Here’s something you can always count on: British media using convoluted arguments to assert hollow conclusions about new technology. Case in point, a new piece in the Times Online by Ben Macintyre called, “The Internet is Killing Storytelling”. I’ve made a hobby of following the inane technophobic arguments over at the Times, and this one doesn’t fail to meet the publication’s remarkably low standards.
First off, the title is precious: “The Internet is Killing Storytelling”. I’ll discuss in a moment why, even in the context of Macintyre’s argument, the title is thoroughly inaccurate and sensationalistic bordering on silly.
Macintyre’s thesis is by now a tiresome cliché: new media technology fosters fragmented communication, “chipping away at our attention spans,” which undermines our ability to read long, absorbing narrative. Suffer poor Tolstoy, Tweets have swamped the Canon! If we lose our ability to engage longer narrative, the argument continues, the Story and its constituent parts, like plot, are in jeopardy, as are we all. From the article:
A generation is tuned, increasingly and sometimes exclusively, to the cacophony of interactive chatter and noise, exciting and fast moving but plethoric and ephemeral. The internet is there for snacking, grazing and tasting, not for the full, six-course feast that is nourishing narrative. The consequence is an anorexic form of culture. Times Online 11/05/09
If a writer is going to reopen this tired old saw, it seems to me that he should at least introduce new research that might encourage readers to pay attention. But Macintyre doesn’t do this (in fairness to him, neither do most of the writers at the Times for any of their Luddite epistles). We find zero studies referenced, and only one vague reference made to a scholarly initiative at MIT, a new laboratory project called Center for the Future of Storytelling. What is the MIT project all about? We don’t know, because Macintyre can’t be bothered to tell us, nor does he say how it supports his argument at anything beyond a name-dropping level.
He also mentions unnamed and evidently unauthored research by Microsoft on the time it takes to return attention to a task after reading email.
Microsoft researchers have found that someone distracted by an e-mail message alert takes an average of 24 minutes to return to the same level of concentration.
Ok. Can we have a reference please? A link perhaps? How exactly does someone writing for a major pub like the Times pass muster with the copy editing department without these basics covered? Without knowing more than what Macintyre tells us, why is this research even relevant to his thesis? It’s also true that when one of my kids interrupts me while I’m reading a book, it will likely be well over 24 minutes before I get back to reading. Can we conclude that children are killing storytelling? How about dogs (usually takes 20 minutes to walk the pooch when nature calls), or Mom when she calls for a chat. Killers, all.
Macintyre does wedge in a couple quotes from a respected writer, Nicholas Carr, who wrote a dystopian flavored essay in the Atlantic Monthly last year called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” I don’t want to disparage Carr’s essay, but it’s interesting that rather than cite credible research to support his argument, Macintyre turns to another essayist who is taking his shot at sounding a warning bell about the perils of media technology.
In a remarkable recent essay in the Atlantic Monthly Nicholas Carr admitted that he can no longer immerse himself in substantial books and longer articles in the way he once did. “What the net seems to be doing is chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” he wrote. “My mind now expects to take in information the way the net distributes it: in a swift-moving stream of particles.”
If, let’s say, a medical writer was writing an article about the alleged dangers of vaccines, would his argument hold more weight if he relied on solid new research to advance his claims, or on the assertions of another writer with a similar anecdotal viewpoint? Macintyre takes the second option, regrettably for anyone who cares about the topic.
The remainder of the piece tells us nothing new about the fragmentation argument, or the attention-span argument, or the narrative-erosion argument. In fact, Macintyre ends up undermining his entire thesis–and emasculating the essay’s title–with a bizarre conclusion.
After telling us that the byte-sized media technologies are ruining our ability to appreciate and comprehend complex narrative, he then endorses a Japanese technology (“thumb novels” or keitai shosetsu) that breaks stories into bits and shards to be digested on mobile gadgets. The redeeming quality of this technology for Macintyre is that even though it’s built on fragmentation, at least there’s a genuine story with a beginning, middle and end being diced up.
Sales of books in Japan are dropping, but half the Top Ten fiction bestsellers started on mobile telephones. Here is proof that the ancient need for narrative, hardwired into human nature, can sit comfortably with the wiring of the newest technology.
Great idea, except it wouldn’t have a chance of success if not for a digital network to transmit the content — the same network that Macintyre, or his editors, tells us is “killing storytelling.” With his statement above, Macintyre admits as much. Further, he hints at a central point, one he’s clearly aware of all the way through his weightless diatribe: technology is malleable, and we, not ones and zeros, are in control. He concludes:
Narrative is not dead, merely obscured by a blizzard of byte-sized information.
So we’ve gone from “killing storytelling” to “obscured.” We’ve fallen from the height of baseless sensationalism to the lowest, least surprising, banal conclusion just about anyone with a keyboard could end on. Now it’s clear why Macintyre didn’t trouble himself with pesky research references — he’s not really making an argument at all.
Here’s a brief sampling of research and resources Macintyre could have consulted for a more complete perspective on this topic (if, that is, the Times actually had a policy about citing references):