"The Web is a gun"
An e-mail exchange with Frederick Barthelme
"What we already know"
An e-mail exchange with Askold Melnyczuk
More on Digital Culture
in Atlantic Unbound
Have an idea for a future Digital Culture column? Let us know or e-mail Ralph at Lombreglia@aol.com.
by Ralph Lombreglia
February 26, 1997
For a long time many smart people have been worrying, sometimes justifiably, about the effect of electronic media on literacy and the intellectual fitness of humanity. The discussion usually centers on some presumed antipathy between "technology" and "culture" (usually "literary culture"). But back when "electronic media" meant television and pop radio, it was easier to see that the real threat to culture and consciousness is not technology at all but money.
While thoughtful people pondered the electronic erosion of mentality, global media conglomerates bought up the publishing industry, publisher by publisher, so that today there is scarcely an independent trade-book house left in the United States. While we weren't looking, book publishing devolved into a blockbuster-obsessed "hits business" depressingly similar to the movie industry. (CD-ROM publishing, that exciting new thing, went down this path so quickly that you could actually see it happening, like watching the life-cycle of a fruit fly.) Most people would agree that movies can have a genuinely literary dimension, and we've all had decades to watch Hollywood dump billions on bonehead projects while most decent scripts were passed over. So it's surprising that so many smart commentators are still willing to buy the idea that technology and "computer geeks" are responsible for our deteriorating literary and intellectual life. The media executives have done a pretty good PR job for themselves. But of course they have. They have all the money.
And then, all of a sudden, the World Wide Web. The literate people weren't looking this time either, but they weren't alone. Nobody was looking. The computer industry itself, right up to Bill Gates and Microsoft, was blindsided by the Web because the industry was too busy admiring its own reflection, too focused on all things proprietary -- and very little was proprietary about the Internet. While no one was paying much attention, a homely, geeky technology was maturing nicely, and suddenly there it was, the missing piece of the whole puzzle. And no company or conglomerate owned it.
Is it possible that a succulent historical irony awaits the literary world? That far from being a threat to cultural and intellectual life, computers and digital networks may become the great enabler of that life, snatching us off the tracks into their democratizing arms just as the conglomerates were about to squash us for good? Many undeniably literate people seem to think so. It would be hard, for example, to imagine a cultural enterprise more about art and ideas and less about money than a literary quarterly, and scores of such independent magazines have rushed to the Web in recent years. (One good place to start your own look at what literary folk have accomplished on the Web thus far is Zuzu's Petals, which lists hundreds of magazines and e-zines devoted to fiction, poetry, and other forms of belles lettres.) This month we've asked the editors of two small but influential journals to give us their thoughts -- Frederick Barthelme, who brought the Mississippi Review online some time ago, and Askold Melnyczuk, whose AGNI magazine has come to the Web only recently.
Curiously, the thrillingly futuristic Web has hyper-driven us into the next millennium just quickly and rudely enough to reveal that we were in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It turns out that the indispensible element of online media remains -- get this -- text! And the frenzy to produce the first Internet "killer app" has revealed that we had one all along -- good old vanilla e-mail. And after we all got buried by the World Wide Vanity Press, we realized that the most valuable job on the Web belongs not to HTML coders and graphics wizards but to the members of the oldest geek profession, librarians -- "cybrarians," as they're known in the realm of electrons -- and along with them, of course, editors.
Most people in traditional publishing now accept that electronic networks are utterly transforming their profession. What's less obvious is that publishing is returning the favor. As the Internet transforms publishing into almost everyone's business, publishing is in turn transforming the digital computer industry.
The well-known Silicon Valley programmer and industry commentator Dave Winer recently devoted one of his DaveNet columns to outlining what he believes to be the only remaining survival strategy for Apple Computer: to drop everything else and begin an immediate, flat-out drive to bring full Internet support and ease-of-use to the only industry niche that Apple still controls -- desktop publishing.
The Internet has suddenly provided the unifying focus that the computer industry lacked for years. Today most software and hardware companies finally understand that their real purpose in life is to make themselves disappear. The industry's job is now to go back into the bottle, to design its technical wizardry into invisibility, to make its inventions as transparent as the telephone and thus to enable the rest of us -- ordinary, non-technical people -- to work comfortably in the vast, decentralized publishing business that is the World Wide Web.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.