In his chapter “Hypertext,” Birkerts continues his exploration of the differences between print and electronic texts, between words on a page and words on a screen. In “Into the Electronic Millenium,” he emphasizes the difference as one between linearity (print) and association (electronic)–earlier in the book, this opposition was described as depth versus shallowness. Here, turning his attention to a literary hypertext created for a digital environment (Moulthorp’s Victory Garden), he continues the opposition, focusing it on a difference between process and product. As he puts it succinctly,
Writing on the computer promotes process over product and favors the whole over the execution of the part. (158)
Moving forward from page to screen, he believes, we move backwards from the book as a product to the process of writing and producing it. Along with this “profound” and “consequential” shift from literature and product to writing as process, Birkerts argues, “provisionality” is promoted and the traditional goal of the writer (he mentions the French novelist Flaubert) is lost. Attending to this loss, the reader of the book, turned into “process” at best, at worst a “sophisticated Nintendo game,” loses his or her sense of the private self (164).
These are familiar keywords Birkerts uses in his argument: process, product, privacy, provisionality, perfection, potential. My criticism and concern for the implications of his argument might best be focused by adding another ‘p’ word to his list: pedagogy. It seems to me that in worrying about the ways that writing’s process becomes, potentially, revealed in a digital or electronic environment, Birkerts really worries the potential that anyone might become a writer. Here, my disagreement with Birkerts sharpens most into focus. In my view–recall, I am a teacher of writing, and a writer still learning my trade, as every writer does–provisionality and process are necessary ingredients for learning. One learns by learning the process; one writes by producing writing, not by having written, by having a product. The reader is always ready to turn into a writer, as Walter Benjamin put it in his essay on the “Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility.” We thus participate in writing. And participation is yet another concern, and another ‘p’ word, that Birkerts discusses. Instead of that, he wants to return to a time when the author perfected his writing by creating books that, in Birkerts’ phrasing, overpowered the reader.
Perfect, that is to say, completely finished, books might exist–though I haven’t read one. But even if they do exist, the problem becomes, for the writer, for the learner, how to get there while being imperfect? For learners, perfect books are dreamed of and always never written. Isn’t that what happened to Birkerts? These are some of the thoughts and concerns I take into the final pages of his argument and our initial exploration of electronic and hypertext writing.
I used Google Books, by the way, to do some keyword searching–for example, in Gutenberg Elegies. Here is an example (the word process appears 45 times).
As we explore more directly hypertext fiction and poetry this week, consider some basic background for hypertext fiction of the sort that Birkerts encounters. It is from that massive hypertext encyclopedia you know well, WikiPedia. Consider that as both the problem and potential of hypertext literary reading: what if novels or poems read like entires in WikiPedia: in what ways does that change literature? Here is the entry for Hypertext Fiction. We can also think back to McLuhan’s argument, one that I think Birkerts clearly has in mind, though he doesn’t directly quote from: the medium is the message; all media work us over completely. Birkerts believes that the author, not the medium, should be working the reader over. Hypertext, for him, is too much medium, not enough message. I assume he would say the same about the electronic literature archive–where the process, not the product, is on view in the ways the texts are described and categorized.
Do you agree?
For a view and vision of hypertext literature that can be said to disagree with the vision of Birkerts (and strongly) by way of agreeing, consider Shelley Jackson’s essay “Stitch Bitch.” There she argues favorably that hypertext is “what we learned to call bad writing.”
So, is Google making you stupid?
Sven Birkerts, even before Google, says yes: the web is trapping us in a world of shallowness, a web that erodes language, flattens historical perspective, and destroys privacy. I suggest Carr’s essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” offers some updating of Birkerts’ concerns, but also some possibility for counter-argument. For our purposes, I would emphasize that Carr’s rhetoric (how he writes and presents his argument) is, at any rate, stronger than Birkerts in key places. It is more effective in what it does–even as it makes a similar argument.
The scene from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey: the one discussed in the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The computer HAL being dismantled by Dave.
The article also refers to Plato’s “Phaedrus,” part of the section that opens up counter-argument. It reminds us that various technological changes stretch far back–and that writing was once the “Google” of ancient Greece. You will recall that McLuhan also refers to this famous dialogue, as does Birkerts and Joseph Harris.
Does my ability, or my desire, to access these ideas from the essay–might I call them, to use a loaded term, these links–in digital form, from the same screen with which I read the essay, constitute deep or shallow reading? Perhaps the problem is we need some different terms to describe what I am doing.
Think back to The Invention of Hugo Cabret or The Medium is the Massage and our discussion of the way that book (not digital, but print) hypermediates/remediates the traditional book. Is this also something to fear–or does this return us to something more crucial and fantastic in storytelling or literature? Would lots more types of books like Hugo make us stupid?
Carr has recently turned his article into a book titled The Shallows. Here is a review from the NY Times.
Some additional links to consider–and return to as you develop your argument for the third writing project, The Future of Wreading:
A recent argument that cites Carr, but offers a more interested, hopeful vision for the ways digital reading is creating and influencing fragmentary readers and writers. “Fragmentary: Writing in a Digital Age”
A review of, and argument with, Carr’s book The Shallows (the book that emerges from his Google article).
A NY Times review of some new children’s books that blend print and digital; the reviewer suggests it as an updating of the Choose Your Own Adventure series.
Gibson, article in Wired on writing as cut and paste remixing.
- Is Google Making Us Stupid? (wdok.radio.com)
- Considering the Future of Reading: Lessons, Links and Thought Experiments (learning.blogs.nytimes.com)
In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan (author of our next book, The Medium is the Massage) defines media as ” the extensions of man.” Contrary to someone like Sven Birkerts, who neglects the medium of the book and tends to view media only as the new, the electronic, McLuhan understands that a medium (or a technology) is anything that extends the capability of a human who uses it. Thus any and all forms of communication tools are media, starting with language itself: writing, pencil, book, printing press, variety of computer mediated forms of writing and language. And in this book he extends this notion of extension: literally any tool that can be considered an extension: clothing, wheels, houses. Thus, in The Medium is the Massage, McLuhan writes about the “technology of the alphabet.”
McLuhan highlights for me the ways that Birkerts neglects to define and consider and reflect upon and understand the mediated nature of new media (instead of generalizing, too quickly brushing them off). And though he does do a better job being more deliberate and reflective regarding the media of print (all the reading and writing he discusses), there is still this problem. He gets, I think, the medium of print wrong. Consider this paragraph from McLuhan that evokes Birkerts’ senses of passivity vs. activity, except it locates the passive not with television but with the technology of literacy.
Western man acquired from the technology of literacy the power to act without reacting. The advantages of fragmenting himself in this way are seen in the case of the surgeon who would be quite helpless if he were to become humanly involved in his operation. We acquired the art of carrying out the most dangerous social operations with complete detachment. But our detachment was a posture of noninvolvement. In the electric age, when our central nervous system is technologically extended to involve us in the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us, we necessarily participate, in depth, in the consequences of our every action. It is no longer possible to adopt the aloof and dissociated role of the literate Westerner. [Understanding Media, 4]
I see a good bit of Birkerts in this image of detachment. Ironically, McLuhan gives us to imagine this scenario at home: parent yelling at child to put down that book, stop being so lazy, and get on the internet and do something real. Or in the case of Walter Benjamin, whom Birkerts will cite: we see that mediation–the changes in the technological reproduction of art, writing–enables readers to become writers.
All emphasize that the traditional relationship between readers and writers is changed by technology. Must that change necessarily be for the worse? McLuhan’s understanding of the involvement that the “environment” created by electronic media, in contrast with the detachment of print media, suggests a contrasting vision to that of Birkerts.
For a brief history of early printing.
For the audio recording that accompanies The Medium is the Massage.
Some things to consider as we head to the Print Shop at the Literary House and think further about the machinery of writing.
Next Monday at the Literary House there will be a discussion of great relevance to our course conversation: Blogging about Books. The event is at 4.30 pm. Though you are not required to attend, I highly recommend it. It is perfect timing coming off our initial inquiry into what it means to be a reader/writer–how that compares and contrasts with the vision of Birkerts, in particular. I wonder what he would have to say about the Book Lady, one of the bloggers participating in the discussion. Later in the course we will be exploring further the ways that digital media have transformed reading and writing. So, this is a very relevant conversation.
My sense is that the Book Lady doesn’t believe that reading–or the reader–should be hidden.
Sven Birkerts has been our central guide in the argument against the transition from print to digital forms of reading and writing. We are also thinking about ways to counter an argument–our own as well as others.
We found one example in Carr’s article: recall when he turns toward the end and admits that he might be worrying too much and invites us to be skeptical of his skepticism. That is a basic form of counterargument, located at the end; in effect, it is his last section of the argument, leading in to his conclusion.
Janet Murray’s introduction to Hamlet on the Holodeck, “A Book Lover Longs for Cyberdrama,” presents the whole of the argument as a counterargument. Note how she sets this up with her title and the epigraph, quoting Birkerts. She then extends counterargument by also entertaining an objection toward the end (much like Carr does): admitting (p. 7) that new technologies can be frightening, despite (or in counter to) her own argument that the computer is a “thrilling extension of human powers” (6).
For another example of countering the argument that the electronic age represents a “Frankenstein’s monster,” consider Robert Darnton’s “5 Myths About the ‘Information Age’.” There the approach is to counter, point by point, and very strongly, assertions made by the likes of Birkerts regarding the influence of the information age on reading and books.
Are you smart or stupid as a result of using Google or Wikipedia or Facebook or other social media for the last 5 or six years of your life? Are you stronger or in some way a different reader or writer as a result of such digital media than say you might have been beforehand (if there is such a thing for you)? Smarter, as a result, than a parent or grandparent?
We will end our course thinking and reading more directly about these issues of digital media and literacy–as they come up in Birkerts’s concerns about the “fate of reading in an electronic age” that we will explore in our third writing project (The Future of Wreading). I also want to begin here, since these questions provoke some reflection about our own practice and processes as readers and writers. And this course, from start to finish, is very much about better understanding and improving upon that practice.
Two recently published works that take up the question that concerns Sven Birkerts (author of one of our texts, The Gutenberg Elegies) and that we will be exploring throughout the course: what becomes of our brain and intellect (generally speaking), and of our ability to read and write (more specifically)?
Birkerts, we will see, argues that the answer is disturbing.
Clay Shirky, in Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, argues very much in opposition to Birkerts: things are better–and things were much worse with the invention of television. [link to a review of this text]
Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, offers something of a middle ground. The internet and digital technology have affected the ways we think, write, read–and some are unsettling; but writing itself is a technology that has served other disruptions in the past (including the invention of the printing press). This book originated as an article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid.” We will be reading the article toward the end of the class when we focus on the emergence of digital and electronic literature. [link to a review of The Shallows]
In our initial readings and writing, we will be reflecting on our own histories as readers and writers. I suspect that like more and more of us these days, your history is a blend of the old (Gutenberg’s machine, the book reproducible in print) and the new (digital reproduction and networked communication). What about that experience? How have they informed how you read and write? What might you do with them, now?
In response to Gerald Graff’s notion of “hidden intellectualism” (a way of ‘forwarding’ his thinking into this topic of digital literacy), I am beginning to wonder if the use of Google, and more broadly, the various ways we read, write, and think in digital media, is another form of hidden intellectualism. That is to say, is the fear that Google is making us stupid really just another discounting of non-book smarts, of alternatives kinds of intelligence that a student might develop just as he might with a book? Is there hidden intelligence, for example, in the use of Facebook, a blog, a video game, and so on?
I am not a gamer, and have limited use of social media, primarily blogging. However, I have come, more and more, to make extensive use of Google for my scholarship, for the reading and writing that I do as a literary scholar. I spend a good bit of time reading books, particularly from the 19th century, in Google Books. Later in the course (when we read the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid”), I will share with you some of my Google insights. For now, I leave with that implication: that the fear of Google or Wikipedia or other newer media sites for literacy–the end of the book fear–may be, at least in part, just more of the same fear of intellectualism (as Graff puts it) by non-traditional means.
In his distinctions between book and computer, page and screen, reading and browsing (or some other form of digital doing), Birkerts consistently views the book as pre-technology–and everything that comes in the 20th century and after as technological interruptions of the book-based world. We have seen in some places, particularly the beginning of chapter 3, that he opens the door onto the view that books themselves are a product of technology–that Gutenberg’s press is a powerful machine. But doesn’t spend much time looking through that door.
This recent piece from the New York Times on Learning Machines in the classroom reminds us that, indeed, various writing technologies and machines have long been a part of our learning–because writing and reading is always technological in some form. The pencil, for example, or the chalk board. Technology doesn’t mean it has a plug. The implication from the slide show is that the iPad may well be the slate/chalk board, remediated. We will return to this idea in coming sections of the course–particularly when we think about film as a remediation of a novel.
So, as you work on drafting and revising and editing your first writing project, recognize that you are working on machines: not just the computer you are using for word processing, or the blog I am asking you to post the work to–but the writing itself, and the book you have been reading and are responding to. All of these are part of a machinery and technology of information and ideas we call literacy. That doesn’t mean, however, that your writing (or reading) can only be ‘mechanical.’ In fact, as I am suggesting to you, good, thoughtful, imaginative, and rhetorically effective writing and argument is all of that because the writer has learned how to use the machine and get behind the curtain.
Consider, as an example, this other piece from the Times, an argument for use of technology in learning by Jaron Lanier: what I notice is the effective narrative style of the argument, guided by his use of personal reflection. The mechanics of the writing (moving from paragraph to paragraph) enable the argument to seem–well, human, rather than mechanical.