Sunday, August 30, 2009

Conversation by Factoid


Much has been written about the way that reading is quickly changing in the internet age. Consider, for example, a fairly standard internet news story: it consists of a paragraph or two of information, with a large, glossy picture. There may be further text stashed away somewhere, but you have to click on a link to find it. Meanwhile, the key points have been summarized for you with bullets. Related stories are linked somewhere in the margin. At the bottom of the screen, perhaps, are unrelated but highly popular stories, usually involving celebrities, nakedness or both. And then there are the omnipresent advertisements. (I would have included a screen shot of such a thing, but you've all probably seen it before; and if you haven't, the Guild Review more or less reproduces the phenomenon, though without the ads or naked celebrities, and somewhat more text.)

Critics point out that this format is changing the way that we read, shortening our attention spans and making it harder for us to follow narratives, arguments or anything more than a paragraph in length. Moreover, it seems the phenomenon is spilling over into spoken conversation as well. Rather than telling stories or laying out a line of reasoning, conversations often consist of factoids, one-line arguments and the briefest of anecdotes. Frequently these come from television programs such as The Daily Show or Mythbusters. All things considered, both programs are fairly intelligent, but the snippets that get cited the following day are frequently the witty lines or the (literally) explosive conclusions, rather than the thoughtful discussions that went with them. Perhaps the most grating form of this phenomenon is conversation which consists wholly of movie quotations. While a certain amount of intellectual power is required to memorize and string together such quotes, the heights which can be reached by such discourse are fairly low and no given topic can hold the collective attention for terribly long. In all of these cases, the result is an intellectually choppy outcome, incapable of moving from A to B to C and on to D, either narratively or philosophically.

Short intellectual attention spans manifest themselves in other ways as well. Even the intelligent and well-educated can be woefully incapable of discussing such things as literature. Interesting comments may be given, but they focus on poignant moments or arresting characters, things which are often emotional and subjective and are usually perceived in a single instant. Much more rare are considerations of an author's world-view or his opinion of virtue. Such rational arguments require the review of multiple episodes within the work, the discovery of common elements between them, and the refutation of episodes which would seem to undermine the argument at hand. Such discussions are by no means impossible today, but much more difficult for those who cannot hold their nose to the grindstone of a single topic for more than a passing moment.

In addition to frustrating college professors, does this phenomenon really have significant consequences? Who cares if our conversations are becoming shorter and choppier? Does it really matter? In point of fact, it does. Financial investing, political decisions and life-long vocations all require more than a moment's consideration. But perhaps most importantly, our ability to consider the Highest Things, the First Principles of the cosmos, is seriously compromised if we cannot think outside a jumble of factoids. Christ' words to Martha seem particularly apt: "Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary..."
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