Some Worries: October 3, 2016

Should I say what I really think? If I were a German media theorist, I certainly would do that, but I am not. I am an American writer who wonders often whether there shouldn’t be another way of introducing herself since American seems so incredibly presumptuous and is, in fact, simply wrong. I am a United States-based writer, so I am called an American one because, in English, the United States does not have an adjectival form. It could, of course, but it doesn’t.

In addition to worrying about what adjective to use to describe myself, I also worry about how much is being written and if anyone is reading anything anymore. I, myself, have been tending to read only the first sentence of paragraphs. To some extent, this is how one is taught to read in graduate school, assuming one is not a comparative literature major, in which case, you are taught to read very, very carefully and slowly.  The geographer and Marx scholar David Harvey once said that when he offered his seminar on Marx’s Capital to a group of comparative literature faculty and graduate students at Johns Hopkins they never got past the first page of the introduction. For the whole semester, they just read one page. That anecdote, to me, offers a pretty accurate synopsis of what it means to read as a comparative literature major. Of course, even comparative literature majors cannot read in such a way today, when an estimated “3.4 trillion words, roughly the equivalent to the entire contents of the Library of Congress” are posted globally each day on the web (Clive Thompson, “Write from the Start” (2015)).

As of May, 2015, according to Caitlin Dewey’s calculations at _The Washington Post_, printing out the internet would amount to the same number of pages as 212 million copies of Tolstoy’s _War and Peace_. She does not specify the specific edition of _War and Peace_ that would need to be reproduced 212 million times (there are thousands of editions of the book in print and online). Dewey uses _War and Peace_ to illustrate her point because it is generally considered to be a long book, which it is, particularly the ebook version on my iPhone 4, which comes in at a whopping 8,588 “pages,” i.e. iPhone 4 screens. However, Dewey does cite the importance of Maurice de Kunder’s work to her calculations.  Kunder, though not as well known as Kenny Goldsmith, but who undoubtedly should be, wrote a master’s thesis documenting his development of a tool for dynamically calculating the number of web pages indexed on the World Wide Web. You can still access it at http://www.worldwidewebsize.com/ . How many of these are dedicated to the estimated eleven English translations of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, five of which are currently in the public domain (Bell, Dole, Wiener, Garnett, Maude), I do not know.

In his 1999 article “The Analog Experience of Digital Culture,” Stuart Moulthrop writes that in all writing about digital media, and particularly with writing published in print, “subject and media are radically misaligned. The first is inherently dynamic, the second necessarily static, and no amount of being-digital rhetoric can overcome this disparity.” While I like to think that Moulthrop’s comment can apply to writing about any subject–the real, even in its non-digital forms, is, after all, also a moving target–I must concur that when writing about topics related to the use of digital tools and technologies, we may experience this distance more acutely. I’d like Moulthrop to write more about what the experience of that distance is like. Is it akin to not trusting a writer when s/he writes about a topic that is well known to the reader? Is it akin to reading a document that is simply wrong or out of date, rather like reading a press release for an event that has already taken place?

In the same article, Moulthrop describes a web-based application that, in 1999, collected and tracked search engine activity  (there used to be more than one search engine! … oh, sorry, Bing user! Two search engines!) and enabled the user of the application to read the search terms that were being entered into various search engines in real time. Since this application no longer exists, it is hard to imagine what today’s snap-shot of any one millisecond of search terms being entered into Google might look like. I have to imagine that it would no longer be a “ticker-tape,” as it was in 1999, but more like a giant word-blob/cloud in a constant state of forming and reforming itself.  Of course, if one were to write such an application for today’s search engine(s), one would also get to decide on the shape and form of its output and, with that, shape, or at least influence, the associations and interpretations attached to it.

Advertisements