The Net – Good for Literature

A recent news article has Doris Lessing (a Nobel prize winner for literature) claiming that the net has “created a world where people know nothing” [1].

However the Internet is a great tool for learning for people who choose to use it in that way, for example I have learned many interesting things from reading Wikipedia and following the links which I probably wouldn’t have learned in any other way. Criticising the Net for the lack of reading by the population makes just as much sense as criticising newspapers. She gives an example of a North London school where the library was under-utilised and compares it to schools in Africa where students beg for books and claims that the Net is at fault. But you could just as easily blame newspapers as Britain has some of the worst examples of tabloid journalism in the English language – of course Britain also has some really high quality papers and anyone can choose which ones to read. I think that when children don’t have much interest in reading it’s more sensible to criticise the education system.

The article is not that great either, one significant flaw is referring to Elton John as “another creative type“. No, Elton is a formerly creative type who’s afraid that the pension he expected from his back catalogue is threatened. Ex-artists who complain about the Net merely demonstrate that for them it’s not about the music. The Wikipedia article about Elton John [2] documents his career and you can see that since the late 80’s it’s been steadily going downhill.

To create literature you must read it – which doesn’t mean being close to old-fashioned libraries (as Doris claims). Currently I am trying to write science fiction, largely inspired by Cory Doctorow [3] and One good thing about the Internet is that there is a reasonably level playing field that everyone can compete on. Bloggers compete for readers using all forms of writing – including literature.

The speech has more information about Zimbabwe [4] and the difficulties faced by people there who want to learn. One thing that has the potential to improve the situation there is the One Laptop Per Child [5] project. Such a laptop costs about the same amount as 20 novels (based on US prices) or 5 text books but can be used to store many more books.

2 comments to The Net – Good for Literature

  • duns

    actually the net is *another* form of literature, like mathematic formulas are compared to a novell. This means it is different than books or newspapers. In my opinion there are at least to important aspects to judge the web correctly:
    1. Access to the web currently allows only short texts and a quite cluttered type of information to be represented. Studies about surfing behaviour have shown (I think this was 4 years ago or so, but then I guess it is still valid) that people tend to stay on pages shortly (~30s). Your example of blogs is another proof for this surfing behaviour. Blogs don’t form a consistant piece of mind like books do (should).
    You cannot read a scientific book of several hundred pages on a current screen and you cannot handle the screen like a book. Additionally the web tends to distract you from reading a long text by advertising links. One of the greatest advantages of the web is one of the biggest obstacles when it comes to reading a long text. It makes a traditionally linear reading behaviour aimless. So the web is focused on links and short texts and links and short texts are incompatible to books. Additionally the feeling of reading and the availabilty of a book, since you can take it everywhere, is still very different from accessing the net.
    2. The net is ruled by several large enterprises and is dominated by the English language. This means that, e.g. Google Book search, mainly focuses on English documents and a special part of scientific documents from an American discurse. Of course you can create non-profit information like the Wikipedia, which is great, but the traditional form of literature has found a certain degree of public assistance and freedom in form of libraries, which ideally try to store all information if possible (at least much more than the web, still). The net seems to be independent, but an aequivalent to the traditional independent libraries is currently not available. Of course these are selective, too, but if you go to a library at a university for example, you will quickly find out that you don’t find that information on the web. There are masses of books you lose when concentrating on the web.
    My personal conclusion is to use the web for quick searches to get some hints where I can find more information or to be entertained. It is a great ressource, but it currently cannot by any means replace reading books. Maybe screens and computers will mature over the next years to a state where a book can be appropriatly presented on screen (electronic paper) and books will be stored digitally like parts of them are already. I hope so.

  • etbe

    duns: It’s interesting that your first point is to claim that the web only allows short texts while your comment is possibly the longest ever on my blog.
    As for short texts, there have been quite a number of novels published on the net. You might want to check out what Charles Stross has been doing (I’ve just finished reading his novel Accelerando in HTML form). See the above URL.

    What is a “consistent piece of mind”?

    Reading scientific books is IMHO better on a screen as you can search easily. I am fortunate that my favourite branch of science (computer science) exists almost entirely in electronic form.

    The 30 second stay (which you don’t qualify or cite a reference for) is a figure that I doubt the relevance of. If the median stay on a page is <30s then the mean might be significantly greater. If the average of the population (including people who use web pages to replace tabloid newspapers) is to stay on a page for <30s then that means little for educated people doing serious work.

    The net is not ruled. Google has a prominent position due to simply doing their job well, if they do it badly then they will be replaced. Being dominated by the English language is hardly surprising, English is the language that is shared by the majority of the people who can afford a computer. Many people who’s native language is not English prefer to use English keyboards and software because non-English versions often don’t work well. But the use of other languages is increasing, it’s interesting to note the disproportionate use of blogging by Japanese people.

    The open access movement needs to be promoted more and accepted by government agencies. Every journal that is paid for by my tax money should be on the net for me to read for free!

    Have you tried any of the electronic book devices? Some of them have very good screens that are clearly readable and require little electricity. Unfortunately the software sucks a bit (EG taking a couple of seconds to turn a page and not showing the last few lines of the previous page), but that will improve in the very near future.