An interview with Virginia Heffernan on Digital Culture
Transcription de l'entretien réalisé à l'Hôtel Carlton de Lyon, le 10 février 2011
Clifford Armion: Today many people like to read books or newspapers on their iPads or smartphones. Do you think that actual books, paper books and newspapers are bound to disappear someday?
Virginia Heffernan: One technology doesn't usually supersede another entirely. We still listen to radio, now many years after the development of television. We still read newspapers, even though the web has existed for twenty years and most major newspapers have been online for ten. There will always be people who prefer the old technology and the old technology will develop in interesting ways to circumnavigate the new technology. There will be things that you get in the newspaper like crossword puzzles that you can draw in or coupons that you can cut out that you just don't get on the iPad or smartphone.
C.A.: I wanted to focus on books. I brought a huge and heavy book today. This is a facsimile edition of Shakespeare's first collected works. I bought this when I was a student and it was horribly expensive. Anyway I discovered a couple of months ago that I could download this for free on my iPad. Yet I still have the book and I think I would still be tempted to buy it if I found it in a local bookshop. I think the reason why I would still be tempted to buy it is that people are very acquisitive and that you can't really hoard digital things like e-books or files. Do you think that such behaviour patterns are going to change in the future?
V.H.: I've been fooling around with the idea that there might be something called dialectical immaterialism, the opposite of Marxist dialectical materialism, where people like me who love technology believe that we are moving farther and farther away from heavy, dusty, expensive things like this into a world of almost pure abstraction and thought. But lately I realised that that revolution, the digital revolution, like Marxist revolution, might not be quite so smooth. There are always people who are interested in the sound of music on vinyl records, who are interested in the dusty smell of bindings on real books, who like the excitement of going to book stores and owning things. Our entire interior architecture is designed around books. The way chairs are designed, the way chairs are organised, the way bookshelves are organised, the way rooms are organised takes into account that this, the codex, is primarily how we've been consuming information for a long time. That architecture will take a long time to change and there will always be people like you who don't want it to change. And the tension between people who have great love for the material world and people like me who want to escape it is part of what is interesting about culture right now.
C.A.: You're talking about pure digital products but there's still the question of formats. When you download an e-book today, or a piece of music or film, you can't be sure that in two or three years your iPad or computer will still be able to read it because the formats change so fast.
V.H.: The idea about whether these digital artefacts will last or whether they're fleeting is of interest to people who have a great deal of investment in material culture. People like you like things that hold their value where people like me like fleeting thoughts. My experience of reading an e-book is the experience of this very quickened, heightened experience that is as close to thinking as any one I can have in the presence of literature. To me, if it's gone the second I've read it, I don't mind.
C.A.: So the obsolescence of everything that is digital is not a problem to you?
V.H.: It's true that I don't mind if it disappears. I'm not much of a preservationist. I hope that I get a chance to read it before it disappears!
C.A.: I read on one of your posts that you recently bought a protective screen for you iPad. Isn't that a form of protection?
V.H.: It's true. I'm no longer a Bolshevik entirely. I've come around to the idea that there is some beauty to the material world. That's in my muscle memory, that's in my limbic system, that's in my emotional life, something that I can't give up entirely. We're talking about pure abstraction but an iPad costs a thousand dollars and my first thought when I bought my iPad was that I needed to protect it. So I got a protective film to go over the screen. Instantly, more sophisticated people in the digital world told me that it's like when the lower middle class decide to put plastic over their sofas, that you don't get a primary experience of intimacy with the machine. But my first thought was to protect my thousand dollars.
C.A.: Tonight's debate at the Villa Gillet is about social interaction and of course Facebook comes to mind. Do you think that Facebook is a good way to socialise or is it, like some people argue, something that on the contrary develops some forms of anti-social behaviour?
V.H.: I like the social media enormously. I don't love it: it's not my first interaction with the internet. The experience of Facebook to me is not another experience of social life, it's an experience of fantasy, of character creation, a kind of novel writing where you cast the characters, you choose a face for yourself, you curate photographs that tell stories about yourself. I bring to it the same enthusiasm that I would bring to reading or writing a novel, as opposed to whatever I bring to social life.
C.A.: Do you use it professionally? I understand that many journalists use it to keep in touch with their readers and also with some sources of information.
V.H.: When Facebook first appeared, there was some controversy at the Times about whether we should join it and if so, whether we should join Twitter and Facebook with our own names, as though they were business cards, or if we should use anonymous names and make it something to do only with our families and our close friends. The decision was made that we should join using our real names and communicate with readers as much as possible because this was an opportunity to spread our links around. The New York Times, as any newspaper, is always a very populist form and always an ephemeral form. We're not writing Shakespeare for all time, we're always writing something just for the day and so Facebook is a natural fit for journalists. We've always got readers mail, we've always interacted with readers and it makes that interaction easier.
C.A.: The New York Times is very successful on the internet. Do you still sell a lot of paper copies?
V.H.: Yes. The profitable part of the newspaper is still the paper newspaper. Our subscribers are extremely important to us and while there may only be fewer than 900 000 of them when we have millions of unique visitors to the site every month, they are the ones who pay, who regularly pay. People will use The New York Times almost infinitely online or on the iPad edition but there's one thing they haven't so far wanted to do which is 'pay for content'. We're about to give people the opportunity to pay for content by dropping what's called a pay-wall which will allow for tiers of access to the content of The New York Times. We'll see then if the online readers are as willing to pay for content as their counterparts with the print paper.
C.A.: Just one question on education. Do you think that this digital revolution can change something in the world of education?
V.H.: I think that educators increasingly need to incorporate the lives that their students live online. An extreme version of this is a Japanese college classroom I visited where the handhelds and smartphones of the students are incorporated into the curriculum. The fact that they are curating film and music online and on their handhelds becomes part of the classroom and the discussion. There are also some interventions that students can make online and professors should encourage them to do it. I've been telling professors of every subject that they should give students an assignment at the beginning of the term - that they should contribute to a Wikipedia entry that's relevant to the subject of the course so that by the end of the term, ideally, they will have gotten one small change to a Wikipedia entry approved. This is instant publication, instant peer review and it's also getting familiar with the apparatus of Wikipedia, which is increasingly important for building an archive.
Pour citer cette ressource :
Virginia Heffernan, Clifford Armion, "An interview with Virginia Heffernan on Digital Culture", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), février 2011. Consulté le 03/10/2023. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/les-dossiers-transversaux/nouvelles-technologies/an-interview-with-virginia-heffernan-on-digital-culture