Or “How I learned to stop worrying and love the screen.”
In the March 2nd edition of The Atlantic Sven Birkerts laments the way that the Kindle and other new technologies are eroding “a certain kind of cultural understanding.” This is not the first time Birkerts has made this appeal. His best known book, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, is an expanded version of this argument. The Kindle is just a convenient and timely vehicle for his longstanding critique of literacy in our digital age.
Birkerts’ reference to Gutenberg in the title of his book is fitting. As I read his article, I couldn’t help but thinking of a story Clay Shirky tells in his book Here Comes Everybody. Shirky writes about the scribes – an elite group of literate monks – whose job it was, for many centuries, to hand-copy books. That is, until the 1400’s when Gutenberg came along. “Suddenly,” writes Josh Benton, describing the scene, “scribes were no longer a necessary link between knowledge and learner.” And as the printing press spread across Europe, the scribes sounded remarkably like Birkerts, warning of all that we will lose if we allow technology to reshape reading.
Linear Context Versus Network Context
At the core of Birkerts’ argument is the notion of context. He claims that the physicality of reading printed books helps us situate the content of those texts within a historical and intellectual context and that without that context, all of literature is reduced to “free-floating items of information and expression.” In this digital age, Birkerts suggests, we have traded away the complications of context for the benefits of easy access.
Birkerts is right in arguing that context is key to our understanding of a given text, but nowhere in his article does he clearly articulate what it is about the printed word that bestows upon it the power of providing context. How does “the turning of literal pages — pages bound in literal books” help us “map our collective endeavor to understand and express our world?” His answer is less than clear. He writes, “The book is part of a system. And that system stands for the labor and taxonomy of human understanding, and to touch a book is to touch that system, however lightly.” Translation: it just does.
To be fair, Birkerts does suggest that books, when organized in libraries and bookstores, help outline the intellectual history of a given topic simply through the “physical adjacency of certain texts.” To his credit, that is concrete. But it is also ridiculous. To say that the only way we can fully understand the historical context of a book is by seeing it – or better yet touching it – on a shelf surrounded by other books is to exaggerate the importance of a text’s materiality and to dismiss the role of its content. In contrast, I would argue that the absence of ink and paper allows for the potential (when done right) of a greater understanding of context. What is a hyperlink but a bridge to context?
For consistency sake let’s use Birkerts’ example of Wallace Stevens to explore what I mean. In his essay Birkerts recounts a poetry reading he attended: “Somebody referenced a poem by Wallace Stevens but couldn’t think of the line. Her neighbor said ‘Wait—’ and proceeded to Blackberry (yes, a verb) the needed words. It took only seconds. Everyone bobbed and nodded.” This, for Birkerts, epitomizes information without context. He continues “I pictured us gradually letting go of Wallace Stevens (and every other artist and producer of work) as the historical flesh-and-blood entity he was, and accepting in his place a Wallace Stevens that is the merely the sum total of his facts—a writer no longer cohering in historical imagination but fragmented into retrievable bits of information. Turning up a quote by tapping a keyboard is not the same as, say, going to Bartlett’s—it short-circuits all contact with the contextual order that books represent.”
And in this quote we get at the core of Birkerts’ problem – he is defending “the contextual order that books represent” while a new contextual order is developing all around him. For him this new order is insufficient – for me it is just different (if not better). The contextual order that books represent is essentially linear, while the emerging contextual order is weblike. Birkerts clings to an understanding of knowledge and context as rooted in chronology and history, whereas new conceptions of knowledge are understood as networks not lines.
Our schooling trains us to think in terms of linear contexts as well. So it is worth exploring what a network theory of context actually looks like? Going back the Wallace Stevens example, imagine if I stumble on a line of poetry by Wallace Stevens in an essay I am reading on the web. I pop open another tab in my web browser and Google the line of poetry which takes me to a site where I can read the whole poem and get a better understanding of the significance it plays in the essay I am reading.
However, while at the Google search page I can also explore links to a bio of Wallace Stevens – maybe I did not know he was an insurance salesman in Connecticut – and with a click I can read about the historical events happening in Connecticut (and the nation/worldwide) around the time Stevens was writing. In addition, I can read a few definitions of Modernism, and read a poem or two from poets who influenced Stevens or who were influenced by him. Within this network of links I also find a few scholarly essays about this poem that critiques it from a feminist perspective and in terms of post modernism.
If, in addition to Google, I also search my own computer’s hard drive I will surface a few long forgotten emails with an undergrad English professor about my own eco-criticism reading of Steven’s “Anecdote of the Jar” or an old poem a friend wrote based on “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” A networked theory of context allows the reader to take their exploration of a given topic or piece of literature in innumerable directions, bringing together diverse contexts that may never find themselves sitting side-by-side in a library. It is up to the reader to gather these various facts and contexts and bring them to bear on the text, it is not the role of the delivery mechanism to define the context for us.
In terms of networked forms of context and knowledge Yochai Benkler serves as a helpful counterpoint to Birkerts. Benkler, who is best known for his book The Wealth of Networks echoes Birkerts assertion that how we access and consume information shapes our society. He writes in his introduction, “Information, knowledge, and culture are central to human freedom and human development. How they are produced and exchanged in our society critically affects the way we see the state of the world as it is and might be; who decides these questions; and how we, as societies and polities, come to understand what can and ought to be done.” However, Benkler sees the longstanding models and institutions of information, knowledge, and culture (which Birkerts defends) as an “industrial information economy.” This industrialization of information has made us dependent on a few institutional gatekeepers who determine the majority of what gets published, and thus, what gets read. Benkler argues that the “new networked information economy” is sparking new ways of understanding, of creating knowledge, and of sharing information that are based on principals of democracy and collaboration. I’ll return to Benkler in a moment.
Changing the Way We Read
I was, in fact, sympathetic to aspects of Birkerts argument. For quite some time I too was a Kindle skeptic (I still don’t own one). However, my resistance to the Kindle was more about my concern over the continual attack on local bookstores and public libraries, not as organizers of information but as organizers of community. In addition, as someone who has two degrees in writing and literature, aspirations to one day start a small press, and has been making hand-bound book for over ten years, I love the book. As such, it is worth noting that I do not think the Kindle should (or could) replace the book, but I do believe it – and other new technologies – have an important role to play in the future of the written word.
To that end, I agree with Birkerts’ (and Benkler’s) point about the ways that technology changes our reflexes. Birkerts writes, “We read and absorb as the age demands, and our devices set the pace.” It’s true that I have felt my own attention span dwindle, as I have shifted from a grad student to work that puts me in front of a computer day in and day out, answering emails, tracking news, engaging social networks, and reading articles online. As I sit down at night to read a book, I feel content for the first page, but then I get that nagging urge to go check my email, update my twitter account, look at a news feed. My daily interaction with text on the screen, and the pace of information these new technologies allow, has made it harder for me to lose myself in a book. But, when that nagging urge to “connect” boils up, I tamp it down, find my place on the page again, and dive back in. And the more I do this the easier it gets.
While Birkerts worries the Kindle will amplify this frenzied effect, I think it could help counteract it. The beautiful thing about the Kindle, as opposed to an iPhone, is that it is just about reading, not about multitasking. In addition, while technology may change our reflexes, we are not without agency in this equation. Said another way: It’s not just the technology, it’s how we use it. I think I am unique in that I am attracted to the Kindle less for reading books than for reading articles. I am a rabid underliner, and would have a hard time reading a 200 plus page book without scribbling notes in the margins. However, I am also a voracious reader of articles for both work and pleasure. Right now I am stuck either reading articles on my laptop screen (which I hate, and which wears on my eyes quickly) or I suffer the guilt of printing out reams of paper so that I can carry the articles with me on airplanes and busses, or to be read in my favorite chair at home. The ability to email articles to a device like the Kindle for later reading, or to subscribe to a few daily newspapers and have them delivered each morning on my virtual doorstep, is profoundly attractive to me. For me, it would help me be a better reader, not as Birkerts suggests, a more distracted one.
New Context, New Voices
Finally, in claiming that the Kindle (and other technologies) threaten our “cultural landscape” Birkerts’ appeals to some imaginary notion of a homogenous immutable national identity. Throughout his article Birkerts defends a singular notion of American culture, history, and imagination that is squarely rooted in the Canon. Suggesting, as he does, that there is a single identifiable American cultural landscape begs the question: Whose landscape is it? If we seek to protect the old ways of organizing information, and privilege the printed book as a form, we are necessarily excluding large swaths of American culture and identity who have not had access to the press, whose voices have not been valued in the anthologies, and whose stories are still rarely taught in English departments.
New ways of publishing and accessing information have made space for new voices. This is true not just on the web but in other forms of community media as well. Whereas a linear notion of information necessarily excludes voices and contexts in an effort to tell its story, a networked information economy allows for – indeed thrives upon – diverse connections and perspectives. Benkler describes it this way:
“How we make information, how we get it, how we speak to others, and how others speak to us are core components of the shape of freedom in any society. [...] The basic claim is that the diversity of ways of organizing information production and use opens a range of possibilities for pursuing the core political values of liberal societies—individual freedom, a more genuinely participatory political system, a critical culture, and social justice. [...] The second major implication of the networked information economy is the shift it enables from the mass-mediated public sphere to a networked public sphere. This shift is also based on the increasing freedom individuals enjoy to participate in creating information and knowledge, and the possibilities it presents for a new public sphere to emerge alongside the commercial, mass-media markets.”
Will a $350 dollar electronic book reader pave the way to social justice? No. But Birkerts’ article was never about the Kindle itself. For Birkerts, the Kindle is a symbol of a shifting power dynamic, one that is challenging the foundational structures of our economic and academic systems. It is a shift that is poised to not just change what we know, but also how we know. If we accept this change, Birkerts argues “We will [...] have modified our imagination of history, our understanding of the causal and associative relationships of ideas and their creators [and] in the process we will lose much of our sense of the woven narrative consistency of the story.”
In Birkerts’ words, this is a tradeoff between access and context. But I argue that this is a false dichotomy, because by giving more people access to more information we in fact enrich the context surrounding a given narrative. We may, in our lifetime, see the end of book publishing, but we’ll never see the end of narrative. Stories are how we structure our lives. If new technologies help us find new connections between our stories and complicate our understanding of the world around us, all the better.