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    Monday, May 15, 2006

    Scan This Book!

    It's basically a cliche at this point that technology interferes with the creation and maintenance of "community" and "human connection". It is nearing cliche that the Internet (and in the last several months, we've heard about the virtual "public square" that is MySpace until some of us probably perished from it) is actually supplanting older forms of "community", in fact reinventing "community" for a more global era.

    Last week, in a graduate seminar, we got involved in a discussion of "community" and its disintegration or not, which quickly broke down generationally. The over-40s fell into the former camp described above, while the 20-and-30-somethings fell into the latter. "Fell" is not the right word, perhaps it would be more accurately expressed by "seized"; it was a passionate argument, rife with self-righteousness and honest puzzlement. It was all these things because, like most arguments so easily broken down, its participants settled for a polarizing frustration and ideological purity over a material examination which would have inevitably led to further hybridity.

    Now, perhaps I try a little too hard to be fair. In all honesty, the parameters of the debate were set up by the professor (50-something, firmly in the "community is knowing one's neighbors" camp) and we 20-and-30-somethings were left with few avenues for dismantling them. However, our perspectives did seem more nuanced and more open to (if briefly and haphazardly) concepts of hybridity and salad-bowl-style functions and manifestations of community.

    I think the contrast can be explained not simply by the generally fuller engagement of young people with these technologies, but by the cause of the older people's common disengagement: many baby boomers and those older than them are actually hostile to technology. (Now, I know there's a "digital divide" even amongst the young, but let me be clear on who was in this room. We are all grad students, the class was 75% male, 25% female, and split 50/50 white and black. We all are currently living in New York City or its surrounding areas, though we come from areas as disparate as Colorado, Mississippi, Florida, Rhode Island, etc. Certainly a more diverse selection of people could be found, so I intend to extrapolate from this discussion only to a point, and will speak in terms more general than I typically prefer.)

    I think the hostility to technology comes from a notion that it is "taking over" rather than simply becoming one (well, far more than one, I suppose) option amongst a multiplicity of "communities" or mechanisms for the creation and maintenance of "communities".

    One person brought up, to refute my "multiplicities of communities" claim, his closeted gay roommate who has no offline relationships, whether platonic or romantic, and is estranged also from his family. The grad student was concerned about the welfare of his roommate who was finding sexual partners online for "real-life" encounters via craigslist. This student posited that the Internet actually made it possible for his roommate not to "come out" (and here it was assumed that "coming out" was always necessary and positive) or form "real" relationships with other men and that, because he could find sexual partners online, he was able to put himself at greater physical danger.

    I countered his argument, saying that this roommate would have been even more unlikely to "come out" in the pre-Internet era and would have simply shown up regularly at gay cruising spots looking for sexual partners, rather than trolling craigslist. The internet moves the tearoom into the private sphere which is unlikely to make the people engaging in anonymous sex more vulnerable than they already are (though it may be true that this anonymous sex requires a bit less work to achieve than before), but in fact makes them less vulnerable for a couple of reasons, which can be boiled down to one maxim: public sex is dangerous. Dangerous because of cops, dangerous because of gay-bashers. At the same time, though many gay liberationists bemoan the diminishment of public sex acts, there is little evidence to suggest that these acts are happening less frequently. A person who wishes to participate in anonymous sex is just offered more possibilities for finding it, negotiating it, and having it.

    At the same time, I found it depressing that the roommate had isolated himself and chose only human companionship that was mediated by technology. While I have had a great many vibrant relationships via the internet (as I did with penpals before I was aware of the internet), I have also had irreplacable connections to people in my physical presence which I would not wish to sacrifice. And, finally, these two ways of connecting are not mutually exclusive. People find each other online and meet in person; if I didn't have email, I would be able to maintain a lot fewer of the relationships that I began offline. MySpace pages are primarily inhabited by people with offline points of (initial) engagement, but their communities expand with the integration of purely "online friends". Again, not one of these forms of relationship need bring about The End of the others. Whether one is superior to another seems deeply subjective. But I don't have qualms saying that most people are better off with a variety of points of human connection and multiple sites of "community participation". Put simply: I don't want to have to choose my online friendships or offline friendships, nor do I think such a thing is actually very practical.

    Which brings me to the big article in this week's Sunday Times Magazine, Kevin Kelley's Scan This Book. It's actually quite well-written and readable while eager to advance an argument about the health of all media and culture. The writer is infectiously optimistic about the possibilities opened by a confluence of electronic media with print media.

    I not only recommend, I demand, that you read the whole article, partly because I'm not educated enough on the issues to poke holes in it, I just sort of float atop Kelley's arguments. I searched around for people discussing the article and found that Technorati was not yet bursting with blog-blather on it, but I did find this by T. Scott which is much like my main point:

    Flipping through the magazine provides further evidence that this whole discussion about digital vs. print, and when print is going to disappear completely is entirely wrong-headed. Print does different things than digital. Rolling Stone has a good website and does things there that can't even be imagined in print -- but that doesn't make the print version an anachronism. Both exist together quite comfortably. (Has anyone noticed how effectively NPR has melded radio & web?) As I pointed out at the NASIG meeting (repeating a constant theme of mine), new technologies rarely completely displace older ones -- they achieve different things and the older technologies find new niches. Far from approaching the end of print, I believe we're entering a golden age. Most of the material that a library like mine is interested in may be better handled digitally, but the physical book will continue to be the preferred technology for many purposes. ...

    Photography didn't kill painting and vinyl records didn't eliminate the desire to go to the concert hall. I still carry around a fountain pen and fine stationery when I travel because that's the best technology for writing love letters to Lynn. And did you see that young couple laughing and giggling together in the horse & buggy on the 16th street mall in Denver last week?

    But, I needed a devil's advocate, since I sensed I was being taken in a little thoughtlessly. As a scholar and writer, I can't help obsessing over how much richer and easier it would make it for me to do the work I want to do. To the rescue was Nicholas Carr on his Rough Type blog:

    It sounds beguiling, but as with most utopian visions Kelly's conjuring of a literary "liquid fabric" subtly distorts the past even as it imagines a future that will never arrive. Book knowledge was never a "static world," and books were never, as Kelly suggests, "isolated items, independent from one another, [each] pretty much unaware of the ones next to it [on the shelf]." Books have always been parts of a broader conversation, their words woven together by both the art of the writer and the intelligence of the reader. No good book has ever been read - or written - in isolation. All literature is a mashup.

    What Kelly is really suggesting is that the process of literary synthesis - which might also be called the process of reading - can be mechanized and automated, made radically more efficient through the application of computer technology. It can be accelerated to net speed, as the mindlessness of the crowd replaces the mindfulness of the individual reader, as the cut-and-pasting of snippets replaces the slow accumulation of paragraphs, as search-fueled link-hopping replaces contemplation.

    The problem with Kelly's case is that it's completely unsubstantiated. There's no argument, only picture-painting. He does a great job of describing a utopian orgy of communal surf-reading, but he provides no evidence that this orgy will either happen as he describes it or, if it does, that it will make us smarter or wiser or otherwise better, either individually or as a society. There's actually already a great deal of literature available in digitized form online, complete with hyperlinks. If there is any evidence that it's making us better readers or improving our ability to make deep connections between works, I haven't seen it. More generally, where's the evidence that surfing linkwise through information brings us to a deeper understanding than old-fashioned, page-turning reading does? Again, I haven't seen it. Like the true believer he is, Kelly demands that we take his prophecy on faith.

    If we can use the internet to bring books to people who otherwise wouldn't have them, let's do it. But let's not demean the act of reading - and writing - in the process. Snippets, Kevin Kelly, aren't literature.

    Again, my automatic reaction is that, as books and electronic media are different, having both ways of interacting with texts seems ideal. But I may be missing something.

    I'll have to go over to Sivacracy which does a hell of a job covering Intellectual Property issues. In the meantime, feel free to jump in and educate me.


    Anonymous T Scott said...

    More thoughts on the Kelly article here: http://tscott.typepad.com/tsp/2006/05/books_are_more_.html

    9:56 AM  
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