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the jazz age Post date  02.06.2007, 9:28 PM

posted by dan visel

One of the guiding lights of the Institute over the past few years has been a belief in the increasing value of collaboration, following the open source model the underlies much of the web. This has been something that came up during our very first project, thinking about the Gates; it underlies the concept of the networked book, and our subsequent pushes in that direction. Here's an issue with collaboration, as it tends to happen over the Internet, that's bothered me for a while: collaboration seems, at its face, to be inimical to design. Open source design is almost never good design. It may well be average design – the market is extremely efficient at sanding rough edges off of things – but I have a hard time thinking of instances where collaboration produces what could be acclaimed as good design.

(A pause to explicate my terms: in setting up this binary, I'm using "design" in a loose sense. Certainly I'm talking about how something looks, and the interplay of form and function. But I'm also talking about "design" in the sense of a designed object, a planned object, the disegno that Vasari describes as underlying a painting. Another caveat: this is mostly off-the-cuff writing. If this were if:book, I'd have more sources lined up, as opposed to vague generalizations and half-remembered references. But: this isn't if:book.)

* * *

What do we think of as good design? The canonical example is Apple; it's not original, but I'll take them because everyone's familiar with them. Apple's design is good because they set up the constraints on their products very carefully. An iPod doesn't have as many features as many other MP3 players on the market, but it does the things that it can do very well. The iPod in the hand is the result of a hierarchy of values. Though there are almost certainly a lot of people (probably even a number of companies) involved in designing something like an iPod, we can presume that it's done in an authoritarian manner, with someone in charge of the various stages of the design all the way up the ladder to Steve Jobs, the benevolent despot. It's a top-down methodology.

This authoritarian model of design didn't begin with the corporation. It's roughly analogous to the way in which most art is constructed. To take a supremely designed piece of fiction, Joyce presumably began Ulysses by declaring that there would be three main characters, and each would have a section of the book, and the book would be divided into 18 parts, one for each hour of the day. Readers coming to Ulysses must realize that there have been distinct stylistic choices made in the design of the novel, and that the novel they're making their way through has been carefully constructed by a single guiding intelligence, that of James Joyce.

This isn't simply a matter of design: this is, in a sense, how we come to accord value to something. We think of Ulysses as important in part because we can tell that Joyce went to a lot of work to make it. This is far from the only component in how we come to declare something important, but it is an important part. Maybe what I'm getting at is really the modernist project: Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk, a total experience.

Historically, collaboration requires concentrated resources: you generally needed to have all your people in one place. Opera, springing out of the theatrical tradition, is a good example of this. The advent of film wedded the creation of art to capitalism, in which vast amounts of capital and people were required to create a single work, creating an enormous industry. Though Final Cut and YouTube might bring film back from the industry to the people, the model's not dead: look at the game industry.

* * *

"Design by committee" now has its own Wikipedia entry. There are no shortage of contemporary examples of what happens when too many cooks spoil the soup; look at the Freedom Tower; look at Microsoft's video satirizing how they would design iPod packaging; look at the ongoing disaster that is A Million Penguins.

I think the problem with "design by committee" is at the heart of Jaron Lanier's critique of Wikipedia and new forms of collaboration in "Digital Maoism," though I'm not sure his treatment of it is particularly useful. Rather than tarring everything with the same brush, I'd take a more nuanced approach: some collaborative projects work (like Wikipedia or YouTube) and others fail (as A Million Penguins almost certainly will). Why? I think the Institute needs to be looking at this. I would suggest that one major determinant of success or failure of collaborative projects are the constraints built into them: how they are designed.

We've been presupposing books that arise more or less organically, probably with some central idea from which all branches out. I think we need to be paying more attention to what can constitute that central idea. If Wikipedia is a networked book, we could say it centers around an idea something like "everything in the world can be described in summary". Contributors by and large follow this rule, adding and changing information. Wikipedia is based around the idea of objective truth: that whatever's been written can be gauged against the world. This gets Wikipedia into trouble whenever it ventures near areas where there's not really a single objective truth, but it's a decent idea for many things.

Compare A Million Penguins: Penguin's project is built around the idea of making a novel. Penguin seems to have gone into this in good faith; they even went to the trouble of putting together some ethical guidelines. I think there's a conceptual problem here: a novel, which depends on an animating intelligence, isn't the sort of structure that lends itself to being collectively written. You'd probably have the same problem with a cathedral (hey ESR) or a symphony.

* * *

I'm not arguing that collaboration can't create something as grand as a symphony. It certainly can. But the things that collaboration can create are qualitatively different, and should be understood as such. (Bernard Rudofsky's Architecture without Architects could be brought in here, though that's been explored before.) When we think of collaboration in music, we don't think of the classical tradition; we think about jazz. I think that's a useful reference point: collaborators on networked books could be like jazz musicians, not having a score, but knowing how to improvise within predefined structures like twelve-bar blues. Even free jazz isn't free, though: when you listen to those old Ornette Coleman records now, the first thing you notice is how carefully structured they seem.

(There's something interesting about jazz becoming culturally dominant at the height of modernism; perhaps this is a natural response. Around the same time, the Surrealists were denigrating the novel as a form because it was too planned, too rational. They declared a similar preference for the improvised: automatic writing or drawing for example. There's an enormous amount of Surrealist poetry; a near-complete count of Surrealist novels could be made on two hands.)

What we need to be thinking about is how jazz players learn to be jazz players. You can't stick a classically trained trumpeter in a jazz combo and expect he'll do a fine job: he won't. But that's essentially what we're trying to do.

And: we need to be looking at how jazz is designed: what sort of structures lend themselves to improvisation and collaboration?

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radio silence (our apologies) Post date  01.29.2007, 4:35 PM

posted by ben vershbow

Hello everyone, I just wanted to send out a quick collective beg-your-pardon for not having yet weighed in on the exciting postings and discussions going on here in the days since the retreat. From the moment we got back from New Jersey, we (Eddie, Jesse and myself) have been racing against deadlines for several other projects, one of which crashed and burned rather spectacularly last week and has required disaster management on all fronts (more on that later). We're still deep in the trenches getting MediaCommons renovated, and Sophie to behave herself, and probably won't get to put anything up here until later in the week. Just wanted you all to know that we're paying attention and are greatly appreciative of all that you guys are bringing to this process.

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Yikes Post date  01.26.2007, 1:54 PM

posted by bob stein

Mary, wrote:

Oh, and I know this is rather long for a blog entry. Is there a politer form I could post it in?

Yikes . . . we desperately need these fantastic posts in commentpress so we can have a decent discussion.


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the network made visible: some thoughts following the january retreat Post date  01.25.2007, 4:59 PM

posted by sebastian mary

1. Disclaimer

I've structured the following as a kind of schematic history, and histories are always to some degree rhetorical. So I offer this in that light, as a set of speculative pathways, from the tradition of print literature, through the Net, to some ponderings about what the shape might be of a culture able to wield and interweave both without privileging either.

I've left in-depth discussion of oral culture to bigger brains than mine.

Oh, and I know this is rather long for a blog entry. Is there a politer form I could post it in?

2. Summary

I've had a look at what I know of the tradition of the print book, its reader and its writer, so as to compare this culture to that enabled by the Internet. From this follows some more schematicising about the ways in which the roles of 'reader' and 'writer' invert and converge within the Web, and to suggest how an attempt to translate print-specific notions of either to a networked environment risks a category error. I've touched on what I see as a misguided emancipatory idealism around network technologies. I've offered some mildly manifesto-like thoughts on how the writers of the future/present might bypass this to put network technology in perspective, and finally on how the form of the Net might help us imagine truly multimedia culture capable of withstanding ecological or political disasters or, even, the collapse of the internet itself.

3. The tradition of the book

I've listed five attributes that I see as important to the tradition of the book. There are of course counterexamples to all of them; the aim is not to try and totalise a tradition that in many ways contains me, but rather to foreground some common and often unexamined assumptions that underpin the tradition of the book.

Physicality - Books are physical: text and sometimes pictures organised in a linear form, and collected in physical libraries.

Authority - Books are time-consuming and expensive to make. Their 'authority' exists in proportion to this scarcity. The implication is that no-one would bother laboriously to typeset, print and bind drivel; so if a book doesn't make sense then the fault lies with the reader. , and hence failure to comprehend a text lies with the reader, not with the text. This principle of authority in proportion to scarcity can be seen by comparing the medieval reverence for hand-copied books, through to modern offhand treatment of mass-produced 'airport novels'. Authoritative texts reinforce their authority with reference to one another.

Fixity - The physicality of books perpetuates the impression of text as something immutable. This physicality also give rise to a tradition of books holding otherwise ephemeral knowledge in fixed form for posterity, and thus of books' being timeless in a way that human life is not.

Universality - This is the trope most heavily challenged by twentieth century theory. The traditional ideal - and arguably the central proposition of the canon - is that books marked thus are of value to everyone, regardless of who, when and where.

Boundedness - Being a physical object, a book cannot contain everything.

4. Reading and writing in the print era

NB: I've taken for the purposes of this essay a tradition of print reading and writing that holds fairly good for English literature from approximately halfway through the eighteenth century.

The tradition of the reader

The reader approaches with a sense of reverence books that, he - for, traditionally, it is a he - understands, conform to the tradition of the book. He enjoys a typically solitary experience of relatively passive communion with its content. He may write in the margins of the book, but does not seek to change the actual text. The reader accumulates knowledge from his reading, which gives him status in the world, and reads as much with reference to other books as to life.

The tradition of the writer

The Writer is held to be the sole author of his words. He is the avatar of Authority: words arranged by him carry a supplemental charge of value specific to his status, and must not be appropriated, rearranged, misunderstood or otherwise corrupted. The name of the writer comes to stand for the aggregate of all discussions had about his work. The above is considered not a historically-specific set of assumptions but a set of eternal truths.

5. The Net

Into the midst of this (by the 80s rather stale) tradition the Internet arrived. In some ways, it resembles an acceleration of the transmission of knowledge hitherto accomplished by printed media, and as such a logical step 'forwards' into an era where communication can potentially become total. I wish to argue that this is not so.

The Net is not the replacement for texts of the kind I defined under 'the tradition of the book', nor does it enable the tradition of the print reader or writer to continue in any recognisable form. Rather, the Net is a manifestation - and a partial and politically lopsided one at that - of the cultural phlogisthon within which such texts have hitherto been created. Rather than offering a new format for print culture, it enables a kind of communication related to it but fundamentally different. In particular, the kinds of authorship and Authority that constitute its invisible structures are deeply different.

Writer and reader converge

So what happens to the traditions of reader and writer? They converge. The networked reader is also writer. She goes beyond passive reading/consumption of content to participatory activity through blogs, message boards, MUDs, email/IM, social networking tools and so on. Rather than a fairly stark division between 'professional' writers and their readers, quality is decided by reputation and easily trackable readership. Good Net reader/writers function as personal-recommendation mechanism, helping the less discerning (or less concise) to filter the Babel of content available. A new literati begins to emerge, operating as filters, commentators, curators, consolidators of online content, and/or creators of algorithms for channelling it.

The promise of utopia

The Wild West of the networked world reveals many voices hitherto unseen. As such it has bred much utopian rhetoric. The Web will emancipate the poor, educate the underprivileged, make visible the unseen etc etc. Some of this is at least partially true. But among the utopianism of information lurks a what Hakim Bey calls the 'Gnostic fallacy' of attempts to tnrascend the human body altogether in online self-reinvention and apolitical late-consumer wish-fulfilment. Yiffing, adult chat, conspiracy theories, slashfic, Robin Hood fantasists, conspiracy theorists. Anyone can speak out and the Net will carry their voices.

Meanwhile, the commercialisation of social networking, incursions of PR into viral memes and ARGs and other colonisations of this discursive space continue apace. Far from seeming straightforwardly emancipatory, the West is looking more and more like a chance to make a quick buck from those too dumb to read between the lines.

And up in the clouds, the new literati continue to proclaim a uotpia that conveniently elides the 'digital divide' to propound a networked future that skips blithely over matters such as war, climate change, political fissures and the like. Instead, we are to hail the Web as apotheosis of human ingenuity, repository of our collective memory, successor to print culture and ever more inevitable helter-skelter toward 'the singularity'.

It is as though the price of free information is cultural atomisation and commercial rapacity, and the utopia of the Web a kind of autonomy and diversity that only holds in the disembodied and self-referential online world.

Whither Authority?

On the Net, readers write, and writers read. Anyone can self-publish. So, following the principle that the status and authority of a text is in direct proportion to its scarcity, to write is no longer to be the privileged accessor and producer of canonical, authoritative texts. Notions of authorship and any but the most provisional and conversational kind of intellectual leadership become meaningless.

The boundary between 'worth reading' and 'worthless blah' is blurred by the visible, trackable emergence of content from the swamp of chatter. And, watching content emerge, it is plainly impossible to posit for the Net a set of human-centric values as (however speciously) the literary canon allowed. The Net has no transcendental signifier except itself, no cohesion to celebrate except that of technologically-enabled pseudo-diversity.

The grammar of the Web is not one of human languages or literary forms, but one of computer languages. Online, the Writers (in the sense of those invested with weight, status and Authority) are software developers. No text writer may have the final word; nor will he shape the grammars he works with. Coders, on the other hand, create the enabling conditions for interaction. Online tools, social networking apps, tagging devices and so on are the online equivalent of literary genres and rhetorical turns. It is no coincidence that creators of ARGs, the closest contemporary contender for consideration as a Net-native literary form, are as likely to be skilled at cryptography, concealing IP addresses and scrambling QuickTime as arranging paragraphs or working up a good gradatio.

6. Temporary certainties

The transformation of Authority online into positionality and consensus relativises the tradition of the book beyond any attempt by that tradition to appropriate the energy of the Net, or vice versa. But that does not mean that the tradition of the book and the culture of the Net exist in some kind of presumably teleological continuity. Rather, they operate in counterpart to one another: if the tradition of the book encompasses authority, fixity, universality, boundedness and physicality, the kind of reading and writing enabled by the Net represents positionality, ephemerality, specificity, endlessness and abstraction. The culture of the Net is the photographic negative of the tradition of the book. From all this it follows for me that to attempt to translate the tradition of the book onto the Net would be a fundamental category error. But knowing this doesn't render that tradition useless.

One unique and beautiful property of the Net is that it makes visible a discursive penumbra within which emergence, complexity and the activity of entire networks are rendered visible and imaginable. This is having a profound effect on human culture: from the current Lynx advert to the kinds of stories, movies and theories people want.

The Net's ability to render visible the exquisite chaos-patterned micro-complexity of discourse in formation makes impossible to discuss books solely with reference to one another, or else with reference to nothing but the author's experience. It is further untenable to propose authority, fixity and so on as having any kind of objective or immutable value as - once translated online - these values become their inverse. But it is the uncritical acceptance of the truth of this tradition which is obsolete, not the kinds of interaction that tradition made possible. Extended thought, offline storage of human culture, tactile interaction with words and thoughts from the past - all these things have been discussed elsewhere on if:book. As 'temporary certainties', the traditions of the book still have much to offer.

To gallop towards an entirely networked future, without scrutinising its relationship to our past, is to risk abandoning several thousand years' worth of admittedly partial but by no means worthless human history. And, in Santayana's words, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

7. http://www.getafirstlife.com

In conclusion, I want to return to that aspect of the tradition of the book that has been most thoroughly obscured by that tradition's self-created mythology: the physicality of the book. In this context, it stands for the physicality of us, human beings with finite lives who eat and sleep and are busy running our planet out of resources.

The physicality both of the book and of us returns us to two things. Firstly, the desire to upload our consciousness into the Net conceals some dubious assumptions. And secondly, pre-Web technologies of communication don't just disappear. The vision I have of the future of intellectual discourse is one in which this multiplicity - and the consciousness of multiplicity that is gained from experiencing the wild diversity of the Web - is foregrounded. I want to see orality and print not superseded but augmented and recontextualised, in an on- and offline web of discourse that includes viral messages, community fanzines, micro-literature, print libraries, desktop printouts of Web-circulated literature annotated in Biro, along with printed books and online communication.

I envision the place of the Web in this network not as a disembodied space for self-reinvention, sexual fantasy and transhuman pseudo-utopia but as a tool connecting actual, physical communities conscious of themselves as such. At its best, I see the Web's quality of visualising emergence and complexity as a potential means for our culture to realise a decentralised culture where hierarchical governance and centralised culture are seen as the mirages they are.

Online, I envision a multimedia environment that broadens the concept of 'reading' beyond the strictures of the canon, without losing sight of what the canon achieved. In this culture, I imagine the writer as bard, coder of groups and websites, custodian of community history: the author not as individualised transcendental signifier of a self-referential canon hell-bent on erasing the material and political traces of its production, but as selector and archivist of culture, equally capable of poetry-slamming or handling a printing press, manual typewriter, word-processing package, server and local wifi network. I imagine both readers and writers conversant in the specific qualities of different media and capable of translating between them without privileging one form.

8. I hope apocalypse doesn't arrive in my lifetime

So, in conclusion, I see the Web as having the potential both to drive a disastrous atomisation of human culture, and also - perhaps - beginning to seed the kinds of community that could still redeem us from this fate. But I think that in order to avoid the former, it is essential that the relativising force of the Net is itself relativised, however provisionally, and that it becomes a tool in our service and not we in it. We owe ourselves a deep engagement with these new technologies, and with the patterns in human culture that they render visible.

But to stop there is to render ourselves desperately vulnerable. What the Net teaches us about human culture needs to be translated into cultural forms that could - if required - survive the death of the network. And that includes thinking through the tradition of the book and learning what we can from how it has structured and filtered knowledge to date. And it means avoiding the temptation to translate this tradition into a form structurally other to it, and risk hollowing our culture worthless in the process, but to look for ways of embodying the best of our past that make fruitful use of the new tools we have.

Which parts of the tradition of the book does the Institute for its future still support?

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alan lomax & the long tail of culture: an idea for the future Post date  01.25.2007, 9:34 AM

posted by dan visel

This is a review of Chris Anderson's The Long Tail which I've scanned from p. 27 of the print edition of the 19 January 2007 edition of the Times Literary Supplement. (The TLS has a month delay on posting their articles to their online archive, so I couldn't find an online version, hence this scan; click for a fullsize version.) This starts off like an ordinary review of The Long Tail, summarizing the ideas of the book; I've clipped the first column. Where this gets interesting is in the second column of the scan, the sentence that starts "Undeniably, computers and the internet". I really like how Hamilton turns back to Alan Lomax's vision: this seems not dissimilar from many of the ideas we were throwing around, and might be a useful point of discussion.

longtail.review.gif

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some notes on a manifesto Post date  01.22.2007, 11:48 AM

posted by bob stein

this isn't in opposition to what brian wrote. just some notes i made to clarify points i think need to be included. one big question i have is what is the purpose of the manifesto -- what do we want people's response to be?

humanity at a crossroads (always true, but currently the choices made will have profound long-term implications.

new digital technologies have unleashed powerful forces which can take us in quite different directions

complexity and atomization . . . 19th century technology could be understood and wielded by individuals. not true of 21st century technology which requires complex chains of effort.

future depends significantly on the character of the discourse that takes place
(major difference between allowing the market and drive for profit to determine the future vs. careful consideration of where we want to go and the design of technology and social institutions to get us there)

changing nature of the role of the individual . . .
under capitalism the primacy of the individual is revered above all else; new technologies redefine the relation of the individual to the group; nodes in a network, the extent of interconnectivity locally, regionally and internationally

books carry ideas across time and space so that we can have extended conversations about the ideas in them. we need the conversation to be both deep and broad. need better tools and mechanisms for representing complex ideas and the conversation they engender.

cannot just be a think tank, need to think and do . . .

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climate change, technology and culture Post date  01.19.2007, 10:40 PM

posted by sebastian mary

There's been a lot of talk in the press lately about the possibility that climate change may be closer to the point of no return than people thought. It suddenly occurred to me that in all the retreat's discussions about the future of the book, we didn't really touch on the potential impact of external factors such as this on people's use of technology or way of thinking.

This may come out somewhat garbled, as it's the middle of the night (3.45 GMT) and I'm not sure why I'm awake. But I think that any sense of the inevitability of technological 'progress' needs to be checked against the extreme likelihood of climate change dramatically altering our way of life in a way that includes our relationship to and use of technology.

To put it more simply, what happens to the networked book if (for instance) all the lights go out? If this is even possible, is it not profoundly short-sighted to be championing digital culture without some capacity for moving or archiving that culture offline as well?

Is this a fruitful avenue to explore, or simply way too apocalyptic? Either way, I think it merits naming.

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manifesto draft from brian -- please discuss Post date  01.19.2007, 7:05 PM

posted by bob stein

There are diametrically opposed cultural forces ranged in conflict across the world. In the face of increasing atomization, suspicion and hierarchical privilege, the digital age has opened vast new possibilities for human creativity and communication. It is challenging and transforming the ways in which ideas are transported between cultures, countries and communities. It threatens the power of gatekeepers and censors. It has made possible and visible networks of human discourse, collaborative production, critique and action.

Paradoxically, networked communication is fostering intense individual creativity. The Internet, born as a tool for scientific collaboration, has opened a dramatic new universe of cultural cooperation. There is a synergy between an emerging networked culture and creative individuality. It finds metaphorical parallels as we more profoundly grasp the vast network of stars and galaxies in which our small blue dot is a vibrant, intelligent and totally dependent speck; as we more profoundly grasp the dense network of life on this planet of which we are only one, brilliant manifestation.

The birth of the networked culture we are observing seems spontaneous, a force of life itself. But in reality it is the intentional creation of hundreds of thousands of people who work painstakingly to invent the tools that make it possible. The forms of this communication do have a spontaneous aspect that is both exhilarating and deeply unsatisfying. Some are put off by the banality inherent in mass communication. Some fear the dictatorship of the crowd. There is no guarantee that the promise of communication in the digital age will not emulate earlier technologies breech of hope. Already sharp battles are emerging in the market place over access and content control.

Yet it is certain that something new is being born within the constraints of the old economies of creation and communication. Collaborative authorship, interaction between creator and reader/viewer, collapse of time and space between production and consumption, new criteria of authenticity, versioning, fixity of boundaries and media.

Publishing in the digital age is undergoing a profound metamorphous. The Institute for the Future of the Book is a focused project to explore and test the possibilities that the constantly developing digital technologies are opening for human discourse. The Institute is an experimental publishing node in the network of authors, artists, editors and filmmakers, discovering new ways to present their creations and to generate interaction between them and the networks of people who are drawn to respond to their work. We will continue to explore new ideas for collaborative, networked production and intend to build a library of networked publications that can be widely tested for their substantive originality, usability and impact.

We invite you to join us.

Consumers of Culture Arise. We have nothing to lose but our eyesight. We've got a world of merriment to gain!

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agenda in process Post date  01.13.2007, 8:17 AM

posted by bob stein

the purpose of the meeting is to reinvent the institute -- institute 2.0

there is a loose agenda covering four large and general areas . . . . the intention going in is to tackle them in the following order, however we're also going to try to be flexible and see where the discussion takes us. . . .

THE FUTURE OF THE BOOK
what have we learned during the past two and a half years about the future of the book
-- the new role of author/reader
-- the role of books in society
-- the book as a social space
-- expanding the notion of a book to include both process and conversation

SOPHIE
(see dan's Quo Vadis, Sophie post)
can we make a case for Sophie now
-- what sort of tools do we think the future of the book requires

WHAT WE DO -- IN A META SENSE
what is the proper relation for us between:
-- between theory and practice
-- institute as publishing lab and institute as policy think tank
-- experiments and fully realized projects (institute as lab vs. institute as publisher)

HOW WE PRESENT THE INSTITUTE AND HOW WE WORK IN THE WORLD
(see Ben's "housekeeping" post and Bob's "in the open" post)
-- if:book
-- website
-- the role of design (see Jesse's comment on the "housekeeping" post)


to what extent do we need to understand the broader context of the world we live in to understand the future of the book

as dan pointed out we tend to take the internet, and the WWW particularly as the givens in terms of "where" our work is located.

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extended thought Post date  01.12.2007, 4:57 PM

posted by dan visel

I have another concern which has been coming up recently in a variety of guises, and which I haven't had the chance to think about as much as I'd like. This is at least partially triggered by reading the new edition of Sven Birkerts's The Gutenberg Elegies. What's most surprising to me was how much I've found to agree with in that book: I remember it (from reading parts a long time ago) as being a collection of reactionary texts, and, by and large, it's not the book I remembered at all.

I have realized, for a while, that many of Birkerts's concerns are my own; I wasn't particularly disagreeing with him when we had our "debate" in Boston. This isn't tremendously surprising, seeing as I come from a liberal arts background and value the place of reading in my life to a worrying degree. Reading is almost certainly the primary lens through which I view the world, a mode of thinking. Lest I tread into the swamp of mawkishness: I don't want to sentimentalize this. I don't think reading is important in and of itself. I don't buy the argument that it's better for the kids to be reading garbage than to be reading nothing. This is an assumption that underpins my argument about fantasy and Pan's Labyrinth over on the Second Life thread.

What Birkerts is championing, and what I find myself agreeing with, is the value of long-form reading as a method of shaping consciousness. This is a clunky way to put it. But this comes back around to our continuing problems of defining what exactly a book is, in the context of the Institute. To me, I think, a certain kind of extended thought on the part of the reader is important. It's extremely difficult for me to qualify or quantify this extent. To make it more clear where I'm coming from, I can see a film qualifying as this kind of book; a lot of book art wouldn't qualify as a book, unless it's sufficiently interesting that a discussion could happen around it. A telephone book is not a book; the vast majority of what's on YouTube wouldn't be a book, though some might well qualify. To me it's not so much the extent of the book that matters – an essay would qualify – but the extent of the engagement of thought.

Birkerts isn't phrasing it in this way. He understands – very well – the opposite: the problematics of media for a short attention span. He tends to fall back on print books as the only alternative which I think isn't quite right. This is why he's taken as a Luddite. (This is also, I think, Neil Postman territory, though I haven't done as much of the reading there as I should.) But he's not arguing for old technology in favor of new, or against new technology: he's arguing for a specific way of thinking. I think this is important and worth preserving as we move forward. Presenting this kind of thought isn't something that comes naturally to the internet; I think this might be something we should be thinking about when we talk about networked books.

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