Friday, April 13, 2007

The End of Civilization in the Penny Press

Ominous rumblings and portents all across the range of the Penny Press last week, with only your humble (Ok, alright, maybe not so much) scribe to connect the dots.

The harbinger appeared first in the TLS, a brief article by Nicholas Clee concerning electronic copyright issues and Google's quest to make all the books in the world (at least, the ten percent to which they have access) available to all the people in the world (at least, the ten percent who have the Internet).

Clee examines the pros and cons of the cases currently pending and comes to temperately melancholy conclusion:

"Piracy will certainly be widespread on the internet. Protecting texts against it is a huge problem, not only because of the skills of the hackers, but also because digital rights management (DRM) systems are unpopular with consumers. However, it remains likely that most people will continue to buy texts from official sources. Let us hope simply that the dominant official source for books is not Google. Or else we shall all have to find another way of earning a living."

This is grim enough - after all, Google won't be the only avenue for acquiring books as long as, well, books are still kicking around - but it gets its pictorial equivalent over in the New Yorker, where the always-reliable Bruce McCall depicts a futuristic library reading room almost completely devoid of books (the little old lady trying to read is being forcibly ejected while we watch). The marble overhead is engraved with names, but they aren't Socrates and Plato and Erasmus - they're O'Donnell, O'Reilly, Winfrey. And the aisles are still marked History (American Idol, Anna Nicole), Autobiography (, Nonfiction (Youtube), but the designations are hardly comforting. In the bottom corner there's a rumpled bin of actual books, with a sign that says 'Bums Only.'

Those of us who adore not only reading but books themselves, the darling, adorable physical objects they are - repositories for our handwritten marginalia over all the times we return to them, repositories where our bookmarks, our expired train tickets, even our food stains, from meals long forgotten, end up - well, we might find such a future alarming. For all of technology's incredible advances, we would hate to lose our old friends. Their loss would be, in fact, immeasurable.

We here at Stevereads would heartily like to believe McCall's picture is completely dystopian. But over in New York magazine, there's an article by Clive Thompson about the battle between Viacom and Google over Google's parenthood of Youtube, the revolutionary video-sharing website from which we here at Stevereads have derived so much pleasure (live tornado footage! Live lightning strike! Live shark attacks on live victims!).

Thompson approaches the issue not as clash between legal entities but as one between anthropological ones - nerd logic versus Big Media logic - and he's very good, very glib about his taxonimonies:

"Nerd logic holds that smart ideas deserve to trump dumb ones. Indeed, nerds are fierce believers in meritocracy. This is self-serving, of course: nerds love the idea of intellectual Darwinism because they think they're smarter than everyone around them, thus fated to win every contest."

Thompson believes that even though the two anthropological cultures - nerd and Big Media - will never understand each other, they will eventually reach a modus vivendi. That's at least a hopeful prognosis, although we here at Stevereads fail to see how such a thing could ever come to be - after all, those keypoint clips Youtube broadcasts from countless users? The keypoints to last night's 'Lost' or 'Battlestar Galactica'? Not to mention the literally countless other show clips (and there are sites much worse than Youtube, sites where whole SEASONS of shows are available at the touch of a button)? That's all copyrighted material - meaning some creative person (or a group of them) worked hard to make it, and with any luck they were well-paid for doing so. Well-paid or not, they were certainly PAID. If you record, if you download, hell if you even LOOK at that content, you're stealing from those people. The size and legal clout of Google doesn't change that, although judging from this article, Google seems to think it should.

However this tangle works itself out - whether all parties settle amicably on some kind of compromise arrangement or whether the whole concept of copyright transforms into some entirely new form (the latter is our bet here at Stevereads), it tempts you to get all nostalgic for the good old days (not TOO old though! You'd still want to in the comparatively recent era when American works were legally protected from copyright piracy in the UK, for instance). Joan Acocella does that kind of pining in a piece in last week's New Yorker in which she laments the demise of the mechanical typewriter. The points she makes will be all but unintelligible to most of our readers, who are younger than the Internet:

"Consider, for example, our physical involvement with the typewriter, which stands in relation to our connection with the P.C. as a fistfight does to a handshake. On the P.C., we use the same typing skills that we used on the typewriter, but the contact is not the same. We run our fingers lightly over the keys, making a gentle, pitter-patter sound. On the typewriter, by contrast, we had to stab, and the machine recorded our actions with a great big clack. We liked that. The noise told us that we had achieved something. So, in large measure, did the carriage return - another line done! - and the job of changing the paper - another page done!
"Which brings us to the white page. Mallarme spoke of the uncertainty with which we face a clean sheet of paper and try, in vain, to record our thoughts on it with some precision. As long as we were feeding paper into a typewriter, this anxiety was still present to our minds, and was relieved in the pointillism of Wite-Out, or even in the dapple of letters that were darker, pressed in confidence, as opposed to the lighter ones, pressed more hesitantly. A page produced on a manual typewriter was like a record of the torture of thought."

We here at Stevereads are, to put it mildly, familiar with that torture. Nobody currently reading this blog will recognize the term 'nul-time,' but once upon a time, to a small group of readers, that term described a series of science fiction potboiler novels. Those novels were fraught with action and cheesy dialogue and fairly addictive cliffhangers, and each and every one of them was composed on the same old manual typewriter - and their author, not the most mechanically adept person on Earth, could take that typewriter apart and put it back together, knew every piece and part of it blindfolded. There was NOBODY ELSE directly involved in the running of the machine; paper, ribbons, and replacement parts had to be bought, yes, but the actual production of text, the slow accretion of those 'nul-time' novels, was entirely located between author and typewriter. Unlike the P.C., where texts are hackable, deletable, and in any case completely reliant other people and other technologies in order to be TRANSMITTED anywhere.

Don't mistake: it would be foolish to go back. In the typing of this blog entry alone, an astounding, wopping, eye-popping THIRTEEN THOUSAND typos were made (TWENTY-ONE in this sentence alone)(FIVE in the word 'sentence' alone). In the era of manual typewriters, each one of those errors would have required at least a solid 45 seconds to fix. That adds a couple of HOURS to the composition-time of a medium-length piece. In the Internet era, those typos achieved only a Platonic level of existence in the first place and were instantly corrected.

That alone would be reason never to go back and never to WANT to. But even if that weren't enough (if, for instance, you made fewer frickin typos), there's still the fact that typewritten material GOES nowhere. It's no good stubbornly continuing to send telegrams when everybody around you is using cell phones. There's a point where nostalgia becomes weirdly fetishistic, and people still using manual typewriters for active prose have long since passed that point.

Still, Acocella is right: there was a purely tactile satisfaction in using a mechanical typewriter that's now gone forever from the act of writing. Somebody should hold a wake for it, because it was a good and steady friend to writers for a hundred years.


elmo said...


But it just struck me how incredible it would be not to waste living trees on Jane Green. Electronic doohickies are typically marketed to young people who have no taste to begin with. Beautiful old books will always be there in used shops for the ELITE, the word-loving, the literacy obsessed. Less books being printed only means that existing books would be all the more precious.

Sam said...

Reently I've begun to wonder about the fate of an even older, even more rudimentary, even more satisfying form of writing technology--writing by hand.

I would have blithely thought that writing by hand would go unaffected by the tech leaps and bounds, an eternally necessary accompaniment to anything--I would have gone on thinking this if I hadn't been recently informed that a solid thirty percent of high school students (in New York City at least) bring laptops with them to class and pop them open to take notes (and, I presume, look at smut) during lectures.

So how long until the handwriting becomes phased out from the curriculum? Is it possible?

I think writing is best done by hand, in notebooks with margins. A fully line-edited page of type, full of cross-outs and marginal additions and stray sentences to be used further on, and scribbled words whose significance you can't remember, and doodles, and all the rest, is the most satisfying final product page; even more so, I'd venture, than the page hot off the typewriter

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