Digital Digest: Writers Rolling Back the Revolution

Adrian Versteegh
From the November/December 2010 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Firing up WriteRoom, a minimalist word processor developed by Hog Bay Software, is like turning the clock back thirty years. Gone are the toolbars, the menus, and the array of options that jostle for real estate on the modern screen. In their place, the program unfolds an empty black expanse, a void that can be filled only with the monochromatic glow of unadorned text.

One response from those with an interest in preserving…the 'literary brain' has been to find ways of rolling back the reach of an importunate cybersphere.

Like its clones Dark Room, Q10, and Writespace, WriteRoom is simple by design: part of a growing reaction against what many perceive as the stultifying influence of technological overload on creativity. The backlash has been fed by a spate of recent books, including Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation (Penguin, 2008) and Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget (Knopf, 2010), as well as by a recent New York Times series of articles examining the cognitive consequences of the digital revolution. Leading the charge, however, is Nicholas Carr, whose polemic The Shallows (Norton, 2010), adapted from his widely circulated Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” argues that the ubiquity of new media has imperiled the type of deep focus required for serious reading and writing.

One response from those with an interest in preserving what Carr terms the “literary brain” has been to find ways of rolling back the reach of an importunate cybersphere. Alongside the lineup of retro text editors are applications such as Readability, which strips Web pages of advertisements and other eye candy and reformats them for attentive reading. Tough-love apps such as RescueTime, Freedom, and the Firefox add-on LeechBlock, meanwhile, actually prevent users from visiting the sites they’ve specified as time wasters.

Other writers disconnect through more straightforward means. Wells Tower, author of the story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), maintains two separate writing spaces: one with an Internet connection (for research and magazine work), the other without. “My main gripe with the Web is that it’s toxic to the kind of concentration fiction writing requires,” Tower said during an interview at the New York Public Library. “It’s difficult to write good sentences and simultaneously buy shoes.”

Even writers whose work is meant to be read exclusively online are taking a stand against the distractions that the medium seems designed to foster. When Salon critic Laura Miller began forgoing in-text hyperlinks in favor of footnotes last summer, she touched off an ongoing and sometimes rancorous debate about their value. (Around the same time, the aforementioned Readability app added a feature that renders hyperlinks as footnotes, with the developers citing Carr as the inspiration.)

Whichever side of the digital-overload argument creative writers take—and no less an authority than Steven Pinker has dismissed the idea that media can change the brain—it is clear that many are reevaluating the terms on which they engage with technology. It could turn out that the eclipse of print becomes precisely what spurs a deeper understanding of the modes of attention we risk losing. “Concentration is no longer a given,” Agni editor Sven Birkerts wrote this year in the American Scholar. “It has to be strategized, fought for. But when it is achieved it can yield experiences that are more rewarding for being singular and hard won.” Just as old media are on the verge of supersession, it seems, writers are being compelled to consider them anew.

Adrian Versteegh is a Henry MacCracken fellow at New York University and the editor-at-large of Anamesa. He lives in New York City.