What does ‘the digital’ do to ‘the text’? It leaves me feeling used

In loose dialogue with the following: Julie’s post on politics and power, Sven Birkerts in ‘Reading in a Digital Age’ and my own anxieties and passions, towards words – digital and on paper.

As readers of a traditional paper volumes, we can purchase a book using cash and walk away. We leave no trail or history, and our actions will not be recorded. We consume for our own purposes, and there’s no residue that remains, besides what gives meaning to us.

Digital text provides avenues to manipulate the text to do anything, to use the residue of our presence for its own capital gains. Whether it’s merely for harmless research or curiosity even, digital text can often leave me with feeling used. Even my gaze upon the text looses its liberalizing power, though I chose to read it, in theory, the digital text can be considered a tool for manipulation, because I don’t know what’s behind it. Besides the nature of its construction (HTML, etc.) there is more to consider now, much more stuff to unpack.

It was Julie’s post that inspired the lengthy post below, especially this quote:  “due to a certain lack of knowledge, and perhaps ignorance in some cases, it is not visible/accessible to everyone. Of course, coding is a skill that can be learned, but we cannot assume that is broadly understood by internet users. With such lack of understanding in mind, how does this impact on the politics of online text?”

My post is an attempt to work through this question of the impact on the politics of online text that Julie posed while also thinking through the anxieties expressed in the article ‘Reading in a Digital Age’ that bled into my own.

 Being Followed, Being Sold

For instance, (while this is nothing we may have discussed in class or the readings) the thought does cross my mind that the links we provide even within our blog posts can be measured for click-throughs. The digital text provides power to an authority we cannot know or see, for its analytical potential and less for its contemplative powers. This information can then be sold to other parties. This information follows us. There are cookies. There are things planted. There is a trail we leave that can be traced and followed. It becomes then an illusion of free knowledge and information, where really, we are just being peddled at an invisible market we cannot see. We do not own that information. We are being used.

No wonder then I find myself agreeing with Sven Birkerts in ‘Reading in a Digital Age’ that contemplation and analysis are oppositional modes of thinking as we read. His anxiety over having to separate these terms, and also wanting to be able to measure the effects of the reading, is the anxiety caused by an age that measures every move we make online.

Digital is a gaze-marker that can register the amount of time, and where we spend the most time reading, it can be used to manipulate. Our gaze can be used as data for where certain text or images are placed, can be moved around, because there is a hierarchy to space in the digital sphere. A top right square space of real estate becomes worth much more than the bottom left space for instance. It is not just those who own the text and therefore those who can create it, but those who can manipulate the data to extract from it their benefits. That’s the upcoming matter to grapple with now. It’s no longer the power of those who understand HTML, which is being destabilized by things like Adobe Muse (you can create your own website from scratch without any knowledge of HTML) it’s using the digital text as a curtain that’s disturbing. It’s an illusion, it’s a magic trick. We don’t know what’s behind there, or who is controlling it, and what they are using all of that information for. It will be up and then down. There and not there.

Politics, Power

A hundred years ago, reading a text meant to re-read it, to memorize it, to quote it. To be able to quote and speak about text was a marker of intelligence, education, and a certain class. Books were expensive, and libraries offered the salve. The poor could access knowledge. Now however, we are neither the proletariat nor bourgeoisie, but at once confused because our bodies in the digital age become the factories by which this information is being produced, and we are cannibals to the product, ourselves. Crowd-sourcing. It is our affinity for the digital product of text that creates the by-product we shed, our reading histories. Birkerts asks “For I will insist that my reading has done a great deal for me even if I cannot account for most of it.” His anxiety seems to fall into asking how can the effects of what he does be measured. Why does he read? For what purpose, especially if he cannot remember anything? The digital insists on the endless measurements and Birkert’s writes that “contemplative thought is endangered.” No wonder, when we are being followed and trailed. We must only learn to move quicker, faster, leaving everything that we have previously touched all behind, because forward is where we ought to look – to the future. This information is aggregated, and we are left thinking, as Birkert’s aptly writes, “I know a great deal without knowing what I know.” No wonder. They know more than us. It’s political. It’s power. The digital is just a rotating storefront, reconfigured based on our prior histories, our movements online. Whereas book cover designs, typesetting, and paper quality lose their power over me, over time, a water-damaged paperback for a loonie becomes like fishing for the dead skins of vipers, the digital is a beast that can always change to manipulate our desires. It is a performance, and we pay dearly. We lose our voice.

Courting and lusting after the pliant bodies of mashed wood and pulp and the delicate spines of paper books allows us to cage the last of the brightly plumed birds. The endangered contemplative thoughts. They sit beside me, squawking and ruffling their brightly colored covers and pages. They bristle as I run through the hairs of the pages. My digital list is JSTOR bookmarks, Amazon Wishlists, things I never seem to get around to. Meanwhile, the paper books are my little zoo. That anxiety of an eventual loss is what permeates the texture of the experience, of reading alone, the sensual experience of touch. That’s what we remember, what we retain, what the effects are. It’s the touch and the smell. The stains we leave. It’s a charged experience. Not something by the hour. The research we do with books, stare us right in the face with their fat lips. The Chicago Manual of Style will never lose its weight on me. I will feel its eyes staring back at me in the dark. The digital will not let me mark its body, it will not let me finger its edges, fold its ears, highlight its words.

The Democratizing Flesh of Paper

Physical book reading in all its fleshy pulp becomes democratizing, breaking off from an anarchy of images, thoughts, and ideas that can plunder our inner calm, jarr our inner peace, leave us hungry for more, and grasping for the tail end of things that often rip off in our hands. In choosing to read a book, we choose the fully nutritional meal of our writers. We place the words on our tongue. We carefully slice the words at our pace, interpret the images our own way, the words what they mean to us.  We put them away when we don’t have the time, and we don’t have to worry about the nightmare of being watched and of being followed. We can sleep at night, because we took the power in our hands. Nor does our pleasure feel outdated. Lost. Or old. We revel in its wrinkles. We are soothed at the power of the brittle and aged wisdom.

Blazing Signals

Birkert’s writes “more and more comes the complaint, even from practiced readers, that it is hard to maintain attentive focus. The works have presumably not changed. What has changed is either the conditions of reading or something in the cognitive reflexes of the reader. Or both. All of us now occupy an information space blazing with signals. We have had to evolve coping strategies. Not merely the ability to heed simultaneous cues from different directions, cues of different kinds, but also—this is important—to engage those cues more obliquely. When there is too much information, we graze it lightly, applying focus only where it is most needed. We stare at a computer screen with its layered windows and orient ourselves with a necessarily fractured attention. It is not at all surprising that when we step away and try to apply ourselves to the unfragmented text of a book we have trouble. It is not so easy to suspend the adaptation.”

Grazing, coping strategies. Fractures. It all sounds like a war. Being ripped apart.

Not only is it a fragmentary experience, but it’s an empty experience, and one aspect that Birkert’s doesn’t account for, it’s the point Julie makes as she points out the political aspects of it as well. At some point, in some way, in order to retain the information and knowledge, we want to hold a piece of it, instead of being plied with it, on a rented space on a screen.  What digital does to text is insist on an anxiety of loss. Physical paper provides comfort. It is the metaphorical comfort blanket. We re-read, urge the body to give us new experiences, and as the paper yellows and ages, it moans into a new song, and we find a little of ourselves where we had been 10, 15 years ago when we first picked up the text, we find in the paper, pieces of our past, our notes in the margins, a freedom to speak, not an authoritative gaze that demands restrictions in the shade of secrecy.

Paper is body, and it opens itself to our touch, page by page, the oils from our fingers meld with the object, and it becomes a part of us. We break its spine into deep grooves where we’ve read it the most. Digital reinforces the alienation and isolation; we leave no part of ourselves on the digital. It uses us, and moves on. It is not a mutual relationship. It’s a one-way street. We provide the book shelter, and in turn, it provides us with food. With memory. We revisit the real-estate. In doing so we also revisit parts of ourselves we shared. It is balance. It is equalizing.

halfway back.

So when Birkert’s asks, “What am I doing when I am reading a novel? How do I justify the activity as something more than a way to pass the time?” I think now that I know the answer. I am exercising my right to my own mind and my own thoughts.  We mark our thoughts and our words all over the physical text if we want to, and share it. It keeps a memory of us, and we keep a memory of it. Digital: it seems so easy to believe it’s all for the greater good, it’s all so pleasant and democratizing, however it’s a magic trick, and we can choose to believe in it if we want to. It’s all a choice. But if it uses me, then it must know, then I will merely use it too. Use us, and we will use you back. With paper books, I will have my relationships. I will pass them down to my children, I will leave them on my bed. They will catch the moon glow, they will have sang, and they will have heard me.

In digital, we are easily fooled that into believing the interactions we have online are just for us. It’s not all that glorious. Behind the scenes, we are unzipping for strangers in the dark spaces we do not understand, whose power we cannot fathom or know. And whose power can only grow. To what ends? It’s easy to believe that this knowledge is not only providing us, but and the entire world with easily accessible knowledge and power that we did not have before, but with each interaction online we are undressing a little bit, not knowing what’s being taken from us, what we’re getting in turn, and we loose a little of ourselves, a little of us, perhaps infected, too. This easily accessible material is just another way we sell ourselves without even knowing we are doing it. What does digital do to text? It cheapens it to a quick hit. The weight of love, and memory is in the physical paper book. Some great mind once said Greater good is just halfway back to Bad.” I’d say with digital, we’re halfway back.

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3 Responses to What does ‘the digital’ do to ‘the text’? It leaves me feeling used

  1. clairefarley says:

    This is a really interesting reflection, Puneet. I am struck by your argument that the book is truly that which is democratizing. I’m not sure exactly what my stance is on this, honestly, but I do think that it is always important for us to question our assumptions about online interactions and to consider the implications of our involvement in online communities as we would those in “real-life”. I think that I am drawn to a lot of your observations, in the same way that I am drawn to Birkerts’s article. You write beautifully about the way I also feel when reading a book and it is difficult for me to deny that there is something important in this feeling. Despite the argument that digitization is preservation, I still feel that this is somehow false just because of the way I personally engage with digital objects and tangible objects. I like to stand in front of my bookshelf, pick up a book just to feel it and remember that time I read it on a train to somewhere, notice how my notes in the margins all remind me of who I was in that time, in that space. But I don’t do that with things I’ve read online. I delete them from my bookmarks bar when I am finished and that is that. However, I think we also need to be careful that when we feel this way, when we weigh both the emotional and the political cons of the digital, that we also remember that no one is tearing our books off our shelves just because it is more useful to pull out words and patterns in a text when they are marked up digitally. What’s so fun about this is that we are having this conversation, that we have these options. And you are very right that we also get to choose the ways that we engage with these options.

  2. Pingback: Digital Idealism, Social Regulation and Our Textual Heritage via Deegan & Sutherland | The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes

  3. Jason Boyd says:

    I find this post to be very “Birkertsian,” in that poetic effusion and waxing nostalgic at points threatens to overrun a grounded argument. My view is that print and digital texts do not pose an either/or choice. Both have their uses, depending on what one is using them for.

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