Some more conversation and links roiling around the post I wrote the other day about killing books to save books (which, just to be clear, means that I want to save books by enhancing books with the new opportunities the digital age brings… ditto newspapers… ditto television… ditto all media).
Books, for starters, are about a lot more than “communicating information.” I like having books around because I find them pretty, for example. Their somewhat random presence is a reminder of things past, almost always in a nice way. A well-made book has a very pleasant feel, a tactile sensation that makes you want to hold it. The words themselves are only a part of it.
And when we think about the words, the “information”, it’s hard to separate them from the way in which they are being read. Books are usually read in a different physical context, and in a different mental space, than other types of reading material. They are, at their best, things that transport you, take you to another world, probably one far, far away from the frenetic information exchange that is the internet.
Mr Jarvis gripes that books represent “lecture media” – the bad old kind of media in which the professionals tell it to the laymen, as opposed to the good new kind of media that is a conversation among peers. Now Mr Jarvis is an evangelist of conversation media, but still: lectures have their place. I’m not looking to have a conversation with Dostoevsky, or Don DeLillo, or even a great non-fiction writer like Robert Caro. I’m looking to be carried off by their words, enchanted by their artistry, and the fewer digital distractions and yammering commenters, the better.
But in all seriousness, it’s always fun to watch intellectuals spar, but the underpinnings of this debate go to the core of modern philosophical debate. Do we believe in mob rule, where any and all group discussion is an improvement, as the digital utopians do? Or do we celebrate the artist, the expert and the author as cultural beacons?
Jarvis says: Print is where words go to die.
Carr says: The Web is where culture goes to die.
But just as with books in print and digital form, it’s not either/or, it’s and.
: Alex Wright argues, delightfully, the contrary problem: Discussing the web in terms of books limits the web:
I suppose it’s inevitable that writers will tend to view the Web through the filter of books and other printed artifacts; they seem to instinctively look at the Web as a better or worse kind of “book.” But that’s an awfully restrictive vision. As Walter J. Ong argued, electronic media in many ways resemble oral culture more closely than they do traditional literate culture (a topic I touched on briefly at the IA Summit). This is not to say that online media are by any means identical to oral cultures; rather, they exhibit a “secondary orality,” filtered through literacy, that nonetheless bears many hallmarks of older oral cultures. To understand what’s really going on, we need to widen our gaze beyond the traditional – and relatively recent – reference points of print culture to understand the role of deeper patterns rooted in our pre-literate past.
This is no easy task; we have such a collective cultural bias towards literacy that we tend to overlook the role of oral culture in shaping the way we communicate. But the reemergence of oral culture online, coupled with the rise of visual symbolism and spatial wayfinding, suggests whole ranges of experience that have little or nothing to do with books. This is a topic I’ve been probing in the book I’ve been working on (and about which I should have more to say in the next couple of months).
For now, the writerly crowd seems stuck in this mode of framing the Web exclusively in terms of its relationship to print. As long as the discussion remains mired in this kind of reductionism, I suspect we’re just going to keep seeing variations on the same tired themes, and the kind of reflexive confrontationalism that fails to allow for the complexity of what’s really happening. Not that it matters all that much; I imagine the Web will go on.
: Content to be Different says:
Jarvis speaks about the reverence we have for the book. We may indeed fetishise the object or the whole cultural practice from browsing the bookshop to curling up in bed to passing the book to a friend. But why should that be a problem. If the publishing industry can find a way to sell dead trees – I for one would still want to buy paper and ink as a gift for a new baby for instance – so be it. The issue is not the medium it is the economics.
Jarvis says: “We need to get over the book. And then we can reinvent it.”
We are moving into a media space where cultural practices lead developments rather than follow where Big Media strategies or economic models follows. It is not the book that needs reinventing, it is publishing. And that re-invention is happening and it is happening from below.
Imagine a media space where readers have the options to passively read or actively read/write. Imagine they can do that with the formats they choose, paper, screen, pda, phone whatever. Imagine a generation where they concentrate on the practices and experiences of reading/writing and discovering the best information and the most impactful content rather than the medium or the author….
: Eddie Awad condensed the discussion so far into a good gravy.
: John P. Mayer jumps off to call for electronic legal casebooks.
: Dinesh Tantri likens the issues in publishing with those in knowledge management.