What is the Internet Doing To Writers? Ruth Ozeki and the Trials of Switching Off

Posted By: Katy Carr, 27 June 2013


Is the internet turning us all into cyborg fiction writers with attention deficit disorder?

Ruth Ozeki’s Worlds Literature Festival Salon provocation dealt with the effect of the new digital landscape on the writer and on our sense of self.

Ozeki told us of the disruption she encountered when trying to write her novel, her desire to go online and look up facts, as well as the heavy weight of having the world’s writers on your lap, accessible at any time from her computer.

So she went away to write, to a place in the countryside that had no network, no internet. She struggled with this lack of connection, angry. Her mind tried to look things up in the way that google does and Ozeki struggled with the fact that she couldn’t access facts with the click of a mouse. Unwired, she felt insufficient, losing faith in herself as a person and as a writer. She couldn’t write. The book felt broken and so did her mind.

But after two weeks she noted that her sense of self came back to her, and that she was able to write again.

The whole experience led Ozeki to question the effect of the internet on our sense of self, to wonder what it’s doing to us.

Technology often creates the very problem that it’s trying to eradicate, said Ozeki, the internet is de-familiarising solitude and so creating loneliness, even as social networks proliferate.

The internet has democratised language. Now anyone can self publish and there is a proliferation of blogs and self published work on there. Is this a good thing?

Ozeki referenced Milan Kundera who wrote "Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding." (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1979).

It could be said that time is here. We are all writers now. And we are blurring the boundaries between the private and the performative in our everyday life in a way that was unthinkable less than a quarter of a century ago.

Ozeki's provocation turned at the end, to consider what we might gain through this new way of being. Our sense of self is malleable and durable. It can adapt. This interconnected online world might change our sense of self, but it might also make us more open to other people’s ideas, stories that are not our own. Our sense of self may become more relational and less fixed and that might not be such a bad thing.



(NB Ozeki deals with all of these issues in her book A Tale For The Time Being which looks like a fascinating read.)

After Ozeki’s provocation the writers mulled over the effect of the internet. If quality writing depends on deep time then how does one get to that when constantly connected?

Many talked about how they too felt addicted to the internet, unable to detach, constantly distracted. macfreedom.com was cited as a great solution, a good way of avoiding going online when writing.

However, not everybody felt the immediacy of this problem, some of the international writers saying that this is really an affluent first world problem.

Forms of writing were discussed. Ozeki had referenced the Japanese i-novel as the main literary form in Japan now, saying that every new writer there was expected to write one or two of them. The personal format of the i-novel is inherent, and perhaps grew out of the first person format of the Haiku. In any case, portraying a personal reality has become the natural subject matter for Japanese writers these days.

Then the writers discussed that universal deafness mentioned by Milan Kundera – if everybody is creating, who is absorbing the information? Where are the deep readers?

Not everybody subscribed to Kundera’s view of things, seeing it as arrogant and elitist; an example of the idea that literacy shouldn’t grow amongst the peasants.

We discussed how in Iceland there is a longstanding belief that everybody has the right to tell a story, not just the official storytellers or the elite, and later we discussed how in Iceland’s national newspapers anybody can have their obituary published, not only public figures. The right to tell stories is for everybody and that shouldn’t feel like a threat.

As regards the worry about listening, maybe there are simply different ways to listen, to read. We skim words online, but maybe we are creating more links than ever before. There is a type of effervescence there. Perhaps Sjón’s idea of stories superseding form will also hold for the internet.

And so the Salon ended on a positive note. However the overwhelming impression of the discussion remained the writers’ anxiety about the assault on that ‘deep time’ and about their own inability to resist the distractions that the online world holds.

Listen to Ruth Ozeki's Provocation on the Salon Podcast




Watch Ruth read from A Tale for the Time Being at Friday's Worlds Festival Free Read:


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