Our digital ruin, a certain fate

by David Alm on February 22, 2011

I have a very bleak outlook on the future of education, reading, thought, and human experience. But I’m not an especially dark or pessimistic person. My view is colored by the rise of one thing, which seems to be steamrolling a lot of other things out of existence: digital technology.

It’s not a new outlook, or one even remotely unique. But with each new “app” that’s developed, and each new move away from analog, print, and real-time experience towards the nebulous world of online everything, I come closer to the conclusion that we’re screwed.

And by “we” I’m not merely referring to those of us who prefer to ink up our books’ margins with thoughts about the text, or who like the ritual of fetching the paper from the front door each morning. I’m referring to everyone, because as the old ways of doing things get replaced by the new, something is definitely being lost. And it’s sometimes hard to put your finger on what, exactly, that is.

Virginia Heffernan, who writes “The Medium” column for the New York Times Magazine, writes that this ” lossi ness” occurs in all aspects of our rapidly digitized world: not just the “lossy compression” that occurs when a piece of music is converted into an MP3 file, but in our social lives through sites like Facebook and Twitter, digital films, and digital images.

Other times it’ s ea sy to identify the loss. For example, the experience of reading a book from a used bookstore, whose pages smell like only a used book’s pages smell and are covered in the markings of a previous owner, perhaps long since passed. On Sunday, I was at a friend’s for dinner, talking about the loss of such things, and another friend shared the story of one of his favorite volumes of poetry, one marked with great fervor  by a woman who owned the book several decades ago. He said he loved reading her comments almost as much as the poetry itself, because her engagement with the text told a story in its own right.

The practice of “marginalia” won’t be entirely lost, says G. Thomas Tanselle, former vice president of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and now an adjunct professor of English at Columbia University. He believes people will always find ways to annotate digitally. But will those annotations be preserved or posterity? Doubtful. And even if they can be preserved, will those digital annotations have the same “aura” of the actual handwriting by another human being who actually once held a specific volume? According to a recent article in the Times, books with marginalia by famous and even non-famous readers are becoming increasingly valuable for precisely this reason.

So why are we screwed? Because it doesn’t stop there. Digital technology, I’m convinced, is ruining the art of reading, replacing real experiences with virtual ones, and sounding a death knell for just about anyone who works in letters. But I’ll save that for another post.

Michael Washburn February 22, 2011 at 9:39 am

hey there David, your concerns are well taken, but you don’t quite conquer my ambivalence. i agree with folks like Jaron Lanier & you that such “analog” ideas as individual-idiosyncratic expression, authorship, and, dare i say, authority are under attack in our current techno fetish ideology. those concepts – and, subsequently, the pleasures typically related such as marginalia, the smell of newsprint — have been hunted to the brink of extinction. but, and this is a big but, i think that substantive literary, critical, and aesthetic impulses are strong enough to linger indefinitely on that brink. smart thinking and good writing isn’t going away, it’s just getting even more boutique. hard to believe that was possible?

now….to make a living at it…i eagerly await a discussion of that.

Ryan Z February 22, 2011 at 1:19 pm

I disagree but the reason of my disagreement comes more from the scientific world in which I exist in. Within my world, when a new article is written, there is a whole network of blogs/twitter/facebook users that comment on the new piece o…f work. I’ve seen research that tracks the size of comments on an article and they find that if one plots verse the size of comments vs the number of people posting that size you end up with a power law. Translation is that most people provide little substance in their comments but there is a select minority that provides long detailed commentary.

I think that this has always been true. The thing that has changed is previously, only the long commentaries were published and people kept their small snippets either to a social setting or written in the margins. To me, this is a vast improvement as the books with substantial “marginalia” are often difficult to access and share and more often than not locked up in someone’s personal collection. Thus requiring a lot of ass kissing to even access.

So what is happening with today’s technology is not that you are losing the in-depth deep analytical examination of literature, if anything that is growing, but instead what is happening is there is more noise (small snippets) to wade through to get to those gems. What I am seeing coming out research being done in communication schools is that the role of arbitrator of what is important commentary that should be shared and should not is increasingly becoming much more diversified. It is no longer just the esteemed editor of the New Yorker or other esteemed publications but is instead in the providence of much less esteemed positions such as talk show hosts. The effects if this though is the subject of whole different list of complaints.

Amanda February 23, 2011 at 4:57 am

I hear you, I hear you. As much as I rally the embodied word in all forms, (having been a founding member of Chicago’s “Letter Writing Revivalists,”) I sort of feel, these days, that the blog itself represents the great expanse of marginalia we crave in the collective act of reading and writing. And as much as I mourn the loss of printed text as anyone (having become an avid letter-presser, letter-writer, book-maker), I still feel like there are as many new readers emerging as much being swept under in this great techno-undertow.

artemis February 26, 2011 at 8:15 pm

David,
I certainly agree with you that reading is changing. However, I believe people are reading more than ever, because there are more ways and more opportunities to do it. My sister, a teacher of reading primarily, is a prolific reader — probably two books a week, far more than I read. But she reads a lot as she drives to work — on her iPad, because she subscribes to Audiobooks which she listens to as she drives. She also reads novels on her iPad — text. I have read one book on my iPod Touch, and one thing I liked about it was that there was no gutter to deal with. I really liked reading on a flat page! Since reading that one book I’ve found it easier to read on a computer screen. However, the iPad would be easier than the Touch because of its size. I generally take notes as I read. I do that no matter what format I use. I think you can highlight on an iPad or Kindle. Sticky notes are also possibilities. There are all kinds of software apps that let you do electronically the things you used to do mechanically. So, I wouldn’t say reading is on the demise; it’s just changing form.

Gina March 1, 2011 at 3:12 pm

I think it is a mistake to think of digital connectedness as replacing the good old fashioned way we do things. We can go round and round forever grieving the loss of our old ways and resenting the new. I’ve done it too. But I disagree that anything is being “steamrolled” here.

Can’t you just hear the curmudgeon-ey voices of generations past lamenting the loss of hand-written letters to the telephone… and the loss of the telephone to email… and then texting… But none of these mediums were ever actually “lost.” They have not been eradicated by the next best thing. They are all alive and well, co-existing, serving many different people and many different needs.

Trends, especially technology-driven trends, are inevitable. Yes, there are positive and negative consequences of this fact. But it’s not armageddon here. There is room for many mediums. The best part: we can each take our pick.

Brandon March 2, 2011 at 11:32 am

Like the other people who have already commented, I feel a certain sympathy for your argument, David, but I have to agree with them that we are not facing “ruin” but merely the end of an old paradigm… How many monks must have lamented the death of illuminated manuscripts at the hands of Gutenberg’s blasted contraption?

Ultimately, it is a trade-off… Indeed, there is something lost–and it’s not merely the marginalia or our nostalgia for the scent of slow decay in the acid-paper pages of a used book. Simply because of the way we consume them, digital media demand less depth and less attention. (“What did that article I read say? Hold on, let me call it up on my smartphone…”) Tweets and blog posts are far more ephemeral in how we read them than classic ephemera like newspapers ever were (though, since the former are stored digitally and are searchable, they are arguably more enduring–if anyone bothers to go back to find them rather than just reading the next tweet or post). These new media work at such an accelerated rate, and we consume so many different feeds from so many sources, that we rarely go beneath the surface the way we used to when we only had a few shelves’ worth of writing at hand… I have long thought that it is most telling that the word “peruse” has shifted in meaning from “to study intensely” to “to skim.”

But as others have pointed out, the marginalia have not disappeared, they have instead exploded. We have, if anything, too many marginalia to respond to. And too many primary texts to wade through. If most of them are of poorer quality than the books of yore, that’s mostly the result of there being so much more to read–and if more people are talking, it’s statistically predictable that more stupid things will be said.

If we are skilled enough at using these new media, however, then they really are better than the old. It really is much easier now to find the solution to a problem, because so many minds are connecting somewhere online on every issue–from science to the arts. What we lose in depth we gain back hundredfold in breadth.

Print is dying, for sure. But print is earning its death. There was a time when publishers were the gatekeepers of sound thinking and good taste. But now (with many exceptions, of course) publishing houses would rather sell a celebrity bio or a cozy mystery or a James Patterson novel than something thoughtful and absorbing. In my 13 years of working in publishing, I have seen the standard of quality plummet both on the editorial side and the production side. Books are just a commodity now, and most publishers’ solution to the problem of declining sales seems to be “produce more faster (even if it’s pablum).”

If publishers have given up the role of gatekeeper, then it’s up to the users of new media–whole communities of people online–to be the arbiters of taste and sound thinking. And this is, in fact, what they are doing… what Contrary is doing. There is a shit-ton of garbage out there, but there are also plenty of smart people picking through it and sorting out the good bits and making them more readily available by reposting them. Thus, the job of this generation of teachers (you and me included) is no longer to force “books” on our students or ask them to share our nostalgic attachment to them but rather to teach them to be good judges and effective consumers of information, wherever they may find it.

I will miss books desperately when the presses stop. But I will take solace in the fact that Twitter gave us a massive popular revolution across the Arab world in a matter of weeks… Let’s see the codex do that!

Brandon March 4, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Speaking of marginalia: “What I Really Want Is Someone Rolling Around in the Text”

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/06/magazine/06Riff-t.html?smid=tw-nytimesbooks&seid=auto

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