Tech trolls and the space of literature

September 20, 2007

However, the work—the work of art, the literary work—is neither finished nor unfinished: it is. What it says is exclusively this: that it is—and nothing more. Beyond that it is nothing. Whoever wants to make it express more finds nothing, finds that it expresses nothing. He whose life depends upon the work, either because he is a writer or because he is a reader, belongs to the solitude of that which expresses nothing except the word being: the word which language shelters by hiding it, or causes to appear when language itself disappears into the silent void of the work.

On Tuesday morning, I witnessed a very entertaining debate between Bill Thompson and Dr Nick Baylis at iDesign London. Entertaining because Bill Thompson is a shameless cheerleader for social (and most other) technologies, whereas Dr Baylis believes that technology (or rather, the uses to which we put technology, although he wasn’t very clear on this) are making us unhappy and ill.

Dr Baylis soon emerged as a book-pusher of the Andrew Keen mould, and was easily seen off, although not before revealing his patent lack of research in the subject – his unfounded belief that relationships begun on the internet were doomed to fail was particularly ridiculous, and actually rather offensive to a number of those present. Lloyd’s thoughts on Keen are applicable here too: you get out of technology what you put in, and on Tuesday I saw a very morose psychotherapist telling a roomful of very optimistic tech-lovers that they were wrong…

Anyway, one of the thoughts that came after the debate concerned the perceived distancing effects of technology and, to a lesser extent, of reading. When I was younger, kids who spent too much time on computers were presumed to be lonely and socially awkward – likewise, kids who spent too much time reading, although there was at least an intellectual air to that endeavour. As computers have become joined up, we’ve come to see technology as a connector, and while many of the old stereotypes prevail, most of us now recognise the social qualities of technology.

Reading, however, as largely remained an individual, solitary, even solipsistic activity, and it struck me that what many are resisting in the increasing digitisation and socialisation of literature is not the technology itself, but the erosion of that particular experience of literature. Reading a novel is one of the last ‘disconnected’ activities, and as we move it ever more into the connected world, we must ensure we don’t lose those qualities, of rest, respite, and introspection, that make it valuable.

The opening quote is from Maurice Blanchot’s The Space of Literature, who had some interesting things to say about writing and reading. Possibly.

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