Dawn of the Digital

What would the bard say to this?

“Words, words, words… Once I had the gift, but now…” says Shakespeare. Or at least, says Joseph Fiennes’ Shakespeare in that indulgently sugary romcom about the Bard, Shakespeare In Love. This line is in turn adapted from something Shakespeare’s most famous character Hamlet says. Incidentally, it is also the title of parody rap (see above) by Bo Burnham, which references – to name a few – Eminem, Oedipus, Atticus Finch, Uncle Sam, Steven Hawking and (my personal favourite) that game of childhood innocence, Hungry Hungry Hippos.

The point I’m trying to make with this apparently random example is nowadays a fairly familiar one: we are steamrollering inevitably into the Age of Citation. It started with the invention of the moving picture, grew with the proliferation of global mass media, and has rocketed with the Internet’s instant-communication potential. Everyone is quoting each other, and parodying each other, and quoting each other’s parodies of each other. It’s exhausting. And as Baudrillard predicted decades ago, we are beginning to lose sight of what we were originally citing in the first place. Culture is reproduced over and over again. We are bombarded with images, videos, and quotes, quotes, quotes. What concerns me is the place of language in all this. How can literature compete with film, which nowadays any Tom, Dick or Harry with a basic level of computer literacy can create in their bedroom? Think of vloggers (for non-webgeeks, a contraction of “video bloggers”), like Charlie McDonnell, whose ‘light entertainment’ is rapidly replacing the magazine and the trashy novel. How can words stand up against the catchy jingles and brightly coloured photos of digital media? Even newspaper websites usually have some form of video attached to articles, for the lazy browser.

Well I think it’s high time that instead of moaning about the way the world is changing, English students and general literary fanatics like myself should embrace the digital age and the new and exciting avenues that technology opens up for language. Literature has always followed the development of mankind. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, academics have stopped talking about how poetry is “transcendent” or “enlightened,” and started analyzing the way it is “constructed,” like we are engineers testing the design of a bridge. Perhaps in the digitized future we’ll talk about how a piece of writing is “programmed” or “hard-wired.” The Internet is just another step down the path of linguistic enrichment. A means to share ideas, to accelerate the exciting development of our language, and culture, and modes of communication.

However, the idea of embracing technology in literature screams “science fiction.” On hearing this term, most people think of spaceships and aliens, planets with red skies and blue rocks, genetically-engineered monsters, extreme climate change, under-the-sea exploration, cryogenics, ray-guns, the watching eyes of Big Brother. I love this kind of stuff, trashy or otherwise. But it’s not everyone’s cup-of-tea. Despite being vastly prolific, Sci-Fi is still a marginalized subgenre – for most readers in the world, you just can’t beat a good old-fashioned romantic romp or daring crime thriller. So, we need to find a way to embrace the digital age in these types of story. As evidenced by the popularity of the Kindle, novels can’t cling to paper forever. Not when there are shiny screens and buttons available.

Step up, techno-writers like Jeff Noon. I’ll come clean; he does do Sci-Fi. But it’s not what he writes, but the way he writes that’s so intriguing. He sees Twitter as a platform for a new kind of writing – a sort of ongoing novella released in episodes of between five and ten Tweets (@temp_user9). His stories are set in the fictional “Sparkletown,” a dead-end world, clinging to the broken remnants of technology left over from the crash of the digital age. The style is suspended somewhere between poetry and prose – and it’s stunning. The condensing force of the 140-character Tweet makes the language concentrated, lyrical. And surprisingly gripping. I keep catching myself checking back to see if the next episode is up – it’s become a staple procrastination, along with facebook and my year-abroad friends’ blogs. This is what writing could be, what it should be. Shifting, dynamic. Something that you glance at, along with your favourite online newspaper, over coffee in the morning. A creative pipeline straight from your favourite author. We’re all so busy ‘living the dream’ – running between lectures and the library, laptops a-swinging over our shoulders, answering emails on our mobiles, downing paper-cups full of Starbucks – who has time to sit down with a good old novel?

Don’t get me wrong: I love curling up with a dog-eared paperback, but maybe that type of reading won’t be sustainable in a future that’s lived online. Besides, whatever you have to say, someone has probably already said it; and faster. The Age of Citation demands it short and sweet.

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