I’m always really excited to read any new essays on the discussion of technology and it’s implication/relationship with already “fully-formed” modes of expression. It seems that this particular controversy heavily divides people: technology can either be a bearer of progress or a strangler of creativity (though this certain viewpoint I always find pretty short-sighted). I’m aware that I’m treating technology as an outside force, anthropomorphizing it, but that’s only in order to quickly sum-up what I’ve seen as the two sides to this very multi-layered argument.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Sam Byers just completed a 4-part essay on the novel and it’s modern-day relationship to technology. He does an amazing job at dissecting the various protestations contemporary authors and journalists have against technology’s over-reaching grasp into all things human/ physical/ real. Byers at the end systematically flips all these protests and successfully discusses the potential of not only a successful use of technology within literature but also the creative force it can unlock within authors.
In Byer’s first part of his essay, he introduces Nathan Jurgenson’s idea of a Digital Dualism Fallacy. We, humans, always talk about “technology” or “the Internet” as if it were a force outside of ourselves (see above) and as an entity we do not entirely have the power to change or influence. When it was, indeed, created by humans to be used by us. If, the physical world we live in is the “real” world and the world we created via our Facebook accounts, Twitter and RSS feeds is solely created, manicured and delivered through “the Internet”, then yes, these two entities would be separate and distinctive. But this is simply not true. We bring nearly everything we do and perform online into our world offline. What we create: whether it be through our own identity-construction in our classrooms, live conversations, or human interactions and what we create digitally build the identity we construct within and for ourselves to present to the outside world.
I can only understand the argument that “literature is dead because of the rise of technology” only if our present situation as a society was that our physical world and our virtual world were indeed binaries, the two mutually exclusive, and what is presented in our literatures was no longer relatable or applicable. But, as it is made abundantly clear in my “reality”, my technological identity and presence is just as much a part of my physical world as the very human interactions I take part in throughout my day. (Example: The teachers I work with spend most of their break-time going over the various indiscreet text messages sent in our What’sApp messaging group, “Did you watch that video??” “Can’t believe he sent that! How naugh-ty!”)
Byers goes on to tackle the “Internet makes us boring, mindless robots” concept wonderfully. Writer Toby Litt explains how his recent affair with WoW (World of Warcraft) left him truly believing that if he had WoW and the internet earlier in his life, he would’ve most likely never started writing. His writing grew out of a vital boredom. So, for Litt (and maybe other writers like him) boredom is an essential tool for creativity, and I can definitely see where he’s coming from. His idea of the internet, it’s utility and efficacy in our daily lives, again mirrors this perception that technology and humanity are separate. For Litt it is a preconfigured tool, one that serves the most vital purpose of entertainment, or more aptly, reality avoidance. He continues to say that no writer would ever want to write about our society today. Imagine a book consisting solely of people checking their emails, playing online games, scrolling aimlessly through Facebook. Indeed, boring, but I don’t know if that says more about the author than our society at large. Byers proves Litt’s observations false with a powerful digression of a story, detailing a frankly suspenseful and all-too real scenario of a young woman battling inner demons while impatiently waiting for a text from her love interest. It’s not necessarily the story that wins the audience, but the way it’s told.
The issue, ultimately, is that authors/novelists are simply unsure and afraid of how to continue their craft in such a “suddenly evolving atmosphere” (Because all this technology is just too fast!). No matter how much Jonathan Franzen whines and complains, at the end of the day he’ll still have to prove his literary creative prowess to us, society, regardless of our physical or virtual composition. A particularly valid point Byers makes (which I loved!) is that if the internet’s intentions are only to open lines of communication and knowledge sharing, then the very physical role of writer/critique/creator is absolutely tested and refigured. The Internet gives freedom, a voice and an audience to anyone willing to participate. A writer doesn’t necessarily need a publisher, or a team of publicists (or even a printer, for that matter) to speak out. Therein lies this fear propagated by so many writers: If people can just flock to the Internet to find their latest source on news, culture, literature, what’s going to make them keep listening to us? Furthermore, who’s going to tell them what’s good and what’s not? Culture and society won’t be muddled up by fakes and phonies; neither will mass culture (what is “good” culture?) be incomprehensible from muck and “bad” culture, but it will be more difficult to leave an impression or hold on to authority for a little bit longer. So, Jonathan Franzen, think you can handle that?