Decisions, decisions: the fate of virtual literature

28 November 2013 | Articles, Non-fiction

Storytelling: ‘Boyhood of Raleigh’ by J.E. Millais (1871). Wikipedia

Once upon a time: ‘Boyhood of Raleigh’ by J.E. Millais (1871). Wikipedia

In an era of ‘liveblogging’‚ we are all storytellers. But what’s the story, asks Teemu Manninen

One score of years ago, when the internet was new, the cultural critics of the time were fond saying that it would usher in a new utopia of free distribution of information: we would be able to read everything, know everything and share everything anywhere and every day.

Truly, they told us, we would become enriched by the internet to the point of not knowing what to do with all that wealth of knowledge, the amount of connections between us and the ever-increasing online availability of anyone with everyone, every waking hour.

Now that we really do have this always-on connectivity, you will indeed be available every waking hour: you will update your status, check your inbox, post pics and be available for chatting, texting, a quick email and a message or two, just to make sure no one is offended by your unreachability, since – from experience – a week’s worth of not tweeting or facebooking can make someone think that something serious has happened, or that you don’t even exist anymore.

Exhausting, I know. It’s no wonder some of us might feel overwhelmed, unable to choose what to do with our new-found freedom to not just consume information but to produce more and more of it. They call it decision fatigue: the loss of willpower after making too many choices in an environment that presents us with too many of them. Willpower is a muscle, and it can get very tired in this day and age.

What social media and its drive towards constantly sharing what we are reading, seeing, thinking about, feeling, eating and drinking has done is to make us all producers of content: all of us are now storytellers, and the story is ourselves.

Except that the story is happening in realtime, before we or anyone else has had time to evaluate its particulars, to reflect on the experience as a whole, because everything has to be ‘liveblogged’ immediately in snippets of text and image which are reducing the representation of identity down to forms which cannot capture life’s transcendent nuances and are only good at recording or manipulating its immanent surfaces.

This situation, I sometimes feel, is detrimental to the presence of other kinds of storytelling formats on the internet, such as literary journals, and indeed literary culture as a whole.

When the internet was young, I too believed that it would usher in a new age of world literature, a truly global literary culture. We would finally be able to say goodbye to the snail-like pace of the era of printing presses that had almost stopped cultural development in its tracks – there was a time when, if you got into a debate with someone on the pages of a literary magazine, you would actually have to wait for months to hear what the other guy had to say!

Or, even more frightening, you would have to understand another language in order to be able to read the work of other authors! Isn’t it wonderful that we’re all online now and speaking English? It’s so easy to find out what everyone else is doing: we can talk with our Egyptian friends on Facebook, read about recent developments in Pakistan from a Tumblr blog, hear the news of the Italian poetry scene through the grapevine of Twitter, and delve into South East Asian literary debacles in one of the thirty new online journals devoted to world literature and translation. Just as easily we can find out what writers are up to at home by skimming their WordPress blogs and their mile-long comment wars. The world has become one big online hangout, thanks to the internet.

Except that, again, when there are so many opinions to be had and so many new writings to get excited about, it’s not just decision fatigue which sets in, but a kind of valuation fatigue: how do I know what to concentrate on? How do I know what’s good anymore? And, more importanly, how do I know that what’s online is actually representative of literary culture on the whole?

There are cultural and political differences between nations and places in the world that cannot be bridged by using English online; not everything is translatable to the imperial tongue of technology, and not everyone has or wants to have access to the global web of possibility. Some choose to stay untranslatable, local, behind the lines, or at least between them, to show that they exist and cannot be crossed, as Professor Emily Apter from the University of New York has recently argued (see a review here).

For all the connectivity we’ve achieved, it’s funny that discussion on the internet is rarely worth our time. It’s full of opinion pieces either too long or too short, comment wars that go on for so long you lose all sense of what people are fighting about, and they seem to be fighting even when they aren’t fighting about anything at all.

Because of decision and valuation fatigue, only the most prohibitively schematic and the most violently caricaturish gets through to us – and when that happens, we are likely to stop reflecting and start reacting, exposing ourselves and our readers to meaningless rhetorical debate rather than offering them the carefully considered, distilled ideas that used to be called print-worthy.

There is no denying it: what is printed is still more valuable than what is online, at least for the generations that have grown up with it. Reading print is different, it has a different aura, it resonates cultural values and aesthetic progeny differently. There are no definitive web-only anthologies, and no editions of collected works by important authors that come out only in e-book format. Print is still king, and the internet is becoming a wasteland of wasted opportunities.

Or is it? I don’t want to come off as a latterday luddite. I would, instead, wish to claim that we still don’t understand all that well what the internet is as a material phenomenon: how the way it exists in our hands defines how it exists in our minds; that the way we access it makes demands on how we are to harness it.

Cultural evolution, while infinitely faster than biological evolution, is still slow in human terms. It takes decades for civilisations to incorporate new technology, to build a functioning cognitive and cultural apparatus of concepts and customs around it.

The internet is still new, and we are now perhaps moving to a phase in our relationship where the annoying things, the flaws and blemishes in the otherwise impossibly wonderful appearance and aspect of our object of infatuation, are seeping through to our consciousness. We need to take a step back and evaluate the nature of our commitment, lest we find ourselves becoming resentful and losing sight of the essence of our love.

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