atomization 01.04.2007, 9:04 AM
posted by bob stein
During three different conversations during the holidays people told me "i'm reading more now, not less." referring not to books, but rather time spent surfing the net and reading email. Given my interest in the "future of the book" i think people say this sort of thing to me somewhat guiltily, trying to cover for the unstated concern that all reading might not be equal. I'm not even close to wanting to make a value judgement in this regard, but the following quote from yesterday's NY Times article suggests that for those of us living in the world of near infinite media choice, the social role of the (print) book has undergone a dramatic transformation.
PRINCETON, N.J., Dec. 29 -- Logan Fox can't quite pinpoint the moment when movies and television shows replaced books as the cultural topics people liked to talk about over dinner, at cocktail parties, at work. He does know that at Micawber Books, his 26-year-old independent bookstore here that is to close for good in March, his own employees prefer to come in every morning and gossip about "Survivor" or "that fashion reality show" whose title he can't quite place.
BUT HAS IT? My guess is that this change started more than 75 years ago with the ascendancy of broadcast media, movies, radio and tv, rather than with the rise of the net. My further guess is that if he had listened carefully 26 years ago when he opened the store, Logan Fox would have overheard discussions about movies and tv-shows in perhaps the same proportions as today. If anything is different today, I think it's the atomization of choice. When i talk with friends, most of whom swim in the vast media ocean, we often have trouble finding something that all of us have watched, listened to or read. This seems to be the more signficant shift with potentially profound implications for society going forward.
Gary Frost on January 4, 2007 12:05 PM:
Excellent point. The diffusion of reading may also be accentuated by the constant need to delete and selectively process to arrive at readable quantity of content. A simple demonstration of the current inefficiency posed by deletions of reading material is the Google search or your daily purge of unneeded e-mail. The reading process requires a skill set for rapid deletion or de-selection of results which forestalls and interrupts efficient assimilation of concepts. This is a crippling circumstance for screen based reading and it may be endemic.
Jesse Wilbur on January 4, 2007 4:32 PM:
The book I'm reading, "The Paradox of Choice," suggests the same thing: that the atomization of choice is having profound effects on society, leading to a sort of choice overload. Paralyzation via atomization. Yet Bob's anecdote implies that people are coping, even if they are feeling less sure about the value of their increased reading loads (screen-based or otherwise).
I share that feeling. In my college days I found the notion of a Great Books profound-a common foundation of literature from which you and other similarly educated friends could build conversation and develop critical thinking skills. But my common literature now is often 30 second snippets on YouTube, most of which, not surprisingly, cannot induce much beyond a giggle or tossed-off "Sweet!" Yet the mode of production which creates all this choice is itself a critical act; a retaliation against a consolidated mainstream culture which descends upon us from fewer and fewer hands. (Lots more can be said about this point.) It might be more difficult to find common media to talk about, but atomization provides us with more pieces to build a highly individual experience.
On the other hand, we are social creatures. Showing and sharing provide a powerful centripetal force against the momentum of atomization. The question is, is it strong enough? Or are we doomed to disperse into idiosyncratic, isolated media universes?
Gary Frost on January 4, 2007 4:57 PM:
The conventional distinction between "intensive vs. extensive" reading no longer seems adequate. Perhaps we are crossing into a media surveillance skill that is not really reading at all. Something like a pre-cursive literacy of animal tracking or night sky scanning.
sol gaitan on January 5, 2007 5:00 PM:
Society's transformations have always been inextricably related to communication. As I've traveled around the globe, I've found that people still gather at the end of the day to exchange information, be it gossip along the Amazon river, or some interesting show at the gallery around the corner. As someone who does not have time to watch TV, whose film interests reside away from Hollywood, and whose sports interests are only piqued every four years by the World Cup, and once in a while when the Yankees are winning, I often find myself without a lot to talk with people beyond my circle. On the other hand, when in far away places, I love to sit by the fire to listen to the local gossip, and I am always amazed by the ubiquitous use of cell phones, both for talking and for reading, as truly vital instruments of communication all over the world.
Orality comes first, reading is both a byproduct and a generator of communication. Indeed, all reading is not equal. The atomization of information is evident in the busy screens of both computer and TV. Print media and radio urge their public to check their net sites where one finds moving images, blogs, news extensions, and so forth. Reading has taken a completely different meaning, but the bottom line continues to be communication. People read more now than before because most people "swim in the vast media ocean." A lover of books, I still can see the communicational value of today's multimedia/networked products. All of them are forms or reading. The exciting thing is that some reading has ceased to be artificially linear and has changed into something that approaches the richness of real life.
sol gaitan on January 8, 2007 5:37 PM:
Two interestingly overlapping news:
A.O. Scott talks on last Friday's Times about what's happening to children and the movies in the age of the plasma-screen, the iPod and video-on-demand. Referring to David Denby's article in this week's New Yorker, he says that kids nowadays are "platform agnostic," happy to watch movies in the living room, the laptop, the car, or the cellphone. As a result, children seem to be watching more, not less movies. Notwithstanding this, AO. Scott thinks that taking children to the movies gives them a completely different experience because it makes them partake of the world of adults. To illustrate his point he quotes Frank O'Hara's poem: "it's true that fresh air is good for the body, but what about the soul /that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images?" He concludes his article with this words: "Moviegoing, though unlikely to disappear, will probably never again be the universal rite it once was. This is not a catastrophe, just a change of habit. Going to the movies may survive as an acquired taste, and also, therefore, as an activity through which taste is acquired."
And, starting January 16, Doug Aitken will use the exterior walls of MoMa as multiple screens to project his film "sleepwalkers." As Jori Finkel reports in her article, Aitken says that "Warhol used moving images as a sort of wallpaper" which in the old days was financially challenging since it meant film projector and projectionist. Aitken will use a computer to deliver the material to the different screens, but what resonated the most for me were this words: "A film that takes place simultaneously with multiple projects in different combinations every time it runs, is closer to our human experience than a traditional film. I don't think we really see life as a novella. I don't think we see life in ways that have clear beginnings and ends."
Eddie Tejeda on January 30, 2007 12:57 AM:
Interesting post. I think your thoughts turn into a point of concern for me when looking at politics. Each political view has it's niche, and once we find our niche, we see what we want to see and shield ourselves from what we don't.
But what I find interesting is that even with atomization, we are leading more and more public lives; We share our family photos, bookmarks, videos, resumes, contact information, etc etc. for the world to see. Maybe act of 'sharing' what is causing atomization. We advertise to those who disagree to back off and to hold tightly those who agree. Maybe sharing will be what will lead us complete atomization.