You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Remember the Age

[Guest post by James Downie]

David Brooks's latest science column takes on the great "Internet vs. Books" debate:

The Internet-versus-books debate is conducted on the supposition that the medium is the message. But sometimes the medium is just the medium. What matters is the way people think about themselves while engaged in the two activities. A person who becomes a citizen of the literary world enters a hierarchical universe. There are classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom.
A person enters this world as a novice, and slowly studies the works of great writers and scholars. Readers immerse themselves in deep, alternative worlds and hope to gain some lasting wisdom. Respect is paid to the writers who transmit that wisdom.
A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience. The Internet smashes hierarchy and is not marked by deference. Maybe it would be different if it had been invented in Victorian England, but Internet culture is set in contemporary America. Internet culture is egalitarian. The young are more accomplished than the old. The new media is supposedly savvier than the old media. The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, antiauthority disputation.
These different cultures foster different types of learning. The great essayist Joseph Epstein once distinguished between being well informed, being hip and being cultivated. The Internet helps you become well informed — knowledgeable about current events, the latest controversies and important trends. The Internet also helps you become hip — to learn about what’s going on, as Epstein writes, “in those lively waters outside the boring mainstream.”
But the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher...The Internet culture may produce better conversationalists, but the literary culture still produces better students.

As my boss already quoted, Brooks has admitted "there’s only so much you can do with 800 words." But some subjects are more receptive to compression and simplification than others: today's column only serves to illustrate why the books-vs.-Internet debate is inherently nonsensical. To begin with, a large part of Internet culture's egalitarianism comes from its comparative newness: many of the hierarchies that are bound to develop have not yet done so. Already, commenting "trolls" have, over the last two or three years, lost a lot of their power to annoy, thanks to people learning to ignore them and/or voting to hide the offending comments. Even more recently, the manufacturing of the next big viral video or meme has been taken over by profit-making websites. That young people were quickest to adopt the Internet of course means many parts of it still have something of a teenager feel, but as the average user gets older, and certain websites get more entrenched, the Internet will undoubtedly develop its own many hierarchies.

Beyond that, though, the proper comparison is not the Internet and the literary world - it's either the literary world and the Internet literary world, or the Internet and popular culture in its widest possible definition. When Brooks says, "you have to defer to greater minds than your own," there's a good chance that Internet users who frequent literary criticism sites, download iTunesU podcasts via the Internet, or even who read the Times book review online, would follow that rule, regardless of the medium. When you expand the picture to include other less high-minded areas of the Internet, the situation of course changes, and authority is less likely to receive deference. Yet popular culture at large has always had a strong component of tweaking the nose of those in power; most recently, leading brands of "fake news" like The Onion and The Daily Show were already popular before the Internet, and they can trace their roots back through cartoonists like Thomas Nast and the sadly-departed Punch magazine to even the plays of Aristophanes. In the end, it's more likely we'll find popular culture changes Internet culture than the other way around.