Maybe the Dumbest Generation Came Before Us

– many people have a tree growing in their heads but the brain itself is much more grass than tree – deleuze and guattari – a thousand plateaus – 17 –

Recently I’ve been trying to make my way through Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation (2008), but now…I’ve given up. I just couldn’t face it. As part of my research I’ve been collecting people’s accounts of resistance to reading on screen from blog posts, newspaper articles, conversations etc., and I thought that Bauerlein’s work would provide me with some interesting anecdotes for my research, on the assumption that the plural of “anecdote” is sometimes, if you’re lucky, “data.”

From the first few pages, The Dumbest Generation smacks of the worst kind of get-off-my-lawn resistance to change, and Bauerlein often bashes “pro-technology” commentators, as if the printed book reading that he exalts somehow wasn’t a technology itself. But I was kind of expecting this, it’s the rhetoric which sells these kinds of books (see also Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur). I was fairly shocked, however, by the large number of studies that Bauerlein cites, about literacy, language skills, and cultural engagement in America, which seem to report huge drops in quality (of various measures) whilst completely neglecting to take into account the effects of increasing numbers of non-native English speakers joining the country over the course of the sometimes decades long data collection. He mourns that only “one in 10 [18-24 year olds] attended a jazz performance [in the last year], and one in 12 attended a classical music performance. Only 2.6 percent of them saw a ballet, 11.4 percent a play…One in 40 played a classical musical instrument…” (p24). But, it seems like these are (with the exception of jazz) (a) cultural activities associated (rightly or wrongly) with the heritage of the white middle classes and (b) (often including jazz) expensive pursuits. Maybe less young people in America (in the absence of data from other countries) do see less ballet or classical music now, but what of the rise of Salsa or Mariachi; of ethnic, artisanal, and slow food movements; of live (increasingly esoteric) popular music; or a few hundred other more diversely cultured pursuits? And what about the growing division between the disposable wealth of an ever expanding poor and the middle classes, couldn’t this also impact on these particular forms of cultural participation?

Again, maybe I should have expected such data analysis. The broad brushstrokes of these kinds of interpretation aren’t designed for sustained attention or interrogation, they’re for telling people who already hold certain opinions about the state of a nation, or a generation, or a cultural product that their views are well founded. Selling people’s prejudices back to them can be brutally efficient.

But I digress. I mostly hated Bauerlein’s book because I couldn’t finish the damn thing (I went through anger, which kept me reading, to boredom, which couldn’t). Rather, I hated that, for a second, it seemed like I was bearing out his thesis: that, as a member of the digital generation, I was unable to concentrate on sustained linear arguments due to the hypnotic and anaesthetising effects of “the screen” (Bauerlein talks a lot about “the screen”).

All of this got me thinking about the kind of data such writers cite when disparaging the abilities of anyone under 30 (subtitle of The Dumbest Generation: “or, don’t trust anyone under 30,” no joke). Take the “f-shape” reading that I’m apparently meant to employ when I read online: when faced with a screen rather than a book I won’t read in neat lines, I’ll read the first line or two, just the start of the next few, then maybe have a dig through half of the next few lines, and then go back to just looking at the first words until I hit the bottom of the page (the eye-tracking software that captures this kind of reading reports this data back as the f-shape).

So, is this how I read? Yes! All the time. I skim maybe two or three hundred articles a day if my RSS is clogged, maybe 50 emails, and 500 or more tweets (and I paired down who I was following to get to that). Most of this content doesn’t even get an f-shape, more an equals sign, a title and a blitz of the first couple of lines. But this doesn’t mean that I’m a drooling, clicking, screen-sapped victim of technology, it means that I go to all of those things to dig out information, and that they’re an imperfect source of it, at least as far as my interests lie. I’ve learnt to filter an RSS feed of 300 items in half an hour, cutting out the irrelevant (from my perspective) and bookmarking the potentially enlightening. That, for me, is a new skill and it keeps me up-to-date with roughly what’s going on in the major stories of the world, and in the worlds of the things that particularly interest me, and it also provides access to a relative diversity of opinion on each subject. It’s not perfect (I know because it’s getting slightly better all the time), but it’s the best system I’ve found.

The “real” (read: “traditional”) reading, however, is interspersed with the hunting, or comes later, when I read books (on screen and off), and I read those book-marked RSS finds (with relative degrees of intensity), and sometimes I can’t help but read something as soon as I find it, and what mostly manifests is linear progression. Why? Because what I’ve found, to me, is interesting. For no other reason does my eye track each line onward, one at a time. I’ve just finished reading a collection of writing on Husserl, a paper on the neuropsychology of gripping objects, an article about a comic book series, and an unpublished short story, all on screen, and I read every word because they were fascinating. But someone else, someone who couldn’t care less about Husserl or my taste in fiction, would have f-shaped them into oblivion in the absence of something which truly gripped them.

Leaving aside whether we would have preferred them to scan material we might consider more elucidating, I wonder how many teenagers, the dumbest generation after all, just flipped through Twilight (or Harry Potter, or any book that catches their attention) rather than reading every page? If they read it on a Kindle or an iPad did they pay less attention, or did they remain rapt, learning every scene well enough to complain at what the film scripts left out? In short: does any screen have the power to make something which grips you lose that grip?

The mistake that Bauerlein, and a thousand other commentators make is that a big lump of printed prose is not an inherently good thing in of itself. If people are reading things poorly, or reading poor things, then we have bigger problems than the existence of screens, and it’s to these wider issues that we should (we must) turn. If readers are just skimming the surface of words they choose to turn to, and only skimming (because skimming isn’t the end of the world in an information rich environment, it’s a necessity on the path to finding quality content), then there needs to be both in-school education of how to read in multiple ways in such a space, and compelling content needs to be produced.

Something that never seems to come up in the denigration of the new generation’s reading habits is what it says about where they came from, that when faced with the largest repository of human knowledge and creations ever conceived of they choose to select materials out of the morass that the past generation, its progenitors, feel is beneath them? In a world where the internet archive exists and yet people watch grainy re-runs of tired shows on youtube maybe we need to ask questions of the society, what it has valued, and what values it passes on, rather than saying screens are corrupting our children (or our adults). This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t enjoy our time online in whichever fashion we choose, that the latest memes are worthless or to be avoided, that you shouldn’t enjoy the media which gives you pleasure, guilty or not. But everyone asks, at least once in a while, whether what they consume is sufficient, whether they could be improving themselves with other content, and is it really the sheer numbness of the screen which makes us ask such questions? Or is their still some flicker from our education, from our culture more broadly that makes us wonder what we could be missing out on? Surely the more interesting challenge is how to amplify that flicker, rather than how we can get people away from a screen which, after all, as with radio or television, or even books, can present the best or worst of what our species has to offer, more or less at our request.

If people are going to keep being asked to publish books on the problems with our cultural productions then I’d like to see more of these missing arguments, arguing why people might turn to certain things, arguing for the provision of quality materials, arguing for why they’re quality, and arguing convincingly, continually. We need that flicker in our midst to send us down the new paths that the screen has enabled us to follow. If readers are skimming everything they come across then maybe what they’re been guided to isn’t doing a good enough job, maybe it’s not holding their attention, not because it’s too hard, too complex, too challenging, but because it’s saying nothing new, nothing compelling, nothing challenging at all.

Maybe that’s why some things get skimmed, maybe that’s why some books just don’t get finished.

reposted with permission from 4oh4 – Words Not Found


  1. Mike Cane5 June, 2011

    It’s odd that, given your own admission for skimming, you would put so many words into that. And I did read them, not skim.

    Jazz performance? Eh. Cab Callaoway did a freebie in front of Macy’s one Xmas season. Ballet? Never, although I might have seen a few minutes of PBS once. Play a classical instrument? Never. I was a spaz at trying guitar. So I’m a harbinger of the downfall of America? No. I think those “guests” on Maury’s show every day are.

    1. Mike Cane5 June, 2011

      That should have been *on* PBS, not of. I’m a rotten proofreader.

  2. Matt Hayler5 June, 2011

    @Mike Cane – hmmm, true, just set me thinking I guess. Plus I hate not finishing books so maybe I needed to explain to the world why I put it down! Some kind of bibliokarmic repentance?

    And yeah, I don’t go and see “good” culture enough, but I do my best to attend great “bad” culture wherever possible!

  3. Sweetpea6 June, 2011

    Who defines what is good culture and what is bad culture? Cultures evolve. Even jazz is only about 100 years old. How dare he compare that to the true classical music that is over 200 years old!

    And about the ways people these days consume information, there too has been an evolution. First you only had a few learned people who told everything by word of mouth, then reference books started appearing, and much later the computer. Originally, it was very difficult to get new information, with the book this became more easy and these days it’s very easy. Naturally, you need another way of taking that information in, or you’ll be overwhelmed.

  4. Rich Adin6 June, 2011

    Alas, there is no particular value to any particular way of “reading” — onscreen, on paper, audio, whatever. The value of reading is the information parted and retained. If the information is accurate, correct, true, reliable, then it has value.

    Cultural events present another social paradox. The artificial divide in music, for example — jazz, classical, rock, rap, etc. — is just that — artificial. Some of the hit songs of the 1960s, as an example, were the putting of 1960s words to classical music and changing the beat. J.S. Bach was the music composer for a major hit by The Toys. The Beatles often incorporated classical music in their compositions. And dance — well ballet means many things, including the gyrations of Sam Cooke and Elvis Presley on stage.

    If you have ever listended to more than one rock song from the 1960s, you have listened to Jazz, as many “jazz” pieces were “rock” hits — let’s not forget Herb Alpert, Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz, Santana, or perhaps the biggest of them all, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five.

    It isn’t that generations are dumber; it is that generations are lazier — the rise of the Twit language, the need to communicate in short impersonal bits and bytes, the fact that two people can be in the same room separated by 3 feet of open space yet communicate by texting is the real problem. Books like “The Dumbest Generation” are simply ways to make money, not ways to reveal any intelligence.


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