Thursday, April 16, 2009
I.T. and Reconditioning
Digital text is the first convincing alternative to print text that has appeared for two hundred years. There are many compelling reasons to initiate a formal, theoretical investigation of digital text and digital consciousness. The first, crucial reason is this— fluency in digital text will be (may already be) necessary for our survival as thinkers and writers. We (most of us) were not weaned on digital text; the thinkers and writers of the future are, however, being weaned on digital text as we speak. It would be presumptuous to expect that all of our work will be carried into the future; but, to the extent that we allow ourselves to hope that some of our work will be, a cultivation of digital consciousness is as legitimate a means to this end as any. If anything stands in our way, it is the ideologies (conscious or unconscious) which have riveted us to print as the primary, sole mode of text dissemination. Print has been granted ultimate value, specifically for lack of a viable alternative; new values will be needed to replace an old paradigm, the work of centuries. The best way to be rid of obsolescent ideologies is to do the work of explicitly defining them. Once they are defined, they may be transcended. How would we define ideologies that give ultimate value to print as text-carrier? A simplified summation would say that this ideology fetishizes books as discrete commodities; privileges a limited level of availability; affirms an economy of linguistic exchanges in which immediate, direct response (transference of cultural capital) is not possible; and enacts an atomization of the author as a remote, possibly Romantic Other.
I would like to avoid an implicit glamorization of the Net by pointing out that print does offer considerable advantages: extreme portability, “presence,” or even, for first editions, “aura”; privacy, rather then the “two-way mirror” structure of blogs; and with that, the space to make “private traces,” leave private notes in margins. It is important for me to state explicitly that I am not presenting digital text as a new paradigm to efface an old one; rather, I am predicting the historical emergence of a viable, oft-used companion and alternative to what has become standard. Authors that have cultivated “digital fluency” have an advantage that “print-sticklers” do not; to choose degrees of opacity and transparency, as textual circumstances dictate; to remain atomized or to engage in an interactive heteroglot encounter; to construct a textual self that is, in and of itself, more heteroglot than it ever could have been before. Between increased textual options and the likelihood of future prevalence (if not predominance) of digital text, it remains unclear why a working author would choose not to engage the world digitally, other than through force of habit. Failure is to form habits, Walter Pater said; why did he say it? Because he was living in a (largely) mechanized society, in which receptivity to new aesthetic forms was not habitual. “Digital” is not like “mechanical”; it does not induce stupor, but greater awareness of the new, the present (“the presence of the present”). So— what else needs to be overcome? What if resistance is at the institutional, rather than the individual level?
Institutional resistance to digital consciousness is hardly a surprise. The Academy is conservative, in both the positive and the pejorative sense of the word: positive, in that the Academy seeks to conserve the most pertinent texts and forms of discourse, in hopes of maintaining a tradition to which new things accrue at (often) a glacial pace; negative, in the sense that suspicion of all manifestations of newness is never far from the surface, both in classrooms and at the administrative level. Yet digital consciousness has infiltrated the campuses of most major universities in America, in the form of computer labs, “Blackboard” sites for student/teacher interactions, and even digitalized pay-stubs for faculty members. There seems to be a major discrepancy here: if campuses have largely “gone digital,” why should it be that writers who “go digital” are marginalized, in favor of their print counterparts? Mostly, it seems to be a matter of time. “Digital” as such didn’t even exist until fifteen years ago; blogs have only become popular in the last five years. How many books less than fifteen years old have been added extensively to syllabuses in America? Very few. How many less than five years old? I am guessing, none. As blog discourses evolve, it will be interesting to see where the first moves are made to appropriate them. Reception Velocity means that students can express themselves not only in classroom-based speech acts, but in directly personal (perhaps confrontational) textual acts as well, and on a digital stage. “Fast, fluid, and without boundaries,” when put into competent hands, could create a new level and dimension of pedagogy.