Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Internet: The End of "The End"?

Paul Valéry (image source goodreads.com)
The French poet and critic Paul Valéry once said, "Poems are never finished, only abandoned." Reading andthinking about Dr. Burton's concept of the spiral and the idea of iterative social creation this week brought that quote to my mind again, along with the question: Is the internet the end of "finished products"?


Dr. Burton pointed out in the lecture this week that perhaps one of the biggest dividing lines between print and digital culture is that print is by necessity finished product gone through several reviewers and editors before it's put out into wide distribution, while the internet is instant wide distribution of whatever people want.

At the same time, Dr. Burton encouraged us to put out ideas through blogging that we might not otherwise put out for the world to see to allow others to help us in the creative process so we can make something better than we'd make on our own. This is certainly the process the digital age has taken on in many ways. News stories on the internet often end in something like "We will continue to update this story as details come out." These stories are then edited several times over days or weeks before they're left alone not because they're finished as much because there are other stories to write at that point. In video games, it is becoming increasingly popular to open up development to beta and even alpha testing as the developers continue to work on the game before it's official "release." Steam, the most popular online game store and platform for PC games, now has a section of the store dedicated to these "early access" games. Even after games are released, they are often updated through downloaded patches, which, again, only really end when people stop playing the game, not when the game's "finished."



This isn't exactly the case for other mediums like TV, movies, and books, but they haven't been unaffected for the end of "The End" either. Consider the rise of "extended edition" and "director's cut" labels given to DVD versions of both TV shows and movies, showing that the team couldn't keep their hands of the product even after they widely distributed it. In an extreme case, consider George Lucas returning to the Star Wars trilogy 20 years after it's original release to make changes for the "Special Edition" version, and then again in releases to coincide with the release of the new trilogy that came out in the early 2000s. Among hundreds of other tiny changes, Lucas altered a scene between Han Solo and Greedo in A New Hope so that Greedo would be the first to shoot at Han, rather than Han shooting at Greedo.


This change to the process of thought and release of creative work seems to be reflected in the current mindset in pop culture. "The End" almost never really means the end now, as fans of every medium finish one experience and almost instantly begin to ask what will be in the sequel/expansion/downloadable content/special edition. It's almost assumed now that the product you receive isn't immutable or entirely finished. This may seem normal to us, but consider how radically different this is from our thoughts of classic literature--which we often struggle to find the "complete" or "unabridged" or "original" text for, even speaking of finding the "real" version at times, as if there is some version that is the complete and whole version, despite our acceptance of constant alteration of all our other entertainment.

Of course, the idea of revision isn't new, nor sequels. If you look back into the history of any great author, you'll know there are several versions of many great poems floating around, as authors couldn't help but continue to revise even after publication. William Wordsworth was known to mark up his own and even friends' copies of his own poems as he re-read them and decided he'd rather have it another way. The difference in the digital age is that these changes can be made and instantly distributed to everyone who wants it, giving a much looser feeling overall to our creative work, as if none of it is ever truly finished.

So, Valéry was wrong. It isn't just poems that are never finished--these days, it's everything.