We conclude Project 3 with a debate. Claim: The influence of digital media/the electronic age on literature (and more broadly, on communication and thinking) has been harmful; and we need to make changes, or at the very least be careful.
As we also turn toward the final project, consider this argument from Project 3 by a former student, revised and extended for the final project. (And note the digital extension at the end, Part II).
[Project 3, revised and expanded for Final Project]
Part I: Hypertext Literature’s Influence on the Modern World
Technology has been causing a shift in the way that people process information and deduce meaning from everything, especially when it comes to literature. Many, like outraged author Sven Birkerts of “The Gutenberg Elegies”, are concerned that the transformation that is occurring in our society may even spell out the death of the book and a decline in the amount of meaningful literature being created. While there is no extensive evidence as of yet, it is also widely believed that the changes occurring in the processes by which we read and absorb information may actually be causing the reshaping of the neural circuitry of our minds. Troubled author Nicholas Carr asserts in his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” that the accommodations that our brains have been making to assimilate new technologies may also be altering the mind’s ability to create and detect meaning in classical literature, (np). While it’s indisputable that technology has been causing a transformation in the world of literature and elsewhere, it’s very important to note that it is far too early in this new age to be passing judgment. These technologies are still incredibly young, not yet perfected, and are simply the result of the natural progression of literature. They cannot be and should not be written off before their untapped resources are explored. In fact, the internet–and the hypertext and multimedia literature that has been borne of it–may be opening us to a whole new world of untold possibilities.
Janet Murray–a humanities professor in the “world-class electronic toy shop of MIT”, a Victorian enthusiast, and an education-focused software designer–explains in the introduction to her novel, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, that not everyone is as wary about the transformation. She remarks that the projects that her “cyber-literature” students are coming up with are proving that the medium of technology may give authors–fresh-faced and seasoned alike–an opportunity to express themselves in a medium that does not limit them to just the printed page. Murray believes that multi-media literature has opened the door to untold possibilities in the world of literature, “The combination of text, video, and navigable space suggested that a computer-based microworld need not be mathematical but could be shaped as a dynamic fictional universe with characters and events,” (6). Murray sees the internet as an extension of our own capabilities, and as an incredible tool–still in its larval stage–that can bridge the gap between our desire to share and our limited ability to do so; to express both the most inner workings of a single individual and the vast complexities of the collective world simultaneously, “I see glimmers of a medium that is capacious and broadly expressive, a medium capable of capturing both the hairbreadth movements of individual human consciousness and the colossal crosscurrents of global society,” (9). She, like me, believes that the tools the internet continue to provide may allow authors and creators alike to reach previously insurmountable expressive heights.
In another particularly powerful moment, Murray points out after a wearying battle with an impassioned Shakespearean scholar that “we cling to books as if we truly believed that coherent human thought is only possible on bound, numbered pages,” (7). We wouldn’t limit ourselves and our thoughts to one medium in the three-dimensional world, so why would we treat literature–the brainchild of thought–any differently? And she’s entirely right to use the word “bound” here, as words printed on the page are completely static, and their meaning entirely dependent on the reader’s ability to infuse their own meaning into them. Hypertext literature allows its readers to explore its intended meaning straight from the source; as often the authors themselves are the puppet master behind every element of the story, including the coding of the text. As long as there are stories and as long as there are people to listen to them, every story will have as many different meanings as it does listeners. However, what the author gains with this new technology is the ability to make certain that their own meaning is not drowned out by the wayward interpretations of others. There will always be room in a story–hypertext or not–for a reader to infuse their own context, that is the root of accessibility, but with this new type of literature, readers will be building only on the foundations that the author has laid out for them. I truly believe this ongoing shift from printed to multimedia literature indicates that we are on the precipice of a revolution, one that will prove to promote innovation, creation, ease of use, efficiency, and countless forms of new technology that will mark the evolution of literacy, not the destruction of it. The death of the book is, after all, neither welcomed nor expected by the growing acceptance and use of these new mediums in our world. Common ancestors do not die out when they propagate new life, and in such the same way, multi-media will grow of the book, not away from it. The introduction of multimedia and hypertext literature will not nullify the achievements of printed literature, but will instead expand on them.
Sadly, however, hypertext literature has been confronted with just as much skepticism as its conduit. According to people like Sven Birkerts, hypertext literature cannot be considered “true” literature and therefore cannot be worth reading because it lacks the depth present in classic literature; but that simply cannot be true. While beauty is in the eye of beholder, it is widely believed that art–and literature as a facet–are successful only if they evoke something in their audience; some emotion, a hard-to-describe feeling, anything. And the hypertext poem “Faith”, written by Robert Kendall, does exactly what Birkert’s claims it is incapable of: it inspires. Kendall’s poem garners its very meaning from the use of technology. With the use of coding and magic, Kendall guides and inspires his readers through a step-by-step journey of his own writing process. In fact, without the use of movement on the screen–entirely credited to his use of the tools that these new technologies have provided–the poem would not have been nearly as poignant. I got so much more out of this poem by physically watching it unfold word by sentence by thought then I would have had I simply read it in its entirety printed on a page. Kendall uses technology to take his readers on an adventure from the birth of his idea to the final executions of the language he uses to shape, flesh out, and express it. The problem with a lot of poetry is, after all, that the author’s meaning, what he or she actually set out to express, often gets lost in the muddied interpretations of its readers. With this multimedia poem, Kendall’s true meaning rings out loud and clear. This poem is not read, it is experienced. Multimedia literature–as made evident by this poem and by thousands of others like it–provokes as much thought, evokes as much emotion, and involves the audience as much if not more than any classic literature I have ever read. And by meeting those standards, set out by perhaps hypertext’s most vigilant critic himself, it proves itself worthy.
However, my personal experience with multimedia literature doesn’t do much in the way of convincing, and as Murray points out, “The birth of new medium of communication is both exhilarating and frightening. Any industrial technology that dramatically extends our capabilities also makes us uneasy by challenging our concept of humanity itself”, and that seems to ring especially true with the opponents of hypertext literature. But what everyone seems to be conveniently forgetting is that technology is what started it all, especially when it comes to literature. The printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439, decades before even the American continent was discovered. At the time, thousands of people were wary about the infusion of literature into the everyman’s experience, as literacy tended to breed uprisings and all kinds of problems for the ruling class. But what no one could have predicted, however, was the absolutely enormous influence the printing press would have. It changed every single aspect of life for the people of the world. All of the sudden, entire populations were learning how to read, expanding their minds, inventing, exploring, discovering, creating, and all in the active pursuit of knowledge brought on by easy accessibility to the printed word. The invention of the printing press sparked the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, and led to so many countless new technologies, theories, and efficiencies that I couldn’t even begin to name them. This is the natural progression of our species; we sit and think on some problem for a great long while, we finally make some solution happen, nay-sayers and worshippers alike cry out, and then, often regardless of the public’s reaction, that new technology makes a shift in the world. Eventually, those changes have all proved to serve us and to improve our quality of life. The internet and hypertext, multimedia literature are simply in their “outcry” phase. I believe that once the dust settles, we will be left with a tool just as mighty and powerful as the printing press before it, we are simply following in the footsteps of our own ancestors before us.
All that being said, there are probably hundreds of thousands of people who are still unsettled by the shift occurring in our world right now. And to be entirely truthful, those concerns are not completely unfounded. For example, Nicholas Carr, a kind of spokesperson for the healthily open-minded and skeptical, believes that if we make efficiency and immediacy our priorities with literature, we “may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace”. And he’s got a point; the types of long, verbose novels that have come out of the invention of the printing press are definitely getting a little tougher to swallow. But I think the cause of that problem is a lot simpler than it may at first appear: just like a child’s favorite toy will inevitably be passed up for a newer, shinier version, so will it always be harder for a reader to engage in a long, complex, linear story printed on a page when they have experienced other complex worlds–co-authored by both writer and technology–that allow them to experience the same story with more than just their imaginations. Technology has made way for a way new kind of story-telling: an experience of the senses. Anyone who has embraced these new technologies has become accustomed to being completely engrossed; eyes, ears, and minds, into the worlds that are being created for them by a medium that uses multiple forms of media. Over time those changes in the way we experience our content have reflected themselves as changes even in the way our brains process new things. It makes absolute sense that people would have a hard time concentrating on and engaging with novels, because they are simply not as engaging as the new types of literature readers have been experimenting with.
However, Carr is right when he points out that “never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives-or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts-as the Internet does today.” But I don’t think he’s really considering the reasons why that would be happening. The internet is a tool that can make almost every single aspect of daily life go a little bit smoother. It’s a tool that can be used to do literally anything it is programmed to do. Could I sit in the library stacks, combing through text after text, running my finger and my eyes endlessly down the page searching for that perfect quote I read once in seventh grade? Absolutely. But, do I have the time or the inclination to be doing that on a daily basis? Not at all. The internet gives us the opportunity to explore whole world if we have a few minutes to kill. I know that the argument that Carr is making here is that that all that time spent doing one thing–like reading an 800-page novel–is incredibly valuable, and I think he’s entirely right. But should that mean that people should not also spend their time finding meaning in short little poems that quite literally sing and dance their way across the page? I don’t believe so. Time spent experiencing literature is incredibly valuable, but what Carr is missing is that literature doesn’t have to be experienced solely on the printed page.
Readers who experience hypertext literature are connecting sensory memories; like sound, and sight, with their thoughts and memories. With novels, you can only have thought. If anything, these new forms of literature are opening us up to deeper levels of contemplation. Birkerts takes Carr’s argument a step further: “[Hypertext forms of literature] are not only extensions of the senses, they are extensions of the senses that put us in touch with the extended senses of others,” (224). He is concerned that the Internet’s ultimate goal is to forge connections between every person in the world, turning the individual perspective into a global one. He goes on to say “The end of it all…is a kind of amniotic environment of impulses, a condition of connectedness,” (224), but I really don’t see a problem with that. He uses the image of an amniotic environment, and I think, like Murray’s use of the word “bound” to describe the words printed on a page, that he’s chosen a really appropriate metaphor. The internet and its brain children are still so incredibly young. The symbol he’s provided for us is one of growth, and one of hope. Absolutely endless possibilities have come out of this new form of technology already, and I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that Birkerts wants to stomp it out before it has even had a chance to grow. What might be happening is a sort of social adaptation, a change that will yield a possibly better world. To give all of that hope and opportunity away to revert back to our old ways would only seem to me to be simply barbaric and cowardly. It’s in our blood to move forward, to keep ourselves rooted in the past would be to deny our always striving minds.
So, to summarize: yes, changes are occurring. But are they deviating from the point of literature? Absolutely not. In fact, these new forms of literature are proving to be really promising mediums for expression. Just as a painting and a sculpture can be equally beautiful, a poem written with code and a poem printed in a book can elicit equally powerful responses in their readers, which is, after all, the point. The changes that technology is eliciting in our world–and their endless possibilities–may just yield greater opportunities for human expression than ever before. After all, shutting out and preventing change does nothing but assure that nothing better will ever come. Taking a chance with this new medium may leave us at square one or, as I believe, may take us much further than we’ve even been before. Kendall’s hypertext poem closes with the final line, “faith is nothing but a giant leap”, and I think it’s about time we make it.
Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994. Print.
Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Atlantic 1 July 2008: n. pag. Web. 23 Apr. 2014.
Kendall, Robert. “Faith.” Faith. Cauldron & Net, 1 Aug. 2002. Web. 23 Apr. 2014.
Murray, Janet Horowitz. “A Book Lover Longs for Cyberdrama.” Introduction. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: Free, 1997. 1-10. Print
WC Honor Code: Caitrin Doyle 5/7/14
Can real conversation take place through digital mediation? Sherry Turkle argues that conversation needs to be reclaimed, that it has been diminished as a result of algorithmic thinking and an avoidance of ambiguity and even boredom that digital communication media trade upon. Conversation, much as Birkerts would say of reading, is in the age of digital information (and attention) always elsewhere.
McLuhan, writing at the beginnings of the electronic age of information, focuses our attention somewhat differently. He offers something of a counter to Turkle and Birkerts, though one could argue as well that his historical view also provides evidence for their concerns. He helps us see where we seem to be going, even from a vantage point of 5o years ago. For McLuhan, electronic media extend and amplify our desire, and our ability, to have conversation. But rather than seeing that as a distraction to be avoided, McLuhan celebrates the ways this mediation returns us to a collaborative and participatory conversation with others. For McLuhan–and this is where he would counter Birkerts–that conversation prominent in oral culture was fundamentally changed by print literacy, the technology of the alphabet.
I am still working through my answer to this question: Can conversation (and its extensions of relevance to education: reading, learning, presentation, writing), can real conversation take place through digital mediation? I, too, am sorting through whose critical perspectives I will forward and counter, on the way to developing my answer.
I had a recent encounter with a highly mediated, digital conversation about a book and an author who was, among other things, intensely suspicious of our tendency to let communication technology (more than 150 years ago) take the place of meaningful communication. I participated as a guest scholar in a live streaming webcast on the media site HuffPost Live discussing the question “Does Henry David Thoreau Really Matter?” I discussed my perspectives on Thoreau and his famous book Walden, a book I have taught often in my environmental writing classes. In the discussion, I countered a recent article that asserted that Thoreau’s book was not worth reading.
The experience was mediated and the conversation was virtual. But this mediated conversation extended a desire I had to respond to this article, to articulate my thoughts and concerns on its limitations, and be informed by others, by what I didn’t understand. That is the purpose of a conversation. This one worked well because of the occasion, the motivation. We did, in fact, have something to say–and the distances between the people having the conversation mattered not, what mattered was the rhetorical purpose. And it also worked, I believe, because the mediated experience was further guided by the care for time, rather than speed. The conversation was given time to unfold, to take place, even if that place was in several places at the same time.
Some things for me to keep thinking about as we continue to work through what it means to read and write in the digital world.
Some insights for us to forward from Murray and Piper as we consider reading, rather, or also, as playing a game or counting numbers.
A key idea from Murray’s introduction to Hamlet on the Holodeck:
The computer is not the enemy of the book. It is the child of print culture…. I find myself anticipating a new kind of storyteller, one who is half hacker, half bard” (8-9).
A key idea from Piper’s argument in “By the Numbers”:
When we read a digital text we are not reading a static object. We are reading one that has been generated through a set of procedural conditions that depend on our interaction with them. Digital texts are never just there. They are called forth through computation and interaction, whether by a human or a machine. This is what makes them dynamic, not static objects. It is this freature that marks the single strongest dividing line between the nature of books and that of their electronic counterparts. (Book Was There, 132)
Some electronic and computational or algorithmic texts to consider, in response to Janet Murray and Andrew Piper.
Piper argues that “playing with texts has always been at the heart of reading” (140). Has playing been at the heart of some of your reading experiences? If not, could you argue that reading texts is at the heart of gaming? What does it mean to game? How is that similar to, and different from, reading or interpreting?
There are many events on campus that focus on what we are focusing on in class: the intellectual conversation of writing, reading, critical thinking and creative expression. A successful student at Washington College will explore these events and experiences, and do so right away, not wait until she or he is a senior. With that in mind, as a way to encourage you to attend at least one event this semester, I will offer extra credit to your final participation grade if you attend one of several events or readings or workshops and then write a 1-2 page review of it (describe the focus of the event, your reflections, anything you might apply to your own writing, reading, thinking that you encountered during the event).
In order to receive the credit, you must post the review to your blog and then link that post to this page (copy the link of the post into the comment/reply box below).
Here are some of the many events.
Our focal point in the first project was critical reflection. There are two places you can see this critical reflection emerge in an essay and think about, going into the next project, how you can continue to develop it: a strong thesis (the critical focus that will help you develop the reflection); strong development in your body paragraphs (in this assignment, thoroughly exploring/supporting your definition of reading/writing from your own experience).
Some examples to consider from writers in the class.
- Notice the way Alex effectively sets up her thesis in response to what others might think (naysayers) and in response to her own earlier views. This simply, but effectively, provides context for her conversation (why is she talking to us about reading and writing? the basic tension provides a reason, a problem she is exploring) and focus for her thesis: her response will focus on writing having a greater creative purpose.
- Some people may balk at the idea of writing being an enjoyable experience. Those naysayers may figure that it is a waste of time that could be spent elsewhere, and an activity reserved only for people who have nothing better to do with their free time. I am simply not one of those people; I love to write whenever I possibly can. Writing has always been such a large part of most of my eighteen years of life that I simply do not understand when one believes that it has served no greater purpose to them besides the occasional assigned academic essay. Writing can be cathartic, it can be creative, and it can allow people to express themselves in ways they would never have dreamed of. However, despite my current love of writing and defining myself as a writer, I was not always that way.
- Notice the way Emily develops her reflection (across several paragraphs) by combining a detailed narrative of an earlier writing experience with critical reflection (returning to her thesis) that distinguishes her view from Birkerts.
- And no one else had any clue what was happening or why, either. My middle-school self had only understood it because the details of the story originated in her head, and all she had to do was read them there. She connected with Elizabeth because Elizabeth washer, and the parts that weren’t drawn directly from her life were things that she wished she could have. To further demonstrate how closely Elizabeth and that past version of myself were intertwined I need only to point out that this novel was written in first person.
- This is where I question Birkerts’ notion of writing as a process of “treating our experience as a text.” (111) I feel that experiences, memories, and values can guide your depictions, but the overall story has to be based on something bigger than yourself. By using only my own hopes and dreams as a model I completely neglected huge parts of Elizabeth’s world and thus limited people’s ability to connect with it, because their experiences aren’t the same as mine. This convinces me that writing should be a reading of the world, an interpretation and transmission of myriad aspects of life and multiple experiences, not simply my own. Thus, writing becomes in some ways an interactive activity, where you purposefully extend yourself (in the form of your values and world views) outward rather than retreating inside yourself as Birkerts’ phrasing suggests.
Introductions: Chris offers a good example of the way a strong introduction can both engage in its opening as well as work towards laying out a clear thesis, what the focus of the argument will be. A good introduction works well by starting the kind of thinking that the essay will be getting into.
- My favorite quote in the Harry Potter series is one from Albus Dumbledore. He is talking to Harry after Harry has been hit with the killing curse in the forest. Harry questions if what is happening is real or in his head; Dumbledore looks at Harry and says, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” This quote is essentially how I define reading. While some people see reading as words on a page, it is so much more to me. Reading is an active experience; it takes the imagination and past experiences to fully immerse oneself in a book. When I read, I put myself in the middle of the story, allowing my mind to create scenes and visualize the events that are happening. The book becomes as much a part of my thoughts and my life as any real life experience. My past experiences help me to shape and fully immerse myself in what I am reading. Birkerts shares these feelings, saying that to read a book we need to replace our reality with that of the characters, and use what we know to create their world. This is where reading begins to become personal. Our own experiences shape what we see within stories, but in the same sense this brings back the social aspect of novels too. The reason a book becomes popular is because people can relate to it. If a book is only applicable to a few people, it won’t be as popular as something everyone can share some experience with. Contrary to Birkerts, I feel that along with being private, reading is very much a social experience, and without this dualism, one cannot fully experience reading.
Conclusions: Something we will work on throughout the semester. My suggestion is to experiment; try more than one (there is more than one way to do it). And think about raising larger implications at the end: what’s next, given this argument? where does this leave you, or the rest of us, if we accept this argument? Are there further complications you might want to pursue in a larger project that grow out of this?
A world-renowned psychologist and writer who focuses on the effects of digital technology on the self will be visiting campus next Thursday, February 3. She will be lecturing in Litrenta lecture hall at 5 pm. Because her focus very much relates to the focus of Birkerts in Gutenberg Elegies, I highly recommend you attend the lecture. I am interested to know how her current work responds to, forwards, and/or counters the kind of argument that Birkerts makes in his book from almost 20 years ago.
This isn’t required, but worth checking out. This would be a great event to do for Extra Credit.
A collection of final projects from Literature and Composition: Gutenberg Progenies
And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. [Mary Shelley]
To publish your final project in this magazine, post the address of your portfolio (from your blog) in reply to this page. Include in the post the title of your essay.