Harper Lee on the Modern World

In The Times, Ben MacIntyre quotes Harper Lee, in one of her very few public utterances since 1964:

Today, aged 84, the author of one of the bestselling novels of the last century lives as she has always lived, with her older sister, in Monroeville, surrounded by books. In one of the very few quotable things she has said in the past 40 years, she remarked: “In an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.”

I am tired of this lazy shortcut, which equates using technology with stupidity of having an ’empty mind’.  Clay Shirky’s essay on ‘Cognitive Surplus’ (which I believe is the topic of an entire book to be published next week) dismantles this idea.  What do Lee and the other smug detractors of the Internet think we are doing with all this technology?  We are consuming ideas.  We are thinking, collectively more deeper and with more eclecticism than ever before.  Such technology liberates us from the (admittedly) homogenizing forces of mass media, and instead allows us to seek out a greater spread of ideas, art forms and entertainment.  When people sneer at this,I think it is just a form of elitism: The “laptops, cellphones and iPods” allow anyone access to the world’s information, not just those who can afford the money and space to store tons of bound paper on shelves (aesthetically pleasing though that is…).

See also: Kafka would have had a twitter feed

2 Replies to “Harper Lee on the Modern World”

  1. As one who can “afford the money and the (bandwidth) space” to take up the “laptops, cellphones and iPods” that the wonderful Harper Lee has decided at 84 to manage without, I don’t doubt we are “consuming ideas” from them. I don’t doubt that a lot of us are “thinking” about them too. And I don’t doubt that Clay Shirky thinks that while Lol Cats involve just enough participatory information exchange to pass muster as intellectual activity; no cognitive intelligence AT ALL is required to write, film, distribute or watch Desperate Housewives. But I don’t think it’s axiomatic that the greater freedom to consume information means that the privileged with access to the internet are thinking “more deeply and with more eclecticism”. The internet tends to gather people into self-selecting groups that have the effect of marginalising (or worse, excluding) opposing views. If you like, you can discover all you think you want to know about Gaza by reading Robert Fisk or Melanie Phillips online, but you will learn more than Bob or Mel think you need to, by reading Ha’aretz or the Jerusalem Post, or twitter or bloggers too. Too few do though. The way that information is selectively shared between self-selecting groups militates against eclecticism, The few who actively seek out opposing opinion appear, to me at least, to be a shrinking proportion of Western internet users (I’d bet most of them are book readers on the side, but that’s another story).In a few years the internet will be a pure broadcast medium, run to deliver interactive mainstream entertainment on demand. This is not so awful. After all cable TV started with the same promise – participatory access for all – but what we got was gibberish (neatly satirised by Wayne’s World). Eventually we got HBO. As writers like Lee found, the transformationa​l promise of ideas conveyed by intelligently crafted news or entertainment is maximised by its popular appeal. Shirky seems to argue that today it’s the other way round. Popular appeal maximises intellectual quality. Not sure about that, but then we all know Desperate Housewives isn’t Dostoevsky. It’s Thackeray.

  2. As one who can “afford the money and the (bandwidth) space” to take up the “laptops, cellphones and iPods” that the wonderful Harper Lee has decided at 84 to manage without, I don’t doubt we are “consuming ideas” from them. I don’t doubt that a lot of us are “thinking” about them too. And I don’t doubt that Clay Shirky thinks that while Lol Cats involve just enough participatory information exchange to pass muster as intellectual activity; no cognitive intelligence AT ALL is required to write, film, distribute or watch Desperate Housewives. But I don’t think it’s axiomatic that the greater freedom to consume information means that the privileged with access to the internet are thinking “more deeply and with more eclecticism”. The internet tends to gather people into self-selecting groups that have the effect of marginalising (or worse, excluding) opposing views. If you like, you can discover all you think you want to know about Gaza by reading Robert Fisk or Melanie Phillips online, but you will learn more than Bob or Mel think you need to, by reading Ha’aretz or the Jerusalem Post, or twitter or bloggers too. Too few do though. The way that information is selectively shared between self-selecting groups militates against eclecticism, The few who actively seek out opposing opinion appear, to me at least, to be a shrinking proportion of Western internet users (I’d bet most of them are book readers on the side, but that’s another story).In a few years the internet will be a pure broadcast medium, run to deliver interactive mainstream entertainment on demand. This is not so awful. After all cable TV started with the same promise – participatory access for all – but what we got was gibberish (neatly satirised by Wayne’s World). Eventually we got HBO. As writers like Lee found, the transformational promise of ideas conveyed by intelligently crafted news or entertainment is maximised by its popular appeal. Shirky seems to argue that today it’s the other way round. Popular appeal maximises intellectual quality. Not sure about that, but then we all know Desperate Housewives isn’t Dostoevsky. It’s Thackeray.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *