Thursday, October 08, 2009

Great Internet Burning Panel

I mentioned the Great Internet Burning Panel held in San Francisco last month, sponsored by Books Inc. It sounds like it was, well, hilarious. It was billed as a one-sided event, clearly:
"When I think of Kindle I think not of imaginations fired but of crematoria lit,” says Alan Kaufman, poet and editor of the Outlaw Bible series of anthologies. It has been clear for many years that the Internet has been changing the book business, but according to Kaufman and this panel of outlaw thinkers, Peter Maravelis, Peter Plate, Herbert Gold, Ethan Watters, and Brenda Knight, the change amounts to nothing less than wholesale destruction. Join them to learn more about the problem and find out how to fight back.

Some folks like Axel Feldheim didn't blindly agree but were still had a good time:
The panel was prejudiced & condescending. Herbert Gold quipped, "The computer is a really useful tool. I wish I had one." Peter Plate correlated the rise of texting with the fall of teenagers' vocabularies. Brenda Knight admitted that she wouldn't hire someone who played MMORPGs, because they wouldn't be able to do the things expected of them. I disagreed with everything the panelists said, & I found the discussion absolutely engaging.
I was sad to see on this post that "about 25 people plus one occasionally restless dog" attended. I'd like to think more people would be interested, but hey, I still read printed books! What the hell do I know?

I originally read about the panel over at Shelf Awareness, which described it at a bit more length:

Kaufman began by reading an essay soon to be published in Barney Rossett's Evergreen Review, which is now an online-only publication, he noted. "The book is fast becoming the despised Jew of our culture. Der Jude is now der Book," he read. "High-tech propagandists tell us that the book is a tree-murdering, space-devouring, inferior form of technology; that society would simply be better off altogether if we euthanized it even as we begin to carry around, like good little Aryans, whole libraries in our pockets, downloaded on the Uber-Kindle."He called the book a "sacred object" and admitted he might be crazy for resisting an e-book-only world, but said: "I will fight it. I will resist. For not only is this effort at consolidation of the world's literature into the hands of a single central repository a demoralizing cultural prospect, but it is a move towards a new form of high-tech totalitarianism."

Peter Plate disagreed--somewhat. He pointed out that all technologies, social and political interactions and life itself are "always at the service of language." He continued: "Language, regardless of the technology, is in the hands of readers and writers, and it cannot be reduced."

Ethan Watters said he did not see parallels to the Holocaust and thought technology offers some democratizing opportunities. But he does worry, he went on, about some of the trends and does not want to see blogging replace the thoughtful work in books. He observed that right now some of the best bloggers are skilled, former magazine writers. What about the next generation?

"I think we need to have an electronic civil rights movement," said Brenda Knight. She noted that Google CEO Eric Schmidt said Google's purpose was to help people decide what kind of lives they want to live. To much applause from the audience, she asked, "Doesn't that sound like control to anyone?"

Herb Gold remembered fondly the time when literary writers were rock stars and lamented a technological world where casually finding out what those around you are reading is impossible. You can't exactly go up to someone reading a Kindle and ask what they are reading, he pointed out.

It was a cranky, contentious panel, to be sure, with exaggerations thrown around demanding debate.

I appreciate that folks are airing the concern about control, as the debate on e-books and digitized platforms is so often framed as the great democratizing of the reading experience. In some cases, this may be true, but too often, corporations like Amazon pick up this same rhetoric and throw it around, creating the exact opposite situation where the folks at Amazon dictate what you can and can't read, on a device they have trademarked within an inch of its life. Now they are going international. America exporting its finest, as ever! Now you can download a book on Amazon while waiting at a drive-thru at McDonald's, in downtown New Delhi. Fantastic. This BusinessWeek article by Olga Kharif even opens,
Nearly everyone I know who owns a Kindle travels internationally. So Amazon’s latest move, to allow e-reader buyers to download e-books wirelessly not only in the U.S. but also in more than 100 other countries comes as no surprise. Amazon is simply trying to increase the device’s appeal to its core, business traveler market segment.

So as you're flying overseas to train workers at a phonebanking operation where you've outsourced labor, you can enjoy the convenience you've become accustomed to at home?

Let's talk revolution in books, in a way that isn't so easily cooptable. No, I'm not talking Nazi talk as used by Alan Kaufman. That's a bit much. But let's remember the great potential of the book in its present form and expand it in a sensible way that does not play into the hands of feverish capitalists invested in destroying small, independent businesses and free-thinking. Sound good? Good.

ADDENDUM: Alan Kaufman was sweet enough to send me a link to his Evergreen Review essay. Now you can enjoy his thoughts in their full, proper context. Thanks again, Alan!

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