Melancholy Reflections on the Rapid Demise of Vehicles of Information
I should start, as a certified Old Fart, by paying homage to antique academic proprieties (George Steiner would once have started such an essay as this with such a meditation) but my heart’s not in it. However, since I just read an essay by the founder/editor of the online journal n+1 surveying the onetime range of Partisan Review while bemoaning the decay of the idea of the public intellectual, I’ll begin (sigh) by noting the assorted print quarterlies that have come and gone over the decades, and mostly gone as the twenty-first century has come on apace.
But in fact my subject isn’t quarterly print journals, which I peruse these days via Arts & Letters Daily (www.aldaily.com) when I seek out their contents at all. Academic libraries are hard to get into for people outside the university, the public libraries carry few such titles, and the surviving magazine stands in this part of the world stock a dwindling number of such journals. I am astonished, or was astonished as of a few years ago, to find that some of my favorite topics are now covered by new specialized journals, which keep their contents online firmly behind Jstor walls, as do a growing number of the surviving general-audience intellectual journals—if that isn’t an oxymoron, which at one time it wasn’t, there having been many “general audiences” in the sense of what was once meant by “middlebrow.” Today there are more niche "general audiences" than ever, many of them quite scholarly in pursuing their own particular obsessions, too. “Lowbrow” is a field of intellectual activity with its own hyperserious publications, galleries, and online discussion groups. There is also an online publication that proudly calls itself Hilobrow (hilobrow.com), which is singlehandedly passing on the information once provided by middlebrow quarterlies of various sorts, although not the sorts in which the New York intellectuals published their pontifications on public events (he said Peter-Piper-ishly).
There, I got that out of the way. And I got, however obliquely, into my real subject, which is a typically meandering complaint about the condition of rapidly evolving digital information sources.
I don’t know why I should be bothered. In the bygone days of print, “little magazines” were launched and died after a couple of issues, and did so with monotonous regularity, and most of them were even harder to locate than the most interesting online information sources—which is typically one reason they died off so quickly. A more common reason was that the editor lost interest or surplus income, which also is the reason that a good many online journals disappear completely. The difference is that as far as I know, some of the online journals genuinely disappear—when the servers that held them are wiped or the accounts are deleted, semi-decayed back issues are not offered for sale on eBay. One once-popular repository of photographs was recently completely obliterated, after a decent interval in which individual account holders could recover their own material if they saw fit. Presumably something like that will happen to Flickr someday, and to Instagram after or before it. (Snapchat has figured out how to self-destruct, or rather pretend to self-destruct, moment by moment.) The deletion of blog or photo hosts is not like shutting down a magazine; it is like burning down a library, only the library is the equivalent of the library Richard Brautigan once imagined, in which unpublished authors deposited the manuscripts of their unpublished books for perusal by library visitors. In the era of print-on-demand, we can foresee similar events of destruction—growing numbers of image-heavy books and periodicals depend on online publishers, which means that instead of such titles being available in the future from booksellers for one American cent, as is the case today with many secondhand titles for which there is only a small market, the half-dozen hard copies of some print-on-demand titles will be worth thousands of dollars. This is, by the way, already the case with recently published hard-copy exhibition catalogues with a short press run and no digital availability—there appear to be only two copies of one such catalogue for sale anywhere on the planet, both of them going for a few thousand dollars to whichever library or well-to-do connoisseur was too negligent to acquire them two years ago before the supply was exhausted.
This is a tedious topic, but I am struck by the fact that it appears to be so tedious that no one is paying particular attention to it, at least not in widely distributed discussion groups. There are ample numbers of library sites, I'm sure, that write about it all the time.
I continue to badger publishers to produce at least PDF-format versions of out of print books (e-books migrate among incompatible platforms, which is why I am happy that some people produce pirated online editions of books that were published in now-defunct electronic formats—bad for the authors’ royalties, but good for the accessibility of books that otherwise can’t be acquired, period. So far, the PDF has been a lasting multi-platform format.) —I continue to do that, I say; so I am not completely averse to the digital revolution. In fact, I have benefited from it beyond my wildest dreams, in terms of the coming of the universal library, and to the point that I feel deprived when I can’t locate some obscure title at least among the lists of the world’s antiquarian booksellers.
But I am disturbed by, among many other phenomena, the thoughtless wiping out of things like the popular websites of 2005. I’m sure they exist on the backup servers of entities that I shall not enumerate, but scholars can’t get at them. There is quite enough on the internet that its creators wish could be wiped out, but which cannot, not quite, so “the right to be forgotten” has become a popular topic. But things that ought not to be forgotten are also sent down the memory hole, as those who grew up on George Orwell's novel are wont to write.
Arts & Letters Daily is such a useful aggregator that the academic community stepped in to maintain it when its wonderfully opinionated editor died. (But of course it provides links, not copies of articles, and the links go dead.) And perhaps the ephemera of popular websites are too voluminous to be kept accessible over the long term; some years ago, the now-endangered film company Kodak established a program to collect donated home movies, snapshots and snapshot negatives, but most family photo albums end up in antique shops when they aren’t hauled off to the dumpster, and home movies simply decay beyond recovery, like digital information on 1980s diskettes. Historians of social trends would like to have access to every letter ever written, but few archives have the space to collect them en masse. The difference is that as far as I know, it has never occurred to a public archive to copy everything on Flickr or Pinterest. (If there is such an archive, I'd like to know about it.)
But archiving is, as is usual for me, not what I intended to grumble about, although I am glad I downloaded certain essays while they could still be downloaded. The fact that ten years from now I may find them as impossible to open as certain essays I wrote and stored on obsolete media in discontinued programs—that is a separate topic, also.
Actually, I am writing this because the modes in which information is produced are shifting so rapidly that it becomes difficult to know where best to look for it, or it is not being produced at all in the formats and lengths in which it was once produced.
Facebook is excellent as a crowdsourced aggregator, for people who accumulate the right sorts of Facebook friends—a whole range of links to essays in specialized topics appear in every hour’s news feed, and that makes it worth wading through the posts from otherwise highly intelligent friends obsessed with the strange habits of their cats. We all have our kinks, and now all of us can let the whole planet know about them.
But people’s Tumblr accounts are usually merely frustrating; Pinterest is an intermittently excellent if insufficiently catalogued visual resource for many things; and many excellent specialized blogs still exist on Blogger, a few on LiveJournal, a few on Wordpress—overall, so many of them that even when I discover them via someone’s link to a specific post, I can’t keep up with them and doubt that I could even if I put them all on RSS feeds. I don’t open many of the innumerable press releases I find in my inbox, and I don't look at a good many blogs I should be reading.
So I am not grumbling about lack of information per se (“at last he is getting to the point,” you say, but I have been covering, as usual, points I had long intended to make about other interconnected topics). I am feeling melancholy about the shift in our modes of attention themselves.
It’s a Twitter world, and unless it was an ironic aside in an advice column that seemed too genuinely earnest for that, someone’s not having a Twitter account is regarded as a major plus for certain millennials when it comes to making initial judgments as to who might be worth pursuing for more than a hookup. (One of my Facebook friends writes for Bustle and summarizes lots of stuff, but usually the satire is easier to tell from the real thing than it is on political websites.)
But for those of us who are a generation or so behind the curve, Facebook seems to have become as good as it gets for the mix of ideas, information, and images that blogs once gave us in greater profusion than they currently do. So many LiveJournal friends, and I myself, now limit themselves to random outbursts where once they would have gone on for pages (or very long scrolldowns) in far greater depth. Some have apparently said what they had to say in this format, and moved on to the immediate gratifications of posts in which they know from the sheer lack of “like”s whether it has gone over like the antique metaphor of the lead balloon. LiveJournal statistics don’t indicate whether a post was read by an interested person too busy to compose a comment or by a bot searching for a place to park an irrelevant spam message written in a Slavic or East Asian language.
I have moved or copied some of my most serious posts to another site (joculum.dreamwidth.org) that I try to keep clear of offhand remarks like this one, but I miss what once was a profusion of similar ambitious but not-ready-for-prime-time lucubrations by people who have given up on such pursuits because they get their spur-of-the-moment ideas out elsewhere. The elsewheres are too transient or quick-paced to be entirely useful; I sometimes remember to click through to someone’s Facebook timeline to see what I missed while I was having a life or writing for publication, but more often I forget, and more often what I missed consists of an enigmatic paragraph instead of a few thousand interesting words. (People increasingly write entirely for the people whom they private-message or see on a daily basis, making their posts unintelligible to 90% of their actual audience.)
Perhaps all this bloggy meandering, the written equivalent of thinking out loud for an audience, always was a bad idea. But I am feeling its absence severely, as my LJ friends feed has shrunk to almost nothing. The more so in that many of them never post to Facebook, either, and I refuse to migrate to Twittr even though the ill-chosen and ultimately unretractable 140 characters is the wave of the (near) future, or rather of a future so short-lived that it is already mostly becoming the past. (Don’t try to remind me that this has always been the case—as has recently been noted in some essays linked to in Facebook, the future is arriving much faster than it used to, which means the past is piling up at an accelerated rate, also. The ruins viewed by the Angel of History who is being blown forward by the storm from Paradise get bigger with considerably more rapidity as the wind picks up.)