It’s good to have a foil. Nicholas Carr seems to be one of mine. He often arrives at dramatic statements I can’t quite stomach, ones that actually get worse the more I think about them. His “the Internet rewires your brain” string of hits never really seemed plausible, especially coming from a fellow blogger and heavy Internet user. Was he trying to modify himself? Perhaps in this modified state, he’s latched on to the lack of “fixity” in digital text.
First, Mr. Carr, you’re late to the party. We’ve been dealing with this for a long time, from learning new citation schemes for Web sites to learning how to cite the Kindle.
Second, I will invoke Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride in saying that “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”
Here’s a quote from Carr’s recent Wall Street Journal article which efficiently captures his concern about a loss of fixity:
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.
It’s actually quite an interesting read, because Carr gives a balanced assessment of the pros and cons of fixity vs. fluidity. But, showman that he is, he seems to want to land on the scariest note he can, an A-flat of doom, despite his knowledgeable and informed summation of the benefits fluidity might provide, including:
- reference and guide books that never go out of date
- ease in correcting errors or updating references
- instruction manuals with current information
To achieve his tone of concern, Carr turns to John Updike, who celebrated the “edges” of books, something Carr interprets as indelibility or permanence. But have books really been that fixed? Even Updike himself would revise stories from magazines as they moved into his books, changing a sentence here or there after the serialization of a few chapters. Between the hardcover and paperback, typos were fixed, and pages reflowed for the new trim size. In at least one case, he completely shifted the focus of major narrative events. The difference between a first-edition hardcover of “Rabbit Redux” and the fourth edition paperback could be significant in the ways Carr is considering — text reflowing, new text introduced, things fixed, things changed.
Currently, there’s a controversy about Mitt Romney’s book and the revision of it prior to his presidential run. Yet, in reporting on these changes, reporters turned to electronic editions of the books — first, the 2010 Kindle edition, then a version posted by a political adversary on Scribd. The reporters also turned to the hardcover edition, but it matched the Kindle edition in every substantive way. Electronic books are fixed in their own ways, and by factors beyond the medium in which they’re published.
So what is fixity then? Obviously, it’s not format fixity, because printed materials have routinely adopted different formats through their lifetimes, moving from hardcover to paperback to large-type editions to braille editions to audio books.
Nor is it textual integrity, as Updike and Romney and others demonstrate. As a book person, I have a few Bibles around the house. They don’t all match — one is written in more modern English, one is King James, and one is for kids. Which is the real Bible? Is there a fixed Bible from which they all derive? (And don’t forget your apocrypha when answering that question.)
Searching on Amazon.com for “revised and expanded” gives me 3,451 results. Are these books now unfixed? Were they ever fixed? How any more so than electronic text? In archives? One could argue that there’s a commercial incentive for changing a book, print or otherwise.
It seems the notion of “fixity” is much more specific than Carr might have in mind — almost to the level of the individual artifact and its reproductions.
Carr is right on one level — it’s probably not great to revise materials without notifying people you’ve done it, even when you have benevolent intentions. But there is a spectrum here, between updating an index’s pagination for the paperback edition to correcting three typos to changing substantive ideas or text. But print didn’t guarantee fixity, and digital doesn’t really provide that much worrisome latitude beyond what already exists. This is something Wikipedia handles really well. In fact, the fixity of print makes changes very hard to detect, while the right deployment of online tracking tools makes changes obvious in some cases, and at the very least discoverable with relative ease.
“Fixity” is a sexy word. Carr has a nose for marketing ideas, there’s no doubt. I just wish he’d market better ones.