please discuss 06.29.2009, 10:14 AM
posted by bob stein
In an as yet unpublished manuscript, historian Marshall Poe writes: "A book is a machine for focusing attention; the Internet is machine for diffusing it." I can see how he gets there, particularly if it's a P-book rather than an E-book, but it raises a bunch of interesting questions. If true, what are the implications . . . . ?
Posted by bob stein on June 29, 2009 10:14 AM
Cam on June 29, 2009 11:10 AM:
quite frankly, the logic seems awfully binary. but the problem is not the binary character of the thinking but rather that the difference underscoring the logic seems unsubstantiated. in short, i'd need to hear a bit more to be persuaded since once can argue that dissemination or diffusion rather than 'focus' underscores every type of text, especially if we theorize the word as a type of 'link system'. what does 'focus' mean, then, in the context of textuality, be it internet or not? also, are all 'books' the same? if not, can we make a sweeping comparison between 'a book' and 'the Internet?' i have lots of more questions, but got to go. interesting stuff. love this blog.
Sonja on June 29, 2009 12:09 PM:
I agree with Cam. To Cam's comments, I would add that the logic also ignores the nature of mediation. A medium not only delivers information but also provides a physical, visual, aural, and even other sense-related rhetoric to that delivery. The pithy encapsulation is just too reductive to be insightful.
Jason Wilson on June 29, 2009 12:16 PM:
I think the implication of the statement as far as print versus electronic is concerned is that it represents an intelligence preference. Print books are the backbone of analytic intelligence, while electronic books (and by this I mean interactive books on the web, not the kind you find on Kindles or other eReaders) are a physical extension of imaginative intelligence. For me, an electronic book is a machine for focusing attention on diffused information. Not elegant, but I hope you get my point. I think this is of particular relevance to academics. Educators are already speaking in terms of “immersive learning” where electronic text books not only discuss doctrine but show the student how it is applied, whether through pictures, video, slide presentations, etc., and allow the student to continue down that path online or with fellow classmates (social & collaborative). These pictures, videos, and the like could all be found on the web independently of the e-book (or any book for that matter), but the e-book gives them context, thus focusing the reader’s attention. However, the inevitable social aspect of electronic books will probably serve to diffuse attention in the same way the web has.
Michael W. Perry on June 29, 2009 1:51 PM:
Poe's comment has interesting parallels to how oral and written texts were used in the Middle East, particularly among the Jews. Oral means were used to communicate geographically. People scattered in hundreds of villages would hear the stories that are part of today's Old Testament. In today's terms, you can imagine them browsing their favorite blogs. But those same stories kept their continuity across time by being preserved and read in written form. The written form kept the oral tradition from drifting, hence the now widely respected historical accuracy of the Old Testament.
Poe seems to be saying something similar. The Internet is an excellent way to spread ideas geographically, reaching millions of people around the world in mere hours. But what's said on a web page can be easily, quickly and silently changed. In the language of Old Testament scholars, it is as easy to redact as the rules on Orwell's Animal Farm. "All animals are equal," can become "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal."
Printed books, on the other hand, have a fixity about them. If I buy the first edition of your book, you can't reach out across space and time to alter it to fit the opinions you profess in your second edition. That's not quite "focusing attention" (Poe's words). But is is fixing what is focused upon. And fixity is necessary for focus. Just as I can't easily focus a camera lens on a constantly moving object, so I can't easily focus my comments on a web-based opinion that's constantly changing.
And the latter is the world of Orwell's 1984, where history, which mostly appears to the public on telescreens, is constantly being altered. You might say that 1984 was a world without books (even keeping a personal diary was a crime punishable by death), with an Internet where descriptions about large events flowed from Big Brother and Ingsoc at the top down, while information about personal behavior flowed from the bottom up to the police, much like the ever-present cameras in today's UK. Even language in 1984, not being fixed by libraries filled with printed books, was being altered and reduced to shape what people would be able to think.
And note the product in an older alternative medium to books that's shallow rather than fluid, the saccharine world of pop music. Those whose language has been reduced to little more than Michael Jackson's singing and dance moves found his death far more important that the struggle for democracy in Iran. Google was swamped by more searches for "Michael Jackson death" than for "democracy in Iran." That's not just sad, that's sick.
Cryurchin on June 29, 2009 6:28 PM:
I'm with Cam; the statement, taken baldly, is the same dichotomy which underpins most arguments surrounding the 'unnaturalness' of digital text - Marianne Wolf makes the argument a lot better than most in Proust and the Squid (essential reading for if:book devotees who haven't checked it out yet). I guess the question is, even taken as a generalisation, does the statement have legs? And I think it might. Books produce a powerful accentuation of focus by their very presence in the world. Cut off from their surroundings by their covers, the finality of print, and a history of solo scholarship, which can't help but affect the attitude with which we approach them, we are trained on haptic, philosophic, and cultural levels to be attentive to a book's linear progression. The internet, however, looks outward, its texts have no covers to cut them off from anything else, no finality with regular updates and the shifting sands of dead links and rewrites, and we approach each text, not with a history of focus and isolation, but with a history of linking and community which is at the root modern computing and the internet. I believe that these factors would affect the same book, P & E, just by exisiting in different forms, tangible and intangible - we would approach them in different ways, unconsciously for the most part, though the script would remain identical; the p-book would hold our attention to its words, and to nothing else, for longer than the e-book.
So the big next question, to me at least, is "is this a good thing?", and, if so, should we be educating the next generation to bring the same focus to e-books as we emphasise, explicitly and implicitly, with p-works (and it would take education, it's not a 'natural' default because it never was with p-books either, it's just the way our reading practices have developed and then gone on to be enshrined in our cultural practices), or should we begin the delicate balancing act of the best of both worlds?
As Bob said, so many questions...
joe on June 29, 2009 6:37 PM:
From the limited quote it seems he is comparing apples and oranges. The internet could be rightly compared to "the library" rather than a single book -- in what scenario is the library in any manner a machine for focusing attention? (unless you go and find one book and render your (visual) attention thusly.)
I agree with the first commenter (Cam) re: words as 'link systems' -- but let's say you restrict to a certain topic are you focusing attention in that narrow sense? Books focus my attention in a strict sense on the book object while reading (as when browsing the internet I am strictly 'focused' on the computer monitor).
Then let's consider such books as Pynchon or D.F.Wallace (or insert your fav pomo author) would write - these are books which, for me, tend to diffuse my attentional focus across a wide variety of topics. Not to mention the issues surrounding our understanding of "attention" and "focus" ... :) I'll be interested to read the rest of Poe's thesis.
Dale on June 29, 2009 10:48 PM:
I agree with the previous comment, in questioning whether or not books and the Internet can be compared so bluntly, and on the need to explore what we might mean by links. Also, it would seem that all knowledge we accumulate gets into our heads by alternating elements of focus and diffusion, regardless of the source of that knowledge. And what happens when we read several books "at the same time" or when we use multiple books when doing research or learning something new? Is that focus, or diffusion, and aren't we linking them together in our minds?
trav on June 30, 2009 2:13 PM:
His point makes sense on the surface. But he seems to be looking left and right, not up and down.
True, while online you can get side-railed and distracted and chase all sorts of YouTube enabled rabbits.
But what of the history eBook where the footnotes click through to the audio of the actual speech given, or photos of space or the text of a referenced book, etc.
Should these be considered distractions? Or do they give the reader a deeper & better rooted understanding of the curated text they started with?
Granted, if the initial author is worth their ink then I wouldn't need to "click through" to take in the referenced pieces, but more and more I find myself making notes of books I want to read just to follow up he citations and cases being made in some of today's books.
bowerbird on June 30, 2009 10:13 PM:
surely such a vague point has been discussed here before...
is there no solid ground we can build upon? are we destined
to repeat the same circles, ride on the same merry-go-round?
Marshall Poe on July 2, 2009 12:50 PM:
I'm the author of the quote Bob cited. It is indeed from a forthcoming book about the history of media from the evolution of speech to the Internet. The distinction I made in that rather-too-pithy sentence between "focus" and "diffusion" was (as some of you have said) meant to bring home the boundedness of printed books and the unboundedness of any web page with hyperlinks. It's pretty hard to "leave" the story being told by a book short of simply putting the book down; it's awfully easy to "leave" the story being told by a web page with a simple and immediately rewarding click through.
Add this to the fact that reading is hard and attention spans short and you can see that the hyperlinked web page is an invitation to digress from whatever story is being told. I'm not saying this is good or bad, but given the structure of both media and the facts of human psychology, there is a clear difference. The book takes you down a path; the Internet takes you down *some* path. As bowerbird says, this is an old point. But it's a good one.
Mike cane on July 4, 2009 11:34 AM:
>>>"A book is a machine for focusing attention; the Internet is machine for diffusing it."
Without the surrounding text, it's really glib yet ultimately meaningless.
"A book is a machine for focusing attention; the [newspaper] is machine for diffusing it."
"A book is a machine for focusing attention; [a magazine] is machine for diffusing it."
"A [movie] is a machine for focusing attention; [broadcast television] is machine for diffusing it."
"A [book salesman] is a machine for focusing attention; [a public library] is machine for diffusing it."
See? On the surface, it sounds like buggy-whip thinking. I want more than that.
And I hope the original sentence has the missing "a"! Or is that part of the trick for smuggling the idea of not concentrating on something?
bowerbird on July 4, 2009 3:20 PM:
> It's pretty hard to "leave" the story being told by a book
> short of simply putting the book down;
it's not difficult to put a book down. is it? unless it's gripping.
> it's awfully easy to "leave" the story being told by a web page
> with a simple and immediately rewarding click through.
and it's not difficult to leave a web-page. unless it's gripping...
> Add this to the fact that reading is hard
reading is hard? not if the story is gripping!
> and attention spans short
yeah. for the most part. except when a story is gripping!
> and you can see that the hyperlinked web page is
> an invitation to digress from whatever story is being told.
and every pretty girl walking down the street is "an invitation"
for a happily married man to leave his wife and family, right?
cyberspace puts a lot of options at your disposal, it's undeniable.
and that means the bar is raised in terms of the challenge posed
in grabbing people's attention. but a gripping story is gripping.
Gary Frost on July 4, 2009 10:25 PM:
What if print and screen are a single transmission mechanism, something like writing and publishing? In that frame there is little use in comparing the two modes, but some interest in understanding the legacy and prospects of the assimilation.
I would call the new transmission mode synthetic language.