Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Reading Digital Culture: How Literature Aids in Understanding the Digital Age

Literary works like Moby Dick help us to make sense of digital culture by investigating key themes pertinent to digital interaction. One of these themes is the idea of isolation, a concept that I discuss in some detail in "The Sea and Solitude." Moby Dick essentially presents the reader with a number of disconnected individuals and asks what is necessary to bring them together. This theme shows up early in Queequeg's and Ishmael's relationship, but other relationships, like that of Queequeg to Tashteego or of Ahab and Pip further illustrate the idea that even though these individuals are from different backgrounds, the mere fact that they are together serves as a foundation on which they can build meaningful relationships. The Internet works in a similar manner, facilitating powerful relationships for people from different countries and backgrounds and providing means for people who feel isolated or left out to find a "home" of sorts. Kristen, for example, shows how digital tools can be used to help returned missionaries who return home early to feel connected and loved despite the negative feelings or comments that others might hold against them. It demonstrates that those who feel excluded or separate can, in fact, find a place where they belong in digital culture.

Moby Dick likewise investigates identity, a theme that is pertinent to to digital culture on a number of different levels. Moby Dick's famous opening line, "Call me Ishmael," is perhaps the book's most well-known and robust exploration of this idea. In three little words, Melville establishes an identity for his narrator, and throughout the rest of the book, as we hear more of his stories and see more of his interactions with others, we learn more of who he really is. This is similar to how identity is established on the Internet, where often, we have only a name and a picture or a catchphrase to go off of in terms of defining a person. Gradually, through their comments, posts, pictures, etc. we come to understand more of who they are, yet we understand that even these "facts" are in some sense constructed specifically for the Internet: just as Ishmael reveals only that which he wants to share about himself, so also are Internet identities constructed to convey certain ideas, qualities, or images. This is a concept that Aleesha investigates to some extent in her study of Pinterest, where users define themselves by the clothes, accessories, decorations, and quotes that they post to their respective pin-boards. Others, like Lizy and Victoria, look at identity as parts of a larger collective, as in fandoms.