Steve Jobs recently compared the shift from desktop to mobile computers to the shift from trucks to cars. You could maybe say something similar about the future of physical books compared to other kinds of media. The older forms don’t go away, but they become more specialized, and the relationships between them become different, as our lifestyles change.
Again. You could argue that the arguments we have about the cognitive effect of reading for the web are largely a replay of the upheaval surrounding mass urbanization at the turn of the century. Continuing our Metropolis theme, pull up Georg Simmel’s 1903 essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life” [PDF]. (Simmel’s German word is “Grosstadt,” which literally means “big city”; Lang deliberately used the slightly stranger, Greek-derived word to make his city feel different.) Simmel saw big cities as a tremendous economic and informational engine that fundamentally transformed human personality:
Lasting impressions, the slightness in their differences, the habituated regularity of their course and contrasts between them, consume, so to speak, less mental energy than the rapid telescoping of changing images, pronounced differences within what is grasped at a single glance, and the unexpectedness of violent stimuli. To the extent that the metropolis creates these psychological conditions - with every crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life - it creates in the sensory foundations of mental life, and in the degree of awareness necessitated by our organization as creatures dependent on differences, a deep contrast with the slower, more habitual, more smoothly flowing rhythm of the sensory-mental phase of small town and rural existence.
And cognitive scientists have actually begun empirically verifying Simmel’s armchair psychology. And whenever I read anything about the web rewiring our brains, foretelling immanent disaster, I’ve always thought, geez, people — we live in cities! Our species has evolved to survive in every climate and environment on dry land. Our brains can handle it!
But I thought of this again this morning when a 2008 Wilson Quarterly article about planner/engineer Hans Monderman, titled “The Traffic Guru,” popped up in my Twitter feed. (I can’t even remember where it came from. Who knows why older writing just begins to recirculate again? Without warning, it speaks to us more, or differently.)
The idea that made Monderman, who died of cancer in January at the age of 62, most famous is that traditional traffic safety infrastructure—warning signs, traffic lights, metal railings, curbs, painted lines, speed bumps, and so on—is not only often unnecessary, but can endanger those it is meant to protect…
Traffic engineers, in Monderman’s view, helped to rewrite [towns] with their signs and other devices. “In the past in our villages,” Monderman said, “you could read the street in the village as a good book.” Signs advertising a school crossing were unnecessary, because the presence of a school and children was obvious. “When you removed all the things that made people know where they were, what they were a part of, and when you changed it into a uniform world,” he argued, “then you have to explain things.”
In other words, information overload, and the substitution of knowledge for wisdom. Sound familiar?
I’ll just say I remain unconvinced. We’ve largely gotten rid of pop-up ads, flashing banners, and the <blink> tag on the web. I’m sure can trim back some of the extra text and lights in our towns and cities. We’re versatile creatures. Just give us time. Meanwhile, let’s read some more Simmel:
[These changes] reveal themselves as one of those great historical structures in which conflicting life-embracing currents find themselves with equal legitimacy. Because of this, however, regardless of whether we are sympathetic or antipathetic with their individual expressions, they transcend the sphere in which a judge-like attitude on our part is appropriate. To the extent that such forces have been integrated, with the fleeting existence of a single cell, into the root as well as the crown of the totality of historical life to which we belong - it is our task not to complain or to condone but only to understand.