Near the beginning of Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake the character of Snowman – survivor of a plague that has carried off most of the human race, leaving behind only a genetically engineered species of primitive beings he has dubbed the Crakers – thinks of keeping a Crusoe-like journal. It is an idea he quickly dismisses as a total non-starter, since “even a castaway assumes a future reader, someone who’ll come along later and find his bones and his ledger, and learn his fate. Snowman can make no such assumptions: he’ll have no future reader, because the Crakers can’t read. Any reader he can possibly imagine is in the past.”
As is the case with most science-fiction, the world Snowman describes is in many essential and uncomfortable respects our own. But other SF writers who have imagined the post-literate dark age ahead have come up with more likely scenarios for how this cultural watershed will be brought about. For Aldous Huxley and Ray Bradbury the future is bookless due to aliteracy. Huxley sensibly turned Orwell on his head, envisioning a brave new world where “feelies” and other trivial entertainments would be more popular than reading, making the thought police redundant. In much the same way, state censorship isn’t the real villain in Fahrenheit 451. The firemen who burn books are dystopian props. The public, we are told, “itself stopped reading of its own accord,” preferring immersive and interactive social networking and “three-dimensional sex magazines” to books and newspapers (the latter “dying like huge moths . . . no one wanted them back”). This is not a police state. There is no surveillance apparatus spying on closet readers. Indeed there doesn’t seem to be any police presence at all aside from the Mechanical Hound. Subversive book people are turned in by concerned members of the community who freely volunteer to inform on them. Contrasting Orwell to Huxley, Neil Postman remarks how the latter describes a world where people “adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.” This is what coming to love Big Brother (the face of dictatorship and the TV show) really means.
In much the same fashion, aliteracy today is a consumer choice driven by new technologies. Blaming the tube and the screen may seem like an old story, but it’s not. It’s worth remembering that many of Canada’s senior literary figures grew up in a world without television. Meanwhile, the digital revolution is only a generation old, and e-books still in their infancy (can we say incunabula?). These e-books are, in turn, read on tablets or other devices also designed to play games on, send or receive e-mail, or used to browse the web. The book is now a multimedia platform, a shift in functionality that comes at the expense of the word. “I’m not against e-books in principle,” writes Johann Hari in the Independent, “I’m tempted by the Kindle – but the more they become interactive and linked, the more they multitask and offer a hundred different functions, the less they will be able to preserve the aspects of the book that we actually need. An e-book reader that does a lot will not, in the end, be a book. The object needs to remain dull so the words – offering you the most electric sensation of all: insight into another person’s internal life – can sing.”
Well, you can bet the “object,” in a highly competitive marketplace of electronic devices, is not going to “remain dull.” Kate Pullinger, winner of the 2009 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction, puts it bluntly: “If you are going to put a work of fiction on a computer, why would you not use the multimedia components a computer has to offer you – image and sound and interactive games?” Indeed. And make no mistake: this will lead to an unfair fight for the reader’s attention. The videogame industry is a big business, and these guys aren’t messing around. Game testing involves “galvanic skin response” measurements that detect increases in heart rate and the amount of sweat on one’s palms. Arousal levels are also measured, positive and negative emotions, and the level of cognitive engagement. Researchers watch and record players from behind one-way mirrors, making transcripts of everything they say, how frequently they save their games, how many times they blink and wet their lips, all so that game designers can then adjust their narratives to optimum responses, making the experience more compelling. Compare this to publishing, where it’s getting harder and harder just to find good editors and layout people. In George Borrow’s classic Lavengro (1851) the narrator is told by a London publisher that the business is “a losing trade . . . literature is a drug.” That’s still true, and today there are many more powerful, more addictive, and cheaper fixes on the market.
It is useless to say that literature is just different – more intellectual, appealing to different tastes – and so doesn’t have to directly compete with these newer forms of entertainment and distraction. Nonsense. All of the arts have to evolve in order to survive. Poets don’t compose narrative epics and sculptors don’t carve heroic nude forms out of marble any more. Publishing is a business like any other and an audience with a finite amount of time and money will naturally look to where it can get the most bang for its buck. Simon Meek, for example, is a game designer who wants to see classics like Wuthering Heights and Crime and Punishment take the next step in their “digital evolution” toward a medium that blends text, film and videogames. This is thinking beyond e-books even. Meek “doesn’t like that electronic books still have people reading printed words on white pages that need to be turned. . . These electronic books are still too rooted in the form that gave them birth, the physical side of the media.” “We are not turning the books into games,” Meek further explains, “but rather we are turning the stories in these books into experiences on gaming platforms.” Such books will not be read so much as (the preferred word) “consumed” by way of an interactive, immersive, visual experience. The words of “the stories in these books” will, in turn, become ghostly, disembodied, fragmented ur-texts. “Words pulled directly from the book float into view at the appropriate times,” for consumers of Meek’s version of Wuthering Heights.
None of this, however, constitutes the major challenge literature faces from the digital revolution. Nor does that prize go to the devastation of the retail environment by online booksellers, or the possibility that Google is making us stupid (an argument popularized by Nicholas Carr in an essay that first appeared in The Atlantic and was then expanded in his book The Shallows). While I agree that Amazon is, in the long run, bad for publishing, and that digital forms of entertainment train our brains to respond to ever faster forms of stimulation, reducing our attention spans and making it harder and harder for us to re-enter, in Walter Benjamin’s phrase, the exacting silence of a book, I have other concerns.
The digital revolution poses two existential threats. The first of these is economic: how, in this new environment, is publishing going to pay its bills? This is a fundamental point. As Ewan Morrison recently put it, “The economic framework that supports artists is as important as the art itself; if you remove one from the other then things fall apart.”
Are things falling apart? Rocker John Mellencamp was only stating the obvious when he called the Internet “the most dangerous thing invented since the atomic bomb.” We have already seen the digital fallout in other industries, notably music and film. But books were thought to be different, a perfect technology that could not be improved upon. There is, however, no immunity from what Nicholas Carr lays down as the iron law of the Internet Age: “As the Net expands, other media contract.” Looking about the current landscape, I don’t see any reason to be hopeful.
The bet being made – it is in fact the only bet on the table – is that e-books will somehow “grow the game.” It will have to grow significantly. In the early days (that is, a couple of years ago) the announcement that Amazon would be setting a benchmark price of $9.99 on e-books was met by many with horror. This response was not, however, universal, as Finn Harvor of the website Conversations in the Book Trade found out when interviewing ECW publisher Jack David in 2009:
CBT: How much potential do you think e-ink and e-book technologies have? Do you see e-books catching on with the public? And do they provide a reasonable business model?
JD: Of course they do. We are publishers of intellectual content, and it doesn’t matter to us how that content gets read by the public as long as our margins exist. Take away the cost of printing, and shipping, but not selling, and you have cut out a big chunk of your costs. We typically get about 30-35% of the list price back in our hands, after bookstore discount, distribution and selling costs. For a $20 book, that’s $6 or $7. And from that we pay all our other costs, including royalties. If we get $10 from an ebook purchase, we’re laughing.
Unfortunately, $10 for an e-book is a price point that has, predictably, already passed. Names like Amanda Hocking and John Locke (not that John Locke, but a writer of thrillers) are the great success stories of the e-book revolution. You may not have heard of them, but they are self-published genre writers who sell their books for 99 cents a pop, and do a good business, with royalties reported to be in the six figures. (When Locke became the first self-published author to join Amazon’s “million Kindle club” he remarked of his success: “When I saw that highly successful authors were charging $9.99 for an e-book, I thought that if I can make a profit at 99 cents, I no longer have to prove I’m as good as them . . . Rather, they have to prove they are ten times better than me.”) At one point in 2011 a full 20 per cent of the top 100 Kindle sellers were 99-cent e-books. In general, $2.99 seems to be the new sweet spot though I wouldn’t bet on our having reached bottom. Digital prophet Chris Anderson even subtitled his book on the Internet economy “Why $0.00 is the Future of Business.” Things may not get to that point, but I suspect what is coming is a “bundling” of content offering 100, or even 10,000 books for $9.99. Or perhaps something more along the lines of NetFlix, where a monthly fee will provide you with unlimited downloads. For a publisher this means there is no more margin – they will effectively be paying to give their books away. Jack David will not be laughing.
I said this slide in price was predictable. In fact, it was inevitable. How could publishers hope to hold the line after they’d already ceded control over price to deep-discounting online booksellers? How are new books to compete in a market where all titles in the public domain are free? How is intellectual property going to be protected when it takes the form of what is basically just a text file (that is, something far less sophisticated than, say, movies, which are already easily copied and shared online)? How much are people going to be willing to pay for what is in effect only a license to view a file for a limited time on a specific reader? Media companies from newspapers to record labels, and brand-names from Stephen King to Radiohead, have been trying for years now to figure out some way of turning the Internet’s “culture of free” into a sustainable business model for the primary producers of that culture. They haven’t been successful. The only winners in the new digital economy have been the platform builders, those anonymous types who quietly file away all of your personal information and sell it to advertisers. The people who actually make things are the zeroes in this binary. Anthony De Rosa pulls no punches in describing how the system works: “We are being played for suckers to feed the beast, to create content that ends up creating value for others. . . . . We live in a world of Digital Feudalism. The land many live on is owned by someone else, be it Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr, or some other service that offers up free land and the content provided by the renter of that land essentially becomes owned by the platform that owns the land.” This is Web 2.0: the game that plays you.
The chief result of the digital revolution, then, has been to downgrade all art and personal expression to the level of ephemeral, quickly-consumed and discarded content. In terms of writing this means genre filler: romance (or its seedier cousin porn), suspense thrillers, and supernatural twaddle. What we’re talking about here is the kind of stuff people purchase by the bale, but that nobody wants to have on their bookshelf at home. Not, I might add, out of shame but simply because they don’t think such books are worth keeping. In Britain, for the last three years in a row the novels of Dan Brown have been the “most donated” to the charity Oxfam. Meanwhile, though sales of printed books are in decline across the board it is the sales of genre fiction that are in freefall.
Content, on the Internet, is crap. Everybody freely produces it; nobody thinks it’s worth very much. And so in his manifesto of the new age, You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier sees the open culture of the Internet as ultimately relegating creativity to slums outside the economic mainstream where it then becomes a cannibal subculture feeding off itself (or, in a metaphor provided by David Carr, “the equivalent of a refrigerator that manufactures and consumes its own food”). The culture itself is dead, of interest only to the odd collector and antiquarian. In this neo-feudal media landscape advertising is the only real content, with everything else just a way of snagging eyeballs for a few seconds: “At the end of the rainbow of open culture lies an eternal spring of advertisements,” writes Lanier. “Advertising is elevated by open culture from its previous role as an accelerant and placed at the center of the human universe.”
The usual response to such complaints is to champion the Internet’s promotion of individual self-expression, the way it allows for a new literary culture free of middle-men and mainstream corporate elites. Unfortunately, what has happened is that by giving more power to the people we have only empowered a disposable culture. It’s a good system for discovering and promoting James Patterson and Stephenie Meyer wannabes, but that’s about it. E-books reduce literature to the status of Tetris, and, what’s more to my point here, they’re not sustainable as a business (unless your business is making dedicated reading devices, and even then I have my doubts). Chad Post, a small press publisher of books in translation had a piece that recently appeared online, “Why Selling E-books at 99 Cents Destroys Minds,” that talks about his own experience with pricing e-books and the lessons he learned:
. . . more than three million books were published last year : 300,000 from “traditional” publishers, and 2.9 million from nontraditional publishing outlets, such as self-publishing.
So, you have an e-reader, you’re bored with TV and all your video games, ain’t feeling the Facebook, and want a book. Why pay $12.99 for “entertainment” when you could buy a John Locke thriller for $0.99? I have no answer to that question. Seriously. And this has always been my problem with e-books: they emphasize immediate entertainment – and gratification – over real “reading,” which takes more commitment, patience, attention and time.
Now, you pay what you would pay for an app and dump it after you’re done. And why not? Those “expensive” books are a lot of work.
As someone devoted to literary culture, this scares the crap out of me. Sure, John O’Brien and a few others will claim that this has “always been the case,” that there has always been only 10,000 “serious readers” in the U.S., and that’s the same today as it was 50 years ago, but I don’t know if these people are actually in touch with the world around us. It’s all $0.99 e-books and instant movies and Angry Birds.
You can call this snobbishness (and a flood of angry commenters on Post’s article quickly did just that), but the economic point Post makes is valid. It was also addressed by Boyd Tonkin in the Independent:
This feels like a tough case to defend. We all want cheaper entertainment and enlightenment. But look at tasteless supermarket fare. Ruthlessly enforced economies can kill diversity. Rather, they favour uniformity and predictability. Contra the pub wisdom you often hear, e-books do have significant production costs even if they don’t need trucks and sheds. Those costs include keeping professional authors alive.
Dirt-cheap e-books benefit the very rich – and the very dead. They might also help new authors to find a foothold and win an audience – although, on that logic, newcomers should think about showcasing their work for nothing. Many do. But the almost-free digital novel hammers another nail into the coffin of a long-term literary career. Who cares? Readers should, if they cherish full-time authors who craft not safe genre pieces but distinctive book after distinctive book that build into a unique body of work.
I, too, dislike it, but getting rid of the publishing industry – especially in a country like Canada where its role in fostering homegrown talent is so essential – leaves us with nothing but the Internet, producing a form of writing that isn’t supposed to last: eye candy meant to be consumed quickly and then discarded, literature as app. What will be the consequences, not just for us but for our cultural inheritance? What will happen when people come to see Pride and Prejudice no longer as a novel, or even a book, but only as a worthless file to be diced, sliced, mashed-up, manipulated, and (mostly) ignored? Where, Mark Bauerlein asks, if “students grow up thinking that texts are for interactivity – to add, to delete, to cut and paste – do they acquire the patience to assimilate complex texts on their own terms, to read The Iliad without assuming that the epic exists to serve their purposes?” How will such texts be “read” when they appear on a digital page framed by a toolbar and links, with embedded videos, pop-ups and banner ads?
That is a rhetorical question. The studies have been done: we don’t read from a screen, but only scan in an F-pattern for information.
There is something more to this transformation than the shedding of a Benjaminian “aura.” Not just the integrity of the text, but our sense that text can have any value or meaning at all is being lost. But why? Why are we in such a rush to throw so much away? Why are so many of us volunteering to be exploited as digital serfs in the new economy, while at the same time brazenly boasting of our aliteracy?
In the concerned conclusion to his book Reading the 21st Century Stan Persky flags an important point: “we find ourselves in a paradoxical dilemma in which writing flourishes, which is just cause for celebration, but book reading is in decline, especially among younger people. That situtation ought to set off alarms.” How to interpret this paradox? Colin Robinson, writing in the London Review of Books, suggests one answer by introducing the second threat I see being posed by the digital revolution:
Electronic communication has generally made life easier for writers and harder for readers. Text is simpler to produce on computers, easier to amend and spell-check, and a breeze to distribute. No one can be more conscious of this than editors, who are now deluged with manuscripts, attached with consummate ease to letters explaining that if this particular book is not of interest, several others, perhaps more appealing, await on the author’s hard drive. But how does this technology serve the reader? For all the claims of their optical friendliness and handiness, e-books still strain the eyes and are challenging to carry around. Worse, the dizzying range of easily accessible material on the Internet conspires with a lack of editorial guidance to make web reading a disjointed experience that works against the sustained concentration required for serious reading.
This privileging of the writer at the expense of the reader is borne out by statistics showing the annual output of new titles in the US soaring towards half a million. At the same time a recent survey revealed that one in four Americans didn’t read a single book last year. Books have become detached from meaningful readerships. Writing itself is the victim in this shift. If anyone can publish, and the number of critical readers is diminishing, is it any wonder that non-writers – pop stars, chefs, sports personalities – are increasingly dominating the bestseller lists?
Perhaps the problem has to do with more than just the way in which words are transmitted. People bowl alone, shop online, abandon cinemas for DVDs, and chat to each other electronically rather than go to a bar. In an increasingly self-centred society a premium is placed on being heard rather than listening, being seen rather than watching, and on being read rather than reading.
Take that last sentence and inscribe it on the grave of the book: In an increasingly self-centred society a premium is placed on being heard rather than listening, being seen rather than watching, and on being read rather than reading. The Internet is a mirror not of our society but of our private selves. Or rather “isolated,” since privacy no longer exists. The first thing to keep in mind about social networking is that there is in fact nothing social about it. The Internet has become a seamless web of self, a standing pool of Narcissus that we are now drowning in.
Specifically, we are drowning in an ocean of our own words. Near the end of Douglas Glover’s Elle, the heroine recalls her lover F. (code for Rabelais) saying “that as soon as everyone can read whatever they want, they’ll all decide to be writers as well.” With regard to the present discussion, Denis G. Pelli describes how this works:
By 2000, there were 1 million book authors per year. One million authors is a lot, but they are only a tiny fraction, 0.01 percent, of the nearly 7 billion people on Earth. Since 1400, book authorship has grown nearly tenfold in each century. Currently, authorship, including books and new media, is growing nearly tenfold each year. That’s 100 times faster. Authors, once a select minority, will soon be a majority.
As readers, we consume. As authors, we create. Our society is changing from consumers to creators.
Barthes has been neatly inverted: in order for the author to live, the reader must die.
This is by now a common complaint. We are familiar with the observation that there are far more people today writing poetry than reading it, and that the only growth sector in university literature departments is their creative writing programs. Even the field of literary criticism and reviewing has suffered from this atomic blast, with book reviews and journals falling before the flood of Amazon reviewers (in fact, a small team of professional Amazon reviewers were the first to be made redundant, hoist with their own petard).
Nor is there anything new about invoking the spectre of narcissism in this context. Christopher Lasch saw it as defining the culture of the 1970s, and in the 1980s Allan Bloom blamed its inherent moral relativism for the closing of the American mind. The Internet, however, has both enabled and amplified the condition, as numerous studies now attest (in The Narcissism Epidemic the authors see in the web “a giant narcissism multiplier”). Online, we can all become as gods. Or at least, as Glover’s F. predicted, as authors. “If there were authors, how could I bear to be no author? Consequently there are no authors.” Thus spake Zarathustra.
Perhaps this is our revenge on art, tearing it down from its pedestal and making it finally as disposable and ephemeral, as mortal, as the rest of mere humanity. If so, I fear it will be a root-and-branch job, as the lasting nature of art has long been a myth necessary for its creation. Writers have to believe in some kind of posterity for their work: that their “Kilroy was here” will remain on the wall, that what they lovest well will remain, that they may enter the pantheon and be counted among the English poets, that so long as this (my immortal sonnet) lives, it will give life to me.
The Internet, however, has put an end to all that. No writer today can seriously believe that their words will long outlive them, even if they do manage to attract contemporary notice. But, as Snowman understands, to come to the conclusion that any reader one can possibly have is in the past is self-defeating. Why even bother, then? I have long thought that such feelings lie behind the appeal of historical novels, and in particular our literary fetish for the nineteenth century. For the Victorian Era was, manifestly, a time when (in the words of Jean-Christophe Valtat, defending the setting of his “steampunk” novel Aurorama in an alternative nineteenth century) literature was “regarded as able to educate, elevate, delight and even change life”: “Perhaps that is what we are missing, too. . . . Perhaps it’s a certain idea of literature as a power that we are nostalgic about.” If so, that nostalgia is something both producers and consumers of the written word can identify with.
It is a narcotizing cliché to speak of every crisis containing opportunity. This may be true, but crisis can just as easily lead to total collapse. And while some kind of contraction in the scope and extent of print culture is now inevitable, my concern is that the collapse will in fact be sudden and catastrophic, hastened by the forces I’ve been talking about. As Bauerlein puts it, “Knowledge is never more than one generation from oblivion.” That’s a maxim we are going to put to the test. “How long have we got?” Ewan Morrison asks. “A generation. After that, writers, like musicians, filmmakers, critics, porn stars, journalists and photographers, will have to find other ways of making a living in a short-term world that will not pay them for their labour.”
In Double Fold Nicholson Baker made a passionate plea for saving our cultural heritage of old newspapers from having their archives purged and replaced by microfilm copies (and don’t ask where all that microfilm is now). The Internet has improved on this. Today the talk is all about “the cloud,” a.k.a. “the end of tactile media.” Somewhere out there, in the electronic ether, after all the books are gone, our culture will continue to enjoy an immaterial afterlife. I take it this is part of the ambiguous meaning of the apocalyptic conclusion to Don DeLillo’s Underworld, where the world is transformed by the nuclear desolation of cyberspace, to be made new or somehow preserved in a binary form that will no longer be a part of the world but a container for it: either the holy grail, or final reductio, of information theory.
We can’t say we were never warned.
As for the (mushroom) cloud itself, the image says it all. A piece that recently appeared in the Guardian (May 2011) caught my eye with the headline “Google can’t be trusted to look after our books.” Before I could mutter “No shit” I was into the lede:
Google announced last month that it would be deleting the content of the Google Videos archive. After a public outcry, it said it would work on saving all the video content and making it available elsewhere. But the situation raised concerns about data under Google’s control, including the archive of Google Books.
That concern is justified. Google is in the business of making money, and it can, any time the content of the cloud becomes unprofitable, just get rid of it. Much as Amazon can delete, at its own pleasure, the contents of your Kindle with the click of a button. Clouds are not forever. If this is the future of literature then we truly are writing on water. What will survive the coming Great Erasure? How much will dissolve, and, like an insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind?
The existence of literature, not the words on the page but the whole system of production and consumption, writing and reading, rests on a paradox. Literature is a leisure activity, a private, pleasurable pursuit of instruction and delight, but it also involves effort, intellectual labour, money, time, and public commitment. We cannot take its continued role in our culture for granted. I’ve said before that the arts need to evolve in order to survive, but we should remember that evolution does not mean progress, or even adaptation of ever more complex and sophisticated forms and functions. Evolution just as easily follows the path of least resistance and leads to degeneration and decline. And what we lose will not easily be regained. You can call this a slippery slope argument, but it’s really just facing hard facts. Sentences aren’t going to start getting longer any time soon, nor vocabularies expand. Every year enrollment in university English programs goes down, and students in those programs read less and less. In tough economic times and the changing media environment we face does anyone think this is a course that is going to be reversed? Given hard times, does anyone believe for a minute that public funding for the arts is going to become a priority at any level of government? Who wants to bet that bookstores are going to start making a comeback, or that e-books will turn out to be a short-lived fad? Who can imagine a twenty-first century like the nineteenth, when literature, with its power to “to educate, elevate, delight and even change life” actually mattered?
On a couple of occasions in this essay I’ve mentioned the analogy that has been drawn by others between the Internet and an atomic bomb. What I find interesting about this is the historical fact that the Internet was first developed to be a communication system that would, due to its dispersion of nodes, still be operational in the aftermath of a nuclear war. Of course humanity might not survive such a disaster, but by that point we would be expendable. The sole necessary survivor would be the Internet itself, a force we should be able to recognize now as the true destroyer of worlds.