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.


When coming across the chapter in Gleick titled “Into the Meme Pool,” my mind immediately jumped to the captioned photos and videos blasted across the internet in succession, each changing slightly in form to the next. I did not expect the term “meme” that we commonly use now in pop culture to have first been coined by a biologist. According to Gleick, Richard Dawkins defined a meme as “‘a bodiless replicator'” (312). Dawkins considered memes to be catchphrases, tunes, ideas and images. The memes we see today fit well into this definition crafted in 1976, typically taking the form of a formatted image or video with captioning that is changed to the discretion of each repeater. According to an MIT Technology Review, the modern meme is “a variant of an image based on a common theme that has spread widely on the internet.”

Dawkins described the journey of memes as the replication of “themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain, via a process which, in the broad sense, is called imitation” (312). However, this form of imitation didn’t have the negative connotation of cheap copying — it is instead viewed as a collaboration. With each imitation, the meme evolves. As with the genes that form our lives, memes seek to repeat and evolve, stretching through the human story. The internet memes that have become so integrated into our culture (to the point where they reached the clutches of Facebook moms) are an example of how information and communication has evolved with technology.

Memes are comedic in nature, an inside joke for the internet. Some jokes are more exclusive than others. All memes are built upon a common understanding of the internet community. Memes are a testament to the strange culture and humor that has developed mainly with the younger generations that grew parallel to the internet itself.

According to this article by Brady Gavin, the first meme was a dancing baby used to demonstrate the impressive movement of a new software.

The MIT Technology Review describes how Gianluca Stringhini and colleagues at the University College London developed an algorithm to track how memes go viral across the internet. Their algorithm used perceptual hashing or pHashing to identify similar images: memes. The group found that for a meme to be most successful, one must mass produce various forms of the meme — similar to how genes “evolve through mutation, reproduction, and selection.”

However, not all memes are innocent jokes. As the article discusses, some memes are used to perpetuate racism, and these memes can go horribly viral — as a virus does. These memes seem to act more like a vicious virus, seeking to harm for the sake of its continuity.

In retrospect, it is unsurprising that the pop culture concept of “meme” derived from the observation of a biologist. Internet memes seek to replicate and evolve as genes do. Memes thrive from their replication and evolution, and they have the best rate of survival when mass produced with a spectrum of competitive variants. Memes may be the expression of the internet’s genes, in a constant state of modification, adapting to the ever-changing terrain of the web.

Intelligence is the Awareness of Information

I am struck by Glieck’s phrase, “In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself” (12). The span of humanity develops as a whole with the more we find, the more we learn. Our knowledge today is based off thousands of years of contributions by countless people to the collective intelligence of humanity. Our modern formation of the English language is one such example. Glieck discusses how language has evolved through the years from cave paintings to oral culture to the written word to the digital word of codes behind a screen. The language of computers, such as binary code, doesn’t even need letters to communicate — just two digits. As people collect new information, how we communicate is constantly evolving. Our language itself evolves. Prior to the written word or digital technology, there was a lack of permanence to words. They only existed through the memory of the speaker and their listeners. “Now people leave breadcrumbs,” but before that sounds traveled “a few yards and fade[d] into oblivion” (31).
As people were enabled to become more aware because they had access to more words, information trapped to pages, they were able to become more critical. When people “began systematically to gather different print tables in order to check one against the other…they found unexpected flaws” (94). The lingering of words birthed more responsibility. The need for consistency, for rules and standards was demanded because information could be collected and compared through its perpetuity. With these rules, more rules were created. These rules turned into a set of guidelines that created artform and expression – the humanities. For instance, the standard of the novel we know today did not appear overnight. As discussed in a previous class I took centering on epistolarity, it was collections of letters sustaining a narrative that eventually evolved into the formation of the novel. Language has acted as a carrier of information, and as our understanding of language has evolved through the years, so has the sophistication of our information.
If not for language, there would be no information. At a previous college I attended, I took a basic communications class. It was there I learned the story of a boy who was found in the wild raised by wolves. As he had grown past the years of critical language development, he was unable to learn how to communicate through language. Without language, he was unable to understand abstract thought. Information cannot be comprehended without language. The boy had no vehicle in his mind to form thought, ideas. His world existed only in the present moment, driven by what he currently observed with no structure to capture or reflect on it.
Language empowers us to capture information, to think beyond now to the past and future to the information found before us. The development of the written text further empowers us to collect and develop that language. The digital age opens a new realm of possibilities for our language and the development of new language, which leads to further sophistication of information. Information is only as permanent as its container. Information can be irreversibly lost when the books it is written within are destroyed — just look at the Library of Alexandria. With the creation of the computer, the internet, and now the clouds, information has taken on a new permanence. The knowledge previously contained in books is now recorded digitally. Technically, people are now more intelligent than ever with the plethora of information we have access to in a matter of moments. Our abstract thoughts can expand further than before, our understandings of the world more complicated.
With the collection of more information, the more sophisticated information and how it is presented can become. Novels are now digested as ebooks or even audible books. More people are able to create and share language and literature than ever before. As we have become more aware with the information we’ve gathered, so has the technology we store it upon. Computers have their own languages. In one case, Facebook artificial intelligence was able to develop its own language to communicate with each other that wasn’t comprehensible by people. As our technology begins to collect more information as people have done through the ages, will it begin to sophisticate it as we have?