Mayer, Race and the Decline of Reading

It's been interesting to observe the fallout from John Mayer's interview with Playboy. As both of my regular readers will be aware, I'm a Mayer fan, and have read nothing to make me change my mind about the man or his music. Nor was I particularly surprised that the combustible combination of wit, intelligence and an addiction to flying close to the edge in conversation would eventually blow up in his face. What has become worth noting, though, is the afterlife of the interview, and what it says about the way we're accessing and engaging with information.

In an email interview with the LA Times' Ann Powers, Rob Tannenbaum, the journalist who conducted the Playboy interview with Mayer, hints at how Twitter has played a part in knocking all the complexities off Mayer's comments and reducing them to repugnant headline soundbites. He extemporises on the riff in a piece for The Daily Beast, which is as highly recommended as his conflab with Powers, and the original Q and A. 

Tannenbaum isn't the first to bemoan and adroitly analyse the tendency of speed to trump meaning as online media deals in exchanges of ever shorter, sharper blurts. And Twitter's defenders are surely already tired of pointing out that it was never intended as a forum for richly detailed debate. But this is an issue that's bigger than any one communications tool: the only thing that's giving the "racist" argument any legs is people's apparent inability to read and understand stuff properly any more. 

Partly this is about sensory overload and what I suspect is a technology-fuelled lack of patience. It's clear from just looking at the Twitter feeds of people I follow (not, I freely admit, a scientific sampling) that many folks are in the habit of watching TV while using either the laptop or smartphone to provide a sort of free-associative running commentary. While this does not make them evil or bad people, it does suggest that they're not really concentrating fully on the TV (which, most of the time, is proof that they are in fact sane and rational people, given that so much TV is so unbelievably bad). I do it myself, not often but sufficiently to feel slightly bored when I don't have something else to turn my attention to during the advert breaks during 24 or in boring passages of Newcastle matches. Paying only passive attention isn't enough any more. 

Problem is, I think this is what we do when we read, too. We're becoming incapable of concentrating long enough to read a 6000-word Q and A and retain the overall sense of the conversational flow. Our neural pathways have rerouted themselves; we need constant stimulation and diversion, we need to reach out and make links and find connections, and we have to follow them, or signpost them for others. While there are manifold benefits from being an engaged consumer of media (and manifold challenges for people who make things we traditionally engage with passively - TV, principally, but film, too), there are times when interaction is just distraction - when the burgeoning need to delve into and rearrange the guts of the work at hand gets in the way of absorbing and understanding it, which is what you came to it for in the first place.

UPDATE: Another piece connected to this saga that's also very well worth reading. Properly. 


Really enjoyed reading this blog.

posted by: Emma: 3 Mar, 2010 04:17:37

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