From Literature to Biterature and The Edge of the Precipice

By Peter Swirski
Ed. by Paul Socken

There is general agreement that the Internet is changing the way we think of literacy. It is also agreed that such change is inevitable. But the nature of the transformation we are now undergoing, and the balance of profit and loss, is harder to judge.

In The Edge of the Precipice, Paul Socken, professor emeritus in the University of Waterloo’s French studies department, is primarily concerned with what we stand to lose. One point is worth flagging at the start: all of Socken’s contributors – who include Sven Birkerts, Alberto Manguel, Katia Grubisic, and Mark Kingwell – are academics (mainly professors of various literatures), writers, translators, or editors. That is, they are people with a vested interest in ensuring that people continue reading. And they know they are playing defence. Though the title is meant to contain some ambiguity, suggesting a leap of imagination into unknown worlds, the edge of a precipice is usually a place you don’t want to be: staring into an abyss.

Since the future of reading is a topic that has been exercising commentators intensively for at least a decade, many of the arguments seem familiar. The virtues of solitary contemplation and reflection in an age of compulsory sharing and endless connectivity are canvassed, along with the way reading builds empathy, develops focus and concentration, and encourages critical thinking. All of this seems at least plausible, but hard evidence for the value of reading tends to come from a handful of studies boasting rather thin results. This leaves most of the essays here informed mainly by autobiography and anecdote, grounded in accounts of how the authors have found reading to be meaningful and transformative, both professionally and personally. They are testaments of faith in an atheistic age.

All of this is preaching to the choir, since, if you’ve come this far (even in a review), you’re already counted among those who have made the choice to keep on reading. It’s less clear how convincing or persuasive these essays would seem to non-readers (whom we never hear from). One suspects not very. With this caveat in mind, The Edge of the Precipice is an impressive contribution to an important ongoing conversation, offering an inspiring and informative collection of well-expressed, non-technical perspectives on the importance of reading even as we stare into the bookless abyss.

Of course, the way we read and write is already changing as we march further into the digital age. Might it also be the case that the very nature of authorship will change, too? In From Literature to Biterature, Peter Swirski, a professor of American literature, thinks this is inevitable, arguing that “at a certain point in the already foreseeable future, computers will be able to create works of literature in and of themselves.” To describe this new dispensation, Swirski borrows, from Stanislaw Lem, the term “biterature,” used to describe any writing of non-human origin. The authors of biterature are designated “computhors.”

The philosophical, cultural, and aesthetic ramifications of Swirski’s thesis are fascinating and provocative. Biterature will call into question – both prospectively and retrospectively – traditional ways of thinking about art, genius, creativity, and imagination. These matters are covered in the first of the book’s three sections. From there, Swirski moves into a long second section on artificial intelligence and the philosophy of mind (the guiding figure here is Alan Turing), before concluding with some thoughts on the future of digital evolution. While composed in the same engaging (though sometimes overly glib) style, these parts of the book are only indirectly concerned with lit/biterature and tend to tread more familiar, if still intriguing, speculative ground.

Brisk, playful, and paradoxical, Swirski presents the reader with a buffet of food for thought. Even bigger questions loom outside the terms of his discussion. For one thing, human history is full of sudden and severe cultural and technological reverses, which may set back or totally undermine some of Swirski’s prognostications. There is also the problem – which the author is well aware of – that any book like this can expect a limited shelf life. Not because its predicitons will turn out to be wrong, but because many of the questions will have changed. The death of the computhor may not lag far behind that of the author and the book.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, September 2013.