The Modern Age and Data Swiftly Forgotten

The following passage is from Man in the Modern Age (1931), by German philosopher Karl Jaspers:

The mass-man has very little spare time, does not live a life that appertains to a whole, does not want to exert himself except for some concrete aim which can be expressed in terms of utility; he will not wait patiently while things ripen; everything for him must provide some immediate gratification; and even his mental life must minister to his fleeting pleasures. That is why the essay has become the customary form of literature, why newspapers are taking the place of books and why desultory reading has been substituted for the perusal of works that can serve as an accompaniment to life. People read quickly and cursorily. They demand brevity; not the brevity, the terseness, which can form the starting-point of serious meditation, but the brevity which swiftly provides what they want to know and furnishes data which can be swiftly forgotten. No longer is the reader in mental communion with what he reads.

Such comments are reminiscent of the cultural criticism of Richard Weaver and Irving Babbitt. Part of the problem that Jaspers highlights is not unique to modernity (or “post-modernity”). A mania for frivolous newspaper and journal content developed more than a century before electronic broadcast media. And before that, ancient authors complained of the shallowness of their peers, etc. Some of the most fruitful reading, as Jaspers says, comes from being “in communion” with a work that is studied carefully and without hurry. Though there are materials online that are informative and useful – and a great deal more which is not – such resources will never, in and of themselves, provide intellectual maturity in the same way as great works of scholarship and literature.

For more details about this conservative thinker, see Karl Jaspers: A Dissenting Existentialist. Related commentary: Too Much Information, Time For Living, and Lamenting Print Journalism’s Decline.

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