Phil Archer, senior patriarch of the BBC’s fifty year old radio soap opera “The Archers”, died this week.  One of the memories aired recalled his habit of talking his problems through with a favourite sow.  The therapeutic value of this cannot be doubted (think only of the Empress of Blandings).  Outside our back door on the farm we had a pen of four baconers.  Tom, Dick, Harry and Tother (The Other – our sustained imaginative capacity in naming names was not impressive – and we named each pen with the same names when their predecessors departed for market).  They existed to eat the table scraps of a large household – and to be my confidants, advisors and custodians of every secret that came my juvenile way.  Their responses (after feeding) were always courteous and sagacious, and graced with a  recognition of the value of what I had to say not always accorded elsewhere to the youngest member of the family.  They formed a network of therapeutic empathy.

These thoughts came to mind this week when reading of Richard Dawkins’ problems with comments on his blog : one fundamentalist creationist called him a ” suppurating rat’s rectum ” and this is as  polite as it gets.  But James Harkin, reflecting on this for The Observer, also notes the way in which opinion follows the crowd on the Web, and the way in which other’s approval sparks our own.  Here we are community sheep, not sapient pigs, and the urge to shout down opposing voices in shorter and terser text (I am always worried by capitalized blog comments) becomes over-whelming.  And social media align us quicker than ever before with received wisdom from our community: watch out then for fascism online.

This week I gave the lecture already referred to here (and which will be appearing in Downloads soon).  One of my questioners asked about the future of reading and writing, and I found myself unable to answer except in terms that he ust have found very depressing.  We do have a new form of reading within the networked community already: “power-browse” is a way of catching at the essence of things, and noting (and sometimes following) the things that link with them.  We also have a new way of writing: into the interstices of our readings we interpose messaging which is intended to convey meaning through association.  This can be highly misleading, and much blogging and messaging seems to me to be about sorting out the inconsistencies. But we are in our infancy: we will learn.

So it is no use complaining that David Shields’ new book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, is a hymn in praise of plagiarism.  The entire social network discourse is founded upon plagiarism, as users repeat and re-interpret through epetition.  Similarly, Shield’s reviewers have attacked his assault on the narrative form of the novel. They all assert, without evidence, that we need stories.

I do not see this in the network space at present. Nor indeed is experimentation, like Penguin’s attempt to write a community novel, very encouraging.  Cory Doctorow has made a presence from what is in effect blog-supported serialization; Charles Dickens would recognize this form as being unchanged from the serializations of Blackwoods and others of 150 years ago.

So one thing I shall be doing in coming weeks is looking at the development of multiple media art forms in the web , looking at Liza Holton and Kate Pullinger amongst others as artists and publishers who demonstrate a future for stories in multiple media (or “transmedia”, as some are already calling it) publishing.  Any thoughts on other places to look would be welcome .

Meanwhile , there is a lot more to say on the ” future of reading ” question. And the discussion is a very old one , as illustrated by Tim Martin in reviewing Robert Darnton’s The Case for Books on ”

Part of the delight of Darnton’s book is his adept grasp of how history repeats itself. He has the scholarly nous to show that worries about books and reading habits extend back far further than the information age. His introduction quotes the Italian scholar Niccolò Perotti, writing with asperity to his friend in 1471 about “this new kind of writing which was recently brought to us from Germany”: Gutenberg’s black-letter type. “Even when they write something worthwhile,” Perotti complained, “they twist and corrupt it to the point where it would be much better to do without such books, rather than having a thousand copies spreading falsehoods over the whole world.” Perotti was writing barely two decades after the invention of movable type but the complaint would not sound out of place in the mouths of today’s critics, as they complain of the ephemerality of the blogosphere, decrying “churnalism” and “factoids” and lamenting the Chinese whisper effects of the contemporary internet.”

I am now going out to find a a sympathetic ear ( lop or prick’d will do , but there is something very comforting about the philosophical nature of the Gloucester Old Spot ) and discuss this further . I will let you know what I learn .


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