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John, meet Sven

Last week, John Updike penned a rather disappointing jeremiad on Kevin Kelly’s article on internet publishing. Updike bristles at the “promiscuity” (inter alia) of hyperlinked, open-access publications:

In imagining a huge, virtually infinite wordstream accessed by search engines and populated by teeming, promiscuous word snippets stripped of credited authorship, are we not depriving the written word of its old-fashioned function of . . . accountability and intimacy? Yes, there is a ton of information on the Web, but much of it is egregiously inaccurate, unedited, unattributed and juvenile. The electronic marvels that abound around us serve, surprisingly, to inflame what is most informally and noncritically human about us — our computer screens stare back at us with a kind of giant, instant “Aw, shucks,” disarming in its modesty, disquieting in its diffidence.

Updike offers scant evidence for these propositions, and perhaps in a world of MySpaces and Gawkers, he doesn’t need to. But about 10 years ago uber-critic Sven Birkerts offered an insightful and reflective series of essays on the effect of the internet on processes of thought and reading. The Gutenberg Elegies is phenomenology of the best kind: a moving yet philosophic dissection of the basic encounter of reading. Here’s a taste:

[W]ords [in a book], though they issue from the invisible force field of another’s mind, are insulated between covers, while the words on the screen seem to arrive from some collective elsewhere that seems more profound, deeper than a mere writer’s subjectivity. But this does not necessarily invest the words themselves with a greater potency, for the unseen creative self of the writer is conflated with the unseen depth of the technology and, in the process, the writer’s independent authority is subtly undermined. The site of veneration shifts; in the reader’s subliminal perception some measure of the power belonging to the writer is handed over to the machine. The words on the screen, in other words, are felt to issue from a void deeper than language, and this, not the maker of the sentences, claims any remnant impulse to belief.

Of course, the problem for net-skeptics like Updike and Birkerts is dissemination…whatever the demerits of internet publishing, its allowed their thoughts to be disseminated to the millions of people too poor, busy, or tired to read their books. But we should take critics like Birkerts seriously, lest web discourse degenerate toward the 30 second attack ads that have dominated political campaigns for so long.