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The Reader-Writer in Isolation


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?

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.


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?

(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.

Trust and The Blame Game

While reading though  A Better Pencil,  I noticed that people experiencing the evolution of writing technology over time viewed it with the apprehension one might direct towards an invading army.

Not sure if harmless tool, or harbinger of the apocalypse.

Subsequently, once the new technology’s purpose and uses were established, it seemed that people immediately latched onto all of the horrible things that could happen, and panic ensued.


However, Baron conveyed the sense that the objects of this skepticism have shifted over time.  Socrates disliked writing because of its inability to actively dialogue, as he placed importance on direct intelligent discussion (4).  He recognized the inherent need for people and their thoughts to be a variable in the equation, and thus distrusted the developments because of the ways humans could use them.  Distaste for modern technology, however, seems to be directed at the technology itself, not the human minds behind it.

Which brings us to the blame game.  Baron writes that computers are “blamed by skeptics for a variety of ills” (xi).  Ned Ludd, if he existed, allegedly wrecked a loom because he “found the increased mechanization of the art of weaving alienating (25).  Placing the responsibility for perceived societal corruption on machines completely discounts their existence as creations of humans.  Technology will likely not develop sentience and the ability to create its own content without the programming or guidance of human action, yet many people seem to place suspicion and blame on the tools instead of stepping back and examining their role in its creation.

The one person in Baron’s narrative who appears to have held human beings responsible for technology and all of its effects was Ted Kaczynski.  As a disclaimer, I don’t advocate for attacking people with the intention of killing or otherwise harming them.  Kaczynski, even in all of his seriously misguided criminal actions, understood that it is people who further the mechanization of society, as well as use the conveniences it provides.  It’s the same idea of “Guns don’t kill people; people with guns kill people.”  Cell phones don’t kill people, drivers using cell phones kill people.  By targeting the progenitors and inventors of the things he so hated, Kaczynski demonstrated a twisted understanding of the ways in which people interact with new technologies.

As humanity explores new avenues for writing technology, we will be called, as Wesch notes, to redefine and reexamine what it means to interact with technologies.  Certain factions will continue to blame advances in language studies and composition tools for the destruction of civilization, and the trust and blame that we associate with the written word in all its forms will undoubtedly be the subject of further debate and revision for many years to come.  Hopefully, though, future critics will not forget the role that human innovation plays in advancing these tools.