Summer: a time for relaxing and getting away from it all. But there is a blog to be written and the seasonal tilt of the Earth’s axis shouldn’t be an impediment to the examination of the intersection of philosophy and music. At least JL has an excuse (go all in, I’ve got a feeling about this one), I’m still ensconced in the same cubicle where I dwelt, troll-like, throughout the snowy winter. So without further delay, a juicy item from the pen of David Brooks.
In this op-ed, Brooks begins by relating the conclusion of a recent study that showed that if given books during summer vacation, the recipient students were more likely to do better on reading tests upon returning to school. Furthermore, other studies show that students that grow up in houses with lots of books tend to do better and stay in school longer. He compares this with a study that shows that when high-speed internet is introduced to a home, math and reading scores go down.
He links this to the debate around how the internet affects our attention spans and our deep contemplative skills, as fueled by Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows. (By the way, if you haven’t yet, check out Carr’s interview with Stephen Colbert. It’s very good, especially because Colbert drops the irritating character, shuts up, and lets Carr do the talking.) Basically, Brooks argues that when people have access to books, they see themselves as “readers,” which links them into the whole historical knowledge of human-kind. While this entails subjecting oneself to the authority of those that came before us and managed to leave behind written texts, it also allows us to become cultivated, which, according to Books via Joseph Epstein, means that we “[master] significant things of lasting import.” He argues that access to the internet does not necessarily allow this to happen in the same way, if only because it allows the digital citizen to break down hierarchies, and that those hierarchies are important if we are to be better students because sometimes “you have to defer to greater minds than your own.” Rather our activities on the internet are largely limited to gathering information and looking “hip,” things which we can also get from printed media. In the end, Brooks’ conclusion is to create an internet counter-culture that will “better attract people to serious learning.”
I might start out by saying that I myself am a firm bibliophile – this blog posting also available at your local book store – but one that recognizes the power of the internet. Its democratic potential is obvious and ought to be cultivated. But I also know that democracy isn’t all that served by the LOL Cats or corporations mining Facebook pages with the sole goal of boosting their profit margins. What Brooks calls serious learning, or that which allows one to become cultivated, is out there on the internet; what prevents people from accessing it, in the same way they would access Brooks’ op-ed or check stock prices, is largely intellectual property and copyright laws.
Take the issue of book digitization, the most prominent example being Google’s Book Search project, which seeks to scan millions of books in order to create a digital library. The Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers sued Google a few years ago over what they alleged to be massive copyright infringement, in which Google was scanning books without the consent of the copyright holder or author. Personally, I am in favor of creating and disseminating access to digital libraries, such as the Google Book Search project, in the same way as I am in favor of being able access large amounts of music on the internet.
Clearly there are ethical issues at stake here that are too big to go into at the moment, but I am unsure of how David Brooks expects people to engage in serious learning if they do not have access to serious sources. Apparently, that is to be reserved, at least initially, for Brooks’ counter-culture, which one can imagine is not so much based around cultural outsiders but around those who are powerful enough to hold copyrights. Indeed, while he looks down his nose at efforts to create an egalitarian, democratic digital citizenry and stumps for the intellectual authority of the “cultivated” world, his solution would certainly have to involve breaking down some of our legal rights, like having final say over our intellectual property.
If we expect the internet to help us to master “significant things of lasting import,” it will take more than groups of activists, nerds, professors, or hipsters, more than a counter-culture. Just like we see children who have lots of books in their own homes do better on reading tests and stay in school longer, we cannot displace access to serious learning to outside the mainstream, even initially. Learning and education ought to be primary values of our society and we should bend what is fast becoming our primary communicative platform to that goal, even if that takes shaking up ideas about legal ownership and fair use. If kids are on the internet, get books on the internet.