The Unpermanence of the Digital Age

This class has shifted how I understand the permanence of text. I find this true in two senses: the permanence of the digital age and the permanence of the final copy.

Throughout Gleick, I’ve learned how the rise and fall of different technologies has led to the permanence of information, especially English texts. Even the smallest details of how we write are governed by rules and technologies that have come before us. Previously, I hadn’t given much thought as to how our spelling and understandings of words is cemented today. In the past, without the printed and published text like dictionaries, this was impossible. When reading older texts in previous classes, I was struck by how inconsistent spelling was, even in the same text. With no one standard of spelling, there was a lack of consistency. Even the concept of spelling, “the idea that each word, when written, should take a particular predetermined form of letters,” was alien to people of the past (Gleick 53). According to Gleick, one of the earliest attempts at a dictionary was A Table Alphabeticall in 1604 by Robert Cawdrey who attempted to write a collection of words and their meanings to his best understanding. However, his definitions, such as influence meaning “‘a flowing in,’” largely don’t stand up today (55). I have come to learn that with the rise and fall of technologies, whether it be in the form of a dictionary or the first Macintosh, how we interpret the English language and fashion it together in text has evolved.

Gleick states, “So fleeting was speech that the rare phenomenon of the echo, a sound heard once and then again, seemed a sort of magic” (31). We are surrounded by echoes in our world today. Every book we choose to read, whether a tattered copy in our hands or a digital transcription, is an echo from those long before us and their thoughts. Technology has offered a permanence to words that was once inconceivable. The ability to write down information gave speech a life that could out date its orator. The printing press and wide spread publication of books gave the information they housed a permanence for as long as their pages could weather. With the conception of the digital world, texts and their information has a newfound permanency. As long as people can access the web or download copies of their own, texts from even centuries ago are read and shared with a larger audience than ever before. Digital Thoreau has given a new permanency to the work of Thoreau. It has modernized it so that his work can be discussed and shared in a vital community where people from across the globe can have conversations about his meaning and intent.

As the digital era has given a new permanence to the published editions we are accustomed to, they have also given us broad access to early drafts that usually a select and private audience would be privy to. Ironically, the digital age has lessened the permanence of the final versions as drafts are accessible and sometimes even preferable. The ‘permanent’ version we may read is no more permanent than the drafts that came before it. For instance, when examining the different versions of Emily Dickinson’s “Faith is a fine invention,” there is a clear contrast between the original work and the favored published versions. While the shifts are subtle, they change the meaning of the text. To illustrate, the published version changes the line from “Gentlemen can see” to “Gentlemen who see.” The transition from those “can” to those “who” do makes the poem apply to a more selective group. Was this Dickinson’s true intention? Would she have made this edit? Both we and the publisher are unable to answer these questions, but I have learned that as readers, we are able to examine the drafts and see into the author’s true intention and craft.

When reading a published book, I would consider it as its permanent copy. Yet, examining fluid texts like Dickinson’s has exposed that the published text we consider to be ‘permanent’ or ‘final’ may not be the final words of the author. Even with the potential of further editions, I would give little thought to the drafts and revisions that spanned before the ‘completed’ copy that I held in my hands. This was especially true to classics like Walden or other works by Thoreau. I was first introduced to transcendentalism by my junior year English teacher. He presented their work as a concrete and revered work of literature. These texts were permanent fixtures in the halls of best American works. In our class, through the use of technology, I realized that works like Walden are not as permanent as they may appear to be. When using Voyant Tools in my group, we found the shocking dearth of the mention of women in Walden. Most of his references are also largely ethnocentric or with a Western lens. Using technology to analyze works has enabled me to delve deeper behind the pages than I would’ve ever previously considered.

When examining the fluid text version of Walden, I chose to focus on “Solitude.” I was able to see drafts that perhaps Thoreau never thought would see the light today, but they offered rich insight into his artistic choices as a writer, such as shifting “the whippoorwill sings” to “the note of the whippoorwill is borne on the rippling wind from over the water.” Changes like this one make sense as they add effect to the reader’s experience, but in other sections where he’s omitted information one would wonder why he made such a decision. Inspecting the fluid text version of Walden subverts some of my perceived permanency of the final version of Walden like that which one would peruse on Digital Thoreau. While the digital age gives a new form of permanence to the work of Thoreau, it also undermines it. By reviewing fluid texts, especially of texts regarded as classics, one is able to see that no work is set in stone and the reader may even find themselves preferring choices the author decided to omit from the later drafts. Fluid text versions peel back the layers of the final copy and expose the evolution of an author and/or publisher to reach the final copy we accept today. Texts are no longer bound by their existing physical copies — they can be replicated and produced boundlessly across the web. By examining fluid texts like Walden, I have come to understand that while digital technology has made texts more permanent than ever before, it has also undercut their permanency by giving reader’s a inside look at the author’s thoughts. The ‘final’ version we once cemented has now become as permanent as the first scribbled draft.

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