The Digitization of Texts

While I do agree with Claire on some points, it seems to me that Birkerts is resisting rather than engaging with a change that is inevitable. His views on youth are one-sided and verging on ageist. In particular, his comment that “[t]he attitude of the present to the past . . . well, it depends on who is looking. The older you are, the more likely it is that your regard will be benign—indulgent, even nostalgic. Youth, by contrast, quickly gets derisive, preening itself on knowing better, oblivious to the fact that its toys will be found no less preposterous by the next wave of the young.” I understand what Birkerts is saying—that technological shifts engender an attitude that what came before was “quaint” or simplistic. His contention that youth have a “preening,” self-indulgent, and hubristic attitude towards technological shifts is an opinion that is, in itself, quaint, nostalgic, and self-serving. It seems like we (members of all age groups) are all painfully aware of the constant changes in technology. Some of us (even members of the “preening” youth) have even become jaded about these constant developments… unsure if whether these changes really represent advancements or are superficial changes, driven by the big, greedy, capitalist machine… As we all asked in a Foundations class a few months ago, is the iPhone 5 really that different from the 4???

Anyways, in terms of what the digital does to text, I think Birkerts comes off as kind of a sentimental Luddite, pining for a Walden Pond-esque age that never really existed for people living in the real world. The digitization of texts is happening and there really is no stopping it. Like any change there are benefits and disadvantages to this shift. Benefits include increased circulation of texts, the democratization of both authorial and editorial roles, the opening up of what a text can “do” (how it can expand infinitely and engage more of our senses), and also digitization means that a text is fluid (we can alter and improve texts indefinitely). Disadvantages may include the lack of an editorial/curatorial gatekeeper, potential loss of jobs in the arts, and, according to some, negative changes in how our brains work. According to Birkerts, digitization has led to “a fractur[ing] [of our] attention [spans].” It has made it harder for us to concentrate, for us to sit down and properly digest a tome. Not only is this argument historically problematic (as we discussed in class), but also begs the question, why, in the first place, did we place this reading practise on a pedestal? Is it really so much more inherently advantageous than reading in pieces? Haven’t we always read in bits and pieces? Perhaps, digitization’s fracturing of texts is more conducive to our readerly digestion. Perhaps, digitization can foster more contemplative thought, allowing the reader to explore extra-diegetic avenues that stimulate, rather than stunt the imagination.

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One Response to The Digitization of Texts

  1. cstelman says:

    Miso, I completely agree with your opinion on the Birkerts article. The following question you have posed: “Why, in the first place, did we place this reading practise on a pedestal?” is an excellent point, and provides a valuable critique of Birkerts. Although digital humanities is inevitably growing, Birkerts concerns are somewhat unrealistic, and give printed texts more credibility then perhaps they deserve.
    As you have also pointed out, Birkerts ignores that digitized texts can actually be more stimulating than printed texts. This is particularly true if we focus not on digital texts as being simply an unnecessary imitation of its printed counterpart, but instead, as a valuable medium that can be used to promote types of thinking that print simply cannot. (I am reminded again of Andre Vallias’s TRAKLTRAKT, which I discussed here).

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