Don't be a Henny Penny about texting
I'm quoted in today’s Washington Post — in a story about text messaging. The writer, Donna St. George, with whom I spoke the other day, is smart and nice, but let’s face it: if the “story” was that these new forms of succinct writing were modestly or significantly beneficial, the Post would never run it. But Henny Pennyism runs amok when a new technology is so rapidly embraced by the young while parents and teachers are left somewhat behind. And maybe it’s not specifically technology at all — but change of this sort generally. To be sure, Ms. St. George’s article is full of moderate comments and no evidence even close to conclusive that any damage is being done. There’s the usual anecdotal nightmare-scenario remark by an expert that the reading of Shakespeare might be interrupted by a message from some acronym-obsessed best friend, but, c’mon, in the 1930s the Shakespeare assignment would have been interrupted by the neighbor banging on the window with an urgent request to come out and play or the sneaking out from under the covers of the girly mag, or in the ’70s by a quick listen, big headphones over the head, to a cut from the latest LP … or, in any era, by nose-picking, doodling, phone-calling, etc. If the interruption is the writing of more language, that in fact seems better to me, by far, than the time-honored proscrastinations of what we now call our golden ages of childhood. And why does high-culture Shakespeare always appear as the positive object of attention? (Well,because it makes the story about a skirmish in the culture wars. High = Shakespeare, low = texting. Stop the low, save the high! Cause, effect.) What makes inattention to one’s homework new here? And what makes this kind of inattention (but really it’s multiple attentiveness) ipso facto bad? Or inattention to anything one is ought to be doing? I suggest that those concerned about all this read John Ashbery’s pre-internet poem, “The Instruction Manual.” The speaker is doing exactly what he shouldn’t be doing, and possibly he’s multi-tasking with greater focus on the daydreamt Other. And he’s writing as a brilliant means of avoiding responsibility. And what comes of that? Oh, imagination … art.