Multitasking Monks?

In her essay, “Medieval Multitasking:  Did We Ever Focus?”, Elizabeth Drescher addresses the Nicolas Carr/Clay Shirky debate on the relative merits of the Internet.  Drescher’s piece distinguishes itself by taking, as her title suggests, a long view of the issue and by its breezy, phenomenological style.  I think she is right to look for historical antecedents that shed light on our use of new media, however, I have reservations about where she ends up.  I tend to see more discontinuity than she does, particularly in the kind of relationship with the text encouraged by certain features of new media. You can read some of my thoughts in the Letters section below Drescher’s essay or here.  Quick excerpt:

Modularity, or what Manovich also calls the “fractal structure of new media,” allows for individual elements of a hypertext (text, image, video, chart, audio, etc.) to retain their integrity and be easily abstracted and recombined in another setting. Now to get a sense of the significance of this development, imagine a medieval monk attempting to easily abstract the graphic elements of an illuminated manuscript for use in another setting.

I single out modularity because it gets at an important distinction the gets lost if we lay all the emphasis on continuity. Modularity has contributed to a massive reconfiguration of the relationship between the media artifact and the user. The conditions of new media have allowed us to approach texts (and I use that term in the widest possible sense) on the Internet as potential creators, as well, users . . .

We now seem less apt at receiving a text and, at least to begin with, submitting ourselves to it. This is a particularly important development in religious contexts. We are now more likely to jump into the creation of our own meaning and our own texts without first allowing the texts to read us as it were. We are less likely to listen to the text before wanting to speak back to it or speak it anew. We are first disposed to shape the text rather than being open to how the text may shape us.

Along the way Drescher links to the op-ed piece by Steven Pinker that we noted here earlier, but she also links to an op-ed by David Brooks, “The Medium is the Medium”, which I had missed.  In his piece Brooks makes some interesting distinctions and observations, yet my initial response is mixed.  Perhaps more on that later.

2 thoughts on “Multitasking Monks?

  1. You had me at “breezy, phenomenological style”… ;-}

    I included the following note, along with a link to your way cool blog, on my Facebook page:

    “Sacasas’s response to my essay draws from the work of Lev Manovich on new media ( I wasn’t aware of Manovich, but the concept of “modularity” as Sacasas explains it is useful, I think. That said, I can, in fact, “imagine a medieval monk attempting to easily abstract the graphic elements of an illuminated manuscript for use in another setting,” if we contextualize “easily” a bit. It was medieval SOP to take graphic elements from one text to another without much concern for the source context. The construction of a medieval “book” was significantly modular, as I understand the term. But, I’m going to have to look at Manovich and mull on that some more. And, since Manovich and Landow (whom I reference) were writing pre-DSM (digital social media), it’s probably worth thinking about how *human* interactivity inflects both hypertexting and modularity in pre- and postmodern texts.”

    Thanks so much for your response to my essay. You’ve truly enriched my thinking on the subject.

    1. And thanks in turn for taking the time to respond. The impact of new technologies on our culture is frequently on my mind, and I’m glad to find voices like your own to help me think through the issues.

      Glad you enjoyed the blog! It’s been a great space to think and write “out loud.”

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