How ebooks mute texts.

Texts used to speak for themselves.

Once upon a time, the scribe hunkered over his parchment, squinting through the candlelight, ignoring his aching back and cramped wrist. Yet no matter how hard he concentrated, he made mistakes. Inevitably, words were duplicated, key letters left out, entire lines forgotten. In other words, the text asserted itself—it spoke up.

Via the author’s lazy penmanship, the copier’s fatigue, or the typesetter’s clumsiness, new words and worlds emerged. The literati’s unconscious oversights became the text’s improvisations. Dirty little ‘mistakes’ piled up in the corners, and wicked, wonderful things grew in that fertile soil. Freudian slips, unruly bugaboos, and half-hidden assumptions congealed and sprung to life. Later readers noticed such oddities; they highlighted, celebrated, and codified them. The text, over time, was adding riffs and harmony to the author’s original tune.

But now we have digital text, perfectly preserved, pristinely programmed, faithful to a fault. The author dictates, the computer records, but the text can’t get a word in edgewise. Clinical, binary precision has banished those fruitful ‘errors.’

Efficiency and accuracy are all well and good, but at what cost? Do we really want a muted text? What would happen if we relearned the value of imprecision? Could we reprogram our texts to have minds of their own? Could we reintroduce entropy to digital copies? Could we—willingly—allow our ebooks and blog posts to ‘corrupt’ themselves—just so that our texts could sing again?