I’d like to end the Dialog with a relatively broad question — broad enough
to allow each of you to twist it into a closing statement of sorts, if you
so choose. I’m wondering about the ways we imagine electronic text in its
relationship to the individual and the collective. The opposition between
the private introspection of old-fashioned reading and the new social
interactions of hypertext has already run its way through the Dialog: Sven
arguing for the merits of being “out of touch,” or Carolyn advocating
collaborative fiction projects. The assumption seems to be that the rise of
electronic text pushes us away from the older, individuated practices of
reading — and towards more social environments: MOOs or MUDs, or even the
“unsettling merge of Author and Reader” that one finds in more traditional
hypertext. But the transition to e-text is probably a little trickier than
this: news filters, intelligent agents, and even the reading “choices” of
hypertext suggest a future for reading that is more privatized, more
tailor-made-for-your-personal-sensibility than anything we’re familiar with
now in the world of print. The liberation of the Reader has a compelling
ring to it, but I worry that it will lead to a kind of suburbanization of
the mind. Empowered by hypertext reading tools, readers will simply filter
out the more provocative or challenging data the way they now circle around
the inner cities on beltways lined with shopping malls. A community of
readers, each curled in bed — Bob-style — with his or her Powerbook,
reading his or her custom-fit narrative, doesn’t strike me as being much of
a liberation. Any thoughts on this?



The final question — which is a good question, I think, in that it does
allow us to ponder those larger ramifications again. In my own pondering
process I recognize an underlying assumption which is likely not shared by
everyone. I mean: I see electronic media as being in a contest with other
media, not as merely sitting down at the table as an amicable supplement.
So many people say to me, “Why can’t you just have both — have your ideal
of reading and writing and have the new options, too?” And at the level of
private choice — what does the free individual decide to do with her time
and personal resources? — this is hard to argue. But I feel, and fear, the
larger displacement. After all, one can also say, “Well, you are afraid of
this new horseless carriage — but you are free to walk.” And it’s true.
But of course the horseless carriage changed the game for everyone, made it
very different — and more difficult — just to walk. And so I ask the
question about online culture: When it becomes established and in active
general use, what will it mean to read — read in the old way? But even as
I write this I realize that it’s not the real issue — reading is, to me, a
figure, an emblem, for the cultivation of subjective individualism, for a
reflective search for depth and meaning. And I guess I see these (possibly
romantic) initiatives as being under threat. Not by what travels over the
networks, but by the fact of the networks themselves, by the promise of
connectedness. Again, I am projecting forward a bit. I’m imagining our
society a decade or so down the road, when the circuits will have encircled
us, when it will not seem unusual to people to be using their terminals all
day long — to read the news, send a draft to the bank, send a recipe to
sis, signal hubbie to pick up the ribs on the way home (if, indeed, hubbie
or wife even go out to work) — I worry then that we will find ourselves
drawn into a busy shallowness from which there will be little chance of
escaping. And in this fantasia — if it comes to pass — it will not matter
in what form we do our reading because reading itself will have been
transformed into a glorified sort of grazing. I can’t imagine people living
in the world just sketched unplugging enough to engage anything at the sort
of depth that still attaches to our ideas of the serious and meaningful.

So, yes, when I argue for the book, the linear one-on-one, I’m arguing
finally for a particular and personal vision. Somewhat old-fashioned and
austere. My belief is that in spite of our will to community we are finally
— ultimately — alone, and that the making of meaning is a solitary
endeavor, and — well, you know the drill. It’s the condition of things
that, in my view, literature has always recognized and addressed.

Now, that other question. I’m responding to Steven’s idea of the
“liberation of the reader” and his vision of “a community of readers, each
curled in bed… with his or her Powerbook, reading his or her custom-fit
narrative…” Well, this is the other side of the coin. It would seem to be
a world fragmented by textual solipsism. And this raises another issue and
points to a paradox. The paradox is that electronic connectedness threatens
to lift us out of the many habitual (and necessary) kinds of isolation,
allowing a near-constant (if indirect) social lubrication and distraction.
On the other hand, even as it structurally connects us, it further
vaporizes any possibility of a common culture, for it is all about about
narrowcasting and the selectivity of data. Translation (maybe): that it
cuts it you from solitude and also from organic community of any kind, even
as it enables the creation of communities that have nothing but interest
affiliations. A good thing or a bad thing?

I wonder, too, whether it is a coincidence that we are seeing the
intensification of the canon controversy at the same time that we are
witnessing the first emergence of online culture. A canon is a principle of
hierarchy and the Net, in the words of somebody, is a “distributed web”
without a center. Utterly opposed concepts.

And yet what happens to a culture — to the idea of a culture — when there
is no common body of lore?



I was excited by Michael and Carolyn’s responses to Question 3. Their
confidence in the evolution of hypertextual conversation is heartening,
especially since it seems to be based on experience.

I was also struck how the third question brought out the points of
agreement between us much more than the differences. All four of us love
and are committed to the value of text as a medium of communication. Sven’s
role at present is to warn the population as eloquently as possible of the
potential loss to be sustained with the passing of print culture. Michael
and Carolyn seem to have grasped this some time ago and are working hard to
evolve text so that it maintains its value in the digital age.

I know that much of the discussion in this dialog has been about the
differences between text in its electronic and print form, but it occurred
to me that we might focus on the similarities for a bit.

Text is the most efficient medium we have for carrying out a dialog in
society about important ideas. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but
this is more often the case if the words are describing a physical object
which can be easily rendered by one image. Try describing any important
current event from today’s news with a picture rather than words. You can
show an emotionally moving picture from Bosnia, but to understand its
meaning you need context and it’s much easier to do that today with words.

I think this is particularly important when you consider the inequality
inherent in non-textual media. To make motion pictures or high-quality
audio productions is very expensive both to create and distribute. Text,
while not free by any means, is inherently more democratic in this way. For
the forseeable future, the less text is used to communicate, the more
thoroughtly communication will be concentrated in the hands of powerful
multinational corporations.

As to the specific point raised in Question 4, I’m not at all worried about
e-text contributing to a suburbanization of the mind. Text by definition
has always been a random-access medium making it easy for readers to skip
anything at will. Additionally, by choosing to read a particular newspaper
or specific magazines people easily choose a relatively narrow subset of
available text. If anything, e-text, at least when it’s on the internet,
makes it much easier to take one’s text from a much wider subset. The great
thing about the net right now is that it doesn’t favor text from one site
or another; whether it stays that way or is a political/social question,
not a technological one.



Steven’s invitation to make final statements is something I’ll pass on. I
prefer my pleasures along the way and multiple. Putting aside the obvious
gender construction of its occasion, the closing statement is a quaint
throwback to a time where prose resulted in reverie, transport, conversion,
or persuasion and then everyone lit a cigarette and many hid their
disappointment at not getting it, whatever it was. It is a construction of
(illusory and hierarchical) depth rather than one of (physical and
continuous) surfaces.

There was no it. There is none. There is only (as Walt Kelly’s great early
hypermedia webmaster, Pogo, said) us. .And again I am struck with the
combination of the lack of trust in us and the naivete about us which
suffuses much of this dialogue. Sure I would lament (and do) the loss of
serendipity which would come with wide-scale adoption of software agents
and personalized filters, but is hard to imagine that we are any less
filtered or agented by the media we are within now where the publicity
campaigns blink on like the Christmas lights of September malls: Johnny
Madison, Bridges of Mnemonic, Congo, cutglass icons at the drivethru, news
at eleven, wife by Cosmo, hubby by Details, tragedy by Hole, sleepware by
Disney.

Steven worries that we will avoid the provocative but behind that worry is
a suggestion that we do not do so now. Any child at one time or another
asks the question: why is there no news on weekends except sports? Because
we are away from provocation, honey. Shake hands with Mickey, eat your
Wonder Feed.. The lesson President Poppy wished us to learn from Vietnam in
his retro WWII Debordian spectacle Desert Drizzle (read Stuart Moulthrop’s
Victory Garden for multiple accounts of the first days of the post-communal
world in Iraq and Texas) was that, my gosh, we ought not let images bother
us like they did. Children dead in Somalia or Haiti? Congo cutglass icons
Dead in Bosnia? tragedy by Hole. On yesterday’s installment of the Simpson
(singular) show, the the Asst. DA said the jurors are “steeled” to the
photos of the victims; he did not want to say “used to” he said, but did
not seem to realize the edge in “steeled.” The New World Order is not the
black helos the militia men fear (them no “scared bunnies” like the one guy
who is a real hero, thank god, claiming not to be a hero, heroically
hugging his lovely sister and his mom and using such language as children
do) but rather a CNN slideshow in Director with multiple links to suit your
newsense and ennui

Nor, as my colleague Barbara Page remind me, was it any different in the
svenish daze before media brokered the backs of books since literacy was
not, as it is often accounted, widely spread or richly distributed. Nor was
authorship widely available outside the centers; anyone could be President
but few were. We are filled with such nostalgia for the great age before
the busyness that we seem to miss the fact that book culture didn’t solve
much for many, but rather gave an infinite series of final statements
guaged to keep things in place (for anything and everything in our places).

The liberation I hope for will come from suffusion and situation. I’ve
tried to make the points I want to make along the way and so there’s no
need for conclusion but rather a need for reaffirmation and to head off now
to look for other venues of continuity. Whether we are talking about what
Steven calls the “opposition between the private introspection of
old-fashioned reading and the new social interactions of hypertext,” or the
thin band between suburban belt and forlorn center city, there are no
polarities which are not constructed by and of the permeation of the real
life we live between them. It is a coastal urban bias to suggest that the
suburb lacks its texture or complication, it is a stripmall truism to
suggest that it is possible to get away from (or with) something. The value
added by human community outweighs any network filter, channel zapper, or
(however compliant) software agent. People will still talk, (we did–thanks
Bob, Carolyn, Steven and Sven; many do: and more will) about what they see
and who they are and what they like and who they love and where they go and
why they do and what they wish and when they knew and what comes next and
what was before and who their children are and whose children they were.

In that spirit, and not as a closing statement but a continuity, I would
like to recall the memory of Sherman Paul, a great teacher, writer,
naturalist, and a friend to the multiplicity of human community. May his
soul remain as restless as it was in his living.



My initial impulse in response to these questions is to fly out there and
take a broad view, that is, describe some philosophical topologies
concerning the individual and the collective, my dearest subject after all.
But first I can’t help taking a peek at the assumptions behind this
suburbanization of the mind notion. Are you asking this because you really
think we are currently a population of sophisticated readers and that we’ll
lose that great skill and become mushheads by using electronic technology?
People who read carefully and broadly, and who examine their experiences,
are not going to suddenly stop doing that. The truth is, most people
already “filter out the more provocative or challenging data.” That was a
point made by Sven’s wife somewhere else in this dialog. My question then
was why do people do that? Isn’t there some chance that many people who
occupy the passive category now (which, by the way, I don’t think is any
better characterized by suburb than city), might be stimulated by this
technology to reawaken the more creative part of themselves? I’ve referred
in this dialog to Constructive Hypertext, using a term that is understood
by people studying and using hypertext to mean a document which can be
changed by the reader. This is a very different situation than the
“choices” kind of minimalist (Webbish) hypertext that I think you were
referring to (also called Exploratory). I really think it’s important that
we look at what we mean here by the word “empowering.” The first person I
heard articulate the vague discomfort I was having with the trendy use of
this word was Nancy Kaplan (now at the University of Baltimore, and at
whose kitchen table the TINAC artists collective began). Nancy reminds us
that “empower” is a transitive verb. That is, when power is granted by an
authority (any entity from the author of an “interactive” web site to the
author of a papal bull), it ensures the power-over position of the granter.
But when a person feels her own agency, when she initiates a change of
some sort in her environment, then she realizes her own authentic power,
not a specious one granted as camouflage for retaining another’s
power-over. The list of empowering tools you suggest (“news filters,
intelligent agents, and even the reading “choices” of hypertext”) fall
precisely in this camouflage category – even when that is not the conscious
intention of the granter of power. Pretty obviously, I’m advocating a
different sort of power to the people.

Related to all this, I also want to say that I’m not sure there is
anything trickier than the merge of author and reader. It is in this
complex, paradoxical process, which truly has been with us all along, that
we might begin to understand something of the tensional nature of the blend
of Individual and Collective, and perhaps even how to understand a social
organization that doesn’t operate on domination. You see, I don’t think
Sven’s ideal of solitude is truly oppositional to collaborative hypertexts.
Reading and writing are each introspective and connecting activities,
whether in print or on screen. I think it’s important to remember that the
Individual and the Collective are only conceptual opposites (though we have
a tendency to believe in a real duality, sort of like we have a tendency to
believe in things being “natural” and “unnatural”). But the reality is
that we always have some mixture (or Complex Mixture, per Deleuze and
Guattari) of these poles, and in fact, cannot have one without having the
other. They are not separate at all, but a continually changing dynamic.
I do claim hypertext, in its verbness and Between qualities, to facilitate
this, but I wouldn’t want to attempt to describe the form of something
which is only now in the process of assembling. My best recommendation to
all of us who so desperately want to know where this technology is taking
us is to imagine where (and how) we want to be, then shape the technology
accordingly. I want us to be such that we do not need or desire to force
others down in order to be up. I want us to find that partnership makes a
better model than domination. I want a lot.

And just so I am not misunderstood on this point: I am very much for the
individual. I love silence and being alone. But I don’t think we are ever
really “out of communication” with others. Even when I’m alone, working
and thinking (what else for solitude?), I am connected to others, in the
things they have said and done. Like everyone else, I make myself and
what I do in the world by those connections.


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