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Interview with Katherine Hayles

Katherine Hayles is a postmodern literary critic, most notable for her contribution to the fields of literature and science. She is professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Literature Department at Duke University. This fall, she organizes the symposium "Creative Minds" in San Francisco, which aims to stimulate a discussion on the radical reorganization of cognition that has emerged from the revolution in the digital production of texts. Participants at this conference will evaluate the deeper consequences of this cognitive reframing for both authorship and the acts of reading.

In the following interview, she discusses the impact of digital technologies on cultural diversity, the practice of reading and writing, and our access to knowledge. She shares her personal experience of this ongoing mutation which has also redefined her work as an author.

To what extent would you say that the standardization of behaviors and lifestyles, boosted by digital technologies, impacts the diversity of cultures?
A good example of such standardization is the Google search engine. Because of the ways in which the algorithms work, websites that already attract a lot of traffic thereby attract more. Studies have shown, for example, that the range of citations in scientific articles has decreased compared to what they were in 1990—a fact that is surely the result of the aggregation of Google searches. Since few viewers go beyond the first page of a digital search, more and more people know the same (relatively) few references. There are also many more such examples, for example, the smoothing out of regional accents (especially prominent in Great Britain since the advent of television), the viral nature of the same YouTube videos played over and over, etc.

In your opinion, how do the digital technologies transform our access to knowledge?
Having grown up before the era of the Internet, I can testify to how much easier scholarly research is now than in the days of card catalogues and wandering trips to the library. What used to take days now takes hours or even minutes. Undoubtedly, we are now able to access more knowledge easier and faster than ever before, creating a self-catalyzing dynamic of always-increasing databases and knowledge acquisition.

Still, there are always losses as well—the serendipity of finding an unexpected book in the library sitting next to the one you came for that suits your purpose even better, for example. There are also instances in which the easy access acts to defeat deep and serious thought. A physics student for example can easily find the relevant equation online, which tempts him not to think deeply about what the equation actually means.

How have the digital technologies impacted the practice of reading?
Studies have shown that users become more impatient and less willing to read long articles, both in print and in digital form, than was true even ten years ago. There is a tendency to scan and skim rather than read in depth. Nicholas Carr in The Shallows argues for this reason that the internet is making us, if not actually dumber, at least more impatient.  From my perspective, the situation is not quite this simpleI discuss this issue at length in my recent book, How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis, which I hope folks will read rather than skim!

How does this ongoing mutation redefine writing, both in the private and social spheres?
There are many ways in which authorship has now become a collaborative function, with software, web searches, etc. playing active, and often crucial, roles in writing. An example is Mark Danielewski’s Only Revolutions, a book that literally could not have been written without the affordances that the web offers. There is also an increasing number of writing teachers who are encouraging their students to experiment with multimodal compositions—works that use images, videos, animations, etc. in addition to words. And the entire field of digital/electronic literature is experimenting with the new digital affordances to create interactive art pieces that could not exist in print.

In your opinion, what are the prospects for the new medium of books?
I understand that e-books now account for about 25% of the book market.  This is bound to increase within the next few years, especially as e-readers become more sophisticated and offer better screens and lighting for reading.

To what extent would you say that your work as an author or artist has been impacted by the digital technologies?
My own work has been immensely impacted by digital technologies in both obvious and subtle ways, too numerous and diffuse for me to be able to summarize here. Suffice it to say that my most recent book, How We Think, was not only written using digital technologies, but also takes the impact of digital technologies as its central theme.