On Franzen and Reading in the Digital Age

This blog post was originally published on the Meanin blog on March 16 2012

In January of this year, while speaking at the Hay Festival in Colombia, celebrated novelist Jonathan Franzen made some very silly comments about how we experience writing in the Digital Age.

He focused on the difference between a physical copy of a text, and one on a screen (I quote from The Guardian’s account).

“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.”

For serious readers, Franzen said, “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,” he continued. “Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball. 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.”

Putting aside for a moment the reasons why Franzen’s remarks are just plain old wrong, it is important to point out why they should be, prima facie, treated with a healthy dose of skepticism. It is the plain truth that there will never be a shortage of old people, or young traditionalists, ready to proclaim that any advance in technology coupled with observably altered social and civic habits constitutes a loss or degradation, a slide into barbarity. Comments like Franzen’s, and like many think-pieces on the effects of new media, are, when it comes down to it, borne from baseless fear of change. They instantiate the misguided notion that fundamental social changes—such as those instigated by the advent of the Digital Age—can be predicted to be either bad or good, and also the notion that bad and good ought to be applicable terminology to describe these changes. I personally have doubts about whether responsible thinkers should pass judgement on and recklessly speculate about the effects of major social changes, like the ones that digital technology are producing. The ethical thing, it seems to me, is to merely diligently describe the changes, although this is admittedly less fun (and I’m about to break my own rule below).

So to contest the actual content of Franzen’s remarks, I offer to you some loosely organised thoughts on digital text and permanence. Franzen contrasts the authority and permanence of the printed word (“they were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper”) with the apparent sense of constant revisabilty that digital text presents to us (“a screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around”). And to a certain extent he’s right. If one knows the first thing about Wikipedia and its associated sites (commonly taken by alarmists as the paradigm for new media discourse), it’s that anyone can edit it.

But Franzen fails to comprehend what comes after, or indeed what happens simultaneously: the automatic recording of the nature of the revision and the identity of the reviser. Look ye ‘pon the top right hand corner of a Wikipedia page and just beside the tabs helpfully labeled ‘Read’ and “Edit’, you can click on ‘View history’ and find yourself embroiled in a tedious, pedantic archive faithfully documenting every step on that page’s journey from ‘stub’ to public resource. If it is indeed a fact of discourse in the Digital Age that everything is revisable, then it’s corollary may be that it shall always be a simple matter to know that something has been revised and what manner of revision.

Acknowledging that not every instance of digital discourse is modelled upon Wikipedia’s charming technology, I draw your attention to ‘The Streisand Effect’, which refers the process wherein an attempt to censor or suppress a piece of information has the result of publicising that information all the more widely. This phenomenon was first observed in 2002, when lawyers on behalf of Barbara Streisand attempted to remove by legal injunction a picture of that singer’s beach side mansion from an online archive of 12,000 California coastline photographs. With public knowledge of the lawsuit came naturally public interest in the picture, and the photo which was previously accessed only six times was subsequently viewed by 420,000 over the following month. At a certain point the issue of removing the photo of Streisand’s house from the website became moot; it had already been reproduced over and over again in news stories worldwide. This is just another example of the way in which the mechanisms of the internet runs circles around attempts to edit, censor, or revise it. Also relevant is the Wayback Machine, run by the Internet Archive organisation. This is a so-called ‘digital time capsule’, allowing users to view archived versions of websites across time, giving access to beta versions of since radically redesigned pages, or now-deleted content, or even sites which are no longer live.

Franzen’s mistake is to think that the digital texts are like a chalkboard where things can be definitively erased and replaced. In fact they are more like Freud’s Mystic Writing Pad, where deletions always leave traces of themselves. When one considers the potential richness, both for readers and critics, of a text that carries with itself its own archaeological record (think of how our appreciation of an author is often enhanced by access to their archives, complete with abandoned manuscripts, early drafts, and correspondence with editors), the comparative poverty of mere books becomes evident.

Franzen contends that ‘permanence’, as opposed to ‘radical contingency’, is critical to responsible systems of government and justice, and he suggests that this permanence can only be found in physical texts. But books can be burned, or discontinued by publishers, or fall victim to water damage and rot. Whereas digital texts offers us a discourse that contains its own history and the means for its own reproduction. I have no doubt that censorship and the revision of written texts is antithetical to a successful democracy, but what is the consequence of revision when it is the object of public knowledge and permanent chronicle, as can be the case with websites? A culture built on such grounds may even be more sensitive to its own history, its past mistakes and triumphs, and even more sure-footed in self-awareness than a culture which subsists on physical texts.

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