Out of my hands

10 November 2011 | Articles, Non-fiction

Who's been eating my porridge? From ‘English Fairy Tales’ by Flora Annie Steel (1918), illustrated by Arthur Rackham. The Project Gutenberg e-Book

In the classic fairy-tale, on finding their belongings were not as they had left them, the three bears exclaimed: ‘Who’s been eating my porridge?’ When our technology correspondent Teemu Manninen found someone else’s underlinings in the electronic text he was reading, he wondered: ‘Who’s been tampering with my ebook?’ Which led him to ponder how similar books and their virtual counterparts really are – and could his ebook really be called ‘his’?

A few months ago I was reading an ebook on my iPad when I came across an underlined passage. For a moment I felt strangely disturbed. My initial thought was that I had not made the underlining, and therefore this had to be a glitch, an error in the computer program that was the book, which meant that there was something wrong with my book. What made this thought disturbing was the realisation that the kinds of harm that can befall digital books – and the measures that one can take to prevent them – are no longer ‘in my hands’: that the book is no longer physical, but virtual.

The ebook is code, not paper; electrical charges, not ink. I need complex machinery to access it and make it visible, and this complex machinery requires a complex network of industrial design, production and technical support to function. I can’t – or at least I shouldn’t – throw it across the room or against a wall if I become frustrated with it. (I can, however, under certain circumstances, spill tea on it and it won’t stain.)

I had known all this, of course, but I had not felt it before. Now I had: for some reason, an error in a digital book felt like a different kind of entity from a tear in the page of a paper book. It was a strange feeling: as if what had before manifested itself in a series of relationships with tangible, discrete objects – the individual materiality of books, which could be comprehended through the sensation of touch and its bounded, in-my-hands nature – had given way to a relationship with another kind of entity, the abstract, boundless domain of ‘text’ (the cloud of virtual writing) which I could only glimpse and navigate through the ‘window’ I held in my hand.

Touching the device was not the same as touching a book, suddenly. I realised that my most immediate, sensible relationship was with my iPad: it had become the intermediary, the silent priest allowing me access to the intangible, spiritual medium of literature.

While this thought processed its way through my head I came upon another: what I was seeing was not in fact a glitch, but someone else’s underlinings that the Kindle ebook service had made visible. Someone, somewhere, had considered this passage to be noteworthy or important in some fashion – and a very short moment of relief gave way to a feeling of irritation, a kind of territoriality: who was this person interfering with my reading experience? How dare they make drawings in my book!

Then, a microsecond later, I had to recognise another alienating truth about digital books: it wasn’t my book that I was reading. I had merely bought indefinite grazing rights that allowed me to lounge about on this particular piece of literary real estate. Others could do so as well, and make their journey through the landscape visible by grafting such graffiti in the paragraphs of text along the way. Knowing that this feature could be turned off did not make things any less weird, since the ability to turn something on or off in a book served only to strengthen the uncanny difference that I have lately started to feel exists between virtual and material reading.

I know very well that I ought to think of these markings as being like those one comes across when reading a used book. And in truth, I used to like those traces of the physicality of reading: the marginal notes in old books that I would find on forgotten shelves in the university library, their indecipherable code phrases designating individual moments of clarity, hesitation or befuddlement; the heavy lines of colourful mark-up pens in school textbooks passed down from kids that had moved on to higher grades; the title-page dedications, the ex libris of ownership, and later, in my scholarship, the love I developed for the practices of the Renaissance, that period in the history of the private-and-yet-shared reading when only books that were copiously annotated by hand with all manner of marginalia were considered ready for proper use.

I still love those practices and disagree with anyone who thinks the pages of a book should stay pristine and untouched even by oxygen or dust. But virtual and material writing and reading are not the same thing. Like so many of the applications and products of information technology, the digitisation of literature is based on the idea of making a digital copy of an analog thing: translating a material object into an image of itself. Because our brains happen to be wired that way, and since images of objects can sometime mimic those objects almost to a fault, we humans often confuse these images with the objects they represent. A digital recording sounds – at least to an untrained ear – like an analog recording. A digital book has text just like a paper book has text. What’s the difference?

The difference is, literally, in the details. Everyone knows that looking at a painting in a gallery is not the same thing as looking at it on a screen. The one has a topography, the three-dimensional physicality of paint on canvas, our approach to it contextualised by the surrounding social ritual of attention in a gallery space; the other is two-dimensional, caught within the private meanings produced by all the other uses we have for whatever piece of technology makes viewing the image possible. The same applies for the production of material and virtual images. Drawing on a Wacom tablet with a digital pen is not the same thing as drawing on heavy rag paper with a piece of charcoal. The difference is, then, precisely in the fact that an ebook is an image of a text, while a book has text in it.

What made all these thoughts so very ironical was that the underlined passage occurred in a book by the science fiction author John C. Wright which portrayed a far future Earth where the wealthy could move through the world and see, remember, hear, taste and feel it in any way they wished, since information could be altered and sense perception filtered, memories rewritten and reality be reduced to ‘channels’ that you could either ignore or subscribe to, depending on your whims.

The book, called The Golden Age, was one in a series that told the story of Phaethon (yes, named after the earth-and-sky-scorching mythological son of Phoebus the sun-god). In Wright’s story, Phaethon was an engineering genius who was disappointed with humanity for having never ventured farther than the solar system. He wanted to change the world and shake it out of its complacency: to build a spaceship and ‘go where no one had gone before’ – to leave a life of virtuality behind in order to reach new frontiers in the material world.

It has been said that despite the advances in technology and science and culture of the last decades, we haven’t really invented or discovered anything really new in a long time. Everything we do is just an iteration or a more detailed, more efficient picture of the computer, the neurology of the unconscious, of rock and roll, of DNA, or the theory of relativity. And if our culture is just an image of the culture of previous generations, what does that say about the digital future of literature, these images of images? What kind of Phaethon will we need, when those days come to pass – or are they already here?

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