The New York Times gathered experts to discuss the disappearance of the physical book, especially important in light of the announcement of the iPad media consumption device. The predictable narrative throughout the article is that the digital is trivial and the physical has more “depth.” I’m interested here in troubling this narrative. It goes well beyond this article. Bring up Twitter in certain circles and people will laugh, calling it trivial. Talk to someone over thirty about Facebook and you very well might get the same reaction. I discussed this trend previously on how unfair it is to quickly label discussions of politics on social networking sites as “slacktivism” (slacker+activism) simply because they are done online. Why do we belittle the digital as trivial when, as danah boyd points out, our everyday material world interactions are equally as trivial as what is posted online?
In the article, Matthew Kirschenbaum claims that the “stillness” of physical print is more conducive to “deep concentration.” Liz Gray agrees, arguing that people reading screens have lowered attention spans and less skill at engaging complex issues. Nicholas Carr states that physical books develop deep comprehension and learning because screens sacrifice single-mindedness and lead to shallow learning. William Powers also describes physicality as “deep” and claims it is “best” because it leads to more thinking. With the exception of Kirschenbaum’s point that the loss of depth might be of diminishing concern, this line of thought is deployed throughout the article without “deep” counterpoint or reflection.
Let’s trouble this. Perhaps digital learning lacks depth for these critics. This might be true for them becuase they developed their outlook in a world of physical books. However, new realities, such as the digitization of text, breed new ways of learning about and viewing the world. Those developing in today’s augmented world (that is, the massive blurring of the physical and digital that is occurring) will not lose the ability to focus or concentrate. The increased amount and access to information and communities of knowledge will be utilized in ways that the physical-only folks cannot (yet) comprehend. Historically, the development of the book, the telephone, and every other communications technology has faced similar claims about the loss of “depth.” With hindsight, we look back at these claims with amusement because we develop new ways of learning to best cope with and utilize new realities. The criticisms come from those who have not developed these new standpoints.
When faced with our new augmented reality, the reaction of the physical-only folks in the article is to claim that their outlook or standpoint is universally better. Thus (following Nietzsche, Foucault, Harding, etc.), these “trivial” and “deep” narratives are claims to power focused on the superiority of one way of learning the world at the expense of another. Let’s acknowledge and analyze these different outlooks instead of trying to universalize our own by claiming our perspective as fundamentally “deeper”, “better” and more true. Last, let’s ask who benefits from constructing digital learning as inherently deficient? ~nathan