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.
No related posts.
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.