Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Literacy in the Multi-Media Age

A recent post by Cyclopeatron on the decline of the professional novelist has reflected many of my thoughts and fears about our changing society, which have been growing steadily over the past few years, and it has prompted me to discuss how electronic media may change, forever, the way that we read and even think. For centuries, books have been the traditional source of knowledge throughout the world, but they are being supplanted by multi-media sources and this process has occurred over a shockingly short period of time.

One of the most grievous changes, for me, is the demise of the independent book seller.  I've been an avid bookstore patron my whole life, and as recently as ten years ago these stores were still abundant.  My wife and I used to spend entire Saturday afternoons 'bookstore-hopping,' visiting the many independent bookstores around town, and I've spent many happy hours browsing the aisles of my favourite stores, each one catering to a slightly different specialty: we had stores that catered to children's books, to science and nature, and even general, non-specialized bookstores each had a slightly different focus that made them special.  They are gone now.  Every single one.  Replaced by the monolithic super-bookstores, namely Chapters and McNally Robinson, and even these giants have a tough go in the current market.  Chapters and McNally's branches having been closing steadily in Winnipeg until now there are just a couple left in a city of approximately 800,000 people.  I now have to drive at least for at least half an hour to get to one the few remaining bookstores in town and it's seldom worth the trip.  The stores are crowded and the variety of books is extremely limited - and it is this last that is so potentially damaging to the future of the publishing industry.

Because big, generic chains only stock the books most likely to sell quickly, publishers of niche books are less likely to find a retail outlet to carry their publications, and thus we are seeing a homogenization of literature; a growing culture of the 'bestseller.'  Obviously this is a bad thing for the diversity of thought and creative expression.

What about the internet?  While it is the greatest avenue for free expression in the history of humanity, and I'm a great fan of its potential, the very fact that anyone can effortlessly express their opinions is both a blessing and a curse.  As dissemination of information is increasingly co-opted by the internet there is far less rigour in weeding out the bullshit.  In a way, the internet is a cesspool of intellectual effluent - there's lots of great ideas out there, but its often difficult to distinguish them when they're floating in crap.  And, yes, I do appreciate the irony of the medium I am using to publish this essay and the parallels that will inevitably be drawn.

This is not to say that everything in print is reliable - far from it - one needs to read books just as critically as information on the net, but the fact that someone has to take the trouble to write something publishable and then convince someone to actually publish it cuts out a lot of the garbage because of the effort involved.  More to the point, though, I don't think people are as likely to read information on the internet critically.  We've become so accustomed to having instant access to information that few people question it or evaluate the source.  Case in point, a few months back, on the Troll Lord forums I took the trouble to clear up some misconceptions that people had about the word 'theory' and was told that I was an idiot who didn't know what I was talking about, evidence for which was a website that supported the poster's incorrect usage of the word.  So, fourteen years of post-secondary education followed by many years as a research scientist and instructor in this very topic was trumped by the uniformed opinion of someone who created a website.

One of the greatest benefits of modern media - instant access to information - is also its greatest weakness.  And here I, finally, get to the point of this post.  As a society we are bombarded with 'information-lite' factoids and sound bites.  The news media is especially guilty of this, but we have become such instant info junkies that we are perpetually 'connected' via wireless devices for immediate access to information at any time.  Not only has this decreased our credulity, but most people don't even take the time to properly read what they are seeing, nor to express themselves fully or coherently in their writing.  I predict that this will have a profound effect on the reading comprehension of future generations and their ability to express themselves.

Not only is the pace of information flow killing our literacy, but I believe that the very nature of the electronic medium is also a contributing factor.  More and more, people are reading electronic documents instead of hard copy and Kindles are becoming increasingly popular for reading e-books and digital media.  Even within the role playing game industry, products in PDF format are becoming increasingly common.  Now, how many people are able to read digital media with a high degree of comprehension?  In my profession I write, edit and review scientific papers on a frequent basis.  I perform several peer reviews per month for journals and I absolutely cannot attain the same level of comprehension reading a PDF as with hard copy.  When I write a manuscript, even after having read it on the screen many times, as soon as I print off a hard copy, mistakes immediately leap off the page that I had never seen before.  I'm sure that I'm not the only person that has a hard time reading electronic documents.

So people in contemporary society are being hit by a double whammy in our rapidly changing literary culture: the pace of information flow, which is so fast that few people take the time to properly read things anymore, coupled with the difficulty our brains seem to have in processing information in digital format.

I fear that the pervasive influence of digital media not only affects our reading comprehension, but also the way we think, and organize and articulate those thoughts.  Children who grow up in a digital environment, permanently bonded to their cell-phones at an early age, may find that their brains develop in a completely different way than those of older generations, and they may find that they process information in a completely different manner.  I've noticed the effect that text-messaging has had on the younger generation; they use text-speak even when they aren't texting.  Text-speak is, in my opinion, the height of intellectual laziness and there is absolutely no excuse for using it when not text-messaging.  I suspect that if you fall into that sort of laziness at an early age you will never break free of it, and never be able to express thoughts in a sophisticated and articulate manner.

Consider this, then, the eulogy for my way of life.  Books aren't just an information medium, they embody a sense of permanence that no pixels on a screen can ever match; you will never be able to caress the leather binding of your PDF files, nor smell the pages of a Kindle.  Books are my life, and I fear that they are on their way to extinction.

This has been an unusual post for a game blog, but I felt that it was relevant because most gamers, particularly those of the old school breed, are bibliophiles as well.  We came into gaming through our love of books, and many old school blogs devote a great deal of time discussing the pulp fantasy roots of our hobby.  But games, too, are succumbing to the digital age.  I need only nod to 4E to make this point.  This is a game that WotC has deliberately designed to capitalize upon digital media.  The rules are set up to become an online game, and their D&D Insider subscription promised access to a digital game table to play D&D online.  I foresee a future where sitting around a game table with friends, rolling polyhedral dice, admiring beautiful, hand-painted miniatures, and smudging nacho cheese on our character sheets will be a quaint oddity of a bygone age.  I sincerely hope, though, that I don't live to see it.


Shane Mangus said...

Well said. Once again you have proven to me that we are very much kindred spirits. I would like to believe that as long as the world has folks (like us) who won't just shut-up and go away then there is still hope for the things we love, like pesky ol' books.

As long as I breath air into my lungs there will be such things as archaic forms of entertainment, like sitting around a table with friends, telling stories and rolling dice to help spice those stories up. And the world will be a better place because of it.

This is why it is so important for people like us to take the time to create a legacy, and teach younger generations the importance of the written word and the power of thinking independently. Teach them the simple joys of life away from technology.

History is being revised everyday (look at the textbook debacle in Texas for a small example), and no one seems to give two shits. No one wants to get involved. It is hard not to get pessimistic about the whole ordeal, and wonder if this planet needs a cataclysmic event to set the World of Man aright again.

bliss_infinte said...

Enjoyed the post and this topic dialogue. Not much to add except I'm right there with you. I plan on sitting around the table face to face for a long time and reading me books.

One planet cataclysm and digital is out the window.

Sean Robson said...

Thanks for the support, guys, I'm glad I'm not the only one raging against the machine. I'm told so often that 'print is dead,' and to 'get with the times,' that I begin to feel like some sort of modern day Quixote, tilting at computers.

If anyone were to ask me, "what is best in life," my answer would be: "A comfortable chair, a good book, and a fresh pot of coffee." That beats the hell out of listening to the lamentation women any day of the week!

As for a global cataclysm: bring it on, baby, we're long past due! I love the ending of Escape From L.A., when Snake triggers a global EMP then looks at the camera and says: "Welcome to the human race." Best ending ever.

nextautumn said...

As a bookseller (almost 20 years now) and an incurable bibliophile, I share your dread. But there is a lot more going on here. If you're interested, I recommend:

-Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption by Laura Miller

-Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future by Jason Epstein

-The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control by Ted Striphas

-On the Commerce of Thinking: Of Books & Bookstores by Jean-Luc Nancy

My sincere hope (and sometimes my belief) is that the demise of the chains, coupled with radical changes in publishing and distribution, will have 2 positive outcomes:

1.The (professional) Publishing industry will return to a smaller, more reasonable, more sustainable scale. Less profitable perhaps, but healthier.

2.Independent bookstores will come back.

I don't think the ereaders will be around for long. My iphone is a better ereader than most of them, and if size is an issue there's the ipad - which, people will eventually figure out, is basically a small computer. Computers didn't replace books; neither will the ereaders or the ipad.

But that's just one man's opinion. As usual,the people will determine the outcome by how they choose to spend their money. So...next time you think about ordering online, take a good, hard look at that cheap price, and ask yourself, "Is it worth it?"

Jeff Rients said...

Excellent post, but I can't help myself: was it evolution or climate change that was being discussed at the Troll Lords?

I share nextautumn's hope that book publishing will someday realign into a more reasonable model for success. In a way, the book publishers seem to have fallen into the same trap as banking: the shareholder driven focus on short term profits and accelerating growth has led everyone in the industry to forget the fundamental virtues of the enterprise.

Sean Robson said...

@Nextautumn: I'm glad to see that there are still some independent booksellers out there - you are a dying breed, and I mourn the passing every day. Thanks very much for suggesting the titles for further reading. I realize that my analysis was shallow, and I do understand that that, as you mention, there is a lot more going on - my thinking was that you'd need to write a book to cover the subject thoroughly - apparently you need to write several.

I'll try to check some of these out.

@Jeff: to be honest, I can't even remember what the discussion was about - probably evolution. But referring to anything as "just a theory" is one of my pet peeves and I always feel compelled to chime in when I see it. The message forum incident prompted me to post an essay on the topic on my natural history blog: http://loredeposits.wordpress.com/2009/12/23/just-a-theory/

Anyway, I share your dreams for the collapse of chain stores and a return to small independent bookstores, but I'm not optimistic. However, the benefit of being a pessimist is that all surprises are pleasant!

nextautumn said...


Believe me, your analysis was anything but shallow, and I apologize if I inferred that it was; I actually enjoyed reading it a lot, and thought it was quite thoughtful and perceptive.

Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I'm not actually an independent bookseller (like everyone else these days, I work for one of the chains) - but I hope to be someday soon:-)

And this, Jeff:

"In a way, the book publishers seem to have fallen into the same trap as banking: the shareholder driven focus on short term profits and accelerating growth has led everyone in the industry to forget the fundamental virtues of the enterprise."

Is spot on.

Sean Robson said...

Believe me, your analysis was anything but shallow, and I apologize if I inferred that it was

Not at all! I greatly appreciate your thoughtful comments, and didn't infer any criticism whatsoever.

When I said the analysis was shallow I meant that due to time constraints I hadn't plumbed the depths of the issue as well as I would have liked. There were other issues that I wanted to discuss, but due to the late hour, I decided to cut it short. I'm sorry if I led you to believe you had caused offense.

Thanks again for your kind words.

Joshua said...

I disagree. I've never seen so many independent booksellers in my life.

However, they are mostly internet stores rather than brick and mortar.

But I have never had the capability of easily finding and acquiring rare and/or out of print books, or indie books, as I do now. It's just a click and a few bucks away from one of thousands of Amazon independent sellers.

I do miss the days of browsing, which is more difficult without a brick and mortar environment, but that's a relatively minor complaint given the fact that I can now easily find stuff that I would never have even known existed before the age of internet commerce.