Tuesday, February 16, 2010

New Technologies

Ira Socol wrote about technologies today. I had written the post below after school today (I'd been thinking about it for a day or two) and submitted it to the StarTribune in response to this piece in Sunday's StarTribune by William Souder. Both Ira and I, unlike Mr. Souder, like the idea that 'books' are available in multiple formats.

William Souder offered the opportunity to judge the essay he wrote that was printed in last Sunday's Star Tribune and which was also made available in the online version of the Star Tribune. His essay fails to prove his point. He proposes that formal writing is dying; that it is being replaced by digital writing. I'm not quite sure what Souder means by formal writing, but he implies that it is writing that does not appear in electronic form, which is a ridiculous proposition since most of what has been written by humans in any language and on any surface with any tool is now available on line. For Souder, digital writing is writing that is not published and printed on paper by publishing houses that published books by Tom Clancy and Stephen King. Souder asserts that those publishing housed used to subsidize a number of less-famous writers whose work was worth reading but who couldn't make money for the publisher or, presumably, themselves. I will acknowledge that that how people get paid for writing is changing. Souder says that this inferior digital writing is somehow lessening the value that existed for the kind of writing that came before it. He makes fun of the what he calls digital writing but fails to show how that harms the other kind of writing. Good writing endures, no matter the form.

I still value what Plato wrote about what Socrates said about writing. Socrates, or at least, Plato using a character called Socrates, didn't think much of writing; he considered writing to be much inferior to oral discourse. http://english.ttu.edu/Kairos/2.1/features/brent/platowri.htm

Anyone now reading these words electronically can with one click be able to the words of Socrates, via Plato, written in fairly modern English. There are probably scholars of both Greek and Latin who could offer alternative translations and thus maybe put another twist on the meaning of the words as they appear to us, today. Was Plato's writing on a kodex in classical Greek formal writing? Are his words dead?

Chaucer significantly messed with the formal writing of his day. He eschewed the old formal Latin in favor the indelicate vernacular English. Now we call him the father of English literature. Chaucer would've been all over Facebook if he were here today. And the rhythms and rhyme he so informally wrote six hundred years ago - “Whan that Aprille with hise shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.”- still delight even though the spellings and pronunciations have changed a bit.

With this 'inferior' digital writing, I'm also able to connect readers of these words to the words of Wordsworth – now there's a guy whose words are worth reading. What I especially like about using an electronic tool is that I can go right to the part of Wordsworth's words that I want readers to notice. I have a hard time remembering the exact paragraph where the line I want to share shows up, but I remember that the word 'torpor' appears in the sentence so all I need to do is type 'torpor' into the little 'find' box at the bottom of my laptop screen and, presto, I'm at the passage which expresses notions which readers familiar with Mr. Souder's essay will recognize. Wordsworth, too, was turning traditional, formal writing on its head in favor of the language of the common man.

It was almost two hundred years ago that Wordsworth said, speaking of the capability to excite the beauty and dignity of the mind, “It has therefore appeared to me, that to endeavour to produce or enlarge this capability is one of the best services in which, at any period, a Writer can be engaged; but this service, excellent at all times, is especially so at the present day. For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. to this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves. The invaluable works of our elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakespeare and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse.” I suppose Mr. Souder would put blogs and Twitter threads, no matter who wrote them, in with all those sickly and stupid German Tragedies and the deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse.

The number of English speakers globally continues increase rapidly so the market for things written in English, digital or formal, is also growing. Mr. Souder's main objection to digital writing seems to be that it is endangering the profits of the owner's of the means of distributing writing on paper. Books are not going away; writing is just showing up in new places in addition to books, newspapers and magazines. If there's enough demand for words printed on paper, somebody will figure out how to make money making books. I think the Book of Kells is gorgeous, but I'm not going to suggest that everything written should be written in a book using the same skills required to produce the Book of Kells. Mr. Souder laments the fact that Moby Dick is available for free. I think it's a good thing that a child in the Philippines, or China, or wherever, can download a copy and read it, or almost any other book, with the aid of a translating tool and even online explanatory notes. Lots of people without the ability to hold or read a book can also have the text read to them by this 'inferior' digital tool. Electronically produced writing opens lots of doors for lots of people. Our ability to tell our stories whether we're bards or scribes is not hampered by electronic communication- electronics make both the stage and the seating area a whole lot bigger and more inclusive.

1 comment:

  1. It is interesting how at every point in history that there were those that opposed the new forms that literacy took. I am thrilled that digital text opens up knowledge to the world. It is easily accessed, and as you pointed out can be quickly translated, highlighted, bookmarked, and words looked up in the dictionary. I understand lamenting the passing of certain literacy mediums, but anything that has value will not completely disappear. There will always be those of us who love the written word and must own a piece of it in paper form.