There’s no doubt we are living in an age of screens, and books have not been spared in the relentless transfer of text to electronic devices. Is this a bad thing? How have writers grappled with the impacts of technology on human connection, communication and interaction?
Sweetland lecturer Simone Sessolo studies how technology shapes the way we write and think. His take on digital media is refreshingly nuanced.
“Let’s not start by being evaluative,” said Sessolo. “Let’s start by observing and describing.”
The software of e-reading is perhaps more important to consider than the hardware. E-readers have become less popular in recent years; apps that users can download on their phones and computers are more convenient and usually free, even when the content itself is not.
“There’s an enhanced attention to multimodality,” Sessolo explained.
Technology means there is no longer an inexorable connection between object and content. Sessolo held up a book and demonstrated, explaining he could read that book on his laptop, his phone or an e-reader. The physical book, once central to obtaining knowledge, is now one of many means through which readers and writers can communicate.
The relocation of print books to digital mediums does mean something is lost, however. The Daily chatted with English Professor Joshua Miller, and he described an experience that, for him, reinforced the possibility for connection and coincidence that physical books allow.
“I had this very strange experience in college that I think probably can’t be reproduced anymore,” Miller said. “I was in the library, browsing through the stacks. I just randomly picked up a novel, and I decided to take it to the checkout desk. I was on the way there and the old call slip card fell out of the book so I reached down to pick it up —and there was my father’s name, in his handwriting, from when he was a graduate student 20 years earlier. That’s the kind of thing that won’t happen once we’re fully digital.”
Miller, though enthusiastic about the possibilities for creativity that technology allows, still has some reservations.
“One thing that I think gets lost a little bit is the book as a curated object,” Miller said. “The publisher and the editors — and the author, if they’re lucky — get to make decisions about how the book comes together – in terms of a unique font, hardcover or softcover, creative typography, whether or not to include drawings or images, the texture of the paper, how raised or how smooth and matte or glossy. That doesn’t always happen with digital material.”
Miller is also a margin-note enthusiast.
“All of the books I have on my bookshelves I keep in part because they have my notes in them. As a piece of technology, the paper book is very good at storing information,” Miller said. “That data doesn’t get lost unless I lose the book, and no digital format has fully succeeded in convincing me I can reproduce that.”
Miller continued to clarify his use of reading technology.
“I think we’re all still figuring out what (e-readers) can and can’t do,” Miller explained. “I do have some concerns about the shift from analog to digital and what it means. We lose a lot when we give up the material book.”
Still, Miller isn’t by any means opposed to new technologies.
“I use screen reading apps, and I love them. It allows me to buy a book and read it quickly, so that’s really helpful … there’s a lot of benefits to it,” Miller said. “I’m excited about the opportunities and possibilities of new technologies, and I’m trying to distinguish between the changes that feel profound to me and the changes that feel incremental —and determine what I think about each of those different kinds of changes, because both are there.”
Another important aspect of reading technology is the issues it raises regarding accessibility. Sessolo noted in many ways, technology has broken down barriers between writers and readers and thus democratized access to books. Those who don’t live near bookstores or libraries and people with various disabilities clearly benefit from the ability to read using a screen; however, while technology has the potential to radically improve access to written material, it’s also important to consider the price of technology, which can exclude those who cannot afford to buy e-books, e-readers or other devices.
“Technology in and of itself is not enough,” Sessolo said.
While technology is promising in many ways, working toward economic and social equality in all aspects of life is still necessary in order to fulfill the potential of alternative reading mediums.
“The thing I’d like people to consider is that democracy only exists in action,” Sessolo explained. “To democratize the experience of new technology, get involved with whatever you can.”
Miller emphasized the importance of accessibility when considering multimedia works.
“Publishers are understandably concerned about losing readers who require accessibility or are sympathetic to the politics of accessibility,” Miller said. “There’s class issues too — writers are often writing about the precarity of everyday life and scenes of crisis, so they want to reach the widest audience possible and engage the issues that they’re describing. They don’t want to write a novel that can’t be checked out of the library.”
How have writers addressed and used technology in their work?
“I think authors are adjusting slowly.” Miller said. “There are some writers who have found digital platforms and e-books to be a natural fit or work really well with pre-existing forms. Now there’s Twitter fiction and things like that, but the divide in technology between turning books into digital forms and digitally-born books is still pretty firm. My guess is that more and more writers will figure out how to use these technologies digitally.”
Associate English Professor Madhumita Lahiri noted in an interview with The Daily that short-form writing lends itself to incorporating slang, emojis and abbreviations. The long publishing process for novels often means quick cultural changes render words and phrases obsolete, even if the author was innovative a few years earlier.
“I think it’s easier if you know it’s going to be published in the next week,” Lahiri said. “The thing that’s tricky about emojis in particular is that their meanings are extremely unstable.”
Miller talked about the rise of short-form writing and reading apps.
“The number four app in the book section of the iOS app store is Hooked,” Miller said. “It’s a storytelling platform that allows authors to tell captivating stories in a really short form as a series of text messages.”
Still, there’s a cultural pushback against shorter forms of narrative.
“The micro of culture has been maligned by people who have said attention spans have gone down, which I think is exaggerating a true fact too much,” Miller explained. “The shift from a book to a machine to apps on other devices does increase the likelihood of distraction and I think makes it much harder to stay focused. On the other hand, I think the emphasis on short-form storytelling isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
While there are many long-form novels that interrogate the role of technology in modern life, there are fewer that actually incorporate technology as part of the reading experience.
“There are a lot of works describing technology in relatively analog formats, so I don’t know when the tipping point is going to happen and people are going to figure out how exactly to make that work,” Miller said. “There are definitely people who are using text language or acronyms —people are thinking and writing about speech and language issues.”
The ways technology has changed language is a source of cultural anxiety. Is technology disintegrating the very foundations of language? Sessolo doesn’t think so, particularly because slang isn’t a 21st century creation.
“We’re talking about these abbreviations with the feeling that they’re new,” Sessolo said. “But if we look into stenography, that’s what stenographers have been doing for a long time.”
Combining text with other media such as photographs or paintings is also not new. In fact, the practice goes back hundreds of years.
“Some pages (of medieval books) look like the homepage of a website. People have always experimented with design,” Sessolo said.
Similarly, the popularity of serialized narratives harkens back to earlier trends.
“There’s a 19th century version of serialized fiction that was published in newspapers or magazine in chapters and then only put together as a book later,” Miller said.
Lahiri echoed this sentiment.
“When the Dickens novel was a serial, it would come out on the weekend. You could send in some comments, and then the next one came out — whether or not it was true, people felt that they had some input,” Lahiri said. “People have always felt a certain interactivity with the fastest media of their day.”
Lahiri also stressed writers have been integrating technology into literature for a long time.
“If you back to 18th and 19th century novels, there’s all this stuff that we don’t understand that is often about specific technical devices — a kind of shoe or a kind of lamp.” Lahiri said. “When we look at technological references, there’s a lot more novel-length fiction about technology than there is actually incorporating it. I think that the kinds of expressions used in texting would have to work the way dialect and slang work in literature in general — it would have to show us something particular about that moment. I wonder if part of it is that people don’t know what it is that we would gain from seeing that on the page.”
Given the fast pace of technological innovation in the 21st century, this is certainly an exciting time to be a reader and a writer. Here are a few recommendations for narratives and novels that incorporate or discuss technology in unusual and meaningful ways.
Lauren Beukes’s “Broken Monsters” (Harper, 2014) is a Detroit-set thriller that skillfully incorporates text messages and texting lingo into the narrative structure.
Alena Graedon’s “The Word Exchange” (Doubleday, 2014) introduces us to a not-so-distant future when humans rely on a device to look up the meanings of almost every word.
Xu Bing’s graphic novel “Book from the Ground” (MIT Press, 2014) is pictographic text written entirely in emojis and symbols.
Diary of a Zulu Girl is a blog by Mike Maphoto composed of a fictional young woman’s diary entries about her journey from a rural area of South Africa to Johannesburg. The blog entries have been compiled into two books and the series is ongoing.
Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story” (Random House, 2010), written in both letters and emails, is a new take on the epistolary novel genre.
Spent is a game-based narrative in which players are given a fictional $1000 per month and confronted with a series of choices on housing, health care, employment and bills. The game, which was created by the advertising agency McKinney for the Urban Ministries of Durham, incorporates aspects of computer games with a strong narrative structure. Spent is intended to educate players about the precarious situation of people living below the poverty line.
Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad” (Knopf, 2010) includes both discussions of technology and a chapter written entirely in PowerPoint slides.
Though technology is shaping both written content and the reading experience in thought-provoking ways, it’s hard to predict where technological innovation will take us next —and what that will mean for readers and writers.
“Technology is allowing storytelling as an art to happen in all sorts of places in really interesting ways,” Lahiri said. “How that relates to print is still something we’re figuring out.”