You may think you’re sitting at your computer (or staring at your phone) and browsing the internet, but you're actually wandering around in the wilderness. Think Moses and the Israelites in the desert post-Egypt, pre-Promised Land. Or, if you prefer a less Biblical analogy, think Odysseus making his 10-year journey back to Ithaca. That’s you. You're Odysseus every time you go online.
The fact is, the internet is still new, and we’re still figuring out how to use it — and how it uses us. This wilderness wandering extends into every area of online life. Journalists and scholars of media are in a constant state of hand-wringing over what the internet has wrought for their practice and discipline. People in IT are constantly finding and solving and creating new problems related to standards, privacy, and security. And, of course, academics in all disciplines run the gamut of reactions to the introduction of the digital into their mostly analogue spheres, from over-eager acceptance to full-on resistance.
And so, many people, in a variety of fields, have taken to choosing sides and making grand proclamations about the value (or not) of the internet as a reliable source of news and information, a distraction or a boon to productivity, a creative engine or limiting force, and so on.
Others are perhaps more guarded, but nonetheless there is a ground swell of pro- and anti-internet commentary. We see this impulse in academia as well. Since 2009, when the media caught on to the increasing popularity of the Digital Humanities, there has been constant debate over the merits of utilizing so-called “new media” in academic work. Though, as many, including Lisa Marie Rhody of George Mason University, have pointed out, “everyone is already a digital humanist, insofar as it is a condition of contemporary research that we must ask questions about the values, technologies, and economies that organize and redistribute scholarly communication.”
Yet, the debate remains largely polarized (and polarizing). That is not to say that there isn’t a small but growing number of scholars, including Rhody, who take a more nuanced approach to the question of Digital Humanities specifically, and more generally the impact of the internet on daily life.
Among these is Alan Liu, English professor at UCSB, and one of the most respected voices among Digital Humanists. In his introduction to A Companion to Digital Literary Studies, titled “Imagining the New Media Encounter," Liu puts the current media landscape into its proper historical context and describes the moment we are in as “an encounter rather than a border.” That is, when new media arises, it is not as if we cross a boarder into a new era, as we might walk through a doorway from outside to in, rather we live for some time in an “unpredictable zone of contact — more borderland than border line,” as Liu writes. Borderland. Wilderness.
Using Jean-François Lyotard's concept, Liu describes this zone of contact as a “pagus,” or “the tricky frontier around a town where one deals warily with strangers because even the lowliest beggar may turn out to be a god, or vice versa.”
This is an apt description for where we are, and it is clear from history that frontier or borderlands are always rife with conflict. Think, if a contemporary analogy is necessary, of the disputed territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Is there any wonder then, that many commentators, within academia and in the more general media, seem to be taking sides?
A couple of weeks ago, my friend and colleague at the blog we co-edit, Patrolmag.com, wrote a piece that has garnered quite a bit of interest among those working in the media titled “The State of the Internet is Awful, and Everybody Knows It.” In it, he details his own experience working as a journalist exclusively for web publications and his early idealism about the medium. After seven years of working for publications including the now defunct AOL news site “Politics Daily” and most recently “The Daily Beast,” however, Sessions writes, “Things look a lot different now. The internet won, and despite killing off thousands of jobs in the print industry, it created many more than expected in an ever-multiplying array of new web ventures.”
But now that internet won, he continues, “it’s increasingly unclear that was a good thing.” Sessions cites the example of John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, who has long resisted the internet as a space for serious journalism and continues to insist that readers who want to read Harper’s online must have a print subscription in order to so. MacArthur feels vindicated in his decision, according to a recent New York Times article, based on his thesis that the web is bad for writers as it demands too frequent output and offers minimal compensation, bad for publishers who can’t compete with the likes of Facebook and Google for ad revenue, and bad for readers who are too distracted reading online to effectively absorb information.
Certainly MacArthur and Sessions have a point, but within the context of Alan Liu’s “pagus,” it is much too early to discern winners from losers. MacArthur’s observations about journalism on the web may be true, and falling back on the traditional print model, what MacArthur calls “journalism’s golden age,” probably seems, at this moment, like the safest bet. In fact, Liu writes that one of the key attributes of a new media encounter is that “narratives of new media encounter are reversible.”
That said, this reversibility doesn’t typically look like a retreat, rather, Liu writes, “media shifts have an impact only after long temporal and institutional lags full of indirection.” That is the period we are in — both in the general media landscape, but also in academia within the context of Digital Humanities.
“You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood,” Thomas Wolfe writes in his aptly titled novel, You Can’t Go Home Again. He continues, “...back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time…” Wolfe was writing simultaneously about changes in American and German societies, changes that led to a reorganizing of American culture after the WWI and the Stock Market Crash, and the rise of Nazism in Germany.
We can’t go home again to a time before the internet, but perhaps we can take comfort in the fact this current new media moment is history repeating itself. We’ve done this before — transitioning from an oral culture to manuscripts, from manuscripts to print, and now from print to digital — and, undoubtedly, we will do it again. As history has shown, patience is required, and flexibility. Like Odysseus, who missteps, encounters challenges, and yet eventually reaches his Ithaca, this is how we will make our way through our contemporary media pagus. Just in time, probably, for our next jaunt in the wilderness.