Some reflections on digital culture and literature

A few weeks ago, I found an interesting article in the New York Times, in which several authors responded to how they thought new technologies, specifically the Internet, has or will affect storytelling. Some commented on the obvious logistical changes; how characters communicate, get to one place to the next, etc. Another said “There’s nothing worse for plots than cell phones,” because they eliminate the possibility of characters getting lost or stranded. Other responses instantly connected back to this course; for example, the ability to hyperlink and the meaning for narratives. Victor LaValle comments, “Taken together the Internet reads like the grandest character-driven novel humanity has ever known. Not much plot though,” which reminded me Lev Manovich’s description of the database in The Language New Media.

To me, authors are the perfect people to ask this question because they’re the ones who document our culture (other people do this too, obviously. But let’s face it: most people don’t come across and read the scholarly journal new media and culture on a daily basis). Their writings ask us to reflect on aspects of our society and culture that we overlook because we’re so immersed within it.

This is the question I am posing for my final project for this course: how does literature reflect the digital culture we have been exploring this semester? I was directed towards the genre of cyberpunk, a branch of science fiction that burst onto the scene in the 1980s. I know that after everything I just said, investigating this genre sounds strange, seeing as the 80s isn’t exactly contemporary. But what I’ve found interesting thus far is how much cyberpunk anticipates the present day conditions. They predict not just how technology like computers might be used, but also how such technologies will change culture. As a genre, science fiction is, of course, all about imagining the future, but I think what’s most unsettling about cyberpunk is that in hindsight it’s gotten a lot right about our present day. Always set in the “near future,” cyberpunk authors aren’t writing about 2100, but more like 2013.

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