Literary Computing

Last spring I took a course called “Literary Computing”. I remember my first class, which was actually the second class for the course as I’d been away for the first several days of term. Dr. Mo, the instructor, launched immediately into the question that would pervade our research for the rest of our semester: what is literary computing?

That day we filled three whiteboards with all the cultural artifacts and activities that came to our untrained minds at the thought of a term as arcane as “literary computing”. Project Gutenberg, blogs, podcasts, ipods, online bulletin boards, web communities, MUDs, MMORPGs, Web 2.0, email, web browsers, pdas and blackberries; the list goes on, its items so varied, it seemed more and more as the class went on, as to include almost anything. When we ran out of room, we returned to the original question. How did any these things relate to literature and computing? The common thread was, we determined, that each one of these items were products of text- and language-based culture and each one represented in some shape or form the digital technologies of our information age.

One of the issues that resonated for many people in the class, including myself, was the pervasiveness of email. Just ten years ago, email was a novelty. Ten years before that, it was unheard of. Today it is the preferred means of most long distance communication, rivaling the telephone in its application. It’s hard to imagine a world in which email does not exist, in which people communicate by exchanging letters through the postal service, a message taking entire days— sometimes even weeks, god forbid– to reach its recipient. Madness.

How did anything ever get done?

As part of a weekly response to classroom discussion, I told the following story:

Some of the implications of email that we discussed in our last class got me thinking (always a bad omen). When Doctor Mo asked us, “when’s the last time you actually sent a real letter by mail?” I should maybe have answered, because it might have sparked an interesting mini-segue. Or not. In any case, I’ll answer her question here, because it’s fun to tell stories.

The last actual letter I sent was just before Christmas. In fact, it was a Christmas package, which included a Christmas gift, a Christmas card, and a Christmas letter in my meticulous Christmas handwriting. I sent the package to a close friend who’s gone off to college in New Jersey, and who unnervingly is never online to chat and never has her cell phone turned on (technological illiteracy, though we may not be exposed to it in this class, is rampant). The gift was a monogram stamp with two bars of red wax– when I bought the thing, I was going for something eccentric yet meaningful. The meaning, I thought at the time, was that it would be one of these weird little curiosities she likes to show off and which she was sure to appreciate (she once showed me massive blocks of puer tea her family had collected during an extended trip through China). Now that I think on it though, it occurs to me that a monogram stamp, used traditionally to press an individual’s personal seal on correspondence, has a deeper significance.

I am by no means a technophobe. I love technology, and I’d be hard-pressed to get through a day without access to the internet, or phone, or television, etc. But the more I become aware of how great a part it plays in the practices of my everyday life, the more I realize how much of it is a trade-off. Communication tools like email and cell phones, as we discussed in class, don’t in fact make our lives easier, but expose us to an exponentially increasing flood of information that takes up that much more of our time. The cell phone, just as an example, is a particularly diabolical device, as it comes with the expectation that, wherever I go, whatever I do, anyone who has my number can and should be able to reach me. It might not have been in the contract, but when I purchased my cell, I signed away what little privacy I have left. There’s something to be said for spontaneity, sure, but it’s unnerving to have friends call me up ten minutes before noon to go for lunch when all I want to do is eat frosted flakes out of the box and read quietly for an hour or two.

My technologically illiterate friend (who, it must be said, is in reality about as technologically illiterate as I’m a technophobe, and whose negligence has more to do with the demands other technologies– like the academic institution– have placed upon her) has interpreted my gift as an invitation to write me back on paper, through the postal service. And in doing so, she’s recognized the fact that so much of the information that we share in our interactions today is ephemeral and fleeting, and that the modern technologies we use to interact are so immediate that the interactions themselves lose significance. Returning to a method of communication that most people now consider archaic is what’s allowed us to reaffirm our friendship. The fact that a reaffirmation was necessary in the first place has to makes you wonder: how is all this technology really changing our lives?

Like Steve Mann, I sometimes consider myself a “cyborg luddite”, mostly because I realize its foolish to embrace all technology without acknowledging what implications or consequences they might entail. When I wrote this response a year ago, I found myself reflecting on some of the things that email and the digital age has taken away from us. It should also be noted that, despite all good intentions, my hopes for an ongoing correspondence with my long-distance friend were dashed by the realities of our mutually busy work lives. The realization is a sad but inevitable one when we learn that digital technologies like email, designed to make our lives more efficient, have only freed us up to do more work, to earn more money, to survive and (with any luck) more than survive in a world that everyday falls deeper and deeper under the sway of the gods of consumerism. We still communicate through instant message, but the symbol of the seal has proved itself, like the object that represents it, an anachronism.

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