3.366 – second editions? who needs them?

Photo by jez`.

Once digitized, a page of words loses its fixity. It can change every time it’s refreshed on a screen. A book page turns into something like a Web page, able to be revised endlessly after its initial uploading. There’s no technological constraint on perpetual editing, and the cost of altering digital text is basically zero. As electronic books push paper ones aside, movable type seems fated to be replaced by movable text.

I love the idea that digital text is never finished, that it can always be revised, commented on, reshared, and rewritten. This constant reflection and interaction is one of the more important things that we can teach students about participating online. But Nicholas Carr’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal about the digital effects on what was movable type caught me off-guard because of the negative effects he highlighted on what technology now enables us to do with written texts.

Carr writes, “What will be lost, or at least diminished, is the sense of a book as a finished and complete object, a self-contained work of art.” This is great, and at least an admission that remix culture is an important part of our present and future. This isn’t a bad thing, just different.

And what’s to say that a work of art can’t be improved by the next person’s tweak? Are we ready to see that happen to works that we consider to be untouchable?