Writing With Grit Against the Digital Tide

Find the silver lining of writing’s futility

Benjamin Cain
May 8 · 6 min read
Image by Magnus Lindvall, from Unsplash

Centuries ago, when parchment and literacy were rare, and creative writing was reserved for administrators and intellectual elites, all written stories and opinions may have seemed biblically important. Certainly, the scraps of ancient writing that have survived are precious to us because of their rarity and their closeness to some foundational historical events.

But after the digitization of content and the rise of the personal computer, the internet, and social media, writing has become commonplace and even a triviality. Writing now is as disposable as pop music; there’s an oversupply of texts, and even as books and articles are pirated, and millions of curt emails and text messages are sent on an hourly basis, this deluge competes with the oversupply of videos which have a broader appeal.

In this late-modern context, writers may wonder why they bother to write. Most writers in the postindustrial world who have the least inclination to type out their thoughts or their stories, poems, or scripts evidently still do so, and the reasons why are clear and familiar. Writers write for the same reasons anyone takes up a hobby. We write and we put our writing out there because technology gives us the opportunity and because we want to, and we think we have some literary talent, or we’re interested in attaining the relevant skills.

Ancient and Hypermodern Writing

However, there’s another problem, one that’s less easily solved. Sociologically, we know why writers still write, but what’s the meaning of writing when writing now has the opposite of biblical importance? How should writers feel about their brainchildren, knowing that most words that are committed to computer memory or to paper will either never once be read or will be forgotten as disposable trivialities as soon as they’re consumed by their meager audience?

This mass demonstration of the irrelevance of most contemporary writings (and of most late-modern artworks generally) wasn’t always a source of disheartenment for writers. Again, centuries ago, only those who had the ability and thus the likely interest in writing did so, and they were in the tiny, elite minority, so their works were like precious gems. The potential literary works of the illiterate majority were of course never produced so there was no deluge of written content in the ancient world.

Thus, ancient writers were spared the numbing humiliation of submitting their literary pretensions to judgments arising from mass competition. Of course, the folk passed along oral tales from their folklore, tales which changed in the retelling, and that folklore was more popular than the self-indulgent myths and screeds inscribed in a more permanent medium which often provided excuses for the patriarchy and oppression of the day.

Still, with so little direct competition, the writers were able to preserve the illusion of their written works’ greatness. This was why Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible from Latin into a more common language helped break up the Catholic Church’s monopoly on biblical interpretation: the Church had been using its elite literacy to preserve the Latin Bible’s mystique. Indeed, the very act of committing thoughts to writing might have made the thoughts great in the ancient world; that is, being literate when most people weren’t so would have made you an elite thinker and storyteller by comparison.

The Meaning of Digital Writing’s Disposability

One response to this problem is to double-down, to attempt to take vengeance against this all-too liberated environment, to perfect your craft to shame the potential readers for ignoring your masterpieces. Even if these possible readers are busy watching a YouTube video, and no one will ever know what a great job you did writing that piece, you’ll know that everyone’s missing out, and perhaps one day your work will be discovered and acknowledged.

Knowing, then, that we must compete with so many more fellow writers, we might expect the quality of public writing to be higher than it’s ever been. Just as the age of streaming video may be a golden age for television, we might expect to have an embarrassment of riches in the areas of fictional and nonfictional writing.

To some extent that’s true since there’s currently more freely available high-quality contemporary writing than anyone could ever read in ten lifetimes. Self-publishing has opened the floodgates just as the proliferation of computers and other technologies has enabled anyone to produce visual art, music, and movies. But writing is an old-fashioned mode of communication, and the digital format demystifies its contents. Writing has lost much of its charm.

You can learn for free how to write using this or that formula, and you can search tomes in a flash with software. The evaluation of books or articles on Amazon, Medium, Facebook, and Twitter is often reduced to token displays, as the internet platforms can’t help but lower intellectual standards by using tricks to grab viewers’ attention. Everything is rushed under these conditions, and the digital contents have little intrinsic worth since there’s always another wave to surf on the net.

Nevertheless, as futile as most art may be in the age of superabundant, disposable content, this unforgiving environment does writers an unexpected service. The crowd’s indifference to the writer’s naïve self-confidence stands in for the wider world’s indifference towards even the Tanakh, the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, and all those lost scrolls from the fabled Library of Alexandria.

Just as most potential readers are busy sending out blasé emails or leaving anonymous comments in the corners of the internet that will be even more deeply buried by the sands of time, trillions of alien matters were unfolding when the ancient elites were taking reed pen to papyrus and penning the works that would be revered for generations. The bulk of humanity stands to most late-modern writers as does the rest of the universe to history’s most profound, foundational authors.

The Meaning of Writing

What this means is that writers today ought to be thankful the oversupply of content leaves us so little chance to fool ourselves. By contrast, the ancient authors could have taken their exclusivity as a sign that their literary output provided once-and-for-all answers to life’s biggest mysteries. The fact that there were so few alternatives meant the elite audiences had little choice but to make do with what they had, so those writings were helped along by those monopolies on content.

There can be no such illusion in today’s marketplace. This is what made for the once-fashionable skepticism towards all grand gestures. We “postmodernists” saw through naïve claims to fame just as we see that the mighty works of Ozymandias were reduced to the “lone and level sands,” as in Shelley’s poem. The hyper skepticism has remained but in place of the intellectual fashion there’s the dull routine of cynical, cheerless consumerism.

Unless you’re an established author with a fanbase, then, you should indeed spare hardly a thought for the audience since most potential readers spend barely a moment reading much of anything. Nor can we take comfort in the hope that a venerable judge somewhere will care about what or why we write and will vindicate our otherwise overlooked efforts. The universe took no notice of the compiling of religious scriptures in the Axial Age, just as most of humanity pays no heed to our self-published novels or to the poems or editorials we throw up on some website.

We write for the existential thrill of clarifying our thoughts, of telling stories, and of seeing part of ourselves take on independent life on the page. From a skeptical standpoint, not just the arts, but all human endeavours are ultimately just as pointless in the cosmic scheme, however much some of them may be prized in certain social settings. It’s just that writers today face a starker form of this lesson, one that leaves less room for self-deception.

Instead of pining for recognition from the distracted masses, we should be searching for affirmation from the daemonic judge within. We should be content with the appreciation from our inner voice that reads each of our works as we write them. That’s the voice that develops a mind of its own, as it were, the more we practice writing. It’s even the voice that esoteric spiritualists identify with the true divinity whom we search for in vain when we turn to “the heavens.”

An author should be his or her toughest critic and greatest fan. We know our writings best, so our judgment matters most. If we move ourselves in writing, though the universe goes on with nary a thumbs up or a thumbs down, like Sisyphus with his boulder we should judge our efforts worthwhile.

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