Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Paper and Pixels

I walked into the Poets House in Battery Park for the first time in December, and realized that I wanted to spend more time there. At first glance I thought that Poets House was  beautiful, but also I didn't think there was much to do there. This was the instinctual response of 21st century  over-stimulation. There was actually a near infinity to discover in that very non-technological world of books. I went last week and read a translation of a Euripides play I had loved in college. I can’t wait to go back.

I am a techno- optimist, but am also conflicted when it comes to my rather nostalgic attraction to books and my passion for technological progress. I would not want to live in any other time. In fact I am one of the 1% of the population who feels that life in the future will be significantly better than the past. In terms of literature, I write poems on anything that is around, whether it is a napkin, a notebook, my laptop or even if I really can’t find anything else, my I-Phone. The tech and the poetry seem unrelated. I was a very early adopter of the Amazon Kindle, and have owned every generation. At a conference I met one of the founders of E-Ink, and I sincerely told him how e-reading has changed my life. Strangely though, I think I haven’t been completely honest with myself. I didn't realize this until I read this quote by the Technology oracle Tim O’Reilly (who has a blog and podcast that i really like) in a Wired Magazine interview where he said,
I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away. They’re an elitist pursuit. And they’re relatively recent. The most popular author in the 1850s in the US wasn't Herman Melville writing Moby-Dick, you know, or Nathaniel Hawthorne writing The House of the Seven Gables. So the novel as we know it today is only a 200-year-old construct. And now we’re getting new forms of entertainment, new forms of popular culture.”
His facts about the age of the novel are right of course, but a counter argument could be made that the novel is much older than computers, the internet or the cell phone. Would he have the same dismissive feelings towards Turing, or Jobs, or Berners Lee? Would the comment
“I don’t give a shit if computers die.  They are only 50 years old, and it is elitist anyway, as poor people can’t buy them.”
This is rather extreme of course, but progress can be measured in slow motion adaption like evolution, or in rapid frame leaps of insight like Moore’s Law and Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns. These two things do not need to exclude each other, and I am not the only technology minded guy who feels this way of course. I am not certain that O’Reilly has such a complete lack of interest in a nuanced view of progress through knowledge, regardless of how it is gathered. He said in Edge.org just this week:
“Consider how in 375 AD, after a dream in which he was whipped for being "a Ciceronian" rather than a Christian, Saint Jerome resolved no more to read the classical authors and to restrict himself only to Christian texts, how the Christians of Alexandria murdered the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia in 415, and realize that, at least in part, the so-called dark ages were not something imposed from without, a breakdown of civilization due to barbarian invasions, but a choice, a turning away from knowledge and discovery into a kind of religious fundamentalism.”
This analogy could be used for a society who does not read Moby Dick for instance, as we could enter a kind of Dark Age of societal and introspective reflection.

The computer pioneer Danny Hillis made an interesting remark to this point when writing about search tools. In the near future, and to some extent now, what we read is guided by Google. Hillis warns that
“In the past, meaning was only in the minds of humans. Now, it is also in the minds of tools that bring us information. From now on, search engines will have an editorial point of view, and search results will reflect that viewpoint. We can no longer ignore the assumptions behind the results.”
Perhaps what he is saying applies to literature as well. If an advertising company becomes powerful enough to influence meaning, it can even more easily influence what we read. It is possible that literature can become buried in the abyss of pages with no hyperlinks, and even when it is discovered it is remastered by algorithmic editorial.

One of the best sci-fi novels of recent years is Rainbow’ End by Vernor Vinge. A friend who knows Vinge feels that he is one of the best at predictive fiction. In many cases this is actually a positive thing, as the near future of Vinge can be very exciting. In Rainbows End however there is a bit of a warning when it comes to mass digitization. Vinge does not point a finger at the non-destructive means by which Google creates the largest on-line library, but instead talks of a fictional corporation that uses a technique to digitize which involves shredding library books in order to preserve the content. At first thought this would not be so bad. Cloud servers are backed up, and in a way contain a perfection that the decaying paper which books are printed on don’t. The problem however is that a corporation doing the cataloging is making money some way, and if they are anything like Google or Facebook, advertising is a large part of this money making exercise. We might wonder how this is different than traditional ownership rights by traditional publishing houses, but it is not the same. A publisher and a book store sell a book, and a library loans books, or lets you read them. I saw this funny cartoon about Facebook which makes the same point about being led advertising companies.

I may very well seem old fashioned, especially as I was going through the stacks at Poets house reading bits of Eliot, and poems of Auden. It was a beautiful day, and when I opened those books, it could have been any year in American history. Yet there was a difference in my experience. I realized that everyone visiting Poets House that morning, including me, had our laptops open, and were using the free WIFI they provide. Though I can’t speak for everyone else, I wasn’t on Facebook, or checking Twitter, or even reading the news. I was instead looking up biographical information on the writers I was reading. I wanted to know what the authors were doing at the time they wrote specific poems. I wanted to know where they lived, or are living in the case of contemporary authors. I even wanted to find out how to contact those living writers to see if they wanted to have a coffee. I did all of these things, which without Google, Wikipedia and other online resources would be impossible. These are of course some of the same companies that may very well be making the print books I was enjoying obsolete. If I take this further, I can imagine 1 or 2 years from now having the same WIFI access, but not having to even leave the stacks to learn more. I could use augmented reality glasses or contacts, and do searches on the spot, as i guess i could already do on my I-Phone. As I will do this the work that O’Reilly considers to be irrelevant to modern life  may actually be more relevant personally than it ever was before. Moby Dick will not only be a grand story and allegory of beautiful prose, but technology will be nearly instantaneously creating a context for it, making it more powerful and personal than it ever would have been before. Most importantly though, it won’t be the changing world of on-line content that I will be experiencing. It will instead be yellowing bound sheets a paper, with all of the fixed words and romantic imagery that they bring to mind.

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