Speaking recently at the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, American novelist, Jonathan Franzen, attacked what he identifies as the impermanence of ebooks. His following remarks are what Andrew Sullivan recently dismissed as “Wieseltierian piffle,”
“The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it’s pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now. So no wonder the capitalists hate it. It’s a bad business model.”
“I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change.”
“Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.”
“But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”
I’ve been following the debate over physical media and digital media for some time now. And most of what I’ve come across usually boils down to “Digital media is easier, cheaper, and comes with endless possibilities,” vs. “*insert nostalgic rant here*”.
But there is so much more to be said on the issue, and here I think Franzen is actually getting to something a bit meatier. Because certainly there are important differences between physical and digital. Not just in how people experience either one, or the way in which they are used, but most importantly in the social, political, and economic systems which come inextricably attached to either one.
And that’s where I think the idea of the book, of a material volume bound together, discrete and permanent, destroyable but unalterable, is not given enough credit. While it may be hyperbolic, I don’t think it would be incorrect to argue that the book is responsible for a specific conception of the individual being, specifically the human being, that has guided, informed, and shaped much of history since the beginning of the Gutenberg Revolution.
There is something intimate about the print book that, while allowing for the democratization of information*, did not eviscerate the individual in the process. In the West, a hierarchical cult no longer controlled the foundational cultural text, neither linguistically nor distributionally. And after this disruptive new technology had unfolded, the Enlightenment soon followed as well as the rise of humanism.
Now I am no historian, and do not want to get bogged down in an archeological dig regarding intellectual movements that span centuries, are extremely complicated, and difficult to extrapolate from. That would be a job for many books and much synthesis—not just one blog post. The only tentative point I want to make here is confined to how we conceive of ourselves, and how print books differ from ebooks in that regard.
As one example, the oral tradition, with the Iliad and Odyssey as its two most notable offspring in the West, stands in large contrast to the autonomous individuality that followed from mass print. The former, a collective dramatic consciousness, is a timeless whole even as each constituent part eventually departs and dies. The latter, “a marketplace of ideas”, implies by its very nature a community of individual beings buying and selling, sharing and contributing. As someone partaking in the ahistorical chorus of Homeric epics, I would be defined by my social and cultural ties but without the means of reacting against them or breaking from it. On the other hand, the practice of reading alone, and quietly, strongly implies a sense of aloneness. With the printed book, the chorus is slowed to a conversation, with breaks, pauses, and interruptions.
There is a permanence built into its very physical structure that requires systems of distribution, like libraries, stores, and shelves, which impart a different rhythm to the intellectual exchange just as those taking part in the exchange are given new shape, greater authority, and more individuality.
Then there are ebooks which are only the latest iteration in a synthetic evolution of the intellectual tradition. Most of the quality ones that I have come across, and which are not simply electronic versions of their material counterparts, are shorter than the traditional book. They are not meant to be the final word on something, or necessarily even an important one, but rather just “MY WORD” on something. Literature has always involved ego, but the Internet seems to have put it into overdrive. We all have “online” identities now, in addition to or instead of our other ones. Everyone who writes online needs to have a “brand,” they need to “market” themselves, and most importantly of all, we need to be in the (k)now.
And in many ways, it is as if the Internet, which is the quintessential “enabling” technology, has borrowed from and then put into overdrive so many of the patterns of the print book era as to have rendered an intellectual space which combines the print and oral traditions but resembles neither. The Internet is a conversation taking place at such a rapid speed that it is at time a muddled chorus, and at others a cacophonous chatter. We are not angry birds, just loud and endlessly talkative ones. And what we have to show for it is hard to quantify and not the least bit apparent to me.
In the modern era books were about their authors and whatever their authors thought the books should mean. The postmodern period decided the opposite, and argued that it was really the readers that mattered and what they thought, the author’s intent be damned. Now everyone who is a reader also writes and no one knows what the hell is going on. I am no longer just the reflection of the political, economic, and cultural realities that created me. But I’m also no longer just myself, with multiple online personas, multiple communities of which I’m a part, and which often have nothing to do with one another.
It’s certainly an interesting situation, but it’s also a problematic one, not least of all because of the size of the systems at work, and the speed at which they live and breathe. If someone censors, revises, or edits an ebook after its publication, no one will know—except that its the Internet so of course someone will know, and pics of the deleted or altered sections will make their way to Twitter, at which point everyone else will find out about it, and twitto-versies will ensue, and everyone will blog about it, post status updates on Facebook about it, and might even chat the next day in person about it over breakfast. And that is what is incredibly awe inspiring, but also alienating, about the entire process.
The Tea Party has lost media visibility, but it still exists and remains a political force to be reckoned with. Occupy does not. The one took momentary outrage, resentment, and protest and joined it with a lasting, more permanent organizing structure. The other did not, and as a result, has gone just as quickly as it came. Perhaps this means that the “flash” is the quintessential Internet form: flash mobs, flash controversies, flash scandals, flash outrage, flash protest, and flash insights.
I’m not aware of any sites that blacked out for SOAPA for more than a day. Occupy tried to tie itself to a place, but when that failed, never tied itself to an organization because of their aversion to hierarchy. What has survived that protest is a meme rather than an idea or argument, which will be recycled endlessly but without ever leading to the impact its creators had hoped it would.
What this all means I have no clue. I do know, however, that there is more to the discussion over digital and physical media than the nostalgic rants by a few and self-certain progressivism by many more. That a medium hell-bent on discussing everything under the sun (or the screen), seems unusually resistant to charitably taking up this one, is dishearteningly ironic, and needs to change.
*I’m curious if anyone has ever compared the “print divide” to the “digital divide.” The discrepency in number of books vs. number of computers in libraries and universities alone would seem to suggest that print knowledge remains more accesible.
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