When I did my English degree I spent quite a bit of time on James Joyce. I even considered doing a PhD dissertation on Ulysses. I’ve had a piece published in The James Joyce Quarterly and also generated some discussion with a novel interpretation of a chapter of Ulysses.
The reason that I’m telling you this is because my friend and fellow literature enthusiast, Karen, has told me about an exercise that will be taking place on June 16-17. June 16 is known by Joyce fans as “Bloomsday” because Ulysses describes the activities of Mr. Leopold Bloom on June 16, 1904. Devotees of Joyce around the world have all sorts of commemorations every June 16 and the truly devout make the journey to Dublin to walk the route described in the book (stopping frequently at the pubs along the way).
This year there is a new event and it is the one making news. Someone has dreamed up a project to tweet the entirety of Ulysses over the course of the day. It is an impressive logistics effort. The action in the novel covers 24 hours and the project involves 96 people tweeting a part of the novel in 15 minute chunks over the course of 24 hours.
This isn’t exactly a real time re-enactment or anything. That would be impossible. The idea is more that bursts of tweets distilling down chapters of the book will go out over the course of the day. As the website about the project says, “Part of the fun . . . is to see how different minds & souls wrestle with the daunting task of recasting 8-10 pages of the rich and free-flowing novel in just 4-6 tweets.”
For those of you who may not be familiar with one or both, Ulysses is a 265,000 word novel and a tweet is limited to 140 characters. So there will be a bit of condensation.
It’s hard for me to figure out exactly what this project really is. I think that ultimately the person who came up with the idea is just curious to see what sorts of things people come up with. Joyce loved playing around with words and you have to enjoy that sort of thing to like Joyce—so it stands to reason that a bunch of Joyce fans would have fun trying to capture some of his phraseology in highly condensed form. I could see Shakespeare fans trying to do it to a play or two or even Harry Potter fans tweeting a book or two. It may even have already been done.
My guess is that things like this happen a lot on Twitter and this one is getting a lot of publicity because the New York Times picked up the story. That unleashed the predictable firestorm of outrage on one side and a celebration of the joys of technology on the other side. One side bemoans this experiment as yet another example of technology undermining culture and the other side urges that more be done along these lines. One overzealous high school teacher asked “how cool would it be” for students to take “ponderous novels” and “cut out words that are unnecessary – re-word, re-think, re-write, re-mix, & be creative!” I’m not sure how a student identifies the unnecessary words in Pride and Prejudice or re-thinks To Kill a Mockingbird, but, as we’ve seen before, technology lets us do it, so why not?
The more I think about it, it seems that this Bloomsday tweet exercise is a prime example of how social media has fulfilled the futurist dream of the technocrats. In the 80s and 90s, futurists were predicting global teams coming together do work on projects and problem solve without ever actually meeting each other. Here a group of people are doing just that. Whether the output of their effort has any interest or value outside of the group is unknowable and perhaps irrelevant. The bottom line is that the technology now exists to enable that kind of activity so people are engaging in that activity.
When I was an agent of global capitalism, we hired those futuristic consultants to tell us how we could do what Facebook and Twitter now let everyone do. We had a need for global teams to work together—we sought a solution because we had a need.
It’s different today. Instead of a need in search of a solution we have solutions in search of needs. And that is why we get the tweeting of Ulysses. No one woke up and said that the world would be a better place and the National Archives would be enriched by a tweeted version of Ulysses. But we’re getting one. Because we can do it, not because we want or need it.
A day or two after I heard about the Ulysses project I had a synchronistic moment while reading an article in the May/June 2011 issue of Engineering Insight. It’s not my usual first choice of reading material, but I try to be eclectic. The article was about students being the driving force behind the development of new technology and it included the following statement: “if a concept can offer one iota of instant pleasure, the waiting mass will test it and draw to itself another set of evaluators from within itself . . .”
I’m not sure but I think that is one definition for “going viral” and my initial reaction was alarm at the implication that all it takes for something to succeed is for it to produce an “iota of instant pleasure.”
But then I realised that is why I like to read literature. And then I realised that Ulysses and Pride and Prejudice and To Kill a Mockingbird did not come about because we wanted or needed them but rather because one of us could write them.
And now I’m really confused.