What Should We Be Worrying About?

caravaggio-st-augustineI continue to worry about the persistent devaluing of language. The pressures of speed in the production and consumption of writing does not bode well for our future. Add to that the powerful pressures from a visually oriented society, and we have a mixture of something not good for our lives or our world.

We must anchor our understanding of our world, our action in the world, on the great texts from the past: sophisticated texts like the Bible, the great literature of the past, history, the Constitution of the United States, and the like. If we leave off reading and writing about these texts—because of the speed and pervasiveness of the internet, or because of the splintering of a common culture—we are destined to become increasingly shallow. Not good for a strong civilization.

Here are these same thoughts from the computer scientist David Gelernter answering the 2013 annual question of Edge.org, “What should we be worried about?”

If we have a million photos, we tend to value each one less than if we only had ten. The internet forces a general devaluation of the written word: a global deflation in the average word’s value on many axes. As each word tends to get less reading-time and attention and to be worth less money at the consumer end, it naturally tends to absorb less writing-time and editorial attention on the production side. Gradually, as the time invested by the average writer and the average reader in the average sentence falls, society’s ability to communicate in writing decays. And this threat to our capacity to read and write is a slow-motion body-blow to science, scholarship, the arts—to nearly everything, in fact, that is distinctively human, that muskrats and dolphins can’t do just as well or better. (A version of this article appeared February 25, 2013, in The Wall Street Journal, under Notable & Quotable.)

Civilization is shaped by ideas, always has been, always will be. Ideas take their concrete form through words and sentences, articles, papers, books, speeches, poems. If we cannot sustain attention long enough to write carefully and thoughtfully, or to read attentively and just as thoughtfully, we are destined to hit a dead-end as a society. Civilizations can decline and fall.

Worry with me about the training of students of all ages to write and read. Worry with me about the powerful distractions that cause us to read only fleetingly and not deeply. Worry with me that the pendulum will swing somehow back to the desire for thoughtful immersion in good writing. Worry with me that we will take the time to read the best of what is written, from the past and from our own day, and that we will avoid finding ourselves swept away by the massive whoosh of cheap words.