Is the Internet compatible with what was once termed "the life of the mind"? Or do changing technologies demand transformations in the habits of contemplation and attention that have made possible particular kinds of intellectual life?
In the journal n+1, Benjamin Kunkel discusses three books that explore these questions (Naomi S. Baron, "Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World"; Henry Jenkins, "Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide"; Lee Siegel, "Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob"). While these authors' concerns are social, economic, and technological, Kunkel's interest lies in the personal experience of thinking, reading, and writing online.
"No logical reason exists why you couldn't be a thorough reader of both Proust and Gawker," he writes; "or couldn't exchange, by snail-mail, long, unbosoming letters with the same friend with whom you trade ticklishly glib text messages."
Trouble is, the Internet manifests itself as an object of compulsion, even addiction. "An inability to log off is hardly the most destructive habit you could acquire," he adds, "but it seems unlikely there is any more widespread compulsion among the professional middle-class and their children than lingering online."
Like many of us, Kunkel celebrates the amusement, wonder, and surprise that the Internet brings to his desktop, even as he challenges us to think through the cognitive challenges the medium presents to serious contemplation. To think online, he seems to suggest, we need to learn new ways of sustaining attention and cultivating imagination.
Perhaps we can learn to shape our own thoughts online; the prospects for the future of the book, however, seem much less susceptible to control. Princeton University Press director Peter J. Dougherty worries (in the current Chronicle of Higher Education) about the future of academic publishing, once the bastion of "hard ideas." To renew the vigor of academic publishing, Dougherty argues, the university presses must do more than start blogs and explore new media like ebooks and print-on-demand technology.
Dougherty exhorts the university presses to undertake a fourfold renewal of the life of the mind: publish more books from the cutting edge of the professions; reclaim textbook publishing from the commercial press; offer books that appeal to a global readership; find ways to bring the life of the academy – the lectures, symposia, and seminars where knowledge is vetted – into published books. The form these books take – in print or pixels – matters less than the kinds of minds they engage.
I'm sure Dougherty knows that much of the renaissance he pines for is already happening on the Internet, university presses or no. The challenge for everyone attracted to "hard ideas" is this: Will the kind of online mental hygiene Kunkel envisions prove compatible with the kind of twittery, flickering attention one needs to cultivate in order to find good thoughts on the Internet?