Literature in the Digital Age

loading (Left to right) Penang Book Prize Judge, Gareth Richards; Zairil Khir Johari; Penang Book Prize 2019 Winner, Philip Bowring; and Penang Book Prize Judge and Managing Editor of Penang Monthly, Dato' Dr Ooi Kee Beng. Photo: GTLF.

They say a picture paints a thousand words. This may be true, but I also think that a thousand words paint a better picture. In order to put my claim to test, I will proceed to write this article in exactly one thousand words.

I was recently given the honour of presenting the 2019 Penang Book Prize, a literary award that is now a staple of the annual George Town Literary Festival. The inaugural winner was Once We Were There by Bernice Chauly, a tale of a mother’s ordeal as her daughter is kidnapped amid political upheavals in Malaysia in the late 1990s. This year the committee chose to honour non-fiction writers, with the gong going to Philip Bowring’s opus on the history of maritime South-east Asia, Empire of the Winds: The Global Role of Asia’s Great Archipelago.

I found myself intrigued by the theme for this year’s Festival – “forewords/afterwords”, which suggests the notion of reflection. I thought it most apt given that the Festival has come a long way from its humble beginnings eight editions ago, featuring the works and ideas of five bibliophiles. This time around, the ninth George Town Literary Festival welcomed 78 illustrious writers from all over the world, many of whom are prestigious award winners.

In the spirit of reflection, I think it worthwhile to consider what the future may hold for the industry as a whole. The advent of technology has had both a positive and negative effect on literature. The creation of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450 during the Renaissance period resulted in the ability to mass produce text at an economical cost. Prior to that, handwriting could only produce 40-50 pages a day, and the printing press increased this by manifold. This enabled the spread of knowledge to the general population, thus significantly increasing the literacy rate of the masses. But while the printing press was a technological disruptor that provided many positive benefits, not the same can be said for other inventions.

With the advent of hand-held smartphones and its multitude of very useful applications, our productivity has indeed increased by leaps and bounds. Yet the short messaging culture and the increasing popularity of visually orientated applications also mean that we have drastically altered the way we read and write. Elaborate sentences with poignant words to describe our feelings have now been replaced by emojis. Some online conversations may even have more emojis than words. This trade-off has unfortunately resulted in our attention spans decreasing drastically.

Researchers from the Technical University of Denmark earlier this year also found that collective global attention span is narrowing due to the amount of information that we are exposed to. Through our smartphones, we are constantly bombarded with limitless amounts of texts, pictures and videos. With so much information in our faces, it becomes difficult to focus. We also lose interest quickly as it takes only a swipe of a finger to move on to the next viral photo or video. Who needs to read a whole book anymore when you can always Google a review or a synopsis?

Of course, there is no doubt that literature as a discipline will survive, even if its forms may evolve. Who knows, we may be giving out a prize for Instagram poetry in the future. Or perhaps courses may even be taught in the art of writing Twitter threads. I would not be surprised if Facebook novellas became a thing.

In truth, technology will continue to develop and change the way we do things. There is no escaping the bad if we want the good. I am of the view that we should make full use of technological advantages and adapt where we need to. I for one do not miss the days when I had to painstakingly go through page after page of an encyclopaedia to look for a particular information or to search line by line for a particular quote. Today we all carry encyclopaedias in our pockets, and thank god for the search function.

Another technological marvel is the audiobook, which is perfect for those who do not have time to read a whole book but yet still want to enjoy its full content. All we need today is a smartphone and a pair of earphones for us to “read” while we travel or exercise.

Who knows what the next 10, 50 or 100 years of technology may entail? Perhaps with virtual reality and artificial intelligence making its way into the mainstream of society, we could soon be reading our stories through a pair of goggles or even through augmented contact lenses, totally revolutionising the art of storytelling.

Yet in spite of all the changes brought on by technological disruptors, I still believe that the classic paper book will be here to stay for a while yet. In fact, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center this year found that print books are still the most popular medium of text in comparison to audiobooks and e-books.

The survey also found that 65% of Americans read at least one print book in the last 12 months. More encouragingly, 74% of Americans aged 18 to 29 – the digital generation – had done the same.1 It is indeed surprising to know that despite the availability of so many digital distractions, a large proportion of American youth still manage to read books.

The same unfortunately cannot be said of Malaysians. I recently came across some statistical trivia which showed that Malaysians spend more time viewing property than reading,2 and that out of 85% of Malaysians who read regularly, only 3% read books. So for those of us who do read books, we are a rare breed indeed.

Poor reading habits have been our bane for a long time now, and the challenge is therefore about getting more Malaysians to read.

Unfortunately, that discussion will have to wait because my thousand words are up.

Zairil Khir Johari is the Penang state executive councillor for public works, utilities and flood mitigation, and the state assemblyman for Tanjong Bunga.



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