Monday, October 30, 2006

Technological Effects on Thinking: Then and Now

In pages 16-18 of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book God: A Biography, literary critic Jack Miles contends that Christians thought of their biblical canon differently because they used a different (at the time newer) technological form: the codex, or bound book, instead of the scroll.

He claims that Christians were more likely to think of their biblical canon, as they compiled it, as being small chapters of a larger work because of the package they were using to put it into, while the Jews, still using individual scrolls, were more likely to think of, say, "Genesis," as an individual book as well as part of the overall Scriptural canon. The difference, he thinks, is the technological container--one which the Hebrews moved to later, but stayed away from for longer.

This contention is a fascinating one. Because of its implications for the Hebrew and Christian understandings of books and Books. And because of its implications for the thoughts it spurs about how new written media "containers" newly available to us--e.g., the Internet, the word processing program, instant messaging, email, etc.--may be changing our thinking about how to put together written works today. My thoughts on the present-day changes are as yet amorphous, but it's a fascinating comparison.

By the way, this book (God: A Biography) looks like a fascinating one so far: it looks at the character of God in the Hebrew Bible from, not a theological or historical perspective, but from a literary "close reading" perspective. Miles studies God as a complicated character in a literary work who many, many people in the Western world have sought to emulate over the last couple thousand years.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Effects of Technology on the Novel

The Novel, 2.0: This fascinating article in Slate has so many interesting facets that it's hard to know what to respond to. I agree with the authors that technology is bound to change the face of the novel, but I'm not entirely sure how. Seeing as how bound book sales keep going up and up, though, I disagree that the novel is moving online any time soon (I've said since the advent of ebooks that until there's a really good reader with a readable screen, I doubt that online books will take off for anything but research and reference purposes--and even once that happens, there will always be adherents to paper).

I do agree that the web and other technology is changing both the way we do things and our attention spans, and I think that will affect some novel-writing and novel-reading (for instance, I think that the current popularity of mystery narratives comes in part out of our fascination with the detective-like quality to finding facts online). But on the whole, I think that people still long for the continuity and resolution provided by a narrative structure in an increasingly fragmented and information-overloaded world, so I don't see the traditionally-plotted novel as going away for quite some time.

As an editor of an online literary journal which encourages creative submissions that use the possibilities inherent in the online form--and having myself written a short online novel at one point (nothing could induce me to tell you the pseudonym under which I wrote it)--the most intriguing part of the article to me is the opportunities offered by the online form, as listed on page 5 of the article. I certainly experienced the workshop-like quality he mentions while I was writing my serialized story, and the impressionistic linking he suggests fascinates me as a creative concept. From now on, I'm determined to use such types of linking every so often in this blog, if only to stimulate my sense of creativity and wordplay.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Two Views on the Value of Web Publishing

I find it fascinating that both of these articles have crossed the threshold of my inbox (if, indeed, an inbox can be said to have a threshold) in the last week, because they represent two very different views of the value of and possible reasons for web publishing.

Web journals threaten peer-review system: In this USAToday article, the academic debate about web publishing--in which there is mostly a negative view of the web--is showcased. The concern here seems to be that research be rigorously vetted before it goes public so that people don't act on faulty information.

Get published to get ahead: In Gerry McGovern's latest article on web content he advocates using the web, which he says is "becoming the global memory," to publish your ideas on things, to raise your status. Interestingly enough, he uses the academic "publish-or-perish" idea as a backbone to encourage the broader public to publish their ideas on the web to become known there--clearly a more positive view of web publishing than exists in many parts of academia.

Clearly Gerry McGovern (who is a highly-regarded voice on web content) is encouraging a different type of--and reason for--web publication than those who disagree with the lack of peer review on online academic journals. And I'm not sure where I fall on the debate--I suppose I agree with elements of both sides.

The crux of the question seems to be about trust in the quality of content based on editorial process or lack thereof. And it's fair to say that editorial processes which use experts to filter out shoddy work are still important in today's society--in some ways more important than ever in a world where information overload is so often king. And it's also true that people also do a fair bit of their own filtering of content, whatever they read--the information-literate web visitor today is also fairly used to sorting out whether they trust something themselves, to a certain degree.

And that's more okay with some content than it is with others. More important for some web-publishing venues than others. An email or an IM conversation is different from a blog, which is different from an e-zine, which is different from an online academic journal. As there are is in speech and in print, electronic publishing has many different levels and audiences with unique requirements. And those different levels and audiences often require different levels and kinds of editorial process.

The thing is that this debate has been around, in a slightly different form, since the printing press, if not before. It's definitely not just a web thing, this concern about quality and editorial process. But because it's applied to a relatively-new medium, it seems new. In some ways it is, but in others, it's the same. Having fairly recently come from Gerry McGovern's world into the world of academia, I'm fascinated by it, and look forward to seeing where this print-world debate will go next now that it's being applied to a medium with slightly different possibilities and limitations.

(Naturally, this thoughts-in-process reflection article has only been self-edited before publication on this blog. Please feel free to filter its contents--and the contents of this whole blog--for quality yourself.)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Capturability and Fragility of Today's Conversations

A bit over a year ago, Brenda and I lived across the street from each other. We would go for long walks a lot. And when we went for walks, Brenda was often gracious enough to brainstorm plots and characters for my stories with me.

Now that we live on different continents, we can't go for walks quite as well. Instead we chat on IM a lot. I miss the walks, but at least we can still stay somewhat caught up this way. So today we were chatting and she was gracious enough to brainstorm about the characters of my latest story with me. And I must say that however much I miss the walks and the face-to-face time, it was rather delightful to still get to do that. And it was also delightful to discover how easy it was to highlight the character-related bits of the conversation, copy them, and paste them into my notes for the developing story.

The point of this slightly rambling story is that it's becoming easier and easier for us nowadays to record, reread, reuse, and share info than it ever used to be. And I think this is part of some sort of fundamental shift in our society (though it started around the time people started chiseling things down, it's gotten exponentially faster, easier, more portable, and a greater part of our behavior lately, which is definitely changing things, though I'm not yet sure exactly how). At times (as in the case of my conversation with Brenda), it's quite helpful for creative work as well as other endeavors.

Then again, if you read this article from last week's USA Today (Instant-messaging conversations can easily linger for years...), you'll see that the recordability that was so handy for me today isn't always so nice for senators and others who so easily forget this aspect of today's written media... I was wondering when the courts would catch on to this.

Of course, it's also true that, as the article points out, writing that is easily captured is also quite mutable. And as the article doesn't point out, it is often quite fragile: dependent on quirky hard drives, web servers, etc. for its continued existence. Not to mention the whims of humans who change and/or overwrite their content, both on purpose and accidentally, on an ongoing basis. Which means the capturability only goes so far and we as humans, as well as our innovations, still have quite a few limitations.

That said, I'm pretty darn excited about the character notes.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Free Audiobooks, Here I Come So I just found this website, and I'm already planning to be addicted. As a graduate student in English, I spend a lot of time staring at pages, so it's nice to have a break from that occasionally. And my auditory learning ability has increased tremendously over the last year (God bless a graduate school education).

So I'm very excited to see this site. Not only does it mean I can listen to a very nice recording of one of my thesis texts, Walden, on my iPod for free, it also means that someone out there came up with a marvelous idea: having people volunteer to read aloud public-domain literature and upload it so that anyone with Internet access can listen. Among other things, there's a nice collection of children's literature, some of which are hard to find in print or at the library anymore (like some of the Oz tales beyond The Wonderful Wizard of Oz).

So yeah, check it out and spread it around. Volunteer if you can. It sounds like fun.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

"Not Technological But Social and Cultural"

"The deep and enduring changes of our age are not technological but social and cultural. They are thus harder to see, for they result from the gradual accumulation of small, incremental changes in our day-to-day lives. These changes have been building for decades and are only now coming to the fore."

--Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class

Now since I read this on a "Quote of the Day" email, I'm not entirely sure what Richard Florida went on to say, but I find this quote fascinating and at least partially true. People get so sidetracked by the seeming-newness and the promise of newness that comes with technology at times, to the point where they often either claim it as a savior or blame it for everything. But when you look back in history and story, people are much the same today as they were years and years ago. They might interact a bit differently with each other and with technology--and that's fascinating. But then, so are the continuances.

Take the virtual Chia Pet for an example (see last week's post). I've always been bad at plants, so it makes sense I'd be bad at them online as well.

Or the gym (my most recent post). To be honest, I've always had a bit of trouble getting motivated to exercise when I've been slacking off at it, which is at least part of why I've had trouble staying focused in the gym. Then again, it's easier when I'm chatting with a friend while I exercise, which is hard to do in the gym environment with carefully-spaced treadmills and TVs. Or thinking, which is also difficult. Or listening to my podcasts, which must be blared over the music. So yesterday when I recognized the machines were full I zipped upstairs to the nearly-empty walking/jogging track and had a delightful long walk. And it was still inside, but it was better.

I have no idea what this says about the "deep and enduring changes of our age," but it certainly says that my motivations and difficulties of staying motivated are similar no matter the technology. But it doesn't necessarily follow that culture and society won't gradually be changed, one way or another, by a bunch of people like me enacting these motivations through a variety of kinds of technological or non-technological environments.

That change is hard to see while it's happening, but it's fun to try to capture all the same.