Time to put into practice what I was writing about a couple of posts ago.
As a blogger, I am used to having my writing atomized. Blogs are designed to be atomized. Some posts are more popular than others. Some sections of posts are more popular and are atomized when quoted in isolation from the rest of the post.
If I cared to study the matter more systematically I could probably see some ideas and themes developing since I started this blog almost 3 years ago. But it’s not really that important. Otherwise, I would demand that all my new readers begin with my very first post and read every one in chronological order before they were ready for the stuff I’m writing now. The very thought is ludicrous.
Of course there is a huge difference between unfinished and unfixed blogs and books that were written as a single unit. It would be an understatement to say that authors go to a great deal of trouble in arranging the content of their books. Atomization – ripping a few relevant paragraphs or sentences or words from these finished edifices – undoes all of that work. It wouldn’t surprise me if some authors aren’t comfortable with this. To that I say, the intentions of the author are irrelevant. I don’t want to go any more post-modern than this, but a text gains its meaning from how it is interpreted and read, not from the intentions of its author.
Before I get carried away here, I think there are some instances where atomization might be counter-productive to the reader, just because of how a text has been written. One example is philosophy itself. I am barely a dilettante when it comes to philosophy, but my impression is that philosophy texts are dense, and do not lend themselves to speed reading or pithy wordbites which encapsulate the whole text. The reader has to repeatedly study the various arguments to appreciate the deeper meanings of the text. That said, there may come a time when philosophy is written in a way that is compatible with atomization.
Another example is fiction. The magic of a novel is not found in the synopsis of its plot, but in how the various elements are arranged, how the story is told. Yes, novels, plays, poems and short stories are treasure troves of great quotations and ideas and insights, yet when these elements are extracted in isolation from the whole, a certain diminishment and dismemberment takes place. That’s why those who rely on spoilers and Cliff notes are depriving themselves of the unique things which these texts have to offer.
On the other hand, who am I to look down on spoiler-addicts and say that their ways are worse than mine? Their preferences might not appeal to me, but that doesn’t make them inherently worse.
Even from the point of view of a purist, atomization needn’t always dismember fiction. It can offer powerful tools for studying these texts more deeply in ways unimagined by the author. It could also be that aesthetics are changing and that there is a trend away from immersion in the depths to find the hidden treasures, towards paying less attention to each individual work and finding magic in the patterns and juxtapositions with other works.
Then there are some non-fictional texts which seem to work better when atomized. I’m thinking particularly of legal texts. Lexis and then Westlaw started atomizing legal texts decades before Google even existed. They wouldn’t have been doing it if the idea was a flop. At first glance, it’s odd that this would have happened with legal texts. Similar to philosophy, legal opinions consist primarily of arguments. The difference is that law, whether it be case law or statute law, is usually broken down (atomized) into discrete elements which must be proved or disproved. This is why it is very convenient to have research tools which can identify interpretations of a particular subsection of a statute, or discussions of a particular element of a common law doctrine or locating particular factual circumstances.
This leads to the key benefit of atomization in any non-fiction text. Sometimes finding your search term within a text will completely answer your question, in an easy way which the most comprehensive subject headings could never have facilitated (I’m not against subject headings or other controlled vocabulary systems – the best search tools offer and combine controlled vocabulary with full-text searching). Other times, the context of the search term within a document will help you decide whether or not you need to invest the time and effort to sit down and read that particular text.
Although I have been writing mainly of texts here, atomization is happening in other media. iPods and other mp3 players have caused songs to be atomized from their albums. Something is lost – there is a artistry behind the arrangement of songs in an album. It is most evident in some of the greatest albums such as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Dark Side of the Moon, OK Computer and most recently for me, Aimee Mann’s the Forgotten Arm. On the other hand, something is gained. People are able to combine disparate songs for a particular purpose, and remove the tracks which don’t fit. The ability of people to create and share their own playlists has taken on a life of its own. Atomization both gives and takes something away from a work. If we are smart, we will find ways to reduce the harm it causes and to explore the new possibilities it offers.