About electronic reading and writing: some reflections

by Diane Burton

I never expected to be posting to a blog.  Years of work as a teacher and editor have left me ill-equipped for the spontaneity and serendipity that are the pleasures of good blogs.  And I continue to harbor reservations about electronic reading and writing—so I thought this might be a useful place to think about those reservations.

I’m temperamentally resistant to composing on a keyboard:  for me, writing begins as drawing. So I’m starting this entry in longhand and hope to work my way to the computer as I find a rhythm and the piece finds a shape.

There have been other circumstances as well—vision loss and impaired eye-hand coordination, from neurological disease and decline—that have prompted me to think long and hard about the advances in digital technology, to consider the gains and losses occasioned by the rise in electronic mediation in reading and writing.

As an editor at a little magazine, I appreciate the value of computer-assisted desktop publishing.  Nimrod operates on a tiny budget with a paid staff of two and lots of volunteers, yet the journal we produce is polished and professional.

As a student and teacher of writing and literature, I am grateful for the ease of access and the wealth of resources computers make possible:  in the creation and distribution of all kinds of documents, in the availability and immediacy of information, in the profusion of visual and aural supplements to what has long been primarily verbal expression.

And that’s not even going into the physical convenience of having so many possibilities at our fingertips—especially welcome for those of us whose bodies are slowing ahead of our minds.

I came up with lists of my misgivings (on the computer now, as that’s the kind of writing computers facilitate, it seems to me), divided into categories:  personal/physical, social/philosophical, expediency/depth, and so forth.  It’s a long list, and the longer I examined it, the less the categories and the concerns seemed to say about the effects of technology and the more they seemed only to confirm my biases.  My worries are about ephemerality—of access, of information, of the technology itself; about the tension between the isolation digital immersion signifies to me and the connection other people find in it; about the deteriorating attention to accuracy, style, and form that the speed of electronic communication sometimes seems to foster; about the diminished aesthetic range our devices can limit us to; even about our carbon footprints, though I have no idea whether server farms are more environmentally harmful than paper mills.

In short, my worries were about modernity itself.

Walker Percy wrote in “The Loss of the Creature,” an essay from the 1950s, about the loss of what he called “sovereignty” and what educators these days usually refer to as critical thinking. He argued that the apparatus that surrounds experience, especially cultural and educational experience, prevents more than it enables learning.  What concerned him then, long before anyone carried handheld computers in the form of smart phones, back when computers took up rooms and rooms in sterile labs and had names like UNIVAC, was that mediation, in the form of the complex structures that determine cultural transmission, deprived people of anything but received knowledge.  The threat is that this mediation forecloses discovery.

This threat, real or imagined, certainly potential, is at the heart of my uneasiness about electronic reading and writing.  But, while the technology may not be dangerous in itself, I don’t want to let it off the hook completely. The virtual world shows us an enormous amount of stuff, but it shows it only a little at a time, and that little is ultimately chosen by someone else—that terrible word “curated”—whether it’s sponsored content that comes at the top of a search or keywords decided upon by committees of cataloguers or items that appear on our screens because they’re trending or popular.  There is so much material automatically available that it can seem churlish to demand more—and so we don’t, and we become passive consumers of the riches spread before us.  By doing the organizing and choosing for us, digital resources contribute to the erosion of our capacity for critical thinking.

As I said, I never expected to write a blog.  If you’ve read this far, you can see why—and why I may not be asked to do so again.  For me, the pleasures of reading and writing are intimately bound up with the process of discovery, a process I have the luxury of enjoying as an editor at Nimrod, where writers submit sometimes wonderful and always interesting work and where, as our mission statement asserts with hope and anticipation, the mission is discovery.

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Diane Burton, an associate editor at Nimrod, retired from teaching at The University of Tulsa.







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