Let me convince you of an issue that you knew about but didn’t REALLY know about. I really want you to see this as I see it! Here is Example A, and Example B, and even a study that you’ll find will show you exactly how correct I am. Here is an image, a crying baby, a woman suffering. Here is a friend who agrees; here’s the opposing stance and here is why it is wrong. Here are a mother and a father who’ve technically lost the right to call themselves that because of the problem. Here they are, can’t you see them? Can’t you understand? Here I am, I have the answer – but you won’t listen to me, will you?
Above, is a cross-section of the modern process of thought: “I think that…” followed by “and here’s why I’m right.” There’s no need to think things through, there’s no need to be thoughtful, forget humble. I can get more folks to agree with me and therefore, I’m right. I don’t know when or where this happened, and I think that’s best; I’m probably too young to know anyway and equally as guilty as any of my fellow earthlings. I’m right there with you. I knew exactly how to fix the economy at 19, exactly why a sports franchise was failing so miserably, exactly why the woman at Wal Mart was so fat – I understood it all until I realized that everyone else did as well; you can imagine the crisis to follow.
I want to begin by dispelling any idea that my intention is for you to walk away from reading this with any concrete certainty new or old. It’s my belief that the vast majority of written works of any kind that carry anything resembling value should be plain-spoken, but difficult to understand – you may in fact disagree, but I couldn’t care less. If you find yourself confused by something you’ve read, there’s a good chance that reading it again will provide some clarity, and will grant you something to chew on. The point isn’t that you are any less-talented a reader as anybody else, but that most ideas are large and complex and take actually minutes and hours to mull over. And this, I think, is the idea of the written word – to provide the reader a puzzle, something to work on with a real possibility of coming to no conclusion at all; dead ends are frequent on these roads, but they are welcomed. This is why most logic-geared folks steer clear of difficult fiction and tread instead in the waters of self-improvement nonfiction, pop music, box-office cinema, etc. To be clear, this isn’t a knock on any of these mediums or the good people who consume them, it’s an observation, which (despite what the modern state of opinion would guide you to believe) we, as humans, are allowed to have. Observations are not insulting when kept earnest, and differing intelligence doesn’t mean a lack of intelligence.
My next mortal sin will come in the form of me bypassing the act of qualifying myself to you, the reader. I won’t tell you how old I am or how long it took me to put this piece together. You don’t need to know my race, my gender, my sexual orientation. Am I qualified to write anything worth reading? Maybe not, in terms of the modern concept of the word, but I am qualified to think, as are you, the pop-culture junkie and the avant-garde fiend alike.
I tend to disagree, against overwhelming evidence, that the shot to the boiler-room of the written word was social media and modern advertising. I simply don’t buy the waning-attention-spans sermon. I know, as I’m sure you do as well, scores of individuals who enjoy the ideocracy of Twitter as much as they enjoy a DeLillo novel. The death of the attention span seems to me, to be an unfinished one, a half-baked attempt by its faceless assassin. If your mother, or your mother’s mother were correct, and digital media has indeed rotted your brain, then you surely would not have tuned in to 8 seasons, at an hour-a-clip of Game of Thrones. If all this were true, long-form podcasting would have been D.O.A. Joe Rogan would still be a moderate celebrity, Jocko Willink, another veteran with a story to tell. Yes, physical book sales are down, but the amount of people “reading” (used in a loose sense) has dismembered the proverbial roof, and we have audiobooks to thank for that. It isn’t the technology that’s harmed us, it’s our stewardship over it.
Over time, democracy (in a philosophical sense) has had a convoluted relationship with quality. As an example, consider the value of the voting rights in marginalized populations before and after they’re earned. How many grandparents fought hard for the voting rights of their kin, only to see them stay home on election day? This, of course, is a more complex issue, but the broader concept applies. The same has been true with social media: the aim was to democratize information, but due to misguidance, we have instead only democratized thought. We now have, for the first time on Earth, the ability to say whatever we want, whenever we want to say it, to an audience limited only to internet access. Supply has overshot demand, and in exercising the voice that took so long to obtain, the value of said voice has seemed to drop to its most dramatic low.
So how then can this problem be correct? As I mentioned before, I’m not writing to be anyone’s savior. I tend to take issue with the idea of pursuing a literary “career.” To do so, I believe, would be to cheapen the value of my own words, to lose the collective soul that lies within them. I’m not here to become your favorite author, or to gain some cheap Instagram following; I’m even hesitant on most days to consider myself an actual “author” at all – I am, as far as I can gather, an average-Joe who writes fiction in my free time, one with a sometimes sleepless concern for our current trajectory on Earth. What I do know is this – that I don’t feel welcomed in the world of academia and literature, and I do feel welcomed on places like Twitter; and I know I’m not the only one.
Here is how I saw literature taught in high school and at 3 different major universities: “Here is a book that we’ve dubbed important, and here’s what it means. You’ll be tested on the symbolic significance of scenes A-C, and you’ll be given 5 answer choices. Now, regurgitate to me what I’ve bestowed upon you.” Sound familiar? Is it any wonder why we don’t regard a millennial as the next great American storyteller? Where is our Toni Morrison, our Twain, our Hunter S. Thompson? And what if we find one tomorrow? Will this essay lose its value completely? Will I be held accountable for being so gruesomely “wrong?” If I am, so be it, because being wrong means I thought about something with sufficient time and effort, despite an education that told me to just play by the rules, and until we’ve found the nerve to instruct The Big “They” to kiss our collective asses, we’ll remain in the dog days of plotting a generational map.
The Yin to this Yang, of course, is intention. So far, in the democratization of thought, we’ve chosen to play with a dull blade; not necessarily because it’s what we wanted, but because it’s what we’ve been taught to fight with. Why would any Facebook post or any tweet carry value, when the skill of its author has been developed so poorly? How could anyone think through anything when they have been taught to “make a point, and make it now?” Why should our young men be emotionally mature? Journaling is gay and girly; remember?
From where I sit the issue doesn’t seem to be this new technology but our own capacity to govern it. Let’s not forget, we are the masters in this realm, not the machines themselves. It is our hands on the switches after all.
I choose to believe in the staying power of the written word because I believe it is the most underutilized form of thought, a form that’s been employed by almost all great men and women who paved the way for where we are now. There is a reason we know about our founding fathers, and the slaves whose backs bore the burden of a new nation. It isn’t an accident that your grandfather’s letter meant more to your grandmother than your significant other’s goodnight text means to you. Feelings, emotions, dark workings of the soul – these things take time, and energy to flesh out, to harvest and come to life. It’s only in the written, and in long consideration that we can understand the things that can’t be spoken in any human tongue. We, I submit, will be the architects of what we will produce, whether we will choose to spew or to intentionally fashion a world of unspeakable glory. Be you a Ph.D. or a low-wage clerk, you are capable of this; and don’t worry, your creepy 11th grade English teacher from 20 years ago isn’t watching; nobody is watching at all, unless you let them. It is okay to think things through first, it is okay to think.