Literature vs. Disruptive technology

The epic verbal battle of the summer belongs to the much publicized negotiations between Hachette and Amazon. Megastars like Stephen King and Nora Roberts, battalions of indie authors, publishers of every size, and even the New York Times chimed in with their take on which corporation is the “bad guy”. Among the many words tossed into the fray, the words “literature” and “disruptive technology” seem to sum up what each side ‘stands for’ (see this blog for more on the ongoing dispute). The supporters of the big publisher are fighting under the banner of championing literature, and of protecting it from the soulless efficiency of technology. The fans of the giant tech retailer point to the fate of newspapers, records, scrolls, etc., as the writing on the wall. Stagnated industries, they argue, are bound to give way to cheaper and faster technological innovations.

Is there anything else to say about the dichotomy between “literature” and “disruptive technology”?

“Oh, yes,” said Dr. Phineas Welch, “I can bring back the spirits of the illustrious dead.”

He was a little drunk, or maybe he wouldn’t have said it. Of course, it was perfectly all right to get a little drunk at the annual Christmas party.

Scott Robertson, the school’s young English instructor, adjusted his glasses and looked to right and left to see if they were overheard. “Really, Dr. Welch.”

“I mean it. And not just the spirits. I bring back the bodies too.”

To anyone who cannot recall how the conversation between the young English literature instructor (Scott Robertson) and the physics professor (Dr. Welch) ended, I suggest to read, or reread, The Immortal Bard by Isaac Asimov. (For those interested in only the facts and willing to forgo the fun, here is the plot summary).

Why did I bring up the story?

To me it illustrates how firmly our perceptions are rooted in our environment’s common wisdom. The young English professor “knows” that time-traveling is impossible. And of course, his position entails him to know what Shakespeare meant in his plays. For him, everything is conveniently pigeonholed.

The physics professor comes across as a superior being, the one who possesses a groundbreaking technology. Yet, the arrogant and know-it-all physicist repeatedly uses the technology to disrupt other people’s life. Moreover, he misses a great opportunity, simply by not consulting with the English professor.

A morale from the story? My take is that “literature” guys would better open up to what the rest of the world is doing. “Tech” guys, on the other hand, may take a break from their endless pursuit of innovation, and use the time to contemplate the actual cost of their actions. Corporations are often portrayed as incapable of taking into account anything but monetary gains. If they don’t want to follow the two blockheads in Asimov’s story, they would seize the opportunity to look for an innovative, viable solution.

On a second thought, Asimov’s The Immortal Bard is also highly recommended for middle- and high-school students in the throes of Language Arts summer assignments. Its shortness and irreverent humor might cheer them up.

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