Narrative thought

In his column today, David Brooks offers a thought-provoking (he's good at that) contrast of off-line as compared to on-line learning. Here's a key passage:
When people in this slower world [off-line] gather to try to understand connections and context, they gravitate toward a different set of questions. These questions are less about sensation than about meaning. They argue about how events unfold and how context influences behavior. They are more likely to make moral evaluations. They want to know where it is all headed and what are the ultimate ends.
We short-story and novel writers — well, most of us, anyway — live and work mostly in this slower world. Video game-writers, on-line interactive plotters offering multiple pathways, and E. L. James are challenging the model, obviously, creating experiences rather than narrative. Which is fine, I suppose, and inevitable, but has its cost if it occupies all our attention. Brooks goes on,
The online world is brand new, but it feels more fun, effortless and natural than the offline world of reading and discussion. It nurtures agility, but there is clear evidence by now that it encourages a fast mental rhythm that undermines the ability to explore narrative, and place people, ideas and events in wider contexts.
I'm still an old-fashioned, Second Millennium guy, wedded to narrative. Not just in my fiction, but in my thinking and writing about social, political and (occasionally) scientific matters. And so is David Brooks. I think the world will always need such thinking for us to have some idea of where we're headed and how we got here, instead of just jumping to each new experience that seems exciting. It's a minority view, but you on-liners are going to need us when your games crash.


Dirk van Nouhuys said...

I don't usually pay a lot of attention to the NYT columnists, with the occasional exception of Krugman. I glance at their headings and first paragraphs to keep in touch with what the NYC-Washington establishment is currently obsessing about. But recently I have paid attention to Brooks. I did so because he was interviewed by Charlie Rose, while I was doing my exercises, about his new book, The Road to Character." There are many things to be said about this book, many said well in a New Yorker review by Rebecca Mead (http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/david-brookss-search-for-meaning), but what struck me was the reason he offered for people acting morally. He said, as I understood him, writhing on the floor and lifting weights, that people act morally because they have being good as a goal. I certainly don't feel that way about myself. I have various purposes, to avoid pain, to have a good time, to earn my bread, to nurture my family and friends, to get praise, etc. etc. I try to pursue them morally partly out of fear of censure or punishment and partly because I believe that all our lives are better because we share common rules of action. I guess I also have a sense of playing to an audience, some of which is internalized. His view, that people act moral because they have a goal of being good, seems to me a little like claiming that we drive in order to obey traffic laws. I drive because I want to get somewhere and do something, and obey traffic laws for the foresaid kind of reasons.

His view also suggests to me religions that posit an afterlife of moral rewards and punishments, which seems to me to reduce (I use the word advisedly) human life to a morality paly. I find that demeaning.

So I'm kind of off on the wrong foot with Brooks, though I m sure there are people who try to be good in the way he describes.

Mead quotes him as saying, "I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am. I have to work harder than most people to avoid a life of smug superficiality.” I think he's right and give him some credit for self-awareness.

Perhaps I also have a special perspective on what Brooks covers in his column in that I have had many decades to digest the efflorescence of the World Wide Web. I started working on the Internet in an environment of hyperlinks in 1970. Of curse it was a meager thing then, without graphics, and almost incomprehensibly slow. But anyway I had decades to ease into it.

All that said the first part of the essay about the cocktail party of knowledge seems more or less right to me, if glib -: Up to the point where he says " The slowness of solitary reading or thinking means you are not as concerned with each individual piece of data." I don't think that's right. Reading in the narrow, following the river of story, seems to me to allow you to concentrate more on individual pieces of data, but a different set of data. The data are selected more by the storyteller and less by the reader's whim or the advertising-driven caprice of Facebook placement. I think whether that leads to more "knowledge" depends on the storyteller.

This discussion reminds me of the old time assertion by Marshal McLuhan, that the medium was the message. I've never believed it. With occasional important exceptions, the message is the message.

There is, by the way, a whole academic organization devoted to these question form the web perspective, ELO (Electronic Literature Organization). See for example: (https://elo2015.sched.org/event/f99b461e7661b30d8fb951b603056b39#.VanWWbe1Nqs).

Geoffrey Fox said...

I read Krugman and almost am at least half-convinced, mainly because he sounds plausible and I like his "liberal" premises, and because I don't know enough about economics to dispute him. Brooks I usually disagree with, at least in part, which makes reading him much more interesting: he challenges me to construct a counter argument.