Web of dis­trac­tion

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS -

IN 1996, Amer­i­can com­puter en­tre­pre­neur Brew­ster Kahle set up the In­ter­net Ar­chive, its mis­sion be­ing to pro­vide “uni­ver­sal ac­cess to all knowl­edge”. This ad­mirable project strives to store copies of ev­ery sin­gle web page ever posted: a ghostly ar­chive of the vir­tual. So what are we to make of the fact that, a decade and a half later, this dig­i­tal pioneer is turn­ing from bytes to books?

In what seems, on the face of it, an act of splen­did per­ver­sity, Kahle has set up a se­ries of con­verted ship­ping con­tain­ers in Cal­i­for­nia where he hopes to cre­ate an­other ar­chive – one that con­tains a copy of ev­ery book ever pub­lished.

His ac­tion touches on an anx­i­ety. Are books, like de­funct In­ter­net pages, head­ing to­wards the point where they will be archived as an aca­demic cu­rios­ity? Some think so. You won’t find any short­age of peo­ple will­ing to pro­nounce the printed book doomed, ar­gu­ing that the con­ve­nience and search­a­bil­ity of dig­i­tal text and the emer­gence of a Kin­dle-first gen­er­a­tion will ren­der them ob­so­lete.

Cer­tainly, elec­tronic books – e-books – have over­come their tech­no­log­i­cal ob­sta­cles. Page turns are fast enough, bat­tery life is long The ques­tion is not whether the world now favours e-books over print; the more in­ter­est­ing ques­tion is what are we read­ing, and how do we do so? enough, and screens are leg­i­ble in sun­light. In Au­gust, dig­i­tal sales ac­counted for 14% of Pen­guin’s busi­ness. But there are rea­sons to re­ject the idea that the ex­tinc­tion of the printed book is just around the cor­ner, just as there were rea­sons to re­ject the no­tion that e-books would never catch on be­cause you couldn’t read them in the bath and, y’know, books are such lovely ob­jects.

In some ways, though, the ques­tion of whether we do our read­ing off pa­per or plas­tic is the least in­ter­est­ing one. More in­ter­est­ing is what we’re read­ing, and the man­ner in which we do so. A large num­ber of lit­er­ate West­ern­ers spend most of their wak­ing hours at com­put­ers, and those com­put­ers are con­nected to the World Wide Web. The char­ac­ter­is­tic ac­tiv­ity on such a com­puter has been given the pleas­ing name “wil­f­ing”, adapted from the acro­nym WWILF, or “What Was I Look­ing For?” You work a bit. You check if it’s your move in Face­book Scrab­ble. You get an e-mail. You an­swer it. You get a text. You an­swer it. Since your phone’s in your hand, you play An­gry Birds for five min­utes. You work a bit. You go online to check some­thing, get dis­tracted by a link, for­get what you were look­ing for, stum­ble on a pic­ture of a duck that looks like Hitler, share it on Twit­ter, rinse and re­peat.

You could call wil­f­ing mul­ti­task­ing, or par­al­lelis­tic cog­ni­tive lay­er­ing – or you could call it mess­ing around on the Web. What­ever, it’s fair to won­der what, if any­thing, it is do­ing to our heads.

There are two main schools of thought. One is that modern cul­ture is mak­ing us clev­erer. In Every­thing Bad Is Good For You: How To­day’s Pop­u­lar Cul­ture Is Ac­tu­ally Mak­ing Us Smarter, Steven John­son ob­serves that IQ scores in the West are ris­ing, and ar­gues that pop cul­ture is re­spon­si­ble. In the other cor­ner is Ni­cholas Carr, author of The Shal­lows: How The In­ter­net Is Chang­ing The Way We Think, Read And Re­mem­ber. He thinks the Web is mak­ing us more stupid. We surf the shal­lows in a state of per­ma­nent dis­trac­tion, and con­cen­trate on no sin­gle thing for long enough to en­gage prop­erly with it. Since much of our men­tal en­ergy is spent pro­cess­ing the medium, lit­tle is left for the mes­sage.

What both seem to agree on, how­ever, is that a defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of dig­i­tal cul­ture is that it di­vides the at­ten­tion. That has be­come a fact about the tex­ture of our lives. It seems log­i­cal to con­clude, in that case, that books – par­tic­u­larly fic­tion – will not just be read in such an environment; they will also seek to re­flect it.

Al­ready, there’s ev­i­dence of this. If our at­ten­tion spans re­ally are short­en­ing, you might ex­pect to see a re­vival of in­ter­est in short sto­ries and a ten­dency for full-length books to shrink. But we’re not see­ing that. In­stead we’re see­ing tomes like The Crim­son Pe­tal And The White (848 pages), Un­der­world (832 pages), In­fi­nite Jest (1,088 pages), and fat Stephen King af­ter fat Stephen King – all sell­ing well.

These books may re­sem­ble 19th-cen­tury nov­els in size, but the pace of even the most tra­di­tional of them is faster. And in many – es­pe­cially in In­fi­nite Jest, a novel about ad­dic­tion, en­ter­tain­ment, ra­dioac­tive ro­dents and tennis by the late David Foster Wal­lace – you can see a con­scious at­tempt to en­gage with the phe­nom­e­non of in­for­ma­tion over­load. You don’t need to write a novel in tweets (yes, that has been done, too) to write a novel about the ex­pe­ri­ence of liv­ing in the age of Twit­ter.

Fic­tion by mo­bile phone is still es­sen­tially at the gim­mick stage in Europe. But in Ja­pan, keitai shosetsu, or “cell phone nov­els”, are com­posed on mo­bile phones and posted to me­dia-shar­ing sites be­fore be­ing pub­lished in hard­back. As long ago as 2007, keitai shosetsu ac­counted for four out of the top five lit­er­ary best­sellers in Ja­pan.

That’s a bit ahead of the rest of the world. But blogs-to-books is al­ready a well-es­tab­lished path­way in Bri­tain. Online se­ri­al­i­sa­tion, in­ter­ac­tive nar­ra­tives (aka rein­vent­ing the “Choose Your Own Ad­ven­ture” for­mat), even books writ­ten to or­der for sub­scribers (see un­bound.co.uk) are start­ing to emerge. The bound­aries of the book – as the suc­cess of iPad apps for The Waste Land and On The Road, giv­ing ac­cess to ed­its, re­vi­sions and en­cy­clopaedic para­pher­na­lia – are be­com­ing much more plas­tic, much less fixed.

There’s noth­ing re­ally all that new go­ing on in kind, though. Foot­notes have al­ways al­lowed you to nest one text in an­other; bib­li­ogra­phies have al­ways em­bed­ded texts in a net­work of other texts; and the con­cor­dance (an in­dex to ev­ery word in a work) looks very much like a search en­gine to me. But the dif­fer­ence in de­gree that hy­per­text (those end­lessly dis­tract­ing blue links) and elec­tronic searches bring to those things can scarcely be over­stated.

I re­mem­ber hear­ing the story of the per­son who walked into a room and saw an­other man there, ap­par­ently trans­fixed by an ob­ject on a ta­ble. He ap­peared to the on­looker to be in some im­por­tant way ab­sent – there and not there, as if his soul had left his body. The on­looker, who had never seen some­one read­ing a book be­fore, con­cluded that he had been pos­sessed.

That present-but-ab­sent qual­ity, the es­sen­tial soli­tude of the ex­pe­ri­ence of “es­cap­ing into a book”, may no longer be the over­rid­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. The mass avail­abil­ity of elec­tronic texts – in­fin­itely re­pro­ducible and avail­able al­most ev­ery­where – makes com­mu­nal read­ing pos­si­ble way past the book club level. The same copy of a text can be read, an­no­tated, and po­ten­tially even edited, by any num­ber of peo­ple at the same time.

So what we can ex­pect from books is what the In­ter­net has al­ways given us. More. More of every­thing. But what of tak­ing in con­tin­u­ous prose, in the form con­ven­tion­ally known as “read­ing”? One way or an­other, that’s here to stay.

Now, if Brew­ster Kahle could only find me a comfy chair and some room in one of his ship­ping con­tain­ers, I could get on with my job of re­view­ing books and writ­ing them. – Guardian News & Me­dia 2011 n Sam Leith was the lit­er­ary editor of The Dai­lyTele­graph for 10 years un­til be­com­ing a free­lance colum­nist and author in 2008.

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