A few obvious things about this WordPress post you’re now reading (I’ll try to make it quick):

You can’t pick it up, you can’t smell it, it has no thickness or weight. It has no pages; it is not a codex but rather — at least conceptually — a scroll. There can be no experience of a page beginning or ending, of a page turn revealing what’s next, of flipping through pages or picking up a writing tool and marking on them. I give up many visual choices by writing in this medium: the type size and leading are indeterminate — with a couple of keystrokes, you can change them as you read. The font in use is not something I control. The relationship of text to margins is set partly by the template I’m using for this blog, partly by the type size you, the reader, choose, and partly by the size of the window you happen to have open on your computer screen. The format is determined for me; I can’t, for example, prevent paragraphs from being demarcated by extra blank space in between them on the screen, and I can’t begin a paragraph with an indent.

The thingness of the text has been lost in translation to the screen.

So what? The words I wrote are still the same words. Doesn’t it stand to reason that you are therefore reading the same text regardless of its thingness?

This digital medium says thingness doesn’t matter. It tells us that writing is a conceptual art, that the creaturely dimension makes no difference. But is that really true?

As a reader of text on a screen, what can I relate to in a creature-like manner? The device it’s displayed on. That is an object in the physical world, and if it’s small enough to carry around, I can bond with it constantly wherever I go. But the device has nothing to do with the text on it; the association of the two is ephemeral and can be severed at any moment; the text vanishes and the device is what stays, what we own, what is ours. The only thing that is not conceptual and infinitely replaceable is the device itself. Compared to the device, the text dwindles into mere “content,” and “content,” wrenched from any context, is disposable, consumable, evanescent. There is an infinity of it out there, and the single text, divided by the infinity of possible content, shrinks to almost nothing.

In Walker Percy’s essay “The Loss of the Creature,” a tourist approaches the Grand Canyon for the first time, in anticipation of the moment when the “sovereign knower confronts the thing to be known.” Percy’s idiosyncratic word “sovereign” says that the individual human being is — at least sometimes, at least potentially — not a mere tool of the surrounding culture but an agent, a center of awareness, free to create meaning. A reader who picks up a never-before-read text has the opportunity to be a sovereign knower confronting the thing to be known. Is this encounter changed if it happens onscreen?

Yes, if the thing to be known has suffered a kind of diminution, dilution. If text onscreen is merely a consumable, then the reader is demoted from a sovereign knower to a mere consumer. And the writer, no longer writing to a sovereign knower, is in no position to think of himself as creating art.

I’d be going too far if I claimed that artful writing can never coexist with this medium, but our culture’s relationship to text is in flux, and I feel as though no one knows where that relationship is going next.

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