Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Two Nobel Lectures of Doris Lessing
Writing for the Britannica blog J F Luebering dissects the different versions of Dorris Lessing's Nobel lecture that have been circulating:

I haven't read any defence of the Internet against Doris Lessing's charge that the Internet has fragmented culture and destroyed reading, but I would love to hear of any spotted by readers of Booksurfer. Meanwhile let me briefly spell out some reasons why I believe Doris Lessing is wrong.

Far from fragmenting culture, the Internet disperses culture more widely, decentralises and democratises it. True - "official" and prescribed cultural forms are threatened - but that is not a bad thing, as social cohesion should not rely upon imposed cultural norms. The World Wide Web has widened the availability of minority cultural forms, which were often only "minority" because people lacked access to the capital required to disseminate them more widely. "Inanities" identified by Doris Lessing as a fundamental characteristic of the Internet existed long before the Internet was even thought of, and seduced people into wasting their time centuries ago - although what one person describes as "inanity" might be someone else's treasured cultural norm.

Does the Internet destroy reading? Hardly as the Web is primarily text based so that reading becomes more important than ever. Does it even (to take the argument further than Doris Lessing does) destroy some forms of reading? Even this is doubtful as many of the the Internet's real successes such as Project Gutenberg, Amazon,, are closely linked to literature. There are many other online book related projects that support and enhance reading - the British Library's "Turning the Pages", WorldCat and Copac, and Intute, are just some of the examples that spring to mind. In addition, many public libraries now make book-based reference resources available online to even the most remote communities. Rock lyrics and poetry (from rap to Milton) are now available at the click of a mouse. It is possible to find out about Camus even though the local library has no books about him on the shelves. The decline of reading (if ineed it is happening) cannot be attributed to the Internet.

Of course the Internet presents problems, both general - like the new forms of information monopoly that are emerging, - and for specific groups - such as the threat posed to monopoly News organisations by the rise of "citizen journalism" for example. But these contested aspects of the Internet follow from the challenges presented to entrenched interests by new social groups moving onto the stage of history.