network v. multimedia 07.28.2006, 6:12 AM
posted by virginia kuhn
During Bob's synchronous chat with the Chronicle of Higher Education on Wednesday, I was reminded of the distinction he's drawn between digital books that incorporate multimedia--text, audio, still and moving images--and those that are networked (and, as such, seem more dynamic and/or alive). Of course these two attributes are not mutually exclusive--and Bob never states/implies/screams that they are--but these two features, media-rich and networked, do seem to comprise the salient features of digital texts and the ways in which they part company with their paper counterparts. Moreover, the networked aspect of digital texts and all that it implies has NEVER escaped me--I wrote an hypertextual Master's thesis complicating this very notion--still, I have bristled each time I've heard Bob's proclamation that "it's all about the network," though I couldn't seem to account for this reaction. Until, that is, I noticed other academics reacting similarly...
It hit me when the other day when Bob was asked a question by Michael Roy (one which reiterates a query from H. Stephen Straight) which said:
I was curious about your quote in the Chronicle article that suggests your change in focus away from multimedia texts towards networked texts. Can you elaborate on why you feel that the priority in development of new genres of electronic texts should be on their 'networkedness' rather than in the use of media?
it's not really a move away from multimedia, just a re-orientation of its [sic] centrality in the born-digital movement. when i started working in this area full-time -- twenty-six years ago -- the public network that we know as the internet didn't exist. our model at the time was the videodisc, an analog medium that suggested the book of the future would be just like the book of the past, i.e. a standalone, frozen, authoritative object. it took me a long time to realize that locating "books" inside the network would over time cause more profound shifts in our idea of what a book is than the simple addition of audio and video.
As I read this exchange it occurred to me why I/we have been harping on this issue and it has to do with our training. Poststructuralist theory taught us that there is no single book frozen in time; we have long since abandoned the notion of the authoritative tome. Foucault, for instance, posited the 'author function,' a position in a discourse community, one that contributed to the social construction of knowledge. Books, by extension, are always-already (given Jacque D's recent passing, a little nod and an enactment of my point here), networked; they are part of a larger oeuvre and refer to each other extensively--thus they contain copious links, even if said links are a good deal more metaphoric in nature than the hyperlink of the networked text.
Moreover, reader response theorists such as Wolfgang Iser and Louise Rosenblatt taught us that the reader never approaches a text without bringing her own perspective to bear on it--a notion that renders each reading act as discrete--and each act of reading by the same reader is unique from the read that preceded it. In this world, then, the notion of a dynamic book versus one that is "frozen in time" becomes a non-issue. Indeed, in some respects, the networked book is in fact More traditional if it depends on textual language to conduct the interaction. Look at GAM3R 7H30RY--the method is unique but in terms of the knowledge made/gained etc, it is perhaps business as usual except for an accelerated and maybe more inclusive pace. By contrast, were you to put out a multimedia networked 'book,' and have it reviewed IN MEDIA-RICH language, that would be revolutionary.
John Mayer on July 28, 2006 5:31 AM:
I think you miss a point that Bob doesn't make explicitly...
were you to put out a multimedia networked 'book,'...
... then, assuming the book is read and discussed and tagged, it would start to accrete a series of tags in del.icio.us, some reviews in Amazon, mentions in blog posts, etc.
If the book is assigned to students in a class, they might right papers about it and post them to their blog or the class wiki. Someone might map the locations in the book (as in the Gutencarta project). Someone else might use photos and post them to Flickr that relate to the book.
These would constitute the ....
...that you mention. The rest of the world - coming upon the book could read it and choose to participate in it and any part of its bookoshpere they wished. They could contribute, comment, critique, etc.
All of this is possible and happens in the pbook world, but in the networked world, it is oh, so much easier to do and find and search.
In such an ecosystem, some books would have larger spheres of flotsam, detritus, decoration and scholarly bloviating than other books.
Imagine the bookosphere around Lord of the Rings or Joyce.
Imagine the bookoshpere around textbooks or law books (my area) because of there natural communities of students taking the class or professionals practicing the art.
collin on July 28, 2006 5:34 AM:
Partly, I think the tension is generated by our individual buzz-ometers--we take hold of different terms at different times, each at our own paces.
One person I'd add to your list, though, is Roland Barthes. S/Z is, maybe more than anything else, a demonstration that what we think of as "the work" is comprised entirely of networky links. As I vaguely recall, he even talks about the Text (in From Work to Text) as network.
But I wouldn't say that we've "abandoned" the Work attitudes towards textuality, any more than I'd say that the addition of video, audio, kinetics, et al., are "simple."
Which is my way of working around to the (slightly ironic) point that I tend to resist the v in your title... ;-)
virginia kuhn on July 28, 2006 9:11 AM:
John: right, exactly. I both misrepresented Bob and my own response. Certainly the "bookosphere" and the networked aspect of it, one that allows a wide range of perspectives and response types, is radical. And of course Gam3r Th3ory is far from "business as usual"; I was attempting to sharpen the issues somewhat to make this other point.
Collin: Barthes. YES. You raise the interesting point too, that I left unclear: I did not mean to suggest that Bob (and the boys) was somehow less of a visionary--he got it about media richness in the eighties when I had no clue--but only that he came at it in the opposite direction than I did (and perhaps others). Being an academic, I think I had a hard time realizing the potential of discourse that was non-textual. Or at least I had to explore the node/chunking/hypertextual part of print text before I could move to imagistic and aural communicative modes.
And though I've a prediliction for V's, I would like to abandon this one.
Bob Stein on July 28, 2006 9:13 AM:
bravo to John Mayer. the potential of all modes of communication are fundamentally expanded when they enter a live, real-time network that also permits asynchronous access and participation.
by the way, it's interesting to note that when Voyager released the first electronic books in 1992, they were presented as the Expanded Books Series. i was part of that project and i realize now that when we used the word "expanded" it was almost entirely in terms of audio/video illustrations and new, perhaps more active ways of reading afforded by the ability to search the text in detail. i should note however, that although it never quite worked because the network was way too primitive and small, Voyager did invite readers to be part of a "community of readers" hosted by Compuserve.
Daniel Anderson on July 28, 2006 9:46 AM:
I'm still feeling like the impulse to resist the network--at least in as far as the network prevents us from witnessing changes in the physical form of writing--is not getting enough play here. I'm not sure if that is your point, Virginia, but the thoughts developing around networked books do display, in my mind, a kind of print bias. Intertextuality, tags, blog posts are a network-rich combination, but I'm not sure if they are media rich.
I just took a look at the Pew report and was really struck by the fact that three-quarters of bloggers post images, thirty percent audio, fifteen percent video. These are shifts in mode as well as position and interaction on the net. I'm reminded of your response a couple of weeks back to the first posting about MediaCommons: how will you review new media works? The answer is with new media. So, writer's needs include layering, cropping, capturing, fading, etc. The network is still built better for posting, linking, and labelling, I think.
I'm not sure these are honest distinctions, because, as everyone says, it's not either/or, but both. Still, print holds so much sway.
Bob Stein on July 28, 2006 10:06 AM:
btw. i don't want my bravo to John Meyer to suggest that this discussion is about two-sides fighting it out. as dan and virginia have both pointed out we are early in a major transition involving media in all its forms AND the mechanisms of transmission and communication. if we're lucky we'll be able to join hands across the net to triangulate the deliciously complicated question that this is.
Daniel Anderson on July 28, 2006 1:49 PM:
Amen to that. It's the convergences that make all of this exciting.
sol gaitan on July 29, 2006 7:30 PM:
Books are not frozen in time as Borges' Pierre Menard taught the structuralists. But context (understood here as the multiple "links" a text can elicit in a reader --and a book that uses multimedia belongs under this category) is quite different from the revolutionary prospect of real communication within/from the networked book. Its relevance we cannot fathom yet as it is the expression of deep structural social changes we are experiencing. The networked book brings forward what Frederick Jameson calls the "antinomies of postmodernity," and becomes a place where the traditional antimonies of time vs. space seem to be cancelled. This subversion of such cornerstone of Western thought will find resistance for a long time to come. I simply quote Jameson's epigraph to his book The Seeds of Time: ". . . for who can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not. . ."
Gary Frost on July 30, 2006 10:01 AM:
It occurs that the new dynamic of networked books is stretched from an old dynamic of new readership. The individual kaleidoscope of reception, interpretation and response will continue to pace and even haunt changing reading devices. And this metabolism is well downstream from authorship, production, distribution and reader selection where many of the dichotomies of the paper based and screen based books are discussed.
Perhaps the classical multimedia achievement, in terms of paradigm shift both technically and intellectually, was the 19th century illustrated book. Multimedia imposes reiteration in disguise. Paradoxically, such duplication multiplies meaning. The rotation of a kaleidoscope is in play.
As for networks, the airline network is virtual, over-flying communities and is represented by map imposed straight lines. The railroad network passes overland and through communities and can be encountered as steel track on the ground. Consider the differing potential of the two networks as metaphor to create social context for books and reading and, incidentally, for world peace.
The virtual air travel network has engendered sanitary air strikes and smart bombs without regard for the experience of the communities down on the ground. The ground based railroad network has only connected communities and pacified nations in mutual trade. Which network is no longer relevant? See
Fast Track to World Peace.