For years, conversation about the changing ways we take in information has been characterized by polemics and a general sense of doom: Is Google making us stupid? Is Facebook making us narcissists? We keep trying to pinpoint what, exactly, is changing, because something surely is. But rather than strategize about how to wage war on distraction, or rebuild dissolved attention spans, Full Stop has decided to jump out of our poorly constructed lifeboat and wallow in the vast and undulating sea of information. With this questionnaire, we would like to explore, yes, how the internet is changing the ways in which we create, curate, and consume information (be it in the form of fiction, non-fiction, or criticism) but with an eye open for the pockets of potential in such changes.
Astra Taylor is a writer, political organizer, and documentary filmmaker whose works include Zizek! and Examined Life. Her book The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age will be published in April.
Where does the most interesting (innovative in form and content) writing find its home right now?
I’m tempted to say books, if only to be a bit contrarian. If we are talking about writing for a wide public, not for small groups of friends or comrades, then I think books are it. There’s a lot of interesting ephemeral writing online, but much of it is intended for specific recipients (like the weird SnapChats I send my little sister from the road) and not broad audiences. The notes I used to pass to my classmates were innovative in a similar sense. I’m standing by books because they offer writers the space to dig in, to see if formal innovations and experiments can hold up, and provide the space for authors to take ideas to their limits. (I know space is unlimited online, but paradoxically the consensus is that stuff must be short and punchy to thrive; meanwhile, the constraints of the printed book actually focus reader attention and offer boundaries for writers to push against and subvert.)
There are other examples I could point to, but one genre that exists online, and which I don’t think really had a print counterpart, and that I gravitate toward and am excited about, is the type of informal academic commentary you see on scholars’ personal websites. This type of writing has probably come to life partly because the Internet frees the people who produce it from the rigmarole of academic publishing (impossibly slow scheduling, editing by committee, paywalls/obscurity, limited audiences). So you can read Corey Robin or Zeynep Tufekci or Tressie McMillan Cottom or Aaron Bady’s blogs. Related but different, there are articles like “Further Materials Toward a Theory of the Man-Child” in The New Inquiry, which is a fascinating example of a direction a similar kind of work can go. It was a sassy, entertaining, and ultimately extremely smart and spot on critique of Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl. I remember liking the magazine Lingua Franca for the brief flash I was aware of it before it folded, and there’s stuff that approximately fills that space but is more direct and edgier, and I’d like to see even more of it.
Today, we’re flooded with stories via the internet — on personal Tumblrs, Facebook and Twitter statuses, the abundance of magazines and newspapers that make their content free online. With so many narratives all around us, why do we still read (and pay for) novels?
I might be the wrong person to pose this question to, given the fact I don’t read many novels, at least compared to how much non-fiction I read. That said, I have read a few this last couple of months, but I’ve been making a concerted effort to do so. Instinctively I prefer non-fiction when it comes to both books and cinema, and I don’t understand those who hold up fiction as somehow a higher art form — though there are many novels I love deeply. In my opinion, non-fiction can do everything fiction can do formally and aesthetically (given a writer with the impulse and ability), while to me the fact non-fiction remains somehow bound and beholden to reality only makes it more powerful and potentially profound.
That said, I can at least share why I have been making a concerted effort to read more fiction. It had more to do with a kind of mental rigidity I felt coming on and that I wanted to shake off. Almost three years of intense critical writing working on my book and intensive political organizing (through the Occupy offshoot Strike Debt) had created some habits of mind and judgment. With the hope of opening up other avenues of experience and expression I’ve been trying to read more fiction, and I’ve been doing other things like playing music with friends. I’ve enjoyed these excursions, but my heart remains with non-fiction nevertheless.
What do you think is good about the way we interact with information today? How has your internet consumption changed your brain, and writing, for the better?
First the good: There’s a lot that’s positive and worth celebrating compared to the olden days of the nineties, when I had to go to the library to find stuff and I was too young and broke and ignorant to subscribe to any decent magazines (I remember this line cook at a vegetarian restaurant I worked at in Athens, GA reading a copy of The Nation and it being a revelation that such things existed, but it still didn’t occur to me to check out their website or subscribe so I didn’t see another issue for a few years). But this is the story we all know so well: Thanks to the Internet it’s never been easier to glean preliminary information about a given topic, whether through a simple search or following Wikipedia links, or finding experts or obsessives or articles on whatever subject has caught your fancy. The challenge is going deeper, beyond the first few pages of Google results and other obvious discoveries. That said, going deeper and having the discipline to do real research always required conscientious labor, so what’s new? You have to put in the time and be extra vigilant about resisting the bandwagon effect.
As a documentarian and sometimes journalist, I’m biased towards reportage and investigating things for myself, towards moving from information to first hand experience, and sometimes I feel it’s too easy to read a few op-eds or breeze through some links and feel like I have a subject covered. I’m still regularly surprised by topics I think I know a lot about when I go out and ask some questions. It usually turns out I don’t know nearly as much as I believed I did.
On how my brain has been changed, I’d say Internet consumption has had an effect, but how can one really know for sure? My attempts to seriously engage with information and to try my hand at writing coincided with the Internet becoming an ever stronger and more constant presence in my life, so it’s impossible to really separate the two. Over that time I’ve also grown up and become more knowledgeable and confidant in my work and my writing — my brain has become more capable in lots of ways, but as I mentioned earlier I fear a kind of sedimentation or rigidity that can come with age and figuring out one’s general perspective on things. I know what I think about something before I even know what the thing is I’m thinking about, if that makes sense. On that front, I’m not sure my information gathering habits do much to expand my conceptual horizons, and perhaps that’s a problem that has to do with the structure of our networked communications system — that’s a topic of lively debate. And like a lot of others, I wrestle with distraction and the feeling that it’s easier to ingest info-pellets than commit to sustained, deep reading and reflection. But I don’t blame the Internet for that problem, I blame myself — and the fact that so many of the platforms we use are engineered to be irresistible because that’s the path to profitability.
How does writing online become significant?
It depends on what you mean by significant. If you mean worthy of attention and admiration or that something is particularly relevant or insightful, then a lot of timeless advice applies. Advice about writing on difficult subjects, writing about things that matter even if they are unpopular, writing without dumbing things down or cutting corners, and just doing the work and putting in the time. This kind of significance applies to writing whether it is online or offline or both or whatever. But if you mean significant in the sense of having garnered attention, as in “that piece was really significant because it was read by tons of people” — which is what the “become” in “become significant” implies — then my answer is more ambivalent. There are lots of tricks to making things more shareable and infectious online (and, to be clear, many of them are tricks carried over from less than venerable print publications, so we can’t blame “the Internet” for inventing them). Of course those tricks have evolved, egged on by those in the virality business. There are click-baity traffic-ginning techniques, and there are the ways individuals fish for attention online (like picking fights — or starting “argumercials,” to use Caleb Crain’s apt neologism — or writing about already trending topics). What that means is that there’s plenty of good writing that is at a disadvantage in the current media ecosystem.
The more interesting and less cynical answer to your question would ponder how to make things that are significant in the first sense significant according to the second one. How do you help good writing reach the people? This can happen in various ways, but the first step is finding ways to support people to write serious or “significant” work to begin with — not easy to do given the realities of the marketplace, but necessary — and then, alongside that, to build communities that can help amplify worthwhile work, which is what many of the interesting small magazines (The Baffler, n+1, The New Inquiry, Jacobin) are doing, by engaging readers through all available means, whether by social media or by convening people away from their keyboards through events and conferences, et cetera. Building institutions and community are both key.
Information online is both supremely malleable and under unprecedented scrutiny. How has the Internet changed non-fiction writing?
It’s hard to generalize, and there are lots of contradictions. One can write about anything under the sun, but there always seems to be some scandal or outrage that everyone is piling on. One can toss something off in the blink of an eye, but it will remain posted forever, or at least the foreseeable future. On the one hand texts online are easily updatable and correctable compared to print, but there seems to be an endless stream of errors and falsehoods. What these examples point to is a pressure to be of the moment and relevant, to be “now” — certainly that pressure has always been felt by writers but it seems to have intensified.
How is quality writing on the internet facilitated? How is the role of an online editor different than that of an editor for print?
Quality takes many forms and can be found all over the place, from a long review in the LRB or the LARB to those hit-the-nail-on-the-head pithy Tweets that some people (not me) regularly come up with. Nonetheless, I still think a certain kind of quality writing, especially the kind that requires deep reportage, needs to be facilitated by institutions that can support writers (and editors too), by paying them to go out and report, supporting them financially and also legally so they can take risks and challenge powerful entities (all the cliches of what journalism can and must do, which I still believe in, at least in theory).
As a writer I just want an editor who edits smart and hard, whether they are editing for a website or for print. Look at something like TomDispatch, edited by the estimable Tom Englehardt. Everything he posts is fantastic and meticulously edited; he’s someone who honed his skills as an editor of books. He understands the logic of Internet publishing but doesn’t pander to it, or rather he caters to its better tendencies. As a result, the articles he releases have a surprisingly wide reach, especially given their challenging themes and how lengthy and dense they can be.
The internet makes possible new forms of collaboration and discussion. How has this changed the concept of authorship online?
It’s interesting how people often assert that digital technologies have challenged the notion of the author and authorship. There may be some truth to this claim, but it also seems to me the idea of authorship has metastasized in some ways. Now curators are authors of a sort, which I understand and am sympathetic to, but people also get credit (hat tips or vias or whatever) for unearthing or just posting links. I admit to finding it a bit strange when someone credits me for posting an article that is sitting on the Guardian’s homepage, and to having been surprised when I’ve seen folks upset at others for sharing “their content” without acknowledging them. I guess the answer is, I don’t know. Authorship is a fraught concept that emerged against the background of industrialization, and it’s evolving and mutating as digital capitalism comes into its own. Seeing ourselves as authors — even if it’s just in our curating of our personal news streams — seems to me crucial to the expansion of the whole social media bubble.
Anyway, there’s a lot of hype around writing collaboratively these days, and often it comes from individuals steeped in Silicon Valley rhetoric, so my skeptical instincts kick in. Still, on another level, I see the appeal of this idea, particularly when there is a clear political imperative. One project I played a small role in through Strike Debt is The Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual, which we self-published in late 2012, giving away over ten thousand printed copies and many more free PDFs. A new edition is coming out next month through Common Notions press. We are advocating for a collective solution to the current debt crisis, which is typically very isolating and demoralizing to people being crushed by housing, medical, or student debt; it made sense to try to write collectively given our ambition of inspiring a resistance movement. In my limited experience it is actually harder to write well collaboratively than it is to write alone (alone with the help of a talented editor, ideally). Not just in terms of sense making, but also putting your ego aside and allowing yourself to be edited or erased. It can be a healthy exercise and worth it creatively, should circumstances call for such an approach.