Category Archives: x1

Livres sans frontières and with search capability

Dennis Baron begins “From Pencils to Pixels,” the conclusion to A Better Pencil, by discussing Google’s digitization efforts as a means of reflecting on the various issues of authenticity, authority, and reader-/authorship explored throughout the book as a whole. Massive online projects like Internet Archive and Google Books may be to many (as Baron puts it) “the future of the book and its death” (227), the former because they re-produce easily accessible and searchable versions of out-of-print or rare texts; the latter because they re-present many of these texts with additions/substitutions that fundamentally change the way in which the text is approached. For instance, covers are often changed and advertisements and endpapers elided for the ostensible purpose of streamlining reading, yet this also makes a statement about what types of text are deemed important by those not necessarily invested in their study.

Original WW cover
This original cover of the Woman’s World was specifically commissioned after Oscar Wilde–an ardent proponent of tasteful ornamentation–took over the editorship of the periodical.
Google WW cover
Interestingly, this Google Books digitization not only changes the cover image (adapting it from an illustration in the first issue), but is in fact made from a facsimile of this periodical rather than an original.

I can safely say that without digitization, much of my own scholarly work would be nearly impossible, and this is likely the case for most literature and book history scholars at this point. The ephemeral nature and far-flung archives of many of the Victorian periodicals that I study, as well as the sheer bulk of their production, combine to make this a challenging field indeed for anyone not willing to use digital tools to facilitate access. Instead, one would have to either resign oneself to limited access, or face being overwhelmed in an avalanche of (often un-catalogued) moldering pages—a dichotomy Baron also hints at (231-232). Citing Anthony Grafton, Baron notes that despite the fears of techno-phobes, “scanning is no replacement for the actual physical print object,” not only because of accidental omissions, but also because “the print artifacts themselves tell the reader more than the words on the page” (229). Even so, scholarly sites committed to maintaining the authenticity (oh troubling word!) of the texts they digitize—such as The Yellow Nineties Online and the Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals—are still naturally better at paying attention to producing fully searchable versions of books and periodicals in their entirety. Others, like the Modernist Journals Project, even create a hierarchy that explicitly shows which texts have been prioritized for digitization: the MJP Directory explains, “we have indicated on this list the journals we consider most suitable for digitization (in red type), and others that we consider interesting but would put second in order of priority (in blue type). Journals in purple type are those we have already digitized (wholly or partly).” This adds another layer to the ways in which remediation is often means of rewriting—at least in part—the text in question.

As once exclusively archival texts are re-mediated in online formats and made available to the public, these “publication” processes necessarily lead us to contemplate what is written over during digitization, even while other things are written out more clearly.

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The Reader-Writer in Isolation

Franzen2

At the end of Chapter 10 “A Space of One’s Own” in A Better Pencil, Dennis Baron discusses the idea of the ‘reader-writer’; a being who is created by the multiple-authored open texts like Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary, whereby they both read and edit/author texts. Baron continues by commenting on the fact that this kind of reader-writer community creates less of an emphasis on isolation and makes reading and writing more communal: “We have come to think of reading as an isolating activity in the modern world, one that we do quietly, alone, and for ourselves. But the wiki returns reading to a communal space, inviting us to recognize the reader-writers who came before us as well as those who will follow” (206). Though Baron only touches on this idea of a formerly isolated reader who now can more readily join a community and become a part of this community through writing and reader, I want to spend a little time exploring it further.

I was reading Jonathan Franzen’s book How to Be Alone [Quotes for fun] recently, which is a book of his essays on many topics. Probably the best known essay of the book, “The Reader in Exile,” notes that even though technology does connect us to other readers and writers (and reader-writers), reading and writing are still isolated activities. Franzen takes the position that reading a physical book has become a tactic of sorts, whereby we secretly devour a medium of reading that is more passé. He also argues that though technology is currently seen by some critics as being anti-reader and might even destroy reading (reminiscent of Baron’s opposition), readers will always be drawn to books and will read and think in isolation (the development of the self, he argues, occurs inwardly, through much thought and evaluation).

In fact, Franzen argues, all of us reader-writers have become even more isolated. From a New Yorker article by Jon Michaud, where Franzen discusses his friend David Foster Wallace’s tactics in writing Infinite Jest, Franzen argues that the act of reading in this age of technology has become even more isolating rather than less isolating. The reader and the writer (and the reader-writer) might be more isolated because though there are some collaborative communities in the internet world which privilege a joint writing venture, the fact of the matter is that most writing is still done for oneself and by oneself, and most reading is either done in secret as a tactic (with physical/digital books) or collected piecemeal and distributed to us in feeds and emails and on tabs that we skim and think about and move on from.

Further, though the internet may give us a place where we can discuss books and share writings with others, this kind of collaboration was happening long before the internet in the form of book groups, public lectures, manuscript sharing, and writing workshops. That said, I’m not sure what I think about the subject, as I enjoy the fruits of both internet reading/writing and non-internet reading/writing. I am pretty convinced that, as much as we would like to praise the idea of the reader-writer, these acts (whether joint or separate) are still isolating in many of the same ways that they always were. I am also pretty sure that this sort of isolation is not a bad thing; how else can we develop inwardly as people who have struggled by themselves with complex ideas and conceptions of morality?

Why Did I Click That? Time as Investment in Digital Reading

In the context of discussing how notions of authorship have morphed in the digital age, Dennis Baron notes: “Any scribbler with a computer, a Wi-Fi card, and a place to sit at Starbucks has immediate access to the universe of plugged-in readers, many of them eager to devour all manner of digital text they would never touch in printed form” (Loc 2389*). While Baron cites this as evidence that opportunities to write for an audience have exploded through the affordances of the web, I find the latter portion of the comment suggestive for thinking about how conceptions of readership have changed in new media.

The idea that we are willing to read in pixels what we would never read on paper caught my notice because, somewhat embarrassingly, it’s quite true to my own habits as an internet user. Though painful to admit, when I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed on my iPhone, I’ll find myself clicking on stupid links from Buzzfeed or Upworthy. The content is almost never satisfying—most of the time, it barely scrapes the surface of “entertaining”— and one would think I’d learn from those mistakes. Moreover, I would feel like an idiot browsing through a whole magazine’s worth of “The Top 10 Best Things About Your Thirties.” But I think I continue to read this content online because there’s something about the stakes of the commitment that feels lower when reading online—it doesn’t feel like an investment in the way that it does to pick up a newspaper, magazine or book. (And, of course, because there’s an element of self-deception involved: this post might actually be good!)

I can't imagine picking up a magazine with this headline...
I can’t imagine picking up a magazine with this headline…

Part of this is an issue of literal monetary investment, since there is simply much more free reading material to be found online than there is in print. But when so much of the content is free, as it is on the internet, it seems that we move from thinking of reading text as an investment of money, to thinking of it as an investment of time. On my computer, it is easy and quick for me to click 15 links in a row, lining up a series of tabs in my browser of reading material. I’ll scan the opening lines of each to determine my level of interest, and the second I decide it’s not worth my time, I simply click that little “x” in the top righthand corner of the tab, and the material literally vanishes. No lugging the magazines or books back to the shelf, and if I have turned on the “private browsing” setting, no record of my ever having looked at “10 Ways To Make Over a Cardigan.” The sheer immateriality of the medium makes texts incredibly easy to access and subsequently to discard. As Baron notes in his discussion of “teknophobes” and neo-Luddites, critics of the computer have argued that the increased speed afforded by new technologies makes writing “too easy,” “becom[ing] so effortless that writers don’t bother to think about their words” (Loc 1839). Similar arguments disparage how we read now for the web. Internet readers are accused of being “A.D.D.,” spending too little time with each text, and degrading the quality of both reading and writing from a better, earlier age—when people spent time with texts.

Yikes, that's embarrassing.
Yikes, that’s embarrassing.

Yet when we consider the long history of evolving writing technologies as laid out by Baron, it seems to me that this is not actually some sudden and unprecedented change in the way we read, but is in fact a shift that has been in progress for quite a long time. Each innovation in writing technology—from clay tablets, to quill and parchment, to the Gutenberg printing press, to the web, to name a few— has made the production and dissemination of texts cheaper. As a result of increasing affordability, texts become of course more accessible, but also more discardable. Prior to the print revolution, when books were rare because the cost of production and labor investment was so high, it is easy to imagine that the few texts to which any person had access would be read again and again. As the printing press took hold, and text became cheaper and more widely available, people likely read more texts, perhaps reading a new book or magazine instead of re-reading an old one. In the internet age, when there are so many texts available at no cost, it’s hardly surprising that we might spend less time with each text on average.

Even so, I also think it’s a bit of a logical leap to assume that because we spend less time on most of what we read, that we spend less time on every piece of digital reading. Though I may spend 30 seconds or so on the stuff I’d “never touch in print,” there’s also a good deal of web content out there that is designed to hold our attention, and I often find myself reading articles or essays to the very last line. And above all, I’d argue that the world is still full of curious, thoughtful humans—we can enjoy the immateriality and ephemerality of some texts, while maintaining a desire to think through complexities in sustained ways. The web gives us access to so many texts that for me, much of the pleasure is in casting a wide net and sifting through the content—both to enjoy the little textual blips on my radar before I close the tab, and to find something worth reading to the end.

*NOTE: Because I have the Kindle version of A Better Pencil, I unfortunately can’t share page numbers, so I’ve given the “location” number instead. Supposedly page numbers are now available for some eBooks, but apparently this isn’t one of them. Although I love that I don’t have to tote around all of my books this semester, I’m finding that the inability to reference page numbers is one major failing of using eBooks in an academic context.

The World’s Stream of Consciousness

A Better Pencil is a constant reminder of the crucial fact that throughout history, each new medium of communication and writing has been doomed to severe resentments before conquering the world. Dennis Baron takes us to funnily specific moments in past when printing, telegraph, even telephone and computer were opposed by certain groups or individuals. He assures us that there is nothing new in the nature of contemporary doubts about the revolutionary technological changes, as human being has “greeted each new writing technology with renewed suspicion” (13). Therefore, nothing is new under the sun, specifically the experience of facing something new, no matter how apocalyptic it might seem.

Baron’s thorough investigation depicts digital world as a new medium for writing coming after all previous mediums and like the other ones neither ignorable nor stoppable. However, I believe -and Baron’s examples strengthen my belief- that this new medium is not just a new container for the same old material which was used to be called writing. What we call writing in digital world is not really writing in its historical sense although it might apparently bear the same linguistic codes. Digital writing is a fragmentary genre recording the world’s stream of consciousness in a globally accessible virtual space. The fact that “on the Internet everybody’s an author, every scrap of prose a publication” (157) to me does not really mean that everybody suddenly becomes an author. I would say everybody is capable of expressing her/his personal views through words and recording them in a shared space to be heard or read randomly.

the-internet

It is tantalizing to think that “we have all become Prousts externalizing our thoughts” (9), but what would be the place of Proust himself in the digital world with digital readers? How could this new medium shelter a work like À la recherche du temps perdu when each potential reader who is expectedly browsing several websites and blogs simultaneously would spend few seconds on few words of one page before jumping into the infinity of all other available offers. When a fragmentary reading of fragmentary writings becomes the habit of mind, it is not only the medium but also the nature of writing which is being radically transfigured.

Marcel Proust c. 1900 - French novelist, 1871-1922.

The world is thinking aloud, commenting aloud, and reacting instantly to almost everything through the global dialogue of endless pages, users, and entries which are minuscule components of a giant fragmentary being. This fragmentation might be a natural offspring of the postmodern era. The children of digital age might be quick and smart enough to feed themselves by fragments and make a whole out of it. However, when everybody tends to play the active author, who would remain patient enough to play the reader?

A Little Preemptive Digital Archaeology

Asimov Type Faster

I may have odd digital writerly habits. For instance, the text you are reading right now was composed in the Windows 7 version of Notepad, the almost-totally-formatting-free, ASCII-based text editor. While I look at MSWord the way many people look at a sibling, whenever I compose for web-based reading I compose in Notepad. I’ve been poking around on writing on the internet since the early 1990s, and I still can’t beat the (apparently justified) feeling that someway, somehow, if I type this in Word and then copy-paste to the webpage, it will find a way to become ugly.

While reading Baron, I couldn’t help but notice he, and many of the writers he refers to, have similar strange or archaic digital habits. I might be born-digital-and-maladjusted, though, since I started writing not with a PC but with an already-outdated IBM Selectric III (see 79), had a plastic toy manual typewriter which jammed constantly, handwrote my first publishable stories, and continue to handwrite notes for classes in a leatherbound quarto notebook.

I also had intense brand loyalty to pens and certain pencils for creative writing, and kept and archived pens exhausted in my fiction-making, complete with the date of final drying-out and what project they served on. Until, at least, I moved on to just using MSWord.

6zhpg

But, contrary to Baron’s example (51), am nearly as particular about my keyboard as I am my pens–I’ve disqualified laptop purchasing options on the closeness or space between their keys, and once had to mail order the last remaining of a specific model of keyboard from a forgotten office supply warehouse in Texas. And I still remember the feel of the slightly concave, chocolate-colored keys of the Selectric.

What this makes me thing about is how many of us bring archaic practices to digital writing, and how we might begin to separate the archaic from the necessary in order to see what it is that digital media are actually making us do. I’m sure, for instance, that avid science fiction writer and gonzo futurist Charles Stross could probably find a better way to distribute his copyleft drafts than as .rtf documents, and that I could find a better composing medium than a program which, in essence, imitates a console interface. Certain digital habits have mostly fallen by the wayside–like Baron’s “handwriting fonts” (66) and fiddling with different fonts in email and papers (83), both of which are now strangely nostalgic enterprises that usually indicate that someone is new to digital composition and just basking in the endless stylistic possibility. Meanwhile, other incredibly frustrating old practices remain–the insurance industry, for example, still depends on faxing, which elicits the following reaction from anyone new to that industry:

This is Alan Rickman flipping a table. Your eyes do not deceive you.
My boss learned quickly not to mention the faxosaurus by name.

Certainly, there are countless complex forces determining which (sometimes frankly unnecessary) things we often bring to digital composition from its predecessors–the lack of white background was, according to Baron, a major obstacle for the popularity of early word processing software (105)–but we have to wonder what sort of impact these alien-to-computers techniques and technae will have on the future of digital writing. How long will it be before nobody knows what the “save” icon means? How long before people stop seeing the computer as “a better pencil?” What weird writing customs and cultural practices are we going to leave them with because we hold on to things that look like paper?

–Michael
(because for all my technological savvy, I can’t get my wordpress username changed)

Blogging Communities as Panopticons

In his preface to A Better Pencil, Dennis Baron asserts that computers and other emerging digital technologies “radically [reshape] how and what we say” (xiii) and create various discourse communities that operate according to their own sets of rules, either written/explicitly stated or not. In Baron’s estimation, these discourse communities function like an online version of Foucault’s panopticon: “As discourse communities form themselves in cyberspace, we see a clear, self-regulating pressure to establish standards for virtual writing and to police and correct those who violate emerging norms” (xiii).

Image(Photo courtesy of Aleph Journal, http://bit.ly/1cSYq74)

Although Baron focuses mainly on how such online discourse communities self-regulate acceptable language usage and general etiquette, I would like to apply his argument to how those communities also self-regulate the types of opinions that its members are allowed (or encouraged) to express.

In the chapter titled “Everyone’s an Author,” Baron seems to separate the kind of communities that blogs create from those on Facebook. For Baron, bloggers and their readers “constitute a community, even if they have nothing in common beyond the fact that they are reading a particular blog” (178), whereas Facebook depends on a system of communities-as-illusions, whereby users “accumulate collections of ‘friends’…without necessarily increasing the number of people they can count as actual friends” (179). What I would like to add here, though, is that the “pages” feature on Facebook functions in much the same way as do stand-alone blogs like WordPress, Blogger, or LiveJournal.  For instance, there are a multitude of fan pages on Facebook that are essentially a modified form of a blog: users can “like” or “subscribe” to such fan pages, follow the various updates and discussion topics, and thus become a part of that community of readers and writers.

With this similarity between Facebook pages and blogs established, I’d like to use an example from personal experience to illustrate how online communities self-regulate users’ opinions. I belong to several Pokemon-centered pages (ring the nerd alert) and a few weeks ago, a page called “pokelectronics” posted an informal poll about shiny Pokemon (regular Pokemon aside from their different color schemes and obscenely low encounter ratio) to see what fans’ favorites were.Image(Shiny Victreebel – the “regular” one has a red rim rather than a blue one; screenshot courtesy of deviantart, http://bit.ly/O1UDyW)

Even though I managed to capture the above-pictured Pokemon out of sheer luck, I still responded to the post saying that I thought shiny Pokemon were not worth the effort. Immediately upon posting my comment, I received almost twenty different direct responses attacking me. The most memorable was posted by a young male user, stating that, “That’s what people say who don’t have a shiny Pokemon,” which many of the other users “liked” to express their agreement. Since that incident, I haven’t posted on that page again for fear of another online witch hunt that favors the “hardcore gamers” over the semi-casual enthusiasts like myself.

But such vitriolic responses aren’t unique to Facebook. I remember experiencing similar moments during LiveJournal’s heyday when I used to post on a community dedicated to the reality show America’s Next Top Model, and I assume that the vapid subject matter naturally invited such catty responses.

Baron states that “the antitechnology side” faults computers because they “disrupt local communities and degrade the quality of modern life by isolating individuals from one another and tying them to machines instead” (178). Yet, the self-regulatory impulses of online communities as I’ve highlighted above generate a similar disruption and manage to isolate, nay ostracize, “individuals from one another” as well. To be a member of such an online discourse community is not simply to adhere to their rules about grammar and etiquette (for instance, many Poke-fan pages prohibit any heated discussions called “gen[eration] wars”) but also to submit to consensus, with which John Trimbur—a firm believer in the power of dissensus—would not agree (and nor do I). It would seem, then, that to be a true and good member of an online discourse community is often to be a victim of a cattle-call disease, unless you can develop both an acceptable writing style and a thick skin.

An Infinite Frontier

How we write on the Internet is different from how we write in print. But who is writing (and what they can write about) has also changed.

In A Better Pencil, Dennis Baron continuously talks about the “frontier spirit” associated with Internet interactions (2). He argues, “The internet is a true electronic frontier where everyone is on his or her own; all manuscripts are accepted for publication, they remain in virtual print forever, and no one can tell writers what to do” (25). This frontier is “rough and uncivilized” (139), or at least seemed to be, in terms of both online authors and their unique style of writing.

What interests me about the frontier, however, is the historical significance that immediately comes to mind –the frontier as something to be conquered and standardized after a period of lawlessness. It was a place, at least in the US, where difference was ruthlessly eradicated and a standard culture implemented. I think, in a sense, Baron is correct in associating the Internet with the American frontier.

(Manifest Destiny)

vs

(M4nif357 D357INY) 

To a large extent, we have adapted to online writing; we’ve moved past l33t, at least. My iPhone autocorrects “ttyl” to “Talk to you later” (and I use “autocorrect” as a verb without a redline appearing in my Word document – though WordPress is not convinced). Most everyone with access to technology uses that technology as a digital author, whether they compose e-mails, post on Facebook, or run a blog.

Yet, I think we can adjust our understanding of the Internet as a frontier if we look at who is writing, not just how they write. As you will very likely hear from me several times over the course of the semester, I use Tumblr. I recently saw this written in a post on my dash:

 Once upon a time there was no internet. You kids know about this, sure. But you don’t really know. There was no way to learn all the things you should have learned. And when you were alone, you were really really alone. (Rubyvroom)

Anonymity and identity are tied up with authorship in the digital age. Oftentimes, this is worrying. More often, as Standage will point out in Writing on the Wall, it leads to the new type of internet troll that tirelessly posts comments playing up all types of prejudices. Despite that, because “no one can tell writers what to do,” marginalized voices (and cultures) have reemerged onto the electronic frontier. I talk about Tumblr specifically because there are more teenagers, people of color, women, and LGBT-identified individuals than other platforms, leading observers, like Tom Ewing of Freaky Trigger,  to say of the website,

What looks to dim outsiders as some kind of obsession with ‘social justice’ often just springs from people talking about themselves, their lives and the shit that happens to them. (All Our Friends)

Tumblr user Me-ya-ri remarks of this changed landscape, “I remember all to [sic] well what it was like to not have any words” (Me-ya-ri). When we think about the words we use online, how we manipulate them with fonts or colors or how we replace (or augment) them with images or videos, we should also consider the access to them that the Internet grants us.  It is, I think, a truly untameable frontier.