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Books and Bytes

Probing the rocky relationship between technology and literature

Probing the rocky relationship 
between technology and literature
Probing the rocky relationship between technology and literature
By Alyssa A. Botelho, Crimson Staff Writer

In the heart of Maxwell-Dworkin Laboratory, Professor Harry R. Lewis ’68 rests his hands on a desk cluttered with old hard drives and a chunky 15GB iPod, its back open to expose its intricate hardware. This is to be expected: Lewis is a professor of computer science. And yet the walls, the carpeted floor, and even the free countertops are overwhelmingly covered with stacks and stacks of books. A pioneer in the booming digital field, Lewis—like so many of us—still surrounds himself each day with beloved paperbacks and hardcovers.

As the former Dean of Harvard College, Lewis is very familiar with the reading habits of our ‘digital generation.’ Readers can tap glittering iPad screens to jump from chapter to chapter, and respond to ‘tweets’ in between. “The digitalization of reading material—and the death of deep reading—is an interesting debate with violent feelings on both sides,” he says.

There is no doubt that the advent of the Digital Age has transformed how readers read and writers write. In response to these developments, several courses have sprung up in both the History of Science and English departments to investigate the changing relationship between reader and writer in the digital age. In late October the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study will also host an interdisciplinary conference entitled “Why Books?” to explore the interaction between literature and technology from an historical perspective.

The experts involved in this discourse all agree that new technology is redefining our experience of literature; they differ only in their focus. Some argue that our critical interpretation of literature must necessarily adjust to these new developments. Others add that writers themselves are adjusting to cater to readers behind LCD screens. However, the interplay between scientific advance and literary work can be traced to authors writing long before the digital age. In the greater historical context of the book, even the shift from print to digital form is not entirely unique; it is but another important transition in the long chain of the book’s evolution.

DIGITAL DIVERSIONS

Though Lewis has devoted his career to the innovations of computer science, he remains a traditionalist when it comes to the written word. Gesturing toward the stacks of bound volumes behind him, Lewis says, “I don’t mean to be a curmudgeon, but it was challenging to read through ‘War and Peace’ before the Kindle. Now it’s difficult to read just a page of ‘War and Peace’ without going to check your email.”

Like many, he is concerned that the attention and imagination required to read difficult texts is disappearing with the fast-paced clicks and taps of electronic books. “I worry that people growing up today are losing the experience of deep reading—of losing yourself entirely in a novel and trying on new identities,” Lewis says. “How can you do so if a hyperlink or an email jolts you back into the here-and-now?”

In a June 2010 essay for the New York Times entitled “My Backlogged Pages,” author John Feffer explains his similar reluctance to give up his physical library. He links their physical presence to their imaginative power. “They are just not books after all,” he writes. “Provided I hold on to this library, I can still pretend that I will be all the people that I imagined I would be as a teenager, as I wandered the church book sale and selected gifts for my future selves.”

One person who seeks to understand the dilemma of the reader in this digital era is Associate Professor Adelheid Voskuhl in the History of Science department. Voskuhl is an historian of technology who uses literary theory to explore the relationship between technology, the text, and its author. Her new course, History of Science 284: “Technology and the Text: Machines and Discourse in Historical and Literary Inquiry,” questions how our interpretation of text and its media may change in the future.

Beginning half a century ago, she says, literary theorists started to think that not a single element of the text—about the literature itself or its medium—could be neglected in critical interpretation. “In the 1960s, scholars no longer took for granted that text is simply what’s written on the page—there is always a medium for the text, an author, and an intention,” Voskuhl says.

However, this theory came into being in a world of print. “Even if I were to attempt the standard practice of interpreting a poem, how would my interpretation change from print to digital media? Would my computer be a part of the text itself? Does the act of clicking a hyperlink bring the autonomy of the reader and writer into question?” Voskuhl says. “In the digital age, we theorists are struggling to find what we can translate from those earlier decades.”

New technologies certainly require a more nuanced theoretical approach. However, Voskuhl remains faithful to her pursuit. “Theories of technology can be wacky and abstract, but it is vital to engage in intensive theoretical reflection. Without it, we run the risk of approaching the Kindle or the iPad in a commonplace, bland kind of way,” she says.

A TECHNOLOGICAL TRADEOFF

These technologies, and the way they are consumed, also influence the way that writers cater to their readers. Feffer describes his own dilemmas as a writer in a world of digital innovation. “For me, my desire to communicate rapidly with as wide an audience as possible is juxtaposed with my nostalgia for readers with the luxury to read and digest my work thoughtfully,” he says.

This goal, Feffer continues, is hard to reach. “We live in a utilitarian time, and Americans think first about usefulness and purpose—what we read is linked first and foremost to what we do.” With its long threads of blog commentary and never-ending tweets, digital media is a prime example of this bias towards utility.

However, digital media also facilitates a profoundly democratic movement in literature. “Technological innovation encourages more and more people into the writing process. The influx of creativity and free thought is empowering, no matter the form or quality of literature,” he says.

Despite his nostalgia, Feffer believes that the advent of digital technology does not cause but merely accelerates an independent literary trend that he has observed for nearly two decades. “I think digital media is something new, of course, but it is a part of a larger context: a move to cater to a shorter attention span, multi-tasking, and a desire for concise, provocative writing that cannot be misunderstood,” he says.

He illustrates his point by comparing the writing styles of American and British academics twenty years ago. “While American writers had a rapid and clear style, British writers were more discursive, and tended to wander. However, over the past two decades, English-speaking writers from many countries began to write in the shorter, less digressive American style. One could argue that it’s an inquisition, and I argue that this inquisition is in keeping with technology as well,” Feffer says. “The technology only encourages us more to write in this manner.”

THE MACHINE AS MUSE

Even when new technologies do not explicitly bear on the consumption of literature, writers have actively responded to the work of their scientific contemporaries. “Today’s digital age is not the only instance when literary transformations have paralleled these scientists’ technological innovations,” Feffer says.

The same kind of interplay occurred, for example, during the booming development of the 1920s. “At the same time that the typewriter and telegraph became commonplace, Ernest Hemingway was determined to change the ornate Victorian form and incorporating concise, journalistic writing into his fiction,” he says. Just like the current digital age, the internationalism of the 1920s stressed brevity, condensation, and speed both on the technological front and in the literary realm.

Professor Peter L. Galison’s new seminar, History of Science 292: “Gravity’s Rainbow,” explores one literary response to technology through close analysis of Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern masterpiece. Published in 1973, “Gravity’s Rainbow” grapples with the Cold War world and the proliferation of nuclear weapons; the title itself refers to the parabolic trajectory of a V-2 rocket in freefall. “In a way, Pynchon is trying to confront the technological world and show that it is so much more than black and white or good and evil,” Galison says. “The scientific and technological commentary in the book is a reflection of the world that we inherited. It foreshadowed some troubling aspects of our age, such as the concern over digitalization of literature.”

English 90zt: “Techno-Lit: Images of Scientific Ideas in Fiction” is Professor Daniel Albright’s related effort to examine literary texts and the scientific innovations that distressed or inspired them. Albright originally team-taught the course with a physicist at the University of Rochester; “It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my whole life,” he says. Tentatively to be offered in the upcoming spring or fall semester, the class will explore the relationship between scientific and literary giants like Voltaire and Leibniz or Beckett and Heidegger. According to Albright, the parallels between physicists’ and artists’ rhetoric during the twentieth century were extensive and profound. For instance, he says, “during the tumultuous beginnings of atomic theory, Whitman and Kandinsky were on the search for their own ‘basic unit’ of non-representational, abstract poetry.” The course will highlight how these kinds of technological conflicts and innovations dramatically affected contemporary artists and writers.

DISSECTING THE TEXT

The most obvious change in reading and writing, however, is the decline of the book as a physical object. Books are rapidly transforming into digital files stored on virtual bookshelves. Still, the movement from book to iPad or Kindle may be only a surface-level development. As Professor of English Leah Price ’91 puts it, “Is the ‘book’ an object made out of paper, or is it rather a set of functions? If it’s the latter, the book isn’t dead—it’s just using various digital forms to serve the same function.”

In order to explore the fate of the book in the future, Price formed a partnership with Professor Ann M. Blair ’84 to teach a faculty seminar called “The History of the Book” at the Harvard Humanities Center. In October, they will also present a conference on the topic at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study called “Why Books?”

“I am a literary critic and Ann is a historian, but we both approach the book from a long historical perspective, with a focus on the evolution of literacy, changing uses of the book, and the ages, gender, and cultures of readers,” Price says. Within this framework, the question of print versus digital media must be explored in the context of the book’s prior historical revolutions—such as those from the clay tablet to the scroll to the bound book.

On October 28 and 29, Price and Blair will tackle the topic together with a group of scholars, students, curators, and librarians who care for Harvard’s tremendously rich material resources and yet lack easy opportunities for collaboration. The conference will be opened by a round-table discussion between computer scientist Professor Stuart M. Schreiber ’81 and Professor Robert Darnton ’60, the Director of the Harvard University Library system. They will discuss Shieber’s Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard, a new open-access digital database of Harvard faculty publications, and its implications on the future of the library.

“The history of the book is a multi-disciplinary enterprise,” Price says. For a proper treatment of the book’s history, the conference will unite lawyers discussing intellectual property rights, computer scientists highlighting new ways to transmit texts, historians exploring how books are used as tools, businessmen explaining the economic aspects of publishing, and sociologists tracing the role of the book in society. “This is why the Radcliffe Institute is the perfect home for our conference—it is an ideal space for experimentation and interdisciplinary innovation,” she says.

The “Why Books?” conference will also venture outside of the Radcliffe Institute on Thursday, October 28 to visit archives and printing presses of yore, including the Baker Library Historical Collections, the Harvard University Press, the Bow and Arrow Press, and the Weissman Preservation Center. “We wanted to give the conference a more tactile sense because books are so often thought of as virtual, disembodied objects, and present valuable Harvard University resources that are usually closed to the general public,” Price says.

Voskuhl agrees that this tactile approach is vital for truly understanding the transformation of literature. Holding up a single dusty volume in her office, she says, “Imagine this book. When I pick it up, I can think about when the text came into being, who the author was hanging out with at the time, estimate how expensive it was, how many copies were printed, how widely it was circulated, who could afford it at the time, and what it meant to be reading a book at the time.”

RHETORICAL RELICS

Perhaps Feffer will not have to relinquish as much as he thought. The heated conversation about the digital age began, and continues on, because a certain deference to the printed book remains. “We still refer to our family computers as ‘desktops’ and view computer screens in vertical or landscape ‘page layout,’” Price says. Thus the language associated with the book as a physical entity lives on in our parlance, just as the lifestyle it inspired is still accessible through digital media. Even when the transition from book to screen has become pervasive, it seems readers and writers will still keep their favorites on a dusty bookshelf.

—Staff writer Alyssa A. Botelho can be reached at abotelho@college.harvard.edu.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: October 5, 2010

An earlier version of the Oct. 5 arts article "Books and Bytes" incorrectly stated that the "Why Books" conference at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study will occur from Oct. 26 to 27. In fact, the conference is taking place from Oct. 28 to 29.

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Radcliffe InstituteComputer ScienceEnglishHistory of ScienceLiteratureTechnology