Return of Nietzsche’s Typewriter
Mon, Jun 16, 2008 at 11:32AM,
I feel Nicholas Carr’s article itself demonstrates the intellectual atrophy that may, or may not be related to technology. Sure, The Atlantic, Harpers and NPR do better than say, Newsweek, People, or AM talk radio. They do present ideas and something to think about. But the structure of the “argument” is visual, not rational. It samples several different ideas, does not explain them, explore them, and certainly never think about them critically. These ideas are strung together in a loose and impressionistic sequence and used to defend a piece of conventional wisdom or truism.
It is bad enough that the guy who bags your groceries thinks this way (democracy by its nature makes the unreasonable demand of an educated and thoughtful electorate) but this has become the standard mode for “intellectuals” as well. Most non-academic non-fiction is just an extended version of the article structure described above. And much academic writing just adds a veneer of jargon to the pastiche.
A class of graduate students was recently supposed to read the eight-page Introduction to Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies. It was short, it was not hard reading and it surveyed four approaches to writing history and argued for a more formal and disciplined method in historical writing to improve it’s rigor and clarity. All twenty-four students complained about how hard it was, how “wordy” and difficult to follow (8 pages!). Unable to understand the whole (well, the whole of the introduction) they resorted to the Sunday school practice quoting verses out of context. If you can’t understand the paragraph, perhaps you could at least understand one sentence. Then pretend the sentence is the argument and call it done. These graduate students are studying history not because they like historical research, not because they like reading history, not even because they like reading historical novels. They are studying history because they like watching the History channel.
Some blame the Internet, but this has been going on for much longer. My personal bugbear is television, although that may just be a symptom and not the disease. This brings us back to Nietzsche’s typewriter and the original point of the article. The Internet facilitates and accelerates our ability to perform our mental tasks. It can accelerate our good habits like critical thinking and fact checking. For example, it took me less than two minutes to verify on the internet that in 1882 Nietzsche’s writing became longer, more structured and less, not more, aphoristic. However, the internet also accelerates the spread of uncritical acceptance and errors. Did Friedrich A. Kittler get his argument about Nietzsche wrong or was it Nicholas Carr who misunderstood or misrepresented it? Did Nicholas Carr even bother to read Kittler (or Nietzsche) or did he just find this unprocessed tidbit on some internet blog or Google book snippet? The internet just makes us faster and more efficient at what we do—whether that is critical thinking, fact-checking or sloppy journalism.