So last millennium

by John Quiggin on April 18, 2004

Following up on Brian’s post, I looked at this much-linked piece by Camille Paglia, and was struck by its dated references to television and the 60s[1]. She goes on to talk about computers, but apparently sees the computer as nothing more than a turbocharged TV set. This impelled me to dig out a piece I wrote nearly ten years ago, making the point that far from privileging visual media, the computer, and particularly the Internet are contributing to a new golden age of text. Blogs weren’t thought of when I wrote this piece, but the argument anticipates them, I think.

fn1. Oddly enough, although the main argument is a restatement of positions that were familiar 50 years ago, the piece is full of references to the young, as though the current generation of young adults has been, in some way, more saturated in TV than were the baby booomers.

The Coming Golden Age of Text

The recent explosion of interest in the ‘information superhighway’ has spawned renewed predictions of the demise of text-based culture. Some prophets of the multimedia future such as Nicholas Negroponte, welcome this development, though expressing regret that literate people over thirty will effectively be disenfranchised from the new culture. Others, like Dale Spender express alarm that women, having finally gained broadly equal access to text-based culture, will be excluded from the new computer-based centres of power and influence. But at no time since the heyday of Marshall McLuhan has there been such a consensus that text is on the way out.

In reality, the explosive growth of the Internet, and particularly its most recent manifestation, the World Wide Web, holds out the promise of a new golden age of text. The very vocabulary of the Web tells the story. The starting point for Web exploration is a Home Page, from which you use a program, called a browser, to explore other pages. Bookmarks are used to keep track of your favorite pages. Everywhere, metaphors from the world of text abound.

Many of these pages contain graphics. The best of them can resemble a medieval manuscript, the worst a hastily flung together ‘coffee-table’ book. But in the vast majority of cases the text is primary. The graphical capacities of the computer network have the potential to liberate text from the grey conventions of industrial-era printing, and make reading a sensuously appealing experience. But it is still text.

There are basic economic reasons for this. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in computer terms it takes up the same space as a hundred thousand. The cost difference is even more dramatic with video. A few minutes of talking head video, with perhaps two hundred words of information content, can take up the same space (and require the same transmission time) as an entire book. Over time, the steady reduction in the cost of computing and communications will erode the importance of this factor. But for some years to come, the time-lag associated with downloading images will discourage msot Internet users from visiting pages consisting primarily of pictures.

Differences in the cost of producing material will be more durable. A single minute of an average Hollywood movie costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce. Even with the cost reductions offered by computer technology, the production of video at anything above home movie standard requires lots of time, technical skill and expensive equipment. For the past forty years or so, the high cost of producing video has been offset by the availability of cheap and instantaneous distribution through broadcast and cable TV networks. There is already more channel capacity than there is worthwhile content to fill it. The advent of the information superhighway will not change this. Its most alluring promise, as far as video is concerned, appears to be the capacity to dial up our favorite episodes of Leave it to Beaver or Gilligan’s Island whenever we choose.

By contrast, the Internet makes a huge difference to the distribution of text, by liberating it from the confines of print. Already, bulky, inaccessible and often out-of-date reference volumes have been replaced by instant on-line access to databases. An academic journal process that took a couple of years to publish articles is being supplanted by a preprint distribution network that takes seconds. This process is now extending to popular culture. Instead of waiting a week for Time magazine to appear in print, you can now browse through its pages on a daily basis. The gains for Australians who face a lag of weeks or months in getting access to most publications from Europe or North America, are even greater.

More fundamentally, text, unlike video, is an inherently nonlinear medium. A book or a newspaper can be skimmed or browsed, read in many different orders. But the nonlinearity of text has been constrained by the limitations of print. The academic article, with its array of footnotes, cross-references and citations is an elaborate attempt to surmount these problems. The World Wide Web and other innovations offer the potential of ‘hypertext’ (the term is due to computer visionary Ted Nelson, and the basic technology of the Web is called Hypertext Markup Language). While reading a page on, say, Nelson Mandela, you can jump to a description of the main tribal groupings in South Africa or on cultural changes in the townships. Then, if you are sufficiently disciplined you can return to the original page. Alternatively, you can wander off into pages on world music or anthropology (with sound and maybe video clips, but still organised around text).

Nothing like this is feasible with video. A string of loosely connected video clips makes, at best, a music video or an art film and, at worst, a mess. Admittedly, the best multimedia artworks can give the viewer a feeling of free movement while maintaining some degree of coherence. But the effort involved in constructing such works is immense, and the freedom of movement is illusory compared to that of hypertext.

Will all of this be for boys only, as Dale Spender fears ? I doubt it. The male orientation of computer culture, particularly at school level, reflects partly male values of mastery over complex technology and partly the computer-as-video-game syndrome.

But the need for technical prowess in using a computer has virtually disappeared. Since the advent of the Macintosh, and its more popular imitation, Windows, we no longer see the articles (mostly by women) on the theme ‘I bought this PC but I can’t make it work’ that abounded in newspapers and magazines a few years ago. The Internet, long the playground of arcane Unix wizards, has taken a little longer to open up, but the World Wide Web is now accessible to all.

Boys will undoubtedly continue to dominate the computer game scene. But skill at blasting aliens in Doom does not translate into much of value in the wider world. Indeed, the lack of fit between the male culture typified by video games and an increasingly text-based and information-based society is part of the reason why boys are doing so much worse than girls at school. When it comes to actually using computers to do something useful, the male advantage is eroding fast.



Jacques Distler 04.18.04 at 3:15 am

There is one evolutionary pressure that you haven’t mentioned that decisively favours text: … Google.

Put a three minute video of talking heads onto the web, and it will disappear like a drop in the ocean. Put up a transcript, or a good summary (either alongside, or instead of the video), and it will be indexed and found by people searching for related information.

There is not a good automated way to index video (or even still images, though Google is trying to do the latter) so if you want your content to be seen/read, there’s strong bias towards text.

I don’t see that changing anytime soon.


Bernard Yomtov 04.18.04 at 3:27 am

Paglia’s point is?


John Quiggin 04.18.04 at 3:33 am

The article was written well before the rise of Google and other search engines – although it doesn’t specifically anticipate technical developments, I think it stands up pretty well.


arthur 04.18.04 at 3:54 am

“But skill at blasting aliens in Doom does not translate into much of value in the wider world.”

An intriguing example of the professor’s fallacy. You consider the “wider world” to be the academy, where shooting isn’t much use. In the armed forces, by contrast, aiming weapons accurately has a real value. Reality check: many more boys are going to join the armeed forces than will become college professors. For that matter, success in the armed forces is more important to many employers than success in college; and computer/blogging skills are worse than useless for the vast majority of jobs.


John Quiggin 04.18.04 at 4:08 am

“success in the armed forces is more important to many employers than success in college; and computer/blogging skills are worse than useless for the vast majority of jobs.”

I’d be interested to see evidence for these claims. There are quite a few statistical studies finding little significant difference between the earnings of veterans and non-veterans. By contrast, there are few findings in labour economics that are better established than the existence of a large wage premium for college graduates even after correction for pre-existing differences.


jacob 04.18.04 at 10:20 am

Arthur–I’d also be curious to see evidence that being able to shoot well in Doom translates at all to being able to shoot a real gun at a real person. After all, the interfaces are rather different (trigger/keyboard), as are the psychological differences (actual death/a computer game). (Never mind all the things you do in the armed forces that don’t involve shooting at people.) It seems a stretch to me that being a good player of Doom makes you a good soldier.


sacha 04.18.04 at 2:19 pm

‘I’d also be curious to see evidence that being able to shoot well in Doom translates at all to being able to shoot a real gun at a real person.’

Actually, this is one of the few things most studies concerning video games actually agree upon. Almost any player of video games – while he/she may not be immediately comfortable with the feeling of an actual firearm – will nevertheless have developed exceedingly quick reaction times, as well as other skills associated with marksmanship, such as target acquisition and leading a target.

As for shooting a real person, as opposed to merely measures of marksmanship, that of course, falls into the domain of studies that wildly disagree.

To return to the main thread, however, I find Paglia’s gripings to be simply a general rehash that almost every new medium has had upon its inception – be it jazz, comic books, role playing games, movies, and so on. The only difference she seems to make is that she lumps them all together.

And, I am inclined to agree with the above article, if for no other reason then I can read much faster then my ultimately better read parents, simply due to the huge amount of text which I digest on a daily basis.


John Marshall 04.18.04 at 3:01 pm

I read nothing in Paglia’s lecture which dismissed computers and web-based media “as nothing more than a turbocharged TV set.” Indeed she points out the opposite; “my commitment to the Web as a new frontier is unshaken.” Her argument seems to be more of a warning that the fractured, transitory nature of a visually biased media may be undermining our ability to understand the importance of context, chronology and scholarly authority in interpreting our cultural heritage.


Martin Wisse 04.18.04 at 4:46 pm

If I can make a meta-complaint about Paglia’s essay:

I don’t know whether the points she make are well thought out or not, sensible or not, because the essay itself is such a mishmash. Paragraphs seem to have no logical connection with each other, it is full of generalisations (“the youth” “youths today” etc) and seems to repeat itself. It is such a slog to get through that I gave up after having read maybe a third of it. It is also overtly long.

Now there is probably no correlation between having good, interesting ideas and being able to present them well, but for somebody to bemoan the loss of text as she seems to do while not being able to write well, is ironic.


Ophelia Benson 04.18.04 at 5:24 pm

Yeah, Martin.

That’s a gripe I’ve always had with Paglia. I think all her work is badly over-rated, not just this article, and for just that reason. She may have some interesting ideas but she can’t write or argue worth a damn. She just asserts everything, as baldly as possible. One flat assertion after another, for 500 pages. No thanks.


bryan 04.18.04 at 5:36 pm

“She just asserts everything, as baldly as possible. One flat assertion after another, for 500 pages.”
Camille Paglia invented the interweb.


MQ 04.18.04 at 6:32 pm

In fairness to Paglia, she is arguing that the non-linearity of internet text is exactly the problem. She argues that it reinforces the lessening of attention span and the loss of patience for complex, involved narratives or logical arguments. Not sure if I agree, but at least something to think about.

Paglia does indeed write nothing but sweeping assertions, but if they are interesting and fertile that is not a terrible thing.


MQ 04.18.04 at 6:34 pm

P.S. on last post — the reason I don’t agree that non-linearity in internet text necessarily reduces patience for narrative is that one can see long threads of narrative argument played out between blogs, sometimes for weeks and over dozens of total posts.


Ophelia Benson 04.18.04 at 7:47 pm

“Paglia does indeed write nothing but sweeping assertions, but if they are interesting and fertile that is not a terrible thing.”

Well, I think it is, or at least a not very good thing. The ideas seem interesting and fertile at first and then after awhile they start to seem just arbitrary and unsupported, and one stops paying attention. At least I do, and I don’t think that’s a peculiar reaction. There is a reason we were all asked to back up our assertions when writing exams and papers in school, etc. Was Paglia home sick that decade, or what?


des 04.19.04 at 11:17 am

But Paglia is performing the Ancient and Traditional “kids today” ritual, and even the neoest of phytes knows that the ancient and noble “kids today” ritual is not under any circumstances to be contaminated by evidence or reasoned argument!

(I am so very sophisticated that I haven’t even bothered to read the piece. Go, InterWebNet!)

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