Techno-utopians, luddites, paper-fetishists and others

Will Essays 2 Comments

When it comes to technology, I suppose that I was an early adopter. Back when I was at school, aged ten, I injured my left hand, which was as a result put into a sling. It was a small school, with no more than forty or fifty pupils, in the village of Great Snoring in Norfolk. Great Snoring was just down the road from Little Snoring, where a family called Gotobed lived. Norfolk was like that in those days. Anyway, there I was, one-handed and incapable of writing, and the school had a problem on their hands. As it happened, however, the school had just bought a Sinclair ZX81 computer; and so whilst my hand healed up, I was put in charge of working out how the strange little black box worked. In those few weeks, I learned how to write programs in Sinclair’s version of BASIC, and I was immediately fascinated by what this curious little machine could do, if you fed in the right instructions.

Since then, my life has—as with many of my generation—unfolded in symbiosis with an astonishing array of computers, variously bleeping and squeaking electronic devices, and calculating machines that would make Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace gape in wonder. And although it is possible to forget this wonder, sometimes I look at my Macbook on the desk in front of me, and am astonished by what it can do, and by how much I take it for granted. What an astounding beast this thing is, this machine that can allow me to write these words and broadcast them to the world, that can play music and draw pictures and perform calculations and send messages to Beijing or Boston or Bulgaria, that can store libraries of research papers, multiple drafts of novels.

I am, in other words, not exactly a Luddite; but neither do I subscribe to what is often called techno-utopianism. So I do not think that technology is an inherent evil, I do not wish to return to some purer, technology-free age in the past—or, for that matter, in the future. On the other hand, I do not think that the world will be saved by the internet, or by developments in technology. Outside of a religious conception in which the world is fallen and in need of saving, I’m not sure that the notion of ‘saving the world’ is one that makes much sense, anyway: and it seems to me that techno-utopians, like many utopians more generally, have a religious kind of zeal in their promises of the Kingdom to come.

In the world of books, over the past five years or so, there have been great outbursts of Luddism and techno-utopianism, each of them feeding off the other. The Luddites, the paper-fetishists and manuscript-sniffers, claim that all value lies in the printed page, in the mystery of ink on paper made from wood-pulp, in the physical object that is the book. Meanwhile, the starry-eyed techno-utopians happily download their books to their e-readers, or if they are unlucky enough to fall into possession of paper copies, they immediately slice them up, run them through the scanner, and enjoy them in electronic format. The techno-utopians pour scorn onto those atavistic paper-based readers who belong only to the past, lugging around hefty tomes as they, who belong to the future, tote their super-portable e-readers. ‘The paper book is dead!’ they cry. In response, the Luddites, believing that they are guardians of a deep, spiritual culture that is under threat, and gazing at those remnants of sliced-up book in the recycling bin, cry out in response: ‘If so, then culture is dead!’

It seems to me, however, that both camps overstate their own case, and that both camps fetishise the technologies that they favour: because a book, written in ink on paper, is no less a technology than is an iPad or an e-reader. The paper book is a particular kind of technology, just as the electronic book—and the device upon which it is read—is a particular kind of technology, and these technologies are physical things in the world. Remembering the physicality of technology is important, I think, as a way of rebalancing the debate. Books, for example, are not mere information. Insofar as they are information, they are information that is reflected in, and related to, particular kinds of configurations of stuff in the world, stuff that acts as a kind of bearer or medium for that information. Literature, the Chinese critic Liu Xie said around the turn of the sixth century, is about pattern. But literature is also patterned stuff: whether the vibration of the air that are sound as a poem is recited, or marks on a page, or dots on a screen. And the stuff-ness of this patterning is important. Materiality, or matter, matters. It matters, for example, because it allows us to ask broader questions about the technologies we use to communicate with each other, or the technologies we use to store information: about freedom, about political and economic control, about how we read and how we relate to what we read.

I am not skilled in the arts of haruspication. It is just over thirty years since I first pressed the keys of that little ZX81, and so much has changed: so I would hesitate to guess what what the world will look like in another thirty years’ time. But I would prefer it if the debate could move beyond nostalgia for the papery past and cheerleeding for the digital future. It would prefer it if we could all recognise that we live, at least for now, in an age of mixed technologies, which are used to different ends, which are perhaps differently useful and differently inconvenient, differently emancipatory and differently fraught with problems.

Incidentally, [amazon_link id=”9380905076″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]my next novel[/amazon_link] is due out in hardback in a couple of weeks. Tehcno-utopians, who won’t like the book anyway, because it is set in the past (and who cares about the past?) will be able to get hold of a copy when the e-book comes out next year. It’s the future, don’t you know…

Comments 2

  1. Tehcno-utopians, who won’t like the book anyway, because it is set in the past (and who cares about the past?) will be able to get hold of a copy when the e-book comes out next year.

    My kindle awaits…

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