“As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
– Nicholas Carr, Is Google Making Us Stupid?
Buenos Aires – I have had a growing sense of inquietude in regard to my personal world of readin’, ritin’, an’ rithmetic’. It’s something that I’ve been noticing for the past several months, with creepily growing awareness. All of it seems to be heading towards superficiality, towards sound-bytes, towards, well, the direction that web-surfing takes us.
A few years ago, despite holding down a full-time restaurant job, and in New York that meant 12-14 hours a day, 6 days a week, I still managed to have a social life, read anywhere from 50-75 books a year, catch a little television – generally just a favorite show or two, participate in a bit of online gaming, get in regular exercise, and write a relatively steady number of articles each month on various topics. Setting aside the online gaming, which, if anything, I’ve decreased the amount of, I probably spent an hour a day on the internet. Even when I first started this blog, it probably stayed at not much over that.
Today, with part-time work, I have, it sometimes seems, less of a social life – certainly a smaller circle of friends that I do things with, I realized that over the last three years here, until a recent intentional shift in my reading habits, I had probably not read 20 books, almost no time in front of the television – but here’s the kicker, I found myself downloading or renting the discs of television series that I’d never seen and just had a whim to see (during the last three years I’ve seen the entire series: 24, The West Wing, Star Trek Next Generation, Star Trek Deep Space Nine, Firefly (okay, that was worth it), Stargate SG-1 and Atlantis, Kung Fu, Reilly: Ace of Spies, Alias, Numb3rs, Picket Fences and more movies and individual shows than I care to think about) all in front of my computer screen – a place I seem to be for anywhere from 6-8 hours on many a day. My exercise has dropped to nil, that’s the first thing that’s going to change, and I’ve noticed two trends in my writing that, while not alarming, merit some looking at.
The first is the article writing. I have less control over this one – it’s a change in the medium. While previously it was common to get an assignment with a month or more lead time to write an article of anywhere from 1-2000 words, or at least a standard 750-800 word one-page magazine column, the requests these days come in with less than a week until deadline, sometimes only a day or two, and seem to be for “feature” articles that don’t top 5-600 words, columns that only take half a page due to advertising, i.e.,, under 400 words, and perhaps alarmingly, those magazines that have an online presence have started asking for 30 second to 1 minute video summations that cover a topic to which before they would have devoted 3-4 pages of the magazine. Even venerable institutions like The New York Times (which I haven’t written for) started, a few years ago, having the restaurant critic record a 30-second video to highlight the key points of his restaurant reviews so that people didn’t have to read through the whole column. It’s the way of the world – sound bytes and attention deficit are in – verbosity, accuracy, and detail are out. A quick, witty opinion seems to matter more than a well-thought out, reasoned and engrossing piece.
The second relates to this blog, and here I do have some say. I can look back at when I first started it – I tended to write longer posts, often going off on tangents, exploring various subjects on ingredients or dishes that I found as I explored my new home here in Argentina. Critical, and if I may say so myself, sometimes witty looks at restaurants, or social mores, or government services were all fair game. And then the criticism started. I’d get e-mails from friends or family members telling me that while they were interested in what I was doing, they simply didn’t have the time in their day to spend reading one of my posts (I think the longest post I probably ever wrote wouldn’t take an average reader more than five minutes to read). I was accused of excessive verbosity, of not getting to the point, of, bluntly, going beyond my allotted sound-byte. I even recently had an exchange via e-mail with a regular reader who wrote me a couple of notes to inform me that my tendency to include information extraneous to restaurant reviews, such as descriptions of neighborhoods, comments about my life or why I happened to be engaged in one thing or another, or, simply, anything that wasn’t a direct note about the quality of the food and service in one restaurant or another, was exasperating for him because he actually had to read the post to find out what I thought about the restaurant – not to mention that sometimes my posts weren’t even about restaurants! I pointed out that this was never intended to be a restaurant review website. I don’t think that sat well with him. Hell, these are the same people who take the time to write me e-mails asking me for information on one subject or another, on a particular restaurant, or on my recommendations – generally stuff that’s already on the site, indexed over there in the right-hand column, or easily found by using the search feature over there as well – and expect me to spend the time giving them a personalized, detailed answer.
So here’s where things change. I’ve noticed that too many of my posts have become, without conscious intent, nothing more than simple fact reporting. Minimal detail, just the facts ma’am, in a word… at least for me… boring. And it’s apparent in my personal interest in the blog – I used to eagerly wake up ready to write about the previous day’s adventures while I sipped my morning coffee – now I find myself putting off writing, and then scrambling to write quick, lackluster pieces, just so no one thinks I went and disappeared. (I find that if I don’t post for about 48 hours I start getting irate and sometimes even threatening notes from people about how I’m depriving them.)
You heard it here first, not like you’d likely hear it anywhere else. I’m going back to writing, not noting. It’ll probably take me a little bit to get back in the swing of things, and it may mean, for a little while, fewer posts. But, hopefully, more in-depth, interesting and engaging posts that might actually provide some insight into the world around me rather than a list of ingredients that went into last night’s soup.