Monday, July 26, 2010

Provisional Nature of Digital Text and What That Means for Writing

66885858 I have been reading Nicholas Carr’s latest book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In chapter six of this book, Carr speaks about how the Internet has changed both the face of publishing, and the act of writing itself. In one interesting part of the chapter he writes:

“The provisional nature of digital text also promises to influence writing styles. A printed book is a finished object. Once inked onto the page, its words become indelible. The finality of the act of publishing has long instilled in the best and most conscientious writers and editors a desire, even an anxiety, to perfect the works they produce---to write with an eye and an ear toward eternity. Electronic text is impermanent. In the digital marketplace, publication becomes an ongoing process rather than a discrete event, and revision can go on indefinitely. Even after an e-book is downloaded into a networked device, it can be easily and automatically updated---just as software programs routinely are today.”

Carr goes on to point out that this “provisional nature of digital text” means that writers approach the act of writing much differently than in the past. Writers in the digital world are more willing to accept less perfection in their craft and will also not feel the pressure of what he calls “artistic rigor”  as they compose their writing. It seems that Carr bemoans the fact that writing is losing its flair and polish as it has gone digital. Because electronic text is impermanent, writers do not devote the same care to their work because they know it can be easily updated and corrected.

There is truth in what Carr says. As I write this blog each day, there are times when I feel as if I have crafted every word. Sometimes, I actually complete a draft and save it locally so that I can review it later before uploading it. There are certainly other times I write a post and quickly proofread it, then post it, without really critically looking at the value of what I post. But does the nature of this digital medium call for well-crafted writing or does it beg for a large volume of writing? Is there anyone who truly values craftsmanship in blog writing? Or, are they skimming for information so quickly that it is impossible to appreciate quality writing when it is read?

Nonetheless, I do appreciate one aspect of this digital text that Carr did not mention. Blogging gives writers the opportunity to experiment with text and authentic audiences that the old world of publishing could not provide. The provisional nature of digital text means I can experiment with writing as a craft in ways that was impossible with the old publishing model, and get real feedback from others on whether what I have said works or not. Sure, it may mean that I just add to the enormous babble of voices, but it also means that I have a natural place to try out ideas, to experiment with styles of writing, and explore topics to see if others are interested. That’s the wonder of the provisional nature of digital text!

Here is Carr outlining some of the other ideas in this book. I hope to share more later.

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  1. One aspect that Carr fails to acknowledge in his discussion of the impermanence of digital text is the definition of permanence in the age of the Internet. The routine process of caching of pages means that even the most fleeting of blog posts may develop a permanence that is just as real as that of a published book, but often much less intentional. Also, Carr seems to ignore the fact that writers frequently release multiple editions of their "permanently finished" works. I too am at about the same point in Carr's book, and feel there is something intentionally lacking from his discussions of the Internets' effects on the brain. Looking forward to further discussion as we each move forward in the book.

  2. There does seem to be that negativity in his book about the effects of the Internet. I think perhaps his use of impermanence refers not to the fact that digital text is here today and gone tomorrow. I think he was referring to the fact that digital text is fluid and is easily revised. What I write on this blog is not subject to the rules of printed text. Once a physical book is printed, the words can't be altered. However, the text of this blog is impermanent in that I can change it at any time. Thanks for the post. I am finding his book thought provoking.