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.