There is nothing terrifically new here, though. Neil Postman decried television’s numbing and dumbing effect in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” in the 80s. If only kids had the time and inclination to read deeply they would be able to recall more facts about culturally importance events. If only they set down the cell phone and remote they would be able to recall the major players in World War II. If only they stopped text messaging they might grasp the compact beauty of poetry. If only…
I’m reminded of my first encounter with Goethe or Bellow or Pynchon, where the notion that writing could be more than just the transparent conveyance of a storyline first started to fixate in my youthful mind. I certainly hope that young people get to encounter the art of writing that is skillfully great, whether in prose, poetry or even information design.
I should also wave my hand over my copies of Claude Levi-Strauss, Jane Jacobs, Jung, Heinz Pagels, Chomsky, Jacob Bronowsky, Hillary Putnam, David Chalmers, Doug Hofstadter, Pinker, Dennett, and a myriad other popularizers and integrators of complex social and scientific ideas. There is equal artfulness in integrating disparate facts and ideas into a cohesive view that lends itself to the successive narration of chapter upon chapter.
But I would like to suggest that far too many of the latter are quaintly wrong or irrelevant today as science has unfolded further. They were derived from abduction over limited new facts to cover murky unknowns and were therefore largely doomed to factual attack as the murk was clarified by new experiments, observations and theory. Even their very narrative structure is subject to examination in that it forces the alignment of multiple research paradigms into a single narrative thread that always serves to reinforce the central thesis, regardless of how many other implications arise that fall outside the narrative flow.
In some ways it is the scientific research paper that serves as perhaps the best example of how ideas can be expressed with the maximum respect for the limitations of understanding because they force an exceptional economy on the narrative to avoid speculation, or at least to provide speculation without substituting narration for fully supported propositional constructs.
So there is nothing inherently dumbing about a diminished role for the long-form narrative (except perhaps in conveying the art of narrative itself). Whether a similar effect will save the text-messaging generation remains to be seen.