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July 5-11, 2006

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

Is Updike Obsolete?

By Annalee Newitz

IN A RECENT New York Times Book Review screed, the proverbial old-white-male author John Updike offers a Reader's Digest version of the argument against online publishing. For those of us who are genuinely puzzled by the animosity directed against efforts to digitize books (like Google Print or the Internet Archive's Open Library Project), Updike's short essay is quite instructive.

Updike offers the usual salvos against the "unedited, unattributed" nature of most online writing, but the true source of his wrath is a profound distaste for the idea of reading as a "community activity." He says he is disgusted by the idea of texts being intermingled and passed around "promiscuously" in electronic libraries. More than that, he is weirded out by the way readers intermingle online. Back in the 1950s and '60s, Updike was never called on to make appearances or to have his photo on book jackets, and he still longs for the silences and authorial anonymity of that experience.

Ultimately, he predicts that the demand for an intimate back-and-forth between author and audience on the web will lead us back to "the preliterate societies, where only the present, live person can make an impression and offer, as it were, value."

Most writers like myself who spend their days jabbering online have a tendency to read essays like Updike's as the rantings of an obsolete Luddite who can't tell the difference between a wiki and an RSS feed. It's easy to make fun of the guy for not knowing a whole lot about the technologies he's criticizing.

But let's take Updike seriously for a minute and consider what he's actually getting at beneath his profound misunderstandings of Google Print and bookshelf mash-ups. The essay begins with a wistful evocation of the bookstores he visited when young: Mandrake's in Cambridge, Mass., where Updike found New Directions paperbacks; the old Doubleday's in New York on Fifth Avenue, "with an ascending spiral staircase visible through plate glass."

He misses the understated beauty of books and the quiet dignity of the stores that once sold them. In short, he misses the public spaces devoted to buying and selling books. And yet what he scorns most in his essay is the idea of a "universal library," democratically accessible by all and long the dream of techie futurists like Wired founder Kevin Kelley and digital archivist Rick Prelinger.

Why wouldn't Updike welcome a new, bigger public space devoted to books? To answer, let me return for a moment to the complaint made by pretty much every blogger who has argued with an old-school print journalist about the legitimacy of online writing. Typically, bloggers upbraid these print writers for fearing new technologies in a sentence that goes something like this: "If you simply replace the word 'blog' with the word 'printing press' in this argument, you see how the argument against blogs is like arguing against the progress of civilization."

But there is no evidence that anyone protested the invention of the printing press for destroying writing. Sure, there may have been some angry monks here and there who could no longer make a living writing books out by hand. But in general, writers welcomed the invention of the printing press. It led to a flowering of the writing industry and literacy.

Meanwhile, governments liked the printing press because it made propaganda a whole lot simpler. It also made writing easier to censor. Unlike handwritten books, which were labor-intensive but hard to regulate, every book made with a printing press could be tracked. In England, shortly after the printing press gained ascendancy, all printers had to register with the state for exactly this reason.

The invention of the printing press was nothing like the invention of the web, which liberates writers from their dependence on publishers regulated by the caprices of states and markets. And so, for now at least, Updike is right that the Internet takes us back to a pre-Gutenberg era.

Until we start seeing major censorship crackdowns on web publishing—rather than the threat of pervasive surveillance, which is certainly chilling—online publishing will never behave like the printing press. The printing press led to the privatization of reading, but the web leads to its socialization. So perhaps what Updike is getting at when he bemoans the rise of digital books is really the rise of an uncensored public space. He's not afraid of technology but of the public itself.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who loves libraries and old bookstores.

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