Media Are Not Neutral

by Oct 15, 2009Culture, Tech0 comments

I wrote the title above as I was progressing through this little counterpoint blog at the New York Times. And then I ran into this statement from Yale prof (and Unabomber victim) David Gelernter:

The tools (as usual) are neutral. It’s up to us to insist that onscreen reading enhance, not replace, traditional book reading. It’s up to us to remember that the medium is not the message; that the meaning and music of the words is what matters, not the glitzy vehicle they arrive in.


More wisdom, this time from a child development professor at Tufts:

My greatest concern is that the young brain will never have the time (in milliseconds or in hours or in years) to learn to go deeper into the text after the first decoding, but rather will be pulled by the medium to ever more distracting information, sidebars, and now, perhaps, videos (in the new vooks).

Amen, and amen! Now Gloria Mark of UC Irvine:

My own research shows that people are continually distracted when working with digital information. They switch simple activities an average of every three minutes (e.g. reading email or IM) and switch projects about every 10 and a half minutes. It’s just not possible to engage in deep thought about a topic when we’re switching so rapidly.

And I end by going back to Gelernter on words. Perhaps his Jewish heritage conditions him to recognize that words are all-important. Our Christian heritage ought to tell us the same. It does matter how you train yourself to interact with words, because good reading (or listening) is a skill and an art—as well as a foundation for godliness.

The most important ongoing change to reading itself in today’s online environment is the cheapening of the word. In teaching college students to write, I tell them (as teachers always have) to make every word count, to linger on each phrase until it is right, to listen to the sound of each sentence.

But these ideas seem increasingly bizarre in a world where (in any decent-sized gathering of students) you can practically see the text messages buzz around the room and bounce off the walls, each as memorable as a housefly; where the narrowing time between writing for and publishing on the Web is helping to kill the art of editing by crushing it to death. The Internet makes words as cheap and as significant as Cheese Doodles.

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