One of the most popular books for our CCN on-site presentations last year was The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr (New York: Norton, 2010). In that book, he discusses how the Internet tinkers with the brain, reamps its neural circuitry, and reprograms the memory. While the mind does not go, it certainly changes, and deep reading and concentration become struggles.
I thought that Carr’s recent essay in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Books That Are Never Done Being Written” (December 31, 2011 – January 1, 2012, p. C3) took these thoughts further. In the essay that I reproduced in its entirety below, he argues that digital text ushers in an era where constant revision and updating is not only possible, but becoming normal, for better and for worse.
Have you ever thought about what can happen with this kind of access? Carr says, “School boards will be able to edit textbooks, and dictatorial governments will be able to meddle, too.” The never-ending story will become a reality.
Editable content strains credibility of sources. We already pooh-pooh Wikipedia for that reason. Even though there are controls within its system, they are not great, and people receive laughter when they cite it as a reference in professional and academic circles. I don’t think it’s entirely bad, but I caution people to use it only to get background information about a topic, and to then use its external source links for additional substantiation and elaboration.
For me, the simple addition of an “afterword” to a subsequent printing suffices. In fact, that is what you will find when you purchase Carr’s book. You will find an additional chapter where he provides reactions and updates to his premises from an earlier printing. The same is true of the famous Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear by Frank Luntz (New York: Hyperion, 2007). Between printings, he added a chapter with seven new “words that work.”
The difference between this approach and the massive digital editing approach is that these are author-controlled, and they are also refereed. Today, anyone can put up an e-Book, and no one has to review or approve its content. And, if it is open to massive external editing, the author will have lost control. Whose words are we really reading? And, how do we know that they are factual and accurate?
This essay by Carr is worth reading and contemplating. Before we just jump into the all-digital era, stop reviewing content for accuracy, cast away professional refereeing, and halt publishing of paper-versions of books, maybe we should all take a deep breath and be sure this is what we want to do.
Technological advances are good, but they are amoral. It all depends in whose hands the advances land, and how they use them.
Read the essay below. Then, tell me what you think! Let’s talk about it really soon!
BOOKS THAT ARE NEVER DONE BEING WRITTEN
By Nicholas Carr
Wall Street Journal, December 31, 2011 – January 1, 2012, p. C3
I recently got a glimpse into the future of books. A few months ago, I dug out a handful of old essays I’d written about innovation, combined them into a single document, and uploaded the file to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service. Two days later, my little e-book was on sale at Amazon’s site. The whole process couldn’t have been simpler.
Then I got the urge to tweak a couple of sentences in one of the essays. I made the edits on my computer and sent the revised file back to Amazon. The company quickly swapped out the old version for the new one. I felt a little guilty about changing a book after it had been published, knowing that different readers would see different versions of what appeared to be the same edition. But I also knew that the readers would be oblivious to the alterations.
An e-book, I realized, is far different from an old-fashioned printed one. The words in the latter stay put. In the former, the words can keep changing, at the whim of the author or anyone else with access to the source file. The endless malleability of digital writing promises to overturn a whole lot of our assumptions about publishing.
When Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type a half-millennium ago, he also gave us immovable text. Before Gutenberg, books were handwritten by scribes, and no two copies were exactly the same. Scribes weren’t machines; they made mistakes. With the arrival of the letterpress, thousands of identical copies could enter the marketplace simultaneously. The publication of a book, once a nebulous process, became an event.
A new set of literary workers coalesced in publishing houses, collaborating with writers to perfect texts before they went on press. The verb “to finalize” became common in literary circles, expressing the permanence of printed words. Different editions still had textual variations, introduced either intentionally as revisions or inadvertently through sloppy editing or typesetting, but books still came to be viewed, by writer and reader alike, as immutable objects. They were written for posterity.
Beyond giving writers a spur to eloquence, what the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein calls “typographical fixity” served as a cultural preservative. It helped to protect original documents from corruption, providing a more solid foundation for the writing of history. It established a reliable record of knowledge, aiding the spread of science. It accelerated the standardization of everything from language to law. The preservative qualities of printed books, Ms. Eisenstein argues, may be the most important legacy of Gutenberg’s invention.
Once digitized, a page of words loses its fixity. It can change every time it’s refreshed on a screen. A book page turns into something like a Web page, able to be revised endlessly after its initial uploading. There’s no technological constraint on perpetual editing, and the cost of altering digital text is basically zero. As electronic books push paper ones aside, movable type seems fated to be replaced by movable text.
That’s an attractive development in many ways. It makes it easy for writers to correct errors and update facts. Guidebooks will no longer send travelers to restaurants that have closed or to once charming inns that have turned into fleabags. The instructions in manuals will always be accurate. Reference books need never go out of date.
Even literary authors will be tempted to keep their works fresh. Historians and biographers will be able to revise their narratives to account for recent events or newly discovered documents. Polemicists will be able to bolster their arguments with new evidence. Novelists will be able to scrub away the little anachronisms that can make even a recently published story feel dated.
But as is often the case with digitization, the boon carries a bane. The ability to alter the contents of a book will be easy to abuse. School boards may come to exert even greater influence over what students read. They’ll be able to edit textbooks that don’t fit with local biases. Authoritarian governments will be able to tweak books to suit their political interests. And the edits can ripple backward. Because e-readers connect to the Internet, the works they contain can be revised remotely, just as software programs are updated today. Movable text makes a lousy preservative.
Such abuses can be prevented through laws and software protocols. What may be more insidious is the pressure to fiddle with books for commercial reasons. Because e-readers gather enormously detailed information on the way people read, publishers may soon be awash in market research. They’ll know how quickly readers progress through different chapters, when they skip pages, and when they abandon a book.
The promise of stronger sales and profits will make it hard to resist tinkering with a book in response to such signals, adding a few choice words here, trimming a chapter there, maybe giving a key character a quick makeover. What will be lost, or at least diminished, is the sense of a book as a finished and complete object, a self-contained work of art.
Not long before he died, John Updike spoke eloquently of a book’s “edges,” the boundaries that give shape and integrity to a literary work and that for centuries have found their outward expression in the indelibility of printed pages. It’s those edges that give a book its solidity, allowing it to stand up to the vagaries of fashion and the erosions of time. And it’s those edges that seem fated to blur as the words of books go from being stamped permanently on sheets of paper to being rendered temporarily on flickering screens.