Evolving Media

Watching an old silent movie this week inspired an analogy.  In the early decades of film, the acting was exaggerated because the actors were trained for the stage–they were playing to the back row of a theater.  It wasn’t until we adjusted to the nature of the new medium that people started to use it in a more productive manner (thank you, Marlon Brando). 

Is writing undergoing a similar metamorphosis?  We still generally compose electronically online with the same basic rules we’ve always used for print writing, but obviously an evolution is underway: the writing that we do for screens is getting shorter, more flexible, and more casual.

But print-based writing won’t disappear.  Just as movies didn’t destroy theater, but simply evolved in their own direction from the parent art, online writing will likely develop in its own unique way, and traditional writing will thrive as it ever has.  Consider that, while Hollywood grew, that distinctly American genre of musical theater likewise developed into the wonderful subspecies it is today.  Despite the near-ubiquity of film, people still see plays of all kinds, and I’m sure that there will always be plenty of people who write and read traditional, standard English, too. 

What’s most surprising about the explosion of a uniquely online style of writing, though, is just how many technology boosters themselves are alarmed by it.  Consider these gloomy paragraphs from a recent article, summarizing some of the benchmarks in the backlash against the dumbing down of thought via the Internet:

Worse still was Clay Shirky’s reaction in the Britannica Blog, where he opined, “no one reads War and Peace. It’s too long, and not so interesting,” and borrows a phrase from Richard Foreman in claiming, “the ‘complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality’ is at risk.”  As I observed at the time, Shirky’s views entailed that Twitter-sized discourse was our historically determined fate, and that, if he were right, the Great Books and civilization itself would be at risk.  But he was not right–I hope.

In 2010, Edge took up the question, “Is the Internet changing the way you think?” and the answers were very sobering.  Here were some extremely prominent scientists, thinkers, and writers, and all too many of them were saying again, more boldly, that the Internet was making it hard to read long pieces of writing, that books were passe, and that the Internet was essentially becoming a mental prosthesis.  We were, as one writer put it, uploading our brains to the Internet.

Harsh stuff, but sobering.  So, if we write now with “lol” and “ur” and emoticons, what will online writing look like in 30 years?  After all, a century after the advent of film, that medium produces The King’s Speech, but it also keeps vomiting up sequels to The Fast and the Furious.  One’s hardly being Malthusian when predicting that the quality of communication online will stagnate at the intellectual level of a Michael Bay movie.  It’s enough to make one unplug the machines and grab the nearest copy of Dickens. 

I remain convinced of two things, though: first, that at some point, purely Internet-based writing will produce some awe-inspiring art of a kind that may not even be imaginable yet, and second, that the “real world” of print will endure and succeed, even albeit for a smaller and more specialized audience than for our parents.

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