Medieval Multitasking: Did We Ever Focus?

Maybe Nicholas Carr is right: the internet is just so much catnip in a world already filled with too many distractions. And, like any such drug (even those that seem relatively harmless, especially in relation to the benefits they seem to offer), my freewheeling engagement with the internet is slowly but surely reshaping my brain so that, eventually, I won’t be capable of a sustained reflection.

Now, Carr and Clay Shirky have been sparring for some time over the relative merits of digital connectedness and information access, and I’m not unmoved by the cautions Carr raises in The Shallows, the extension of his 2008 Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” But, I’m generally more persuaded by Shirky’s analysis in Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, that the opportunities for access, sharing, collaboration, and positive global social change have clearly been the result both of the internet and rapidly developing digital social media on portable computing devices. This morning, however, as I started to work on a review of the two books I had to wonder if maybe I’d gotten it all wrong.

As I read both Carr and Shirky over the past couple weeks—who both seek parallels between the rise of the internet and digital social media and the invention of the printing press in the 16th century—I couldn’t help thinking about medieval manuscripts. Since the early 1990s, both medievalists and electronic media theorists have pointed to the hypertexted quality of medieval illuminated manuscripts in making complementary claims: medievalists to continuing cultural relevancy and electronic media theorists in continuity to literary tradition. The medieval books we admire so much today are distinguished by the remarkable visual images, in the body of a text and in the margins, that scholars have frequently compared to hypertexted images on internet “pages.”

The function of these images in illuminated manuscripts has no small bearing on the hypertext analogy. These “miniatures” (so named not because they were small—often they were not—but because they used red ink, or vermillion, the Latin word for which is minium) did not generally function as illustrations of something in the written text, but in reference to something beyond it. The patron of the volume might be shown receiving the completed book or supervising its writing. Or, a scene related to a saint might accompany a biblical text read on that saint’s day in the liturgical calendar without otherwise having anything to do with the scripture passage. Of particular delight to us today, much of the marginalia in illuminated books expressed the opinions and feelings of the illuminator about all manner of things—his demanding wife, the debauched monks in his neighborhood, or his own bacchanalian exploits.

Books of commentary, known as “glosses,” included conversations among different commentators across time that surrounded a central text, such as a Bible passage. The wisdom of the rabbis or Christian sages would be preserved through decades and centuries, with new commentators sometimes being added as successive copies were produced. Over time, the original contexts for these comments were forgotten and their relevance to the central text became obscure, so they became part of the interpretive project of reading a book. Often, the commentary became more significant than the central text itself.

All of which is to say that there were a lot of “distractions” built into a medieval book. Indeed, these were often the main fare for the “reader” of a book. “Anyone can take delight in turning the pages of a Book of Hours, for example,” says Christopher de Hamel, “even without reading the text.” (So it is now, I suppose, that the mostly visual YouTube environment is the most fully global of popular social media sites, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.)

Add to these distractions the fact that medieval books were very often not the single-author volumes familiar to us today. A binding might include a bit of Chaucer—something from the life of St. Bridget, perhaps—and part of an almanac, or a treatise on herbal remedies. They were mash-ups, that is. Or, to borrow terminology from George P. Landow, they were “dispersed texts,” unburdened by the modern fiction of sequential ordering of thought as “natural” or unitary authorship as normative that contributed to Enlightenment understandings of the “focused” mind of the individual thinker.

Engaged by brilliant illuminations; challenged by reading in Latin, without spacing between words, capitalization, or punctuation; and invited into the commentary of past readers of the text, medieval readers of Augustine, Dante, Virgil, or the Bible would surely be able to give today’s digitally-distracted multitaskers a run for our money. The physical form of the bound book brought together all of these various “links” into one “platform” so that the diverse perspectives of a blended contemporary and historical community of thinkers could be more easily accessed.

But the physical format of medieval books is not the only way in which they seem familiar to many contemporary users of digital media. Medieval reading as a practice was deeply social. Indeed, long after the invention of the printing press, until rather late in the 18th century, reading was a communal affair, with a group of hearers gathering around a reader to engage a book, letter, or other textual production. If the claims of medieval mystic and pilgrim Margery Kempe to have shared wisdom with the priest friend who read “holy bokys” to her or the dramatic relational reading in the novels of Jane Austin are any indication, such bookish encounters were not centered on didactic performances for passive listeners, but were rather fully interactive engagements that enlarged any given book into a much wider social “text.”

That is, as scholars have been reminding us for a very long time by now, private reading and the linear thinking that Carr so values as essential for deep, contemplative thought did not feature much in the lives of the people who pretty much brought us the contemplative tradition. Rather, sorting though the mix of images and ideas, arguing with friends over meanings and interpretations, and mullying it up again with a new bit of this or that seem to have been very much at the center of the thought world of ancient philosophers and medieval mystics.

“So there!” I thought to myself this morning, as I mulled over another pointcounterpoint on the issue. “I am absolutely willing to be no more brain addled than Chaucer and no less reflective than Julian of Norwich!” And for good measure, as I headed online to find links to the illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels, I reminded myself that I have the advantage of not drinking a gallon of high-octane ale each day from a vessel infused with lead!

It kind of went a little hinky from there. The YouTube video I found on the Lindisfarne Gospels was backed by contemporary chant music. Katherine Bergeron, Professor Landow’s colleague over the in department of music at Brown (what are these people up to?), has shown popular 20th and 21st century chants to be recycled versions of 19th century chants; themselves approximating a lost 9th century chanting tradition that would have had nothing to do with the 8th century illuminated gospels. There was a whole lot of clicking involved in this, let me tell you, and I kind of lost track before I could address the modern icon of 7th century St. Aiden in the video.

In part, this was because I involuntarily flipped back to Facebook, where I’d posted the Steven Pinker critique of Carr earlier in the morning. There, I found a posting from my “friend” David Buehler, who I’m pretty sure I know only from Facebook and I’m not quite sure why. But I like him a lot and I am pretty sure he is not a serial killer. David had posted a column by David Books in support of Carr that had been in the New York Times a couple days before the Pinker piece. I felt obliged by a medieval sense of fairness and honor to repost it in my status bar.

Just about then, a student from a course I’m teaching online about online teaching emailed me with a question about a compline prayer that had been tweeted by Virtual Abbey the night before. That took me into the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer, with a brief sojourn into the tragedy that is Lindsay Lohan, who, frankly, could use some time reflecting on the “Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,” if you ask me. Then, while responding to my student I thought I should probably scan posts by other students and, well, there went the next hour.

Okay, honestly, I forgot what I was up to specifically by then, so I fed the dog and started making myself some breakfast. By then, my partner was up trolling for coffee, and we decided to have a soak in the hot tub while it was still cool in the Silicon Valley. So, there you have it.

Well, almost.

Guided by a precognitive reflex that surely proves Carr’s contention that my brain has been damaged by my affinity for digital media, I hopped right on Facebook again after my shower. I hadn’t exactly forgotten about the Lindisfarne Gospels, but the thing is, almost every morning my friend Diane’s husband Hans “likes” the daily quote I post. Lots of people do, depending on the quote, though Hans is particularly attentive about it. It seems kind of like a spiritual practice. A little prayer. It’s very sweet. So, I just kind of like to check that I’m good with Hans at some point in the morning.

Also, my niece Jenn is involved in very interesting stuff to do with the de-medicalization of childbirth that I mostly don’t get, but she’s very passionate about it, so I like to see what she’s up to over on the right coast. And, her friend Lisa almost always has something funny posted. Every few days my friends Alyssa and Steven change their profile pictures to express various things. For Alyssa, it’s usually some sort of religious/political statement. For Steven it’s more likely to be weekend or vacation themed. In any case, I like to take note. And, as a special bonus, today my friend, the Pittsburgh poet Ellen McGrath Smith, posted a really wonderful little poem as her status (On the peonies/ants are running errands/Petal by petal they fall off the globe).

I burned maybe thirty minutes on all this digital sociality before I saw that the venerable scholar of ancient church history, Rebecca Lyman, had posted a characteristically wise response to the Brooks column I’d reposted:

Just thinking this morning when I started reading Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden and wondering how it was linked to Women in Love, thank God for the internet which offers quick and incisive research to deepen our reading by extending the conversation to other reflections. Who answered such questions for me growing up as a solitary provincial reader? Only connect

Ah, exactly. My mind might be going on the digital fritz, but, like my medieval exemplars, I’m saved by the fact that I don’t have to think alone. Here, I think Brooks gets it right (just before he gets it wrong):

The Internet-versus-books debate is conducted on the supposition that the medium is the message. But sometimes the medium is just the medium. What matters is the way people think about themselves while engaged in the two activities.

He goes on to insist that “the literary world [by which he means the world of printed books] is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import.” By contrast, he says, “The internet helps you become well-informed—knowledgeable about current events, the latest controversies and important trends. The internet also helps you become hip…”

Really? I’ve taken a gander at Brooks’ 924 Facebook friends, and, if I may say so, there’s not a lot of hip there. Okay, you could probably say the same about my meager 438 friends. But my friends are smart—both well informed and cultured; savvy with regard to current trends and true masters of significance. We mostly get that life is mostly neither deep diving or jet skiing, to pick up one of Carr’s central metaphors. It’s a lot of snorkeling—watching beauty and diversity unfold below and around us while breathing the air above. We’re masters of the attentive float. We get in and out of the water easily and are very happy to find our friends waiting on the beach, offering a towel and a shard of poetry washed ashore from the deep pool of our distracted wanderings.