Writing in the age of the network


The computer and the book

It's not a matter of whether this or that text was written on a computer, but whether it could have been written on a computer.

All written texts pass through the computer.

Regardless of the actual media in which texts are inscribed, all texts now aim at being multi-media, hypertexts. Newspapers resemble websites, books often resemble visual installations. The protocols of print no longer universally determine how printed texts are made.

But the book does represent a desire for primarily verbal representations, ones in which the pictorial or visual is subsumed in or is at most equal to the verbal.

The generation over forty saw the book as a work, and the author in romantic terms: 'priest, sage, shaman,' etc. They experienced a different approach to the language, one still affected by the old protocols of print culture. There were differences between high and low rhetoric, colloquial and formal speech. Latin was still taught. The texts they read, listened to over the radio and heard in films were still more refined, articulate, more classically structured than ours. Today, language is predominantly colloquial, even where it attempts to be formal. The written language and the language of representation as a whole have absorbed the protocols of electronic media -- radio, television, film, the web. Writing is no longer crafted, paced, structured, or weighed in the same way. It has a flow, a rhythm, a quickness closer to the spoken word, a fragmentary terseness that comes only with the editing capacities of the word processor. The younger generation sees the book as a text, and the author in democratic terms: just another person, another face in the crowd.

The predominant approach to writing today is operational. Prose everywhere seems processed, which is to say quickly produced. But this is not the same thing as hurried, or unlaboured. Writing may now involve just as much toil, time and energy, but because we produce it under different conditions -- on a word processor and drawing from an internal sense of language that is much more 'electric' and direct -- it comes across differently. We appear to produce more of it, in both the public, literary realm, and the academy. It seems less crafted, less carefully wrought. For this reason, it seems primarily functional, which it is. But the fact that it is functional does not mean that it’s artless. The aesthetic is changing. Writing is artful now in a different way.

The ideas in our younger academic writers are just as radical and provocative, just as insightful as the older, print oriented scholars. The writing in our younger literary or artistic writers is just as compelling and interesting as that of their predecessors. But the present generation of writers creates its effects in different ways than the previous generation. For them, ideas and sentences had a precision and weight, an emphasis we don't share. The effort has not gone into shaping particular instances of expression, as though each and every word in a text was like a building block in a momentous, hierarchical, symmetrical, church- or roman-like classical structure. Our expression circles casually around a topic, sketching, prodding, free-associating, conversing. We can't write any other way. We don't write with pens, we don't take years to craft a handwritten or typewritten text. When we read, we prefer the conversational to the formal. Even when texts are written with the pen, or by bookish old-style writers, they conform (and have increasingly so since the war) to the demands of these conditions.

We don't mind reading long texts. We are impatient, but not in the sense of having a short attention span. We look for prose to be direct, concise, clear, but also playful, colloquial, irreverent. We appreciate honesty, informality. This is especially so with younger writers, because they are less convincing at being formal, crafted kinds of writers than are the older, more immersed writers.

The generational shift in styles explains why a lot of fiction by younger writers can't sustain wide attention or interest. Much of it fails to cultivate the virtues of either paradigm -- whether it be the conversational humour, directness, and artful use of contemporary language that marks the new, or the finely wrought, carefully weighted prose of the old. The older approach to writing -- represented by, say, Updike, Ondaatje, Atwood -- involves more than just a particular outlook on the way books should be written and read (for example, Birkerts' nostalgia for the slow, measured, internally oriented paradigm of handwriting or typing and for reading the written word on printed pages). To really work, the older approach requires a mind fostered by a culture that experienced that kind of slow, weighted, internally oriented paradigm of language -- one in which films, radio programs, and even television had not yet broken free of the protocols of print culture: an emphasis on verbal over the visual, a patience for the carefully wrought, linear, hierarchical, analytic style of linguistic expression. Without this kind of formation, nostalgic approaches to the book that attempt to kindle that spirit come across as dull, imitative, gratuitous, indulgent, almost solipsistic.

Bolter writes: "What matters is whether the printed book will survive as a cultural ideal. For most of us today, perhaps, the printed book is still the embodiment of text. Both as authors and as readers, we still regard printed books and journals as the place to locate our most prestigious texts. Very few authors today aspire to publish a first novel on the Internet: they still want to be in print. However, the printed book as an ideal has been challenged by poststructuralist and postmodern theorists for decades. And now the computer provides a medium in which that theoretical challenge can be realized in practice. Some groups (some academic researchers, particularly in the physical and social sciences, along with some in business and government) are already transferring their allegiance from the printed page to the computer screen. They think of the computer as their primary medium, print as a secondary or a specialized one. If our culture follows their lead, it will come to associate with text the qualities of the computer (flexibility, interactivity, speed of distribution) rather than those of the printed book (stability and authority). Printed books could remain abundant or even superabundant, as they are now, and still lose their status as the defining form of symbolic communication."

I especially like Bolter's point that we may come to associate text with the way we encounter it on the computer as opposed to the printed book. But I think this has already happened, explicitly so in the best of our younger writers, but implicitly so everywhere else. It is precisely when books are no longer written with the print sense of text (stability and authority) that they break with the past and assume the characteristics of the printed book in a provisional spirit. For instance, Coupland or Foster Wallace's writing is in print, but reflects an assumption about text that derives from the computer. Their writing seems just as appropriate to the medium of the computer, when read on the computer, as when read on paper. Bolter seems to look toward this kind of shift in the last sentence of the passage, when he says that books may remain abundant but lose their status as the defining form of verbal or symbolic communication.

To continue this conversation with Bolter, he writes: "The most popular new electronic writing systems is the Internet's World Wide Web. The protocol of the Web invites users to write and post hypertextual documents that can then be examined by other users from around the world. Although it is possible to create purely verbal documents on the Web, no one does so. Graphics and even video are included along with words. Such web documents are experiments in the integration of visual and verbal communication. The hypertextual character of these documents -- the fact that text, graphics, and video may be linked electronically -- defines a space in which arbitrary signs can coexist with perceptual presentation. However, it is not a peaceful coexistence. The verbal text must now struggle to assert its legitimacy in a space increasingly dominated by visual modes of representation."

Once again, the legitimacy of the verbal may already be a lost cause. But Bolter has put his finger on something. Part of our inability to approach the word with the kind of reverence and care, weight and piety tenaciously held on to by the likes of a Berkerts is that verbal text has lost not only its supremacy but its legitimacy. After all, they're just words, and words are worthless. (This is often the first impression of children to older people's reverence for books, 'what's the big deal, they're just words.') Some of the more interesting writing by writers under forty comprehends just this -- that verbal communication is not a sacred field, and piety is not necessarily the only proper attitude to bring to language. Instead, these writers see language as fun, playful, engaging, interesting, consoling. The voice in a text is most useful and compelling to this generation as the voice of a friend, a chum -- not an authority figure, a father, an institution. Younger people don't want to revere their authors or books, they want to cozy up with them, to be confided in, to be comforted. They don't want to be talked down to, made to feel inferior by the sublime heights of perfected expression. They would rather laugh, be creeped out, scandalized, provoked. The range of possibilities is the same as those you might experience in a real social encounter. The writer is now a very charismatic new addition to your social circle, or a wise, knowledgeable older brother to your coterie of intellectual friends. They are just one among you who has taken the time to work out a longer statement, a long email anecdote, a long response to some question you had. They're not an authority from on high making inscrutable, timeless pronouncements that you will pour-over and study and dogmatically internalize. Their texts are already fragments to be appropriated, interrupted, turned into a two-way conversation, handled, disregarded in part, toyed with.

By contrast, Birkerts, in the Gutenberg Elegies, stressed that he liked about the printed book the fact that it subordinated the reader to an author who represented a mastery of language and who used it in an unusually accomplished, demonstrative way. With Bolter's comment in mind, it's now possible to see that this view of authorship depends not only on the protocols of the printed book, but upon a generally reverential estimation of language congenial to it -- which is to say a nostalgia for a time when this was possible.


The book as multi media space, a transcript of a spoken performance

The book is one among many media spaces -- a kind of extended website, a long page, the transcript of a talking book, a radio program, a videotape documentary; the print version of an electronic reference also available on CD.

Crucial to this notion of being one among many is the view that the content of a book is no longer strictly defined by the qualities of the book. The Globe and Mail, CNN, the NYTimes are now no longer just newspapers or news programs, they're also websites. And they're neither primarily one nor the other. The television or newspaper version of the content tries to look like the website and visa versa. The website is both quite print-like and televisual at the same time.

This contaminating or blending of the various different media (which Bolter and Grusin call 'remediation') transforms the book into the printed transcript of a primarily spoken performance. Writing in the book is still written and more structured than speech, but it takes oral performance as its new paradigm. Or rather, the paradigm of oral performance shapes printed text more than the protocols of print shape the discourse within it -- at least relative to the extent they once did. The printed book now bears the conversational fluidity, the spontaneity, roughness and looseness of spoken language. But more than this, it bears these qualities in precisely the sense we come across them in the other, non-print media -- the web (email, chatrooms, etc.), voicemail, television, film, etc. The voice in books is not simply that of the bookish person speaking, but that of someone we might hear on the radio, on television, or in a popular film. It bears the accents, the rhythm, and the tone of that kind of speech.

So books are no longer seen, by the majority of readers, in their old guise as monumental, stable, verbal artifacts. They are seen as printouts of a content that is contiguous or homogeneous with the prevailing multi-media paradigm -- a paradigm in which verbal expression retains its character as literate (i.e., shaped by the technology of writing) but has almost entirely erased all vestiges of print sensibility. There are, then, two kinds of books being produced. There is the newer kind of book, written by younger writers, immersed in a multi-media culture, in which the written word transmits a casual, voluble, fluid spoken language. Then there is the older kind of book, written by older writers (or younger but nostaligic ones, like Heighton) who are immersed in print culture (or have memories of, or longings for, an age of greater immersion in print), and in which the written word reflects a written style of expression more than it does a spoken style. Lanham drew attention to the difference between these two styles in distinguishing between Johnson's highly ornate, crafted, virtually unutterable writing -- the very high watermark of 'literary' English in the print age -- and smoother, the more rhetorical, terse style he himself exhibits.

The difficulty with the older sensibility of the book is that it ignores the point Bolter and Grusin make: "No medium, it seems, can now function independently and establish its own separate and purified space of cultural meaning." This is precisely what the old school writers are holding on to: the belief that there is an order of bookishness that still retains a higher association with language and enjoys an economy of production and conditions of consumption all its own. A few images come to mind: Birkerts's masterly author to whom the reader subordinates himself while imbibing his exquisite language in the printed book’s 'deep time of the self'; Kundera's call for a novel that can't be turned into a film; or the hushed, plangent voice of the old fashioned author being interviewed on literary radio shows -- hushed to convey the requisite gravitas of their monumental, ultimately print-worthy speech.

Another approach to all of this is to say that the contemporary written word -- in whatever guise -- is no longer subordinated to the act of writing. Something written no longer needs to come across as writerly or highly wrought. Print no longer defines the meaning of the written word. Not only the content of written texts but the very appearance of written text is no longer synonymous with print -- and the culture has, in the broadest sense, finally internalized this fact. A good portion of the literate population now encounters text online, through a word processor, or through email, and conceives of all these as legitimate instances of written language. But this wasn't natural at first: it was something we had to work toward. Initially, we saw computer writing as inferior to printed writing. We also believed oral communication to be inferior to written communication. Today, only the academy and the law court privilege the written word over the spoken. But even in those contexts, the model of the spoken language is rapidly becoming the acceptable paradigm of good writing.

Jameson writes: "It is because we have had to learn that culture today is a matter of media that we have finally begun to get it through our heads that culture was always that, and that the older forms or genres, or indeed the older spiritual exercises and mediations, thoughts and expressions, were also in their very different ways media products." This is one of the crucial senses in which the book is just another media space in a multi-media culture. Peculiar to books in this culture are such economic factors as the need for authors to double as readers or oral performers of their works, to tout their books on book tours by appearing in interviews, television shows, and news programs (i.e., be topical, accessible, hip), and to be able to translate their works into other media: television, film, CD Rom, audio book, etc.

This economy of multi-media production further displaces the supremacy of print modes in the formative stages of verbal composition. Authors are no longer aiming to craft beautiful books (the older writers, like Ondaatje, being the exception) but multi-media productions which can be easily transmuted into articles, appearances, readings, scripts, etc. The author as writer is less intuitive to us than the author as 'content provider.' The reading of books, whether live or on tape, is no less an authentic iteration of the title than is the book itself. Each instance -- the written and spoken text -- points to the other as originary. The written aims as conjuring the directness, excitement, fluidity of the reading, and the reading aims at conveying the wit, the structure, the craftedness of the writing.

Given the fact that writing is now predominantly the carrier of the spoken voice (in one of a series of possible iterations of a content, instead of a singular, monumental instance of the content), it seems natural that the 'scene' of this speaking is the culture as a whole. Writing now is an act of speaking to the culture. The better of the younger writers are doing precisely that: attempting to speak to the culture -- albeit a particular segment of it. The contrast to this is the older paradigm in which the writer spoke, but in an internal sense (inside the mind of the reader), to an elite, typically white male subject, with leisure, learning, and with an artificial, heightened sense of formality. The new paradigm is manifest in a writing that conveys the scene of a voice speaking externally or 'theatrically,' which is to say informally, rhetorically, performatively, spontaneously, fluidly.

To want to write today is to want to speak to the culture.

The space of the book -- the context of its consumption -- is also shifting. The primary scene of reading is the airport/airplane, the campus, and the living room of the jet set. In the past reading was something associated with work and study, but today it is increasingly becoming synonymous with leisure. Even the university has dispensed with the notion that reading will make students learned. It de-emphasizes the entire paradigm of the book (tradition, bookish professors, etc.), and stresses practice and real-world experience as the best way to achieve the new goal of the university: excellence.

Writing is two things: a subject, a thing to say, and a way of saying it -- a way of making it accessible or marketable to a given audience. A content has no necessary or single way of being communicated or marketed to an audience. But each iteration must be aimed at and tailored for a different audience. There is no single, all-purpose audience. Every audience is a new purpose. But the various audiences can be crossed and combined in novel ways.

To choose to write for print, to aim at being published, is to choose an economy of communication. As de Kerckhove puts it, print works on the broadcast model: one producer makes a set of decisions affecting the outcome of the form and content of a text and these are final. The broadcast text is then sent out to various distribution points and appears ubiquitous, for a period. It therefore has to be tailored not for one individual or even a small group but a large, economically viable group. The group's tastes must be clearly delineated and predictably amenable to the content in mind. In contrast, the web works on the network model: you post something, and people come looking for it when it suits some specific need. It's always there, but hardly detectable.

People still read books, and will continue to, in part because of the virtues of the broadcast model. Things they weren't looking for are presented to them as a temptation -- made to seem necessary when a while ago they weren't. The web's strong-point is in providing for the hyperspecific need -- information of a very narrow and select kind, appealing in the main to audience not commercially viable enough to support the broadcast model. (Which isn't the same thing as too small or too narrow. The content, like pornography, or stock prices, might be highly desirable but not under the conditions of the print medium.)


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