No, wait, the most senior student in the class shyly raises her hand.
“German philosopher? 19th century? Nihilists?”
Yes, I say, trying to thread on more recent cultural grounds:
“Anyone remember the Big Lebowski? ‘We are nihilists, we believe in nothing…’ ?”
Empty stares, absolute zero among these millennials. The average age in my postgraduate class is 22 years old. Here in India, universities ends sooner and graduate work stars earlier, and also here at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai.
In this class we have tried to develop an “Independent Gaze,” the title of this series of lessons on the relationship between information and internet. The subtitle is so long that someone thought it was in and of itself the first lesson: “The metastasis of communication and the anorexia of information.” This last eating disorder metaphor is borrowed from Slavoj Zizek.
We stuffed our heads with new names – new to these minds not necessarily informed by the Western model. From “Information Anxiety” of Richard S. Wurman to the most recent “The invention of the news” by Andrew Pettegree, by way of Marshall McLuhan, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson’s visions at the foundations of American journalism with its constant conflicts, to then study pissed off French intellectuals like Pierre Bourdieau, Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio, and move onto recent arguments developed by Lee Siegel in “Against the machine” and the topic’s milestone book by Nicholas Carr, “The Shallows,” on how our brain is allegedly transforming with the use of Internet, whilst not forgetting Morozov’s j’accuse on the presumed impact of the internet in contemporary history.
Sontag, Barthes, Berger and Camille Paglia made us understand how images win over text, just when Facebook announces that in a few years it will become predominantly a video channel. These are important themes, here, when in the past weeks the Indian capitals of Information Technology, just like our very own Chennai, have been visited by the likes of Zuckerberg form FB, Bezos for Amazon and Microsoft’s Nadella.
Thus we have arrived to the present and to understand what this famous New Intelligence is. The hate of originality, the hymn in favor of plagiarism, the cut and paste creativity glorified by Jonathan Lethem and Co. There’s even an “Uncreative writing” class being taught in an American university, naturally. Originality is off limits, and it is mandatory to copy everything from Internet.
At first, these millennials admitted having serious problems concentrating while reading online even short texts, even a few paragraphs, confirming what good old usability guru Jakob Nielsen used to say. Then they were obligated to do their homework on a blog. They were free to answer even with a poem or an image, or a tweet, if they wished to – as long as it was possible to relate it to a comment on the text for the assignment. Instead, they all articulated with words, their reactions and comments getting better and better with time, sometimes adding an image, or a chart with numbers and tables (meta-data is a global trend).
Now, at the end of the course, they seem to be realizing that they are able to read longer and longer texts online. They can reflect upon the text and use it in their school work for the required assignment. Of course, at the same time, they are snapping pictures with their phones to photograph the written slides projected on the wall behind me. It’s the e-learning age, they got tired of transcribing with a pen, after a while. No matter how much I insisted on the importance of focusing your thoughts through the continuous motion of your hand on paper. Quoting what Nietzsche said about his first impression of how using a typewriter affected his writing didn’t seem to help much.
A young student admitted that he goes online mostly looking for opinions about cricket, so that he can formulate better his own commentaries and analysis of this sport. Then he lets himself float away on the buzz of internet surfing which feels more pointless, lost in what maybe is also an informative and relaxing world of social media. But it became apparent to everyone that it is possible to read long texts online, drawing a true and serious intellectual growth from it, and at the same time using internet for pure fun on Twitter or Facebook.
This brought us to what is being explained by David Dowling from the University of Iowa, in the extremely long analysis that was the last reading assignment: “Escaping the Shallows – deep reading’s revival in the digital age.” As the paper explains, there is a clear contemporary tendency in exploring, comprehending and reading long texts; ebooks; analysis; long editorials; reportage; investigations; essays. Even if they are online.
The medium is the message, sure. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that a specific phase in the relationship between society and a new mean of communication is the only message of the very same medium.
Translated: if during an adjustment period we feel incapable of reading long texts in a new medium because of distractions, it doesn’t necessarily follow that our plastic brain won’t adapt and recover the necessary focus in order to enjoy long narrative or complex and extended reasoning, even if read online.
Naturally, if you have read this online, until here, you are also part of this “new” category. Congratulations.
There are phases of adjustment, well documented by academics in the field with graphs, proving that what appears as a landing point in our relationship with a mean of communication rarely is so. This does not mean we should abandon ourselves to an unchecked optimism leading us to believe in the best of all possible outcomes for humanity, always and no matter what. It certainly is not the case.
But the result improves also thanks to luddites and Cassandras like Nicholas Carr who actually warn us on the worst and most stultifying aspects of our relationship with the new medium.
It is also thanks to them that this relationship grows and, as seems to be the case now, finds a system that is more useful to power up our intelligence instead of eroding it.