Sunday, March 08, 2009

Sven Birkerts mourns loss of cuneiform, clay tablets

I have a confession to make: despite all the rational reasons for not getting a Kindle, I have been reading far too many reviews of the new version and lingering over pictures and videos of the Kindle 2 in action. "Rational reasons" can't entirely stamp out the lingering techno-envy best expressed by "Shiny! Want it!'

So Sven Birkerts's "Resisting the Kindle" in The Atlantic ought to supply some more ammunition for rationality, shouldn't it? I thought so until I read this in a passage where Birkerts is bemoaning the ability to access the internet and look up something using a Blackberry, claiming that such an ability "abets the decimation of context":
Literature—our great archive of human expression—is deeply contextual and historicized. We all know this—we learned it in school. This essential view of literature and the humanities has been—and continues to be—reinforced by our libraries and bookstores, by the obvious physical adjacency of certain texts, the fact of which telegraphs the cumulative time-bound nature of the enterprise. We get this reflexively. . . .
That is the trade-off. Access versus context. As for Pride and Prejudice—Austen’s words will reach the reader’s eye in the same sequence they always have. What will change is the receiving sensibility, the background understanding of what this text was – how it emerged and took its place in the context of other texts—and how it moved through the culture.
Here are the problems with that argument:

1. Umm, Mr. Birkerts? That ability to look things up instantly? Not going away any time soon.

2. Also, wouldn't the ability to look things up help to PROVIDE rather than erase context? Doesn't access enable context rather than erasing it?

3. And having a little knowledge about context creates a desire for more, doesn't it? That's why (trumpet flourish) investing in the humanities is a smart idea. "Context of other texts" and "how it moved through the culture"--wait, what's that murmur? Why, it's a chorus of humanities professors saying, "That's what we do! If you want to learn more, we have a wealth of information to share with you, and we want to hear your ideas, too!" For example, I've seen various history blogs make gentle fun of the History Channel enthusiasts out there, but honestly, doesn't the History Channel (at least until it eschewed history for "Haunted History" or "UFO History" or "Big Shiny Man-Gadget History" or whatever it's doing now) help to nudge people toward history courses?

4. Birkerts envisions this context as being transmitted through libraries and bookstores as people scan the books on the shelves. Now, nobody loves browsing in libraries and independent bookstores more than I do, but this option presupposes (1) the leisure to hang out in libraries and bookstores; (2) an acculturation process that values and promotes such an activity; and, for the bookstore, (3) the money to buy books.

I somehow don't think he's envisioning the kind of chain bookstore where Ten Things I Learned from My Dog Morley or Addiction Memoir Confidential or The 365-Day Cat Golfing Calendar are the featured big sellers. Here again is class privilege in action: he's picturing a big-city library or independent bookstore experience for people who have the leisure and means to appreciate it and the cultural tools, granted by a humanities education, to understand what they're looking at.

So the Kindle isn't the problem. Even a dead-tree book won't have the proper context unless there's some kind of additional learning involved. The answer isn't to fret about the Kindle and wish ourselves back in time; it's to support the humanities that make that context possible.


moria said...

There are a lot of things to like about this blog. But the smashing takedowns of the idly-nostalgic-in-that-fruity-unproductive-self-indulgent-way anti-tech types are the top. I've never understood the argument that multiple information technologies can't coexist and inform one another. It's also not clear to me, at least not from these excerpts, what is meant by "context," or how that term has come to be as value-laden as Birkerts seems to intend it to be.

I will also spend some time today appreciating the many possibilities that inhere in the term "cat golfing."

Professor Zero said...

Well, I understand reading on paper. I just spent $75 on a paperback I can read on line for free because I want to read it on paper. But I only figured out how key it was because I was able to see actual content on line. Birkerts' article has some of the thinnest reasoning I've seen in a while ... sounds to me as though he needs some context.

Professor Zero said...

P.S. I think you should get a Kindle.
Me, what I want is the Acer - that small, yet not too small notebook computer. I learned about them from the Little Professor and now I have seen them in person - being used by people and then in the store. Everyone loves them. Gateway now sells one, too.

Anonymous said...

Ditto to everything you said in your response to SB. Well done.

I think the ability to "search" a text on Kindle is tremendously cool and useful. Not to mention how many books you could cram into an airplane carry-on if they are on your Kindle. ;)

Three people at my school bought one last week and they were all giddy with joy about it. I don't know if I would like reading a book on a screen...but then again I love reading blogs on a screen, so why not?

Professor Zero said...

I have tried to read books on a screen and I do not like it. They aren't like blogs.

However I would like a Kindle as an auxiliary tool, if it had on it the books I want to search.

undine said...

Thanks, Moria! I think that "context" for Birkerts seems to mean all the things that his level of privilege gives him, which is why it sounds so peculiarly value-laden in his essay.

And "cat golfing"--surely coming to a Barnes & Noble soon.

Professor Z, I did get an Acer as my techno-indulgence this year, and it is wonderful! Just the absence of shoulder weight alone when lugging it around is worth it, and it can do everything that a larger laptop can do, although it's not as comfortable for extended readings of .pdfs and files like that.

Ink, the airplane and packing books argument is a good one, because I'm getting so I like to read things on the screen. The problem with the Kindle (still) is that it doesn't yet have much of what I would like to read, like Rebecca Solnit's River of Shadows.

Anonymous said...

Hadn't even thought of the available library for Kindles...that makes perfect sense.

Maybe they'll come up with a book-on-request thingie down the road?

Josh said...

I think you nailed many of the criticisms I had with this article. I am not Internet evangelist, but I found Birkerts' arguments really weak. Even his best points seemed undercut by his shrill tone and lack of evidence or explanation.

Birkerts’ reference to Gutenberg in the title of his book is fitting. As I read his article, I couldn’t help but thinking of a story Clay Shirky tells in his book Here Comes Everybody. Shirky writes about the scribes - an elite group of literate monks - whose job it was, for many centuries, to hand-copy books. That is, until the 1400’s when Gutenberg came along. “Suddenly,” writes Josh Benton, describing the scene, “scribes were no longer a necessary link between knowledge and learner.” And as the printing press spread across Europe, the scribes sounded remarkably like Birkerts, warning of all that we will lose if we allow technology to reshape reading.

The other important point, not touched on in your post is whose context, whose cultural landscape is Birkerts protecting? My expanded thoughts are here:

Lucien said...

I love the blogospheric echo-chamber! By the time I was done reading these comments it didn't strike me as unusual at all to hear Birkerts's argument described as "shrill."

But there's nothing shrill about it - his conclusion is that the Kindle "makes all kinds of sense as a technology" and "won't precipitate anything that isn't already poised to happen" but that "we misjudge it if we construe it as just another tool." Jesus Birkerts, take it down a notch!

Undine, I'm confused about your point 1. When did he suggest that Blackberries would be going away soon?

2. Not necessarily. The key dimension is that of attention or focus. Without certain aspects of an environment restricting what's immediately at hand, that focus is harder to attain. Perhaps training the mind to focus in the first place will be impossible in an endless sea of distractions.

One analogy is to the relationship between live music and the iPod. The experience of live music can be very different from that of iPod listening. And one is transforming the other. Is it obvious which is better? (See the NYTimes recent coverage of SXSW for the iPod-ization of live music. I can't find the article I was thinking's lost in a sea of SXSW blog posts.)

And, surely, something was lost when Gutenberg came along. That's the whole point - changes in technology can have huge effects on the rest of culture. Five centuries later we can look back and see that it was good. Just because that technological change was good doesn't mean they all are. And even if this was one turns out to be, it would be foolish not even to look back.

Instant access definitely elevates some types of text over others. At work, where I do research, I almost never bother with actual books - I just look up the latest journal articles. If I could get things done without getting up from my desk, why wouldn't I? And the same thing applies across all of these technologies - the focus shifts to whatever's newest. Obviously there are tradeoffs involved here.

4. I don't understand what your argument about privilege is accomplishing here. Surely it's called privilege for a reason? Because the things it gets you are worth having?

undine said...

Ink, I wish they would come up with books on request for the Kindle. Even though Amazon has a lot of them now, they aren't ones I'd pay $10 for, at least so far.

Josh, I want to read your post and so will put my response over at your blog; thanks for posting the address.

undine said...

Werther, Birkerts didn't say that Blackberries would go away any time soon. I was responding to what seemed to be his nostalgia for the days when information wasn't immediately available and the idea that this wasn't likely to happen.

undine said...

More to Werther: I agree that something is lost without ink-and-paper books, especially books in physical proximity to each other. There are lots of reasons not to love the Kindle and to lament what it could mean for book culture.

But I do think the issue of privilege is important here, largely because it remains unstated in Birkerts's argument. It was like reading a lament for the decline of yachting. I'm not arguing that Birkerts shouldn't have and enjoy the kinds of educational and monetary privileges he has. I'm saying that we all need to recognize that his world view includes that kind of privilege as a norm. It isn't.

Lucien said...

Thanks for responding to my comments, Undine.

I know that, personally, when I think about the kind of intellectual life I want to lead, I don't think about the endless hours I spend slaving away in one of the cubicles in our computer lab.

I think about the stacks, where I loved to just wander, and where imagining what was inside the thousands of books surrounding me produced a feeling of awe. That feeling is a kind of orientation for me.

The Kindle is not a place, and it doesn't create any places, that we can wander in and spend time in, except server rooms in some corporate basement.

A lot of this is premised on the idea that place doesn't matter. It's not unusual for the system to ignore the aesthetic experiences and connections that underlie, and often enable, the work that we do. But I don't think it's smart for us to join in that.

As for privilege: The privilege of a high-quality humanistic education is not going to be extended by the Kindle. (see University Diaries on this topic.) Also, the privilege of being able to buy a $399 piece of electronics is not exactly universal.

Maybe the Kindle will enable access to more texts, for people in far-flung places. But it will not do anything to extend to more people the kind security it takes to be able to think beyond needs. Financial aid, for example, does that. Progressive tax policy does that. Stable economic life does that, not a bottomless commitment to creative destruction. That's what disturbs me - that you seem not to have any qualms about creative destruction.

And there are good public libraries in this country. I don't know much about the rural situation. But I depended throughout my youth on the public library. And paperbacks have never been that expensive either.

undine said...

Werther, I love wandering in the stacks. I'm not an apologist for the Kindle, and, since the visceral techno-envy that it inspires isn't matched by the love I have of traditional books, I doubt I'll ever get one.

I think that we're in basic agreement about the value of books and libraries and also about the ways in which a Kindle won't contribute to what we're thinking of as book culture. A Kindle won't contribute to that or promote additional access--not at $359 plus $10 and up for the books.

My point was more that Birkerts was promoting a false dichotomy, as Josh says over on his blog, and wasn't demonstrating any awareness of the position of privilege from which he was speaking. My post was an attempt to point that out.

Lucien said...

Yes - sorry, I hadn't looked at any of your previous posts on the topic, since I'm a newcomer to your blog. I agree that Birkerts's argument on behalf of that view is one of the weakest and strangest I've encountered so far. "Context" was not doing much for him; I don't think he succeeded at articulating and justifying whatever reflexive unease must have prompted him to write the article.

Lucien said...

I want to make one last comment and then we can put this discussion to rest: electronic data seems more secure than it is, and its longevity is still in question.

"The second aspect of data rot is actually finding the machines to read them. And that is a real problem. If you think of the 8-track tape player, for example, basically the only way you can find 8-track cartridges is in a flea market or a garage sale.

"The problem, strangely enough, is not so bad on the older stuff, but quite bad on the more recent stuff. So we can read tapes here at the museum that are 50 years old. You know, we bake the tapes first, and we extract--

"DP: You bake the tapes?

"DS: Yeah, we put them in an oven and we dry them out, because after time, the tape just sticks. It becomes one giant reel of goo, and you can't just peel it apart, because then you start peeling data off the tape. So there's a little wizardry involved in reading this stuff.

"Even VHS tapes are holding out better; at least they keep playing if there's a problem with the tape. The real problem lies in newer formats. With a CD or a DVD, if there's an error, often it's non-recoverable, and you've just lost all your information.

"DP: Most people would be shocked to hear that. A lot of people these days are paying to have their old audio and video recordings transferred to CD and DVD, and thinking, "now I'm done.""