17 August 2008

The New Idiot Box

A few days ago, your humble e-scribbler was wandering through a second-hand book store he used to frequent in Kingston 20-odd years ago.

The city is roughly the size of St. John's but in the 1980s, the difference between the two cities could not have been more stark at least when it came to the number of book stores.  There used to be a half dozen new book stores and almost as many second-hand used book places along Princess Street, in the city's main shopping district downtown.

Today, it's down to an Indigo outlet with its trendiness, a locally-owned new-book store,  and another used store catering to a "higher-end" clientele. Down toward the bottom of the street, between Ben and Jerry's and a health food store, there's this tee shirt, a pair of jeans and comfortable sandals kinda place.

It's getting harder every year to stay open, according to the owner, as he filled out the receipt for a purchase. That comment started a chat about the changing reading habits of Kingstonians. The town is home to Queen's and the Royal Military College, giving the town a distinctly academic flavour.  The downtown shopping district, where all those bookstores used to be is in easy walking distance of the Queen's student ghetto housing and the cadets from RMC.

Patrons come in at least two varieties, the owner explained.  There are the year-rounders and then there are the university student types who tend to come in the fall and disappear in the spring. By getting harder to stay open, the Wayfarer owner was referring to his sales. The boomers who once jostled on the upper levels for space to rummage through the stacks for new purchases are now the source of his inventory. That's all fine and as it used to be, he noted.

The difference today is that the young people aren't coming through the doors in anything near the same numbers they once did. That's the problem. They aren't migrating to other shops.  There aren't any. Books do not figure as prominently in their lives, it seems. Your humble e-scribbler offered a few observations of his own and we both settled on the Internet and the availability of digised copies of books as a possible cause.

There's not a week goes by, he said, rolling his eyes a bit, that I don't have this same conversation with teachers and other book lovers. One of the definitions of post-modernism, he ventured, was knowing very little about a lot. Consider the last time an Indigo clerk tossed out that phrase to you, another sign of the change and the difference.

That's a paraphrase, to be sure, but it captured the idea of skimming over the surface of things. Internet searches for specific information seems to have affected how people look at issues and how they think about them.
Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
That's writer Nicholas Carr describing the phenomenon in the July/August issue of The Atlantic Monthly. His article, "Is google making us stupid?", makes many of the common assertions. The Internet enables writers and others to condense hours of research into a few moments. The Internet, with its dependence on text, means people are reading more than they may have read before.

The change is in how we are reading.

There may also be a change in how we are thinking. All those years ago, as a graduate student, your humble e-scribbler came across the same sort of discussion but in another context. Some schools, particularly American ones, liked lists - the five causes of the Great Depression, for argument sake and only five causes - and they tended to teach things the same way. As a result, their students tended to view the world, events and the people involved in both as as something discrete, quantifiable.

Others approached things differently, allowing for nuance and subtlety and the possibility there can be equally valid interpretations of the same events. The analogy then was the difference between a digital watch - time is reduced to individual, possibly unrelated segments - and the old analog job with its sweeping second hand. Time is a continuum.

These are not new ideas, to be sure. Carr makes it plain. But there is something nonetheless profound about the idea that a shift in how people view events is taking place and the shift is either driven by or facilitated by the Internet and other newer means of communication.

In themselves, new means of communication or ways of expressing an idea are neither new nor problematic in themselves. In a famous episode of Star Trek: Next Generation, the crew encountered a species that spoke only in metaphor: "Darmok and Jilad at Tanagra." Within the community, these metaphors were understood and the words carried additional meanings not readily apparent to outsiders. Language and culture are like that. For those outside the community, comprehension - that is actually understanding what is being said - was hampered by the initial lack of knowledge about the stories behind the metaphor.

It's like what your language teacher used to call idiomatic expressions. Things like boiling the kettle or barring the door. To someone learning English these phrases taken literally are meaningless or funny. The kettle does not boil.  The water inside it does.  Or in local politics, think about Chruchill Falls and all the meaning that comes with that idea.

The problem comes though, when the story behind the metaphor is not well understood, not only by those outside the community but by those inside it as well. Worse, a very serious problem arises when new notions take hold and become accepted as fact, ideas, and metaphorical expressions simply because they are not questioned.

The Harper "broken promise" is good example. Not a single news media outlet in the province, not a single politician and not a single conventional media commentator has burst the pustule surrounding the ABC campaign. You'll find plenty of substantiated argument here about the shifting provincial government position, but try and find it anywhere else.

Instead, the new simile for betrayal by someone outside the community is accepted whole. On the most superficial level, a comment by the Premier about the Prime Minister is seen as newsworthy simply because it hints of the Anybody But Conservative threat.

The tendency to jet ski through issues is much more widespread than on these larger issues. The stories offered up on Tom Rideout's resignation contained so many evident contradictions that they pointed to another story - the truth - beneath. Yet jet skiers flashed past it on the way to nothing more important, thus giving up the chance not for a scuba dive but for merely a wade out to the knees.

The usual explanation offered for the lack of depth in conventional media coverage or for the absence of contrary editorializing is lack of time and resources. There is some truth in that. And to be fair, there has been an increasingly critical tone in some quarters. Take the Sunday Telegram editorial and the paper's position on the Memorial University crisis as an example of a slight shift in the local environment.

But in a larger sense, the media coverage (actually not just locally but across the country) and the political metaphors they sustain come from something closer to the changed attitude to knowledge and information contained in Carr's article. The jet skier's aren't interested in the Rideout issue beyond what is simple and convenient. Everything else is a conspiracy theory.

The Premier's use of the word "race" in a political campaign policy announcement garners not a shred of attention anywhere, except of course for at least two reporters who went out of their way to rationalise the issue into nothingness. We all know what he meant, anyway.

The point in this latter one was not - as one radio host suggested entirely disingenuously - that some people were accusing the Premier of being racist. Rather, the "race" card stands out not only for the fact it was played at all in any context during an election on a pro-natalist policy, but because we - the people of the province - did not then and do not now have a shared understanding of what he meant.

On another level, though, what the Premier meant in that case is actually irrelevant. What it is simply worth noting that not a single reporter thought it worth asking a simple question. Not one thought to ask what he meant, just to be clear. Inquisitiveness - supposedly at the core of the journalistic profession, let alone the source of our species' progress - was absent.

Not one *wanted* to know what he meant.

Reporters reflect the society in which they work. There's no way of knowing if the Internet has changed the way people are thinking or if it merely facilitated a trend already present. Television was decried as an idiot box and in some respects, Carr and others are simply transferring the epithet to the electronic box sitting on or under many of our desks and wired to other boxes like ti around the globe.

The source of the change is not as important as the consequences of the shift, the lessening desire to know things.

We are Chenza at court, the court of silence, as the Tamarians would say.