I won­der what exactly Jonathan Franzen is think­ing. I’ve read his The Corrections, and wasn’t that wowed by it, which doesn’t really mean much except that one book of his I read didn’t res­onate with me in the same way that his other books seem to res­onate with many other readers.

But then he tells an audi­ence at a fes­ti­val that ebook read­ers are poten­tially dam­ag­ing to soci­ety because of the imper­ma­nence of the words they dis­play on the screen (via CSM):

That kind of rad­i­cal con­tin­gency is not com­pat­i­ble with a sys­tem of jus­tice or respon­si­ble self-​​government.”

He seems to be sug­gest­ing that read­ing words which are not printed on paper some­how makes the expe­ri­ence of read­ing less real. Furthermore, it seems this unre­al­ity is so ephemeral in its nature that soci­ety itself will be desta­bi­lized as a result.

To con­flate the behav­ior of an elec­tronic device with the future via­bil­ity of a soci­ety seems a lit­tle exces­sive, doesn’t it?

We’ve had the inter­tubes for bet­ter than 20 years now, and in that time we’ve seen (prob­a­bly) petabytes of infor­ma­tion pro­duced on it — much of which is sub­jec­tively assess­able as noise. That’s easy to prove; how much of the inter­net do you not spend time pay­ing atten­tion to? Most of it.

(That doesn’t mean that the stuff you ignore is being ignored by every­one else, of course; it just means that your areas of inter­est don’t inter­sect with every­thing that’s avail­able to you. This is no more a prob­lem than the fact that there are prob­a­bly parts of your local library or book­store whose shelves you’ve hardly vis­ited, if ever. Time and atten­tion are finite, and inter­ests are sub­jec­tive, after all.)

The point is that this ephemer­al­ity of infor­ma­tion has not desta­bi­lized soci­ety just yet. Are things dif­fer­ent today than they were thirty years ago? Of a cer­tainty. Are things worse? Some are. Are things bet­ter? Some def­i­nitely are.

For instance, it’s now pos­si­ble for young dis­con­tents to hook up with ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions, and become fully rad­i­cal­ized. That’s a prob­lem. It’s also pos­si­ble for gay kids to see mes­sages from peo­ple who’ve strug­gled with the same things they’re fac­ing, and gain encour­age­ment from those mes­sages. That’s a good thing.

Almost all of what you can get online is ephemeral, in the same way that a book you load into an e-​​reader is ephemeral. (Strictly speak­ing, printed books are ephemeral as well, though much more slowly.) What mat­ters, though, is not the per­ma­nence of the medium; what mat­ters is the impres­sion that is made by the mes­sage con­tained in the medium.

Content, in other words, is more impor­tant than media.

What you read has much more of an effect on your mind than the thing you’re read­ing it from, be it e-​​ink, an OLED, phos­phors, or pig­ment on parch­ment and its myr­iad ana­logues. A qual­ity mes­sage will remain with the reader whether it’s been acquired from a Kindle or a sheet of pulp.

Here’s another objec­tion he has:

A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-​​crazed per­son like me, it’s just not per­ma­nent enough.”

I won­der if peo­ple liv­ing in medieval times objected to mov­able type using sim­i­lar arguments.

That Franzen seems to think media is at least as impor­tant as con­tent sug­gests some­thing, though I can’t tell whether it’s about his fear of his own ephemer­al­ity; or his fear that his work would van­ish were it not for stacks of printed books with his name on the cover; or fear that he’s really not that great a writer in the first place, so his books are barely worth read­ing to begin with; or just a total fail­ure to com­pre­hend tech­nol­ogy more mod­ern than an Underwood.


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