Alan Liu is a professor of English at the University of California. In 1994 he set up a website called Voice of the Shuttle ,a research portal for digital humanities, and from there began researching the relationship between literature and technology.
His article “Imagining the New Media Encounter” serves as an introduction to the Blackwell Companion to Digital Literary Studies. The “encounter” Liu describes is the “boundary between the literary and the digital”. Liu interestingly points out that “[n]ew media, it turns out, is a very old tale”. New media encounters have been occurring for centuries, Liu states, beginning with orality and progressing through literacy, manuscripts and print to the digital world. Liu believes that these encounters are an inevitable part of life and culture. He compares the digital media encounter to the experience the Egyptian king felt when his people were first introduced to writing. He quotes Plato’s Phaedrus: “for this discovery of yours [writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves”. Liu goes on to describe more instances of “first contact” such as the practice of silent reading, the first book, law, image, and so on. I found this aspect of Liu’s article very enlightening, as the connection between the digital world and the changes in textual transmission that have been happening for centuries was one I had not made before.
While Liu acknowledges that these encounters have significant impacts on society – “[n]ew media encounters are a proxy wrestle for the soul of the person and the civilisation”- he also argues that sometimes too much emphasis is placed on encounters which he just sees as part of the progression of life: “Dramatizations of the instant when individuals, villages, or nations first wrap their minds around a manuscript, book, telephone, radio, TV, computer, cell phone, iPod, etc., are overdetermined”. I would agree with Liu that the new media encounter is simply another way of transmitting textual data and that the way in which text is presented can be important. Liu refers to McLuhan’s The Media is the Message to elucidate the idea that the way in which something is communicated is more important than the content: “The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act – the way we perceive the world”. I think Liu makes a valid point when he states that the medium is central to the way we perceive data and that it makes it more widely accessible, but I find it hard to believe that the method of transmission is more relevant that the core message of a text.
Throughout his article Liu uses a biological trope to describe the way in which the new media encounter encompasses everyone. He describes it as a “narrative genome”, something with both dominant and recessive aspects; he uses the term “identity chiasmus” to describe the “otherness” of the new media encounter. On first reading I found these to be strange metaphors, however on reading a second and third time I thought it was quite a novel way to describe the multi-faceted existence of the digital world. Liu describes the digital world as an “ecology”, stating that there is a place for everyone: “There are niches for both the established media aggregators (church, state, broadcast or cable TV, Microsoft, Google, iTunes, YouTube, etc.) and newer species, or start-ups, that launch in local niches with underestimated general potential”.
I think Liu makes one of his best points when he says that narratives of the new media encounter “are not just neutral substrates […] they are doped with human contingencies”, and that it is the human element that makes the new media encounter a welcome experience. However, he also states that it is the human element that makes media encounters “messy”. I very much agree with his statement that acceptance of something new into society can be challenging: “multiple generations were needed to convert oral peoples into people who thought in terms of writing”. It is evident that the same can be said about the digital representation of texts.
Liu summarises his thoughts on the new media encounter well in his paragraph on the “déjá vu haunting of new by old media”. He believes that old media are recycled and freshly communicated through new media, and that this is caused by the ever-growing needs of new generations.
While Liu’s article proved quite a laborious read and its structure was presented in a disjointed manner at times, his overall points are worth consideration. He believes the move to digitisation is a transition comparable to the introduction of the novel in the eighteenth century – it is simply a new way of transmitting ideas and information by the merging new and old media.
The following is a video of Alan Liu’s talk on Social Computing as part of the Centre for Digital Humanities 2010 Future Knowledge lecture series:
Image from http://www.winterwell.com/media.php