Saturday, July 24, 2010

Attention and Length

In the midst of a satisfying rant about the recent NYT faux-forum on tenure, Aaron notes:
But the real problem is simply that this was never going to be a real discussion anyway; in 350 words, not much can be said about a complicated issue, and so it’s hardly surprising that not much was said. The NY Times’ decision to limit these contributions to such a microscopically small word count — in a virtual forum whose space is virtually infinite — illustrates that they were far more interested in the pretense of debate than an actual discussion (the same way grabbing onto a reliably orthodox leftist and two reliably orthodox conservatives demonstrates an interest in the pretense of balance, rather than the reality of actual discussion). Which is why, as irritating as this non-discussion is, it’s totally unsurprising.
Aaron complains about the shortness of the pieces, none of which respond to the others, because it prevents any depth of discussion. (Uh, MLA roundtable, anybody?)

What caught my eye in Aaron's statement was the point he makes about the cheapness of space on the web. The available space is, if not limitless, much more than anyone could possibly need. This is a point that digital humanists make all the time. This is just a true fact: space is cheap on the web. The capacity to store large texts is there.

Yet there's also a contrary notion, namely that, despite arbitrarily expandable space, the web is not the natural home of the long form but rather a "shallows," a place of soundbites and snippets and Hollywood movies illegally uploaded to YouTube in nine-minute chunks.

This is something less than a true fact, but something more than just a rumor. There is certainly a culture of the internet that privileges the short form, and culture is very, very strong.

Moreover, the web is not only virtual but also material, and while virtual space may be infinite, the ability of my wrists to withstand trackpad scrolling is not. Perhaps iPads and Kindles are more ergonomically sound than is my trusty MacBook (not perhaps: definitely), but there's still a physical limit to the amount of on-screen reading one can do. I don't think the internet makes people stupid, but I also don't think it's especially accommodating of long-form reading, at least not yet.

The web has two great strengths that lie in tension. One is the aforementioned availability of space. The other is ease of linkage: the web makes it very easy to travel around this vast space. (It's less good at marking stable places, keeping the ground from shifting.) So it's possible to stay in one place for a long, long time, because there are no technical obstacles to storing War and Peace online. But to do so mitigates against the other strong impulse of the web, transit -- what Anne Friedberg has pointed to as an arcade-evoking virtual motion through interconnected, visually captivating spaces.

The your-brain-on-teh-internets debates are very much reminiscent of modernist debates about distraction; there's that same fear that attention and the moral rectitude that it implies have been replaced by superficial and trashy pleasures, as Jonathan Crary has so persuasively documented. And yet, I recently had the pleasure of hearing my fourteen-year-old brother narrate the ins and outs of his most recent internet RP in excruciating detail, and it was I, the Ph.D., whose attention wandered (A LOT).* The internet narrative bested my attention span.

Is the internet the future of long-form publications, as the digital humanists would have it (because paper publishing is in the throes of death)? Or is it culturally and materially inimical to longer forms?

Perhaps on the internet the attention-distraction dialectic that Crary describes is simply operating in a way we're not yet used to discussing, offering us a new way to experience old anxieties about where an idle mind might go.

*While the RP itself bores me to tears, I absolutely love that my brother wanted to tell me all about it.

Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MITP, 1999. Print.

Image: Passage Jouffroy, Paris. Wikimedia.


Millicent said...

Great post, Natalia. My response to you broke the approved parameters of Attention and Length (ironic, eh?), so I'm posting it over at mine. Oh, internet, you do dislike those of us who are long of wind.

Natalia said...

Thanks, M. (link to M's response)

Aaron said...

I love the idea of the internet as an arcade in those terms.

I do wonder how much of what you're describing is a function of the economics of the place; internet writing is also, in the bulk, writing done for free, and the exceptions are obvious, but people tend not to spend as much time writing/crafting/polishing writing for which they will receive no compensation. The same is true for academic writing; one received professional compensation for doing writing that gets published, for the internet probably not. In any case, speculation aside, it seems right to observe, in this case, that when a practice becomes normal, a "culture" develops to "normalize" it, and we're probably seeing something like that, independent of how truly suited the medium is to that mode of use.