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Ana Menéndez – The future of narrative (2)

Vandaag, woensdag 6 april, geeft de Cubaans-Amerikaanse auteur Ana Menéndez de Tweede Cola Debrotlezing in de Openbare Bibliotheek van Amsterdam. In The Poets and Writer’s Magazine, May-June 2009, verscheen een tekst die zij in 2008 met regelmaat in Egypte heeft gepresenteerd, ‘The future of narrative’; we plaatsen die hier in afleveringen, gisteren de eerste, vandaag aflevering 2.

by Ana Menéndez

Like the invention of the alphabet and the printing press before it, the Internet has revolutionized the way we tell stories. And like both previous inventions, it has sent the old guard into a funk.

Socrates was among those who thought writing was a dangerous fad. He warned that those who acquired the ability would stop exercising their memory and would become forgetful. Students would be inundated with information and would become “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom and be a burden to society.”

Martin Luther, himself a prolific writer, despaired of the printing press barely 100 years after its invention: “The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no limit to this fever for writing; every one must be an author; some out of vanity, to acquire celebrity and raise up a name, others for the sake of mere gain.”

Socrates and Martin Luther were right in their own ways. The written word did erode memory. Where the ancients could memorize entire epics, we in the 21st Century are hard-pressed to remember our PIN numbers.

And when Joe the Plumber gets a book contract it’s tempting to see Martin Luther as the prophet of our literary apocalypse.

But the nature of innovation is rarely neutral. It taketh away, but it also giveth. The invention of the alphabet did not do away with oral instruction – it’s still a crucial part of education. And oral story-telling persists around our dinner tables, in our jokes, and in what I’m doing here today. The alphabet did not replace memory; only added another tool to its arsenal. In its early years, writing came to be seen as a kind of magic, but its most enduring effect was more prosaic: the establishment of a record. “When the thousands of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated, they seemed to be business records,” writes Jack Gilbert in the sublime, The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart.

Likewise, the printing press did not do away with hand-written communication. Lovers still wrote scented letters to one another, students still took notes. What the press did usher in was a concurrent revolution in the sciences: suddenly knowledge could be shared very quickly, cheaply, and accurately. The new technology also helped create new concepts such as chapters, indexes and – perhaps its most morally ambiguous achievement: The Author.

Now it’s our turn to live a new revolution. In a much quoted essay in the Atlantic Monthly last year, Nicholas Carr wrote about the internet and its discontents. While bashfully admitting that he may be just one in a long line of curmudgeonly (though highly intelligent) skeptics like Socrates, Carr nonetheless can’t help but be depressed about the state of communications in 2008. “The Net seems to be chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” he wrote in the cheekily titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Then, proving that Google – whatever its darker workings — had not eroded his fine talent for vivid metaphor, Carr added: ”Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.”

Carr quotes Maryanne Wolf, a development psychologist who worries that the disjointed and shallow nature of internet writing may be “weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged with the printing press.” (A positive outcome of the technology that Martin Luther apparently did not foresee). An earlier essay in The New Yorker also raised concerns about the ways that internet reading may be affecting complex cognitive abilities developed through reading more sophisticated and involved texts such as books and, presumably, The New Yorker magazine.

These are real concerns. Cognitive science has revealed a human brain notable for its plasticity. It is not unreasonable to speculate that the internet not only shapes itself to the mind, but shapes the mind to itself. Whether the net effect is negative or positive we can’t know now, and anyway it’s a moot point. The internet is here to stay and we’re stuck with whatever furniture arrangement it undertakes inside our heads.

The internet will take away. What will it give?

[voor vervolg, klik hier]

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