Is Anthony Zuiker Making Us Stupid?
In a recent article for the Atlantic Monthly, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Nicholas Carr described the effect that purchasing a typewriter had on Friedrich Nietzsche’s writing:
One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”
“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”
Like Nietzsche’s typewriter, it seems we have entered a moment in which the emergence of a new technological idiom is altering not only the ways in which we perceive the world, but also the language we use to engage with it. As every good cultural historian knows, the evolution of “writing equipment” affects everything from the formation of our thoughts to the structure of our lives, and as Nicholas Carr observes, changes “the metaphors we use to explain ourselves to ourselves.”
So like the clocks and printing presses that came before it, the internet actually affects our relation to time and language, capitalizing on the brain’s plasticity to acclimatize it to these changes. From children of Marx and Coca-Cola, ours is now the generation of McLuhan and iPhones, and consequently, the way we interface with the world has shifted. Through the internet and the rise of hyperlink culture we have grown accustomed to synthesizing random and polyphonous flows of information, and if a new study by the University College London is to be believed, we are rewiring our brains in the process.
It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins.
Along these lines, two weeks ago CSI creator Anthony Zuiker signed the first of a new kind of publishing deal. Working with Penguin’s Dutton division, over the next several years Zuiker will publish three “suspense-thriller ‘digital novels,'” hybrid books incorporating video segments and social networking elements into the structure of the novel. Zuiker plans on interspersing the narratives with video advertisement, and upon finishing the books, users will have the option of joining online communities and proposing plot lines for future mysteries. Consider it ‘Choose Your Own Adventure,’ version 2.0.
Zuiker’s rationale for the project:
“I personally don’t have the attention economy to read a 250-page crime novel from start to finish,” he said. “I realized that the way I’d like to consume a novel is to be rewarded every couple of chapters by seeing something visual that enhances the narrative.”
Thanks to Zuiker, it seems that readers no longer have to either read the book or rent the movie — instead, and with the help of strategically placed commercial breaks, they can do both at the same time. With any luck, they’ll be including bonus packages of Ritalin and tinfoil in later reprints of the series. But skepticism aside, Zuiker’s fiction is a logical byproduct of Google culture, and in some respects it can even be considered the evil commercial offspring of early 90s experimental hyperfiction. In his 1992 article “The End of Books,” Robert Coover anticipated the ways in which writing would change in accordance with technology, and moreover, how reading would evolve in accordance with writing. Here’s Coover quoting Carolyn Guyer and Martha Petry’s opening “directions” to their hypertext fiction “Izme Pass”:
“This is a new kind of fiction, and a new kind of reading. The form of the text is rhythmic, looping on itself in patterns and layers that gradually accrete meaning, just as the passage of time and events does in one’s lifetime. Trying the textlinks embedded within the work will bring the narrative together in new configurations, fluid constellations formed by the path of your interest. The difference between reading hyperfiction and reading traditional printed fiction may be the difference between sailing the islands and standing on the dock watching the sea.”
But while Coover understands the end of books to mean the birth of hyperfiction and new creative possibilities, Carr isn’t so optimistic. The loss of books, he claims, means the loss of deep thinking and sustained focus. It endangers our cultural inheritance, and to quote playwright Richard Foreman, threatens to turn us into “pancake people,” a society “spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”
In my opinion, it seems that our future lies somewhere between deep reading and cultural illiteracy. Books will not cease to be printed, and as we all know, skimming can only take you so far (a good indicator that you should read more carefully is when more conversations end with the sentence, “oh yeah, I saw that Times article,” than begin with them). So while typewriters and new media may alter how we process information, for every five Anthony Zuiker novels that come out, hopefully there’ll be at least one work capable of making good use of the technology and sparing us the agony of between-chapter commercials.