The Author Amidst Digital Armageddon

I really like my thesis topic.

I’m told it’s not exactly rare, but not exactly common either. Somewhat more unusual, I gather, is that the thesis project I considered undertaking at the very beginning of my MA is mostly what I’ve come to a close with. I count myself lucky. An early proposal for the topic for my first class at UM-Flint was titled: “From Paper to Processor: The Novel at the Onset of Digital Armageddon.”

The basic concepts have stuck around, but I realize the then-title reflects the very issue I’ve come to anticipate my finished product will heavily explore: we are a fearful lot. We are definitely a hearty bunch, us humans. We adapt, move on, and soon barely notice changes, but not before pulling a collective Chicken Little moment first. At the first sign of change, no matter how well-supported history’s assurances are that we’ll survive, we pretty much lose our collective shit.

Back in early 2009, as the Kindle was nearing release, all we heard was fire and brimstone about the future of the book: the publishers would die, taking the tried-and-true champion of the author with them; the book would be quickly pirated and widely disseminated, robbing publishers (oh, and authors too .. yeah..) of livelihood; good novels would suddenly have to wade neck-deep among unfiltered dreck in the absence of official gatekeepers; e-readers would borrow your car without refilling the gas tank; animals would rise against man now that they could secret away digitized manifestos underneath their beds and food bowls for reading in stolen moments.

Being that I enjoy reading and hope to eventually finish writing a book and see it through to publication, I must have taken too seriously the collective freakout that the paper book was on borrowed time, and thus confused the novel as a concept with its medium of dissemination. So my title reflected the message I was hearing: the Novel at the Onset of Digital Armageddon. 

Now at the beginning of 2011, with several versions of the Kindle, the Nook, the Sony Reader (still the worst name of the lot) all behind us, I’ve come to realize the novel will be just fine. Even the iPad will probably have a second version out by the time I turn this thesis in. Sure, the medium is changing, but the novel isn’t under siege. Digital Armageddon is happening, but its the author who is already standing in the midst of the biggest change. To tip my hand on my final product just a little bit, I am beginning to think the changes are for the better.
While I think the single most-obvious benefit the Digital Armageddon holds for the author -the expansion of readership/exposure – outweighs the faults, there are questions to answer:

  • While the author won’t go away, what must they give up and what will they gain? 
  • How will commercial definitions of “profitable” be refined, and what share of profits will authors come to expect? 
  • How will piracy be tolerated, systemically and individually. What examples can book publishers draw from the music and game industries.
  • What kind of independent market will take off? For example, there are many inexpensive and free titles available to e-readers to help swell their catalogs, but what system can we develop to better match a reader to their interests as the sheer volume of available work explodes?
  • How does the role of author as an artist (think ar-teest) stand to be redefined? Will the physical novel remain as an ivory tower for only the truly accomplished and celebrated authors to isolate themselves in?
I’m constantly tempted, as I continue research, to go off on fascinating but ultimately tangential side-quests: the history of e-reading; the technology of e-reading; the implications for education of e-reading growth; what ultimate economic implications will unfold as the industry shakes out suddenly-unnecessary jobs because revenue moves from physical to digital; the frustrating sensory je ne sais quoi surrounding the physical novel that will take several generations to shake out; and fanciful imaginings of reading in the future. I am constantly reminding myself of my focus, including an admonishment that occupies the top of the first page in my document of research notes and random tidbits:

No Matter How Interesting Other Issues May Be –
DO NOT FORGET That the Primary Subject of this Paper is
What a pleasant frustration to have.

Relaunch: An unfocused manifesto?

Today I relaunch my blog. Started first as a class requirement for Fall 2009 English 513: Issues in Digital Rhetoric at University of Michigan-Flint, this will hopefully scratch the itch I’ve been having to talk about what I’m working on apart from what I hope to make official (turned in/published). The original title of the blog was, for some reason I can’t quite fathom now, “pixelated prose.” Not sure where I was going with that. In the time since completing the course, my thoughts on digital rhetoric (a term I still feel misses out on the unwieldy range of topics I’m interested in, yet for which no better alternative exists) and associated issues have greatly expanded. My applications to five PhD programs in Michigan, Maryland, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia all emphasize my interest here as much as in composition theory.

I’m keeping original posts made from class, as they are markers from earlier on in my digital rhetoric journey. One theme appeared early on, and I believe is worthy of bearing the title for the relaunch. The new title of the blog, “The Digital Naturalized Citizen,” is based on a personal response I had to Marc Prensky’s “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.” To grossly oversimplify Prensky’s thoughts: if we apply the metaphor of citizenship to how we integrate with the larger digital world, two groups emerge:

  • the Digital Natives, or those who have lived from so young an age in a world where continual use of sophisticated technology, multimodal electronic communication, and the constant reinvention of the digital landscape are simple facts of life
  • the Digital Immigrants, relative newcomers to the digital world, for whom each new digital venue or application of technology is more likely to cause anxiety due to unfamiliarity than it is to alleviate workload or facilitate easier communication

Beyond the stereotypes of the young whippersnapper who can program the NASA-designed VCR and the tech-illiterate geezer who is afraid to even learn how to use a mouse, the interaction of these groups is more than just a generational divide. The DI and DN think differently. They have each existed so long in a world where the other’s way of thinking/interacting/communicating was fundamentally different. To the DN, the DI seems hopelessly antiquated, a low-bandwidth individual who functions too stubbornly in too few threads. To the DI, the DN seems frenetic, easily distracted, and too reliant on fallible technological gadgets.

Even when trying to be diplomatic, it’s hard to strip descriptions of these groups and their intersection of any dramatic flair. What I said above probably seems over-simplified. It is. That’s why there’s something between the Digital Native and the Digital Immigrant: the Digital Naturalized Citizen.

I’m a Digital Naturalized Citizen, and I’m willing to guess you probably are, too. I was born in 1979 in a house with one antenna-powered cabinet TV, one rotary-dial phone, and my father’s collection of numerous hobby radios. It was the middle 80’s before we had an Atari 2600. It was 1988 before we had cable TV, an Apple IIe, and a Nintendo. It was 1990 before we’d migrated to a touch-tone telephone. Today, I carry a smartphone in my pocket that is capable of outstripping all of those technologies by innumerable factors, and my wife and I collectively own no fewer than 9 devices that regularly connect to the Internet for work, communications, or entertainment. This isn’t mentioned for the sake of a “look how far we’ve come” kind of geekout (although, it is pretty cool), but for you to compare yourself to. How many of us still remember a life when we didn’t use electronic means but rarely, essentially living an almost fully analog life? It happened gradually, but we’ve become as digitally-aware/comfortable/integrated as any so-called Digital Native. We are technically Digital Immigrants, but we have transformed fully, as so many have, to be indistinguishable from the Digital Natives. I feel absolutely comfortable concluding that this middle-generation – a significant population – are Digital Naturalized Citizens.

This goes farther than being the middle-ground voice of reason whenever the DNs or DIs resist each other’s influence. We are the voice in the middle of the debate about technology’s ever-creeping insertion into our lives. We see digital reformation of our society not as the Infocalypse, but more as a metamorphoses from one stage to the next. It. Just. Is. Technology is inert, socially. It is what we want it to be, great or small, a little or a lot. It is in this way I think of technological integration; to keep in mind that these are not digital horsemen of the apocalypse, but merely digital scapegoats for the same tired issues every generation lets its shit get all emotional over: smartphones are not wholesale destroying our minds, but I pity the couple who eat together at the table next to mine, muttering a half conversation over the screens they use to distract themselves from what looks like a failing relationship. It isn’t “The Twitter” that’s destroying a child’s writing, it’s the natural development of a grammar we all engage in based on whatever environment we communicate in most regularly, the schools who are fiscally unable to provide the alternative, and the parents who are unwilling to take up that slack. It isn’t video games that are sapping our children of physical activity, it’s the cultural shift that has become hostile to the social goods of education and green space and has simultaneously discouraged parents from setting limits.

The Digital Naturalized Citizen doesn’t go to pieces when new digital things step onto the scene: he/she realizes we are humans using technology, not the other way around.