Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Out, -Damn'd- Darn(ton) Spot!

A couple of weeks ago (April 20, 2011) this blog featured a post containing an article by Professor/Librarian Robert Darnton of Harvard about the "Five Myths Of "The Information Age." Read it here. Today, a polemicist from Emory University, Professor Mark Bauerlein tosses a handful of rhetorical firebombs at Darnton's assertions about "The Information Age." If this is the (fair & balanced) reincarnation of The Dunciad, so be it.

[x Cronk Review]
Robert Darnton’s Errors
By Mark Bauerlein

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Robert Darnton, Harvard professor and the university’s librarian, has a short piece in The Chronicle Review that sets out to explode, as the title puts it, “5 Myths of the ‘Information Age.’” It’s an oddly hit-and-run effort in which Darnton cites Information Age truisms in turn and refutes them with a few sentences of assertion. Often, his statements don’t address the core issue of each one, and they misconstrue the myth or invoke evidence that is either irrelevant or just plain wrong.

Myth 1: “The book is dead.” Darnton refutes this one with a single category of data, the production of books. There, indeed, the market looks healthy with “More books … produced in print each year than in the previous year,” he writes. Yes, but this is only one side of the “death” factor. When people speak of the death of books, they mean also, the reading of books as well as the place of books as the primary carrier of knowledge and the central medium of learning. To address those aspects, we need information on unit sales of books, the relative weight of books on the high-school and college syllabus, and the reliance of people in general on books for knowledge. We don’t have reliable data on the latter two, but the first one, sales. Darnton says, in the context of the rise of e-books, “there are indications that the sale of printed books has increased at the same time.” Not from the evidence I’ve seen, though.

For instance, according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey, reproduced in the 2011 Statistical Abstract of the U.S., consumer spending on “Reading” went from $141 in 1985 to $153 in 1990 to $163 in 1995 to $146 in 2000 to $126 in 2005 to $116 in 2008—a steady decline.

And according to the National Endowment for the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, the percentage of adults who read any book (not for work or school) in the preceding 12 months went from 60.9 percent in 1992 to 56.6 percent in 2002 to 54.3 percent in 2008.

More recently, according to the Association of American Publishers in its Feb 2011 report, while e-book sales jumped 202 percent, adult trade books declined 34.4 percent and children’s/young adult books slipped 16.1 percent (a net loss given the still relatively small portion of the market taken by e-books).

There are many other sources documenting the same trend. If Darnton finds “indications” of sales increases for print books in some other source, he doesn’t say what it is.

Next myth: “We have entered the information age.” Darnton’s objection is that “every age is an age of information, each in its own way and according to the media available at the time.” But nobody who announces the Information Age denies that information existed and was important in prior eras. They say that digital technology has made information so easily accessible and transmissible that the very process has become constitutive of our moment. When Darnton writes, further, that “No one would deny that the modes of communication are changing rapidly, perhaps as rapidly as in Gutenberg’s day,” one can only reply, “perhaps as rapidly?” Facebook didn’t exist in 2004. It now has more than a half-billion users, and half the people in the United States are registered.

Third myth: “All information is now available online.” Darnton considers this claim “absurd,” and he’s right. But I don’t know any Digital Age observer who maintains it. Rather, many of them believe that, for most purposes, pretty much all the information relevant to people’s lives and their labors is available online. That is, indeed, a mistake, but too many young people do pass through their careers as students and young workers entirely fulfilled by online access. When they are frustrated, they only keep looking through the screen for what they need, never considering the value of archives and microfilm and other off-line sources.

Next myth: “Libraries are obsolete.” Darnton attacks this myth with scraps of evidence from Harvard libraries and the New York Public Library system, both of which are “crammed with people.” But, as Darnton concedes, they come not just for books, but for after-school activities for kids, information for small businesses,” and “employment information.” In fact, if you examine the annual reports of most public libraries, you’ll find the number of book checkouts dropping significantly.

Final myth: “The future is digital.” “True enough,” Darnton writes, “but misleading.” Yes, “the information environment will be overwhelmingly digital, but the prevalence of electronic communications does not mean that printed material will cease to be important.” That’s a highly qualified retort, and Darnton adds to it a misleading point of his own. He notes that in the past when new media came along, the new “modes of communication” didn’t displace old ones, but in fact created a “richer and more complex” information habitat. TV didn’t kill radio, he says, radio didn’t kill newspapers, and the Internet didn’t destroy TV.

Note, however, that Darnton doesn’t include books in that list. Furthermore, print newspapers are, in fact, dying, largely because of the Web. And, most importantly (and most damagingly to his point), there is a simple reason why TV and radio continue to thrive even in the Digital Age: they are easily multi-taskable. One can listen to the radio while surfing the Web, or watch TV while texting. Those activities that aren’t easily fitted to multi-tasking, such as book reading, have indeed declined.

After dispensing with the myths, Darnton proceeds to address pessimistic outlooks on the Web. He says, “Many of us worry about a decline in deep, reflective, cover-to-cover reading,” but wonders whether deep reading ever really prevailed. Scholars have shown, for instance, that 16th and 17th century humanists often “read discontinuously,” culling passages from texts here and there for rhetorical purposes. Very well, but this example hardly suffices. Even those scholars must have spent their younger years reading many, many books cover to cover before they entered the Republic of Letters.

Finally, he observes that “Writing looks as bad as reading to those who see nothing but decline in the advent of the Internet,” noting particularly the cascade of self-publishing. But what’s so bad about that? Darnton asks. Yes, we may have “information overload,” but if you don’t find the writing worthwhile, you “can ignore it.”

That’s easy to say, but with the avalanche of writing here, there, and everywhere, it takes more and more effort to screen bad writing out and find good writing within. Added to that, we have an odd circumstance. Young people, enabled by digital tools, are reading and writing more words than ever before. Why is it, then, that reading and writing abilities of late-teens haven’t improved (as reading/writing scores, remediation rates in college, and poor verbal skills in the workplace show)? My answer: The norms and styles of digital writing among the young are contrary to the norms and styles of academic and workplace writing.

In this essay, then, Darnton hasn’t provided “examples of how the new technology is reinforcing old modes of communication rather than undermining them,” as he claims in his conclusion. The only real example comes when he refers to the way in which digital technology has enhanced his own scholarship. We readily believe that, but let’s not extend those benefits too far. And let’s not cast sincere concerns about the implications of digital technology to book culture as myths and misconceptions beneath serious consideration. Ω

[Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory University, and has recently served as Director of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. His scholarly essays have appeared in PMLA, Yale Review, Wilson Quarterly, and Partisan Review, and his commentaries and reviews have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, TLS, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Weekly Standard, Reason Magazine, and Chronicle of Higher Education. His books include Literary Criticism: An Autopsy, Civil Rights Chronicle, and the galvanizing The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008). Bauerlein earned his doctorate in English at UCLA in 1988.]

Copyright © 2011 The Chronicle of Higher Education

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

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