Why Is the Digital Future Only Found in Books?

Awhile back, Mack Hassler and I were talking about online personas and the differences between created personas in traditional print culture and the new electronic media.  Mack pointed out that the real interesting personae come through print culture and he named examples including Swift, Greg Egan, Philip K. Dick, and David Foster Wallace (think “Lyndon”)–all of whom employ internal controversies and different voices.  Philip K. Dick is an interesting example particularly if you consider his last published novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982).  It strikes me how much his supposedly strong female protagonist, Angel Archer, is like the author.  After reading Sutin’s biography of Dick, Divine Invasions (2005), there are unmistakable parallels between Archer and Dick, and I draw the conclusion that Archer is a voice for the author–a persona of her creator–PKD.

What does that have to do with the divide between print and computer media cultures?  There’s something to be said about the complexity and the richness of layers, all of which are probably tempered and strengthened by the publication process including acceptance and editing, present in print media–novels and short stories–that facilitates strong persona creation unequaled by electronic media as yet.  We all create online personae through email, social networking, or blogging (among other personal broadcast technologies). Those who interact with us electronically do so via cyberspace, that shared consensual hallucination, and we meet with only what we bring us–our words and stray bits of data including images, sounds, videos, and our reputation.  It is these things that others use to create an image or avatar of ourselves in their minds in order to make sense of our interactions–that’s just what our brains do with the available data at hand.  However, as Mack observed and I agree, the new media has permitted a proliferation of persona creation, but it is by-and-large thinned out in comparison to what we find in print media.

This then leads to my personal conundrum.  Mack said to me, “You’re serious about print, but you’re not serious.”  I am heavily invested in computer technology.  I built a PC specifically for online gaming–not that my grad student responsibilities allow me any time for that–and I recently decided to invest in Apple due to the economic downturn, which netted me their latest and greatest machined aluminum MacBook with a solid-state hard drive.  Despite the hardware underpinnings of my digital life via email, Facebook, and my blog, I rarely read or encounter stories online.  Yes, I read a lot online, probably more than I should considering my other duties, but the one thing that I don’t read online are SF stories.  The stories, the SF, that creates, imagines, and interfaces with the future is largely nonexistent on the medium that those stories take as its object of interest.  If I want to read about cyberspace, I don’t look online, I turn to pulp, paper, and the book for that imaginative immersion.

Where does that leave us in regard to the new media and books?  Considering my recent conversation with Stephen R. Donaldson, there is change in the wind, but obviously no one has the one answer to what that change may encompass.  I’m curious to hear the thoughts of Robert H. Jackson next Tuesday when he presents on the future of books at the Kent State Library.  I know he won’t have all (if any) the answers, but perhaps the face-to-face interaction will be illuminating in ways that online persona interaction is not.

3 thoughts on “Why Is the Digital Future Only Found in Books?

  1. One of the more interesting arguments for why online / digital text hasn’t replaced the book that I’ve found comes from Raymond Kurzweil, of all people. In _The Singularity Is Near_, he talks about how the DPI and the refresh rate are much higher for paper than they are for screens (even with high def LCD displays). He says that the lower DPI can make reading large amounts of text on-screen very headache inducing. I find his focus on the material conditions of reading much more refreshing than a lot of other articles I’ve read on the future of the book.

    Also, about the construction of personae: do you think this has to do with the fact that literary narrative gives us access to interiority? Online, as you say, we only interact with what people say, but in literature (at least, a lot of literature), we are told by the narrator what people are actually thinking and feeling. I think you hint at this, but I was wondering if that’s what you actually mean?

  2. Hey Andrew–the material conditions of reading must have a large part to play in how and what we read online. Perhaps that’s why we do spend a lot of time online reading, but that reading is usually chunked or clustered in such a way that our eyes are moving around and easily facilitate our looking away from the screen. Whereas with a story–whether novel or short story–your eyes have to focus on a generally confined area of the screen or book for a period of time as you scan the words and lines. Books produce less eye strain in part due to what Kurzweil says–high refresh rate/not being redrawn and high DPI. Also, the high contrast and clarity of the printed word trumps many displays and/or poorly configured gamma/contrast/brightness on computer displays.

    You’re totally right about interiority. I should have gone into that more in the post. Online persona are restricted to the same problem that largely affects movies. In online communication, we are see only what is written, and in movies, we see only the action and behavior of the actors (there is the voiceover, but it takes up linear time from the narrative unlike the interior dialog in a book, which may represent an instant of time). Books allow us to get into the heads of the characters and really see what’s going on (as much or as little as the narrator allows, but at least we can pull back the character curtain somewhat), but online communication is limited to what we observe and how we interpret the data that we receive (which may be widely divergent with a messenger’s intent as evidenced by flamewars).

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