It's like picking through a printing press fire bomb. Or Michael Bay's latest Transformer movie. "That's not the futzed-out head of Optimus Prime, my man. It's Jonathan Franzen's 'The Corrections.' See it?"
And like any FEMA disaster, it's a struggle to see what you're seeing, when it comes 21st-century publishing.
The narrative is supposed to be easy reading: The more that's published, the more that gets published. It's all content and it's all powerful. All of us who order words and letters for a living are damned spooked by books like Jon Ronson's "So You've been Publicly Shamed." Oblivion nowadays is one badly-worded Tweet or misquoted source away. Ask poor Jonah Lehrer, who faced digital disgrace for apparently misquoting Bob Dylan. It's a hard rain a-falling -- or whatever Dylan meant.
There's just one itty-bitty bit: We don't actually publish anymore, in the "prepare printed material for public distribution" traditional definition of publishing.
What I am doing now with you is all about changing the settings. Usually, from a collaborative document that sits on a distant computer somewhere. One moment it's only me and my editors that can tinker with the sentences in this file. The next, billions can. Gone is the paper and ink that makes those words last forever. How you read digital documents like these is anybody's guess: The size of the page and the type and the language and ads and the device are all up for grabs.
The hieroglyphic telepathic lock of paper and print that puts your mind right here with mine (scary thought, huh?) is not exactly gone. But it's not exactly there either. It's all unpublishable, all the time.
All these words can be unwritten.
I've unwritten these sentences dozens of times. Because most of them sucked. And they needed the TLC. As do most of yours. When I published on paper, I unwrote right 'till it all went to print. Then I lived with the horrors. But now? Not so much. I changed "Micheal Bay" to "Michael Bay" on the 25th of January. A week after I opened these revisions up to the world. (So I struggle with seeing "ae"s. You probably do too. Why pretend otherwise?)
Face it folks, it is unethical to not let Lehrer merely update the contested quote. Dylan misquoted Dylan all the time. "My world's a pyramid. All all and all." And all. 21st-century publishing is digital jello.
Now, is it progress? Of course it is not. We have taken a 3,000 year step backward. We no longer know who said what or when. But it is a trip we have taken. Acting otherwise only opens you up to those who spin our anxieties up into a super-storm of self gain. That is social media, if you think about it.
Here then is what works : If you want to publish so it lasts forever, it's why they make printers. Print! If you want to publish here and now? Knock yourself out. But accept how little we understand what publishing is. And, at the very least, organize your digital day so those sentences of yours can be changed. Chances are, they probably should be.
It's what transformers do. Maybe Michael Bay is trying to tell us something, after all.