It’s interesting that Jacobs and Piper offer different explanations for the diminished role of textual commentary in intellectual life. Jacobs traces it to a shift in cultural attitudes, particularly our recent, post-Romantic embrace of self-expression and originality at the expense of humility and receptiveness. Tacitly, he also implicates the even more recent, post-modern belief that the written word is something to be approached with suspicion rather than respect. For Piper, the reason lies in an earlier shift in media technotlogy: when the printing press and other tools for the mechanical reproduction of text removed the need for manual transcription, they also reduced the depth of response, and the humbleness, that transcription promoted. “Who would be flippant when it had just taken weeks to copy something out?” These explanations are not mutually exclusive, of course, and the tension between them seems apt, as both Jacobs and Piper seek to explore the intersection of, on the one hand, reading and writing technologies and, on the other, cultural attitudes toward reading and writing.
While the presentation of text on shared computer networks does open up a vast territory for comment, what Jacobs terms “digital textuality” is hardly promoting the kind of self-effacing commentary he yearns for. The two essential innovations of computerized writing and reading — the word processor’s cut-and-paste function and the hypertext of the web — make text malleable and provisional. Presented on a computer, the written work is no longer an artifact to be contemplated and pondered but rather raw material to be worked over by the creative I — not a sculpture but a gob of clay. Reading becomes a means of re-writing. Textual technologies make text submissive and subservient to the reader, not the other way around. They encourage, toward the text, not the posture of the monk but the posture of the graffiti artist. Is it any wonder that most online comments feel as though they were written in spray paint?