Having worked as a translator for many years, occasionally writing a book of my own, I have made reading and writing my profession. Electrified language has been my daily business ever since I bought my first computer with wordprocessing software. So when I heard, some two years ago, of a new, accessible universe of information, of some kind of new electronic library, I became curious. I even felt it was sort of a professional duty to have a look at what the Internet was and to see if it could be put to use in the service of my writing, my translating, my permanent search for words, facts and information. My initial fears at stepping into that foreign territory which some praised as a new heaven of multiple joys, while others depicted it as a mere flatland of trash, dissolved quite quickly. I of course came upon much trash, waste and junk, but I also found some valuable things, even treasures. And what was more, I soon felt that, as a reader, I was fairly well prepared to handle the on-line world of electronic arts, literature and information - at least better prepared than that allegedly ideally equipped net-person, the so-called surfer.
Just when I was making my first steps into the realm of electronic archives and hyperlinked literature, a book originally published in the United States appeared in Germany, which some of you certainly will know: »Silicon Snake Oil. Second Thoughts on the Information Highway« by Clifford Stoll. Its American title has a rather funny ring to it, I feel, but the title which was choosen for the German edition sounds not only more serious but downright threatening and alarming: »Die Wüste Internet« - literally: The Desert or the Wilderness of the Internet. And indeed Clifford Stoll, who himself has been on-line for fifteen long, long years, had some bad news for me:
»I´m waving a flag. A yellow flag, that says: >You´re entering a nonexistent universe. Consider the consequences.< - It´s an unreal universe, a soluble tissue of nothingness. While the Internet beckons brightly, seductively flashing an icon of knowledge-as-power, this nonplace lures us to surrender our time on earth. A poor substitute it is, this virtual reality where frustration is legion and where - in the holy name of Education and Progress - important aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued.«
Initially, I was shocked by the prospects depicted in this sermon. But I soon recovered, especially when I noticed that in this preachy paragraph Clifford Stoll had, obviously without realizing it, done nothing else but to describe experiences everybody has, if you think about it, when reading printed books. Indeed every sentence in this sermon about the evils of the Internet holds true for the world of books - and what is presented to us as a vice in the on-line world would seem to most of us, including Clifford Stoll, a virtue in the realm of literature: Reading a novel, a play, an old legend, a book of the Bible certainly means to surrender valuable lifetime to a »nonplace«; it means to move around in an »unreal universe«, a »soluble tissue of nothingness«; often all this is done »in the holy name of Education« and even »Progress«. And certainly there are few people around who try to »devalue important aspects of human interactions« as relentlessly as readers do when they concentrate on their books and do not wish to be disturbed by anyone.
In short: what was meant by Clifford Stoll as a passionate warning against the dangers of the Internet changed colour and turned, at least to my mind, into an ironically disguised recommendation.
To wander around in »nonplaces«, in virtual worlds of many shades - is something that readers have done ever since language was put down on paper, parchment or papyrus. And in doing so they seem to have accumulated some special experiences which can perhaps be useful when dealing with the sort of dangers which now allegedly lurk behind the computer screen. Warnings against these dangers - against self-isolation, against taking mere appearances for reality, against losing one´s own identity within dream-worlds, against becoming addicted to the virtual contents of these dream-worlds - all these warning were already voiced in the same vein two centuries ago by well-meaning educators and clerics speaking on the pitfalls of novel-reading!
Indeed, there are additional reasons why we should remain confident that readers are fairly well equipped for the Internet.
Readers have grasped what others obviously still have to learn: that, in the long run, surfing is not an appropriate way of handling signs, symbols, texts, and even images. The surfer dances on the crest of the wave and has to keep gliding in order not to drown. He is unable to stay and take a closer look. His contact with contents remains most superficial. In a library, his counterpart would be someone browsing along the shelves, reading a title on the back of a book here and there, on occasion, if infrequently, taking a volume in his hand, leafing through it and reading one or two sentences. The books are there and the surfing visitor of the library can enjoy their existence, but unless he stops to surf he will not be able to make any reasonable use of them.
There was a time when »surf-riders« of another kind delighted in the mere functioning of communication without regard to what was communicated: to the radio ham, a midnight squawking from Kuala Lumpur or Adelaide meant as great a success as a picture of Bill Clinton´s cat does to today´s Internet surfer. Readers, however, are not satisfied as easily with the small pleasures of communication for communication´s sake.
Readers, too, have a way of getting along fairly well with floods of information - and they know that this problem is by no means a new one, that it did not arise only with the advent of the Internet. Imagine what oceans of information every user of a library crosses on light feet, without even realizing it, before arriving at the right shelf and taking out the book he or she is looking for. Information always comes as a flood, and he who does not know how to orient himself may be overwhelmed by it at many places - not only on the Internet, not only in a library but at every newsstand and in every single newspaper as well.
In many ways, the reading experience can serve as a background which helps us to establish by contrast and comparison whether the highly praised novelties in the on-line world are really as new as many maintain them to be. The reading experience can serve as stage where the encompassing newness of all things related to the Net - new vistas, new experiences, unprecedented advantages, unheard of dangers - is put to what one might call the »Ecclesiastes Test«. You know the famous hypothesis of the author of that biblical book: »There is nothing new under the sun« (Ecclesiastes / Prediger Salomo 1,8) - presumably an overstatement in itself, but perhaps one which it is quite worth remembering in a climate where overstatement in the opposite direction is omnipresent. The air-filled prophecies and the lofty hopes, all kinds of trendy exaggerations on the marvels and dangers of the electrified world - all of this becomes a much more manageable something if it is contrasted to the sphere of the printed page.
Hyperbole is a dignified device from the toolbox of ancient rhethoric - deliberate overstating in order to attract attention to the cause or the subject under discussion. But the hype which hovers around the net of hyperlinks and hypertexts is quite another thing. It seems generated almost routinely, not as the result of a well reflected intention, but as an automatic reflex.
Readers are not immune to hype. But perhaps they are less prone to believe wholeheartedly in it´s half-full or half-empty promises. To this extent, the Ecclesiastes Test and the constant comparison of what happens on the on-line scene to what has happened and is happening all the time on the book scene is perhaps something more than a trick - an antidote to a curious ability of the computer and especially of the Internet: the ability to turn almost everybody who gets in touch with it into a sort of »broadcaster«, to attract clouds and clusters of big words and electrifying, if not electrified slogans, to induce many people who air their views and opinions about the wired world to speak louder and in a more dramatic, more excited tone than they normally do - optimists und pessimists, propagandists und critics, the hopeful and the disappointed alike.
One thing, however, must be kept in mind: the »reader´s edge«, if there is one, does not result from the Net, but, of course, from reading, and reading is something, you do not learn and will not develop on the Net but in a classroom with other pupils and a teacher. Therefore, I am a little suspicious of that fast growing number of teachers, educators and policy planners in Germany and elsewhere - and that includes the United States - who have convinced themselves and others that the future of education depends on wiring every classroom to the Net. I have little doubt that the Internet or the World Wide Web is a medium with a great future for many of us, including readers, writers and artists. But I don´t trust the hyped-up version of this prophecy which says that the Internet will be THE medium of THE future. At first glance, the difference between the two sentences may not seem that big. But in the realm of schools and education, if it comes to setting priorities for distributing funds for various ends, it can make a lot of difference. One »net-day« per year in all schools may be a nice thing. But even on that day it should be remembered that every day in school during which children and students become smarter to read with zeal and interest and imagination books, newspapers and all kinds of printed matter is also an especially valuable sort of »net-day« because it adds more than everything else to the »reader´s edge« - in the on-line world, in the world of print and in the world at large.
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