In Defense of the Digital, or: The Internet Didn’t Kill Paperbacks, Literacy, or Dinosaurs

January 20, 2010

Recently, I’ve been re-reading a collection of essays by one of my favorite authors, Jonathan Franzen.  One thing that stood out to me about How to Be Alone is its strong anti-technological bias.  The reticence of most self-proclaimed writers to embrace a new way of reading and writing is staggering to me.  I live by the argument that the texts we are seeing created online are just as valid as those anywhere else – and that those that live on will do so because of their relevancy not only to the present moment, but to the canonical works and established theoretical concepts that they are referencing.

I don’t know if Franzen’s changed his mind since he published How To Be Alone in 2002, but I certainly hope that anyone considering the validity of his arguments will pause and consider my rebuttals to Franzen’s arguments. Let’s start by addressing Franzen’s fear that the Internet is turning us into consumers of media rather than active readers:

the life I understand by way of books feels increasingly lonely. It has little to do with the mediascape that constitutes so many other people’s present. For every reader who dies today, a viewer is born.

Certain writers seem to think that it’s acceptable to categorically argue against all digital media, as though every hypertext were created equally.  This is as ludicrous as saying that the trade paperback I pick up in an airport is the same as Proust’s In Search of Lost Time because, after all, they are both printed texts.  No matter what the medium, there will always be media that is created solely to be consumed, and there will also be texts that are created to engage a reader, to encourage thought and discourse.  Such texts DO exist in digital format – if you have never had the pleasure of reading one, I encourage you to examine, The Electronic Literature Organization, or UBUWeb.  (If you would like a recommendation of exemplary texts to start with, I would recommend The Dreamlife of Letters by Brian Kim Stefans, Talking Cure by Noah Wardrip-Fruin, or the Derridean masterpiece that is L0tus Bl0ss0m by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries.)

Digital media can be just as relevant to the canon as print media.  Nor is all activity that takes place in front of a screen passive.  The argument that digital media estranges us from being literate in language – spoken and written – is completely, utterly, false.  Digital media consumed for pure entertainment value isn’t going to be educational, but it seems like Franzen just dipped his toe into the Internet and drew conclusions before encountering the digital texts that create the same readerly experience as books. (And again: there are plenty of books out there that are just as mind-numbing as a gossip blog or prime-time TV show.)  As thousands of newspapers and magazines find their physical copies too bloated  to turn a profit when published, we find them reincarnating themselves online.  How, exactly, are these less relevant, less educational,  less informative than their printed counterparts?

From this, Franzen uses theory by Sven Birkerts to fire a more pointed shot: Books teach us how to be alone  and clicking through a hypertext or watching a film is a less meditative experience, which he quantifies only by saying that  “‘domination by the author’ has been the point of reading and writing thus far.”  Franzen resolutely echoes Birkets’ argument that “the reader goes to the work to be subjected to the creative will of another” and that the future is bleak, where “efficient and prosperous information managers [are] living in the shadows of what it means to be human and not knowing the difference.”

To this I say: Franzen, Birkets, you are both full of shit.  Have you so little faith in humanity that you think that it is going to self-select a future without literature, without art, without meaningful experiences that take place outside of a screen?  Do you really think that self-proclaimed geeks such as myself have not considered your interests as well?  Do you really think we’ve just conspired to call books obsolete and hand everyone a Kindle while we torch the libraries?  Come on.

But no, he doesn’t stop there.  The tirade continues:

‘the more complex and sophisticated our systems of lateral access, the more we sacrifice in the way of depth.'[…] Instead of Manassas battlefield, a historical theme park. Instead of organizing narratives, a map of the world as complex as the world itself. Instead of a soul, membership in a crowd. Instead of wisdom, data.

To be fair, Wikipedia was new when Franzen wrote this essay, but he either hadn’t used it yet or discounted the role it would play in the shape of the collective consciousness of the Internet.  Perhaps it’s a bit much to expect a well-respected writer who is generally judged to be well-informed to take stock of things like the open-source movement when making arguments as hyperbolic as the one above, but I live in a world where increased access to not only read but edit or create information has radically shaped the way we view history, and attendantly, the future.  The digital divide is declining, information access is becoming less and less a privilege and more and more the basic human right that it should be, and as it does, I see a world where people have equal opportunity to create texts – maybe not the ones Franzen is used to, but he has no excuse to discount an entire medium because of his personal discomfort with where this shift leaves him as reader or author.

By the end of the essay, the urge to ask Franzen “what are you really afraid of?!” was overwhelming. (Notable concluding sentences include “I rue the onset of an age so anxious that the pleasure of a text becomes difficult to sustain,” and “the first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone.”)

I don’t believe for a second that a decline in literacy, in engaging with texts in that special-meditiative-way that Franzen seems to think only books can provide, is imminent with the increasing popularity of digital communications.  But, if that is Franzen’s concern (or yours, dear reader), I encourage you to read the works of educational technologists concerning the matter. – Fear 2.0 is a great place to start.  Fear 2.0 will also help address some concerns over technology’s effects on literacy, which seem to be a concern of Franzen’s.  To which, I’d like to offer the succinct rebuttal: It’s the educational system, stupid.  And in lieu of a massive overhaul of American schools that a majority of taxpayers will never approve, we need to make as much information and educational means as available as possible.  Not everyone has the luxury of learning through books and professors – but that doesn’t make them less capable of learning and enjoying their textual experience.  Franzen seems to have forgotten that not everyone has a choice in how they engage with a text, and notably absent is his concern for how printed media killed the tradition of oral storytelling (because it didn’t). Similarly, printed texts will live on in an age of textual experiences that are increasingly digital.  Literacy isn’t dying – the ways we experience and author texts are simply changing.  They have before, they will again, and the ways we learn need to change, too – they can begin with an open mind and a willingness to seek out good texts (in all available formats) and promote them in order to enrich the community.


One Response to “In Defense of the Digital, or: The Internet Didn’t Kill Paperbacks, Literacy, or Dinosaurs”

  1. […] past few years, its mainstream practice has changed significantly. I’ve been a champion for the way the Internet is changing writing for quite some time, and I’ll continue to be, but when I think of the Internet’s […]

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