thinking out loud 09.15.2005, 4:04 PM
posted by bob stein
on sunday one of my colleagues, kim white, posted a short essay on if:book, Losing America, which eloquently stated her horror at realizing how far america has slipped from its oft-stated ideals of equality and justice. as kim said "I thought America (even under the current administration) had something to do with being civilized, humane and fair. I don't anymore."
kim ended her piece with a parenthetical statement:
(The above has nothing and everything to do with the future of the book.)
the four of us met around a table in the institute's new williamsburg digs yesterday and discussed why we thought kim's statement did or didn't belong on if:book. the result -- a resounding YES.
if you've been reading if:book for awhile you've probably encountered the phrase, "we use the word book to refer to the vehicle humans use to move big ideas around society." of course many, if not most books are about entertainment or personal improvement, but still the most important social role of books (and their close dead-tree cousins, newspapers, magazines etc.) has been to enable a conversation across space and time about the crucial issues facing society.
we realize that for the institute to make a difference we need to be asking more the right questions.although our blog covers a wide-range of technical developments relating to the evolution of communication as it goes digital, we've tried hard not to be simple cheerleaders for gee-whiz technology. the acid-test is not whether something is "cool" but whether and in what ways it might change the human condition.
which is why kim's post seems so pertinent. for us it was a wake-up call reinforcing our notion that what we do exists in a social, not a technological context. what good will it be if we come up with nifty new technology for communication if the context for the communication is increasingly divorced from a caring and just social contract. Kim's post made us realize that we have been underemphasizing the social context of our work.
as we discuss the implications of all this, we'll try as much as possible to make these discussions "public" and to invite everyone to think it through with us.
virginia kuhn on September 16, 2005 2:13 AM:
as someone who tries to keep up with this blog but who frequently finds herself overwhelmed, i must say that kim's post reinvigorated my commitment to finding the time to engage.
The type of social conscience here is what attracted me to working with bob and night kitchen in the first place and more recently, with the Institute. No vehicle for the transmission of information--be it digital, paper, papyrus scroll or etched stone--is politically neutral; likewise literacy has always been historically contingent, materially situational, ideologically imbued and, above all, very, very powerful. Therefore, it is incumbent upon those of us with the luck, privilege, and socioeconomic power, to help shape the nature of the discursive space/s of the future. I do believe, however, that we cannot do so responsibly without being fully aware of the social and political implications of the work we do, as well as being schooled in past efforts to silence those with little political sway.
As I said in my response to Kim's post, the extent to which the internet has become a means for disparate factions to communicate and reinforce their own closely held ideals by enabling the appearance of the ubiquity of a widely shared belief system is not only somewhat surprising to me, but it should give pause to any of us attached to the cause of social equity. Intellectual Takeout , a site recently launched with the goal of countering the "liberal one-sidedness" rampant in U.S. universities, is an insidious innocuous-looking place that hopes to turn students against their tree-hugging, thug-loving, non-god fearing professors, one of whom I happen to be.
As a teacher, I've always seen my main goal as that of fostering critical awareness and social consciousness. I foreground my agenda and its rationale, and I welcome challenges. That said, however, I know a number of rather conservative colleagues who brook no questioning of their authority. These, I fear, are the sorts of people who back Intellectual Takeout.
The problem is that since, by definition, those in university classrooms are part of the social elite (Gramsci), the conservative view represents the path of least resistance, and undergraduates are, I fear, intoxicated by views that represent their own best interests, be they from privileged backgrounds or not; in fact those students who come from less affluent roots are often attached to the notion that one has only to pull oneself up by the bootstraps to succeed (this explains why she has succeeded while her cohort has not). Since the conservative agenda is the dominant agenda, we have much cultural work to do. As such, I can't see how in the hell we could ever kid ourselves into believing that the future of the book can ever be divorced from a just nation.
Gary Frost on September 18, 2005 11:28 PM:
Behaviors and Methods of Reading
The first thing I learned in Christine Pawley's course on the "Sociology and History of Reading" (School of Library and Information Science, University of Iowa) is not to base any premise about the nature or destiny of the book on technological determinism. The technologies are bric-a-brac in cultures of the book.
Some of us may take interest in the formats, some in the literary content, some in influences that the book has on course of events and some on the reflexive activities of reading such as authorship, writing and publishing. But no one should try to interpret the diorama, or prospects of the book, by looking at book technology alone.
In my view, a wider approach, especially one encompassing behaviors and methods of reading, quickly distinguishes those who are only interested in the technology of the book of the future from those addressing the future of the book.