BROOKE GLADSTONE: "A plague on people meters and all that they imply." According to Andrew Solomon, writing in last week's New York Times, TV turns our minds off. Indeed, he condemned electronic media in general as "torpid." Solomon was riffing on a recent survey by the National Endowment for the Arts which found that reading for pleasure has nose-dived in America, and "that's too bad," the NEA notes, "because pleasure readers are more likely to volunteer in their communities and attend museums and sporting events than couch potatoes." Solomon bemoaned, "There is a basic social divide between those for whom life is an accrual of fresh experience and knowledge and those for whom maturity is a process of mental atrophy. The shift toward the latter category is frightening." Doing its part to arrest that downward spiral, this week the New York Times serialized The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. We know reading is sound mental hygiene, and watching stuff on big screens or small is cerebral sloth. We know that, but is it true? For a contrarian's view, we called on new media visionary Douglas Rushkoff. Doug, thanks for coming on.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, as a radio person, I naturally take umbrage at Solomon's characterization of the electronic media as "torpid." I mean, there's good radio and bad, and good TV and bad, and good websites and bad, and yeah, good novels and bad.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Well, sure. It was funny. When I was listening to his description of TV and electronic media I was -- started to think about Cervantes and Don Quixote. You know, when the novel first came out, it was looked at as just as torpid and, you know, or read Madame Bovary -- you know, the effect of a lot of these different forms of literature on people was thought to be, you know, just terrible. I think that people were concerned that readers were spending more time in fantasy worlds, you know, hypnotized by this, you know, very new and captivating medium, rather than spending time in the real world. And of course, now that it's our classic literature or opera is our classic stage form, we look at them as, you know, great high art.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ah, but you see Solomon says that good electronic media are never as good as a good book, because a book talks to you while electronic media talk at you.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: You know, he's chosen a different preposition, but there's no real basis for that. I mean, I can argue that a book only talks at me, because the author is dead, [LAUGHTER] or the author is in some house, sitting in, you know, in Maine, whereas when you go online, how many novels have comments fields after them, where I can talk back? Very few, if any.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But I mean, I don't think that that's what Solomon meant.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: No, what Solomon's talking about is the fact that anybody who's reading a book is being active in that they are actively imagining the scenes and the emotions that are being portrayed. And people who understand how that happens with literature are sometimes very confused about how that might happen with television or film. Fact is, film has a grammar. Television has a grammar. There are edit points. There are conventions. In order to actually make sense, as most twelve year olds can of a show like "24" -- not that "24" is a great show, but it's a complex show -- the job required to tie that thing together, to understand the simultaneous action, is pretty active indeed. It's not as active as getting on line -- getting your hands on the keyboard. But, to me, it's indicative of the direction that even the most passive forms of television are going.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But what about TV? I mean the culture has coarsened, right? And the media and television particularly is usually blamed for that. There's some truth to that charge, right?
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Definitely. I mean, television I look at as sort of a step on the way, you know, to the internet and interactive media. You know, the, the evolution of the television into a, an interactive monitor really didn't take that long. You know, it took a lot less time than the evolution of the epic poem to the play or the play to the novel.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you think that reading changed the world?
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: You know, it empowered people to start seeing things as stories. People feel in command of history. There's some down sides to it, as some of the great early media theorists, you know, like Walter Ong or Marshall McLuhan would say, is that it led to a more abstract culture. You know, we all end up sort of alone in our drawing rooms, you know, reading literature. It let to specialization, and it led to, really, the fragmentation that was then even more exacerbated by television where not just each individual family but each member of the family seems to be in their own room, watching their own monitor. You know, America is like a, a nation of 250 million, you know, markets of one, and it is isolating. It is alienating. But I would argue that the way through that is not to retreat back to the novel but to use the new tools that are at our disposal in order to begin to forge new communities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, what do you think about the NEA's finding that readers are more engaged in their communities?
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Well, that could be possible, but I don't think that figure is going to last very long. You know, when we live in a world where people end up creating political organizations by going on line and doing Meetup, or they find out how to become part of a WTO protest by, you know, reading a blog, I think we might have to start re-evaluating whether, you know, sitting with The Great Gatsby [LAUGHTER] is really the quality that's most indicative of a person who's going to be active in the real world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Douglas Rushkoff, thank you very much.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Well, thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Douglas Rushkoff has just published a graphic novel called Club Zero G: An Adult Anime Adventure. His book, Coercion, won the Marshall McLuhan award for Best Media Book in 2002.