What ho, Bloggers!
Sorry, been a little busy attending lectures the last little while. Which, as some of you may be aware, never fails to start me spewing out words onto the Internet late at night…well, life got in the way on that one a little, but now that I’ve dispensed with such fripperies as life-having I am back. And I want to talk about Books, The Digitization Of.
Well, why not? Everybody else is, after all…everybody without a real opinion, everybody to whom it doesn’t really matter, every lamebrain newspaper columnist who feels pressure to prove that they really are in the know, that they and only they are capable of summing up both the value of books and the meaning of the shift towards their electronification, for the gaspingly perspectiveless unwashed that forms their public. And, man, something gone wrong in that calculation, eh? I mean if it were me, the dumber my audience the duller I’d think my thought…which perhaps explains my complacency when it comes to my own dullness, since you all are so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed that it’s easy for me to believe myself interesting, since my readers are so interesting themselves. And, so, maybe I’m not all that interesting myself, but at least I know you all don’t lack for perspective of your own! And so why would I think you’re in any need of my opinion…?
It takes the pressure off, see. I don’t need to prove I’m in the know and up to the job. If I was drawing a paycheque I wouldn’t feel the need to justify it; since I’m doing this all for no money at all I feel even less need like that. Who am I, after all, to presume I have my fingers on any pulses? Why should I think I have anything special to say about it all, let alone enough perspective on a thing which has really just happened, to fit it into any kind of historical scheme? Again: it isn’t like there’s any great shortage of people trying to do that, either, and with qualifications no better than mine. And look what absurdities they toss out! Suddenly Zuckerberg is reinvented as a master sociologist, in addition to the tired old saw of books being buggy whips; every engineer thinks they know why people buy books and what they are for. It reminds me a little of this Stewart Lee interview I was looking at the other day, in which he relates the story of Margaret Thatcher asking a college student what she was studying, getting back an answer like “Old Norse”, and remarking on what a wonderful luxury it must be to be able to study something like that…something totally impractical.
But of course it isn’t impractical at all, as Stewart and his interviewer each manage to point out in about an eighth of a second…though Stewart goes on to point out that pointing that out is not the best rebuttal to so profoundly ignorant an attitude as Mrs. Thatcher’s, since it implicitly accepts her terms: that study must be justified, and art doubly so. When really the best rebuttal is simply saying that it doesn’t have to be justified that way. Because it doesn’t matter if Lord Of The Rings has made a billion dollars thus far or something, and driven a massive pile of money around to the benefit of lots and lots and lots of people, because Tolkien doesn’t need defending…only the study of Old Norse does. And one defends it thusly:
“Fuck off, Thatcher.”
Because either you have a knowledge-and-lifestyle monoculture in your country or you don’t; and either you want it or you don’t. And it never has been about the money, the return on investment, the justification: it’s only ever been about, only is about to this day, whether or not difference is to be tolerated. Maggie Thatcher thought Old Norse was a luxury despite Tolkien’s fame — it isn’t about the money it made. It’s about students, teachers, writers, scholars, dissenters, gay people and green people and grumbly people and most of all the fuckin’ hippies.
It’s about how they all need to go!
And the hell with the justification that money brings, it doesn’t matter. That isn’t what the justification is intended to justify, you see, it’s not supposed to justify the thing you’re trying to get rid of by using it! And so Stew is right, because defending art on the grounds that it’s good for the economy won’t work anyway. Britain, after all, is the generator of arts-based money flows in the English-speaking world — I wish my own country had a thousandth of that demonstrably finance-based prestige, let alone with the artistic merit going along with it! — inevitably, since people actually prefer good art to bad, why you’d be surprised — and so in any reasonable version of the UK those famous old looney-tune arts colleges would never have been closed, would’ve actually been expanded instead. And an attack on libraries would be seen by the right as an attempt to cripple the national economy! A rather soulless defence of libraries, it’s true, but not necessarily a wholly out-to-lunch one…at least, one in touch with what money is good for. I mean, my God, how broke does a Western democracy have to be, to be able to afford to get rid of libraries? Obviously it must be post-apocalyptic-wasteland broke at a minimum — money must mean nothing! — but then if money means nothing then the books are still valuable, so even in that event money can never mean so little that libraries can’t be afforded. But does that all matter? Not really. Because to get rid of all the poofs, no price can possibly be too high or low…
So it’s like this: once you don’t let anyone hold the “economic justification” rationale for closing up schools, libraries, arts faculties, grant programs, research allocations, opportunities to breathe free, etc. etc…once you fully deny the legitimacy of that rationale, as if you’re honest you must, then you’re just left with this wonderfully triple-rectified transparently self-aggrandizing ignorance. In my country, an ex-CEO of a big-ass corporation was recently heard to announce that universities are no good anymore because a university degree doesn’t do your earning potential any good if you have it…which made me wonder what country is this guy living in, and is it really the same as mine? Because in my country a university degree in anything increases your earning potential, and it isn’t even up for debate: it just does. It’s just a fact that it does, and it doesn’t matter who says it isn’t. There is no economic rationale for closing down the Philology Department, and wouldn’t be even if J.R.R. Tolkien had never lived…people who imply otherwise are just having fun with their words, it’s just a bunch of hot air, it’s total garbage and belongs in the garbage — it’s a point of view unworthy of any thinking person’s respect.
So once you withhold your respect from it, then you can get on with a less catastrophically blinkered view of current events. Right?
And so it’s back to Books, Digitization Of, and how everyone’s got an opinion about it. But no one ever really thinks about it. Which is why I wanted to go to a lecture given by three high-ranking university librarians, because I was curious about what the grown-ups had to say about it. Your average university library, even one in backwoodsy old Vancouver, B.C., home to the hewers of wood and the drawers of water, represents an inventory vast enough to have been valued at hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars when the books were purchased, which is also growing so fast that storage becomes a fantastically pressing issue, and so every day is a day spent in Triage. Because every archive is incomplete, not just in known ways but in unknown ones: an invisible bomb has always blown out half the walls of any library you’re in, and you wander around not knowing it. And every book is an irreplaceable reliquary object upon which innovative scholarship may one day demand to be practised, but you have no way of knowing which ones are going to be the ones, and indeed they probably all will be those ones, but even so though you mustn’t lose any book you can never be sure of preventing a loss. And so what do you do, if you’re the person in charge of such an archive?
How does the digitization of books affect you?
Here is the point we have gotten up to: we may now speculate on the affordances of books, as distinguished from the affordances of e-books. Every engineer with an opinion online believes that a book’s sole utility is in the words it contains, but in all likelihood this isn’t true, and if it did happen to be true it’d only be true by accident, because online engineers with opinions are fabulously unlikely (that is, if one can judge by the things they say) to have ever sat down and really thought about a book’s affordances. Because they don’t have to, and in fact if they are e-books-type people they almost have to not do this. Just as Old Maggie pretty much had to not think about Tolkien when she spoke down to the Old Norse student. Of course digitized books have affordances too, just as business colleges do…I joke with my friend the e-book…but there’s no point saying they’re the same, or that if they’re different it doesn’t matter, when we haven’t even bothered to think about making a list of what they are! We hear a lot about how people like books because of pointless and impractical aesthetic criteria that they will soon abandon and not miss, once e-books impress them sufficiently/are the only kinds of books there are…as we do about that “buggy whips” thing, which doesn’t really hold too much water once you realize that if the parallels make sense then we are living in a world where many people have two luxury automobiles plus a motorcycle, and are looking into getting a couple hybrids just to round it off, and still cheerfully keep all the buggy-whip manufacturers in business.
Which is wrong for them to do, obviously, because: progress, right?
How dare you still buy buggy whips! How dare you not put those buggy-whip guys out of business!
Hmm, well as much as I think it’d be a laugh to leave that question unanswered…
…Maybe this is part of the reason why, although given these early days it must be far from being a complete description.
But, in brief:
1. Books can be bought and/or read anonymously.
2. The purchase of a book is a complete economic transaction; there are no hidden future costs or hidden current benefits to a book’s purchase, reading, re-reading, lending or selling, storing, donation, recommendation, or disposal.
3. Or to put it another way: you can own a book.
4. Let me go a bit further still, by saying that you can own a book’s contents by owning its physical substance; the physical substance of a book cannot be separated from the information it contains.
5. This is important because up until very recently there was no reason to imagine that carrier and signal were anything but identical in this way — the question simply never came up before now, and since it’s being uncritically touted as one of the advantages of an e-book that content and substance may be severed, a corrective is needed: the severability of substance and content is not simply “Book Plus”, something you always wanted to do but never could, just like a regular book but now it has an extra feature…it is, rather, a completely seperate affordance.
6. You can buy a book from any store; no book is exclusive to a retail outlet.
7. Books can be had cheap.
8. Books are cheaply replaceable, as well as uncomplicatedly replaceable.
9. Books are unpowered. That is: they are completely unpowered. For some reason this seems to be a sticking-point in many discussions of the different affordances — but books are unpowered in the way that sailboats are unpowered, it’s no good saying “well, this powerboat goes so slowly and quietly that it’s exactly like a sailboat”, because it isn’t exactly like it, rather it’s exactly not the same at all. “Only rarely do you have to fill the powerboat up with gas, and sometimes it can even be gassed up while you’re sleeping” is not on the same continuum as “never needs gassing up; you can’t gas it up even if you want to, even if the gas is almost free.” One thing has a power system. The other thing doesn’t. That’s a qualitative difference.
10. Similarly, it’s an aesthetic difference: sailing an unpowered boat is not the same as sailing a powered one. On a sailboat there is a transparency of operation, a directness in the perception of cause and effect and process. The wind goes into the sail and the rope tightens; you move the tiller and the thing gets steered by physics alone. On a powerboat, you push a lever forward and the boat goes forward, but that isn’t transparency of cause and effect and process, it’s an arbitrary interface that is non-transparent. One sees something similar in stoves, where you can either have a bunch of dials or a bunch of buttons. Now, maybe you’d have to peel off the dial to see exactly what it was doing underneath, and maybe using a dial-feature electric stove is not really in the same category as using the “plumbing” of a gas stove, or indeed like valving water on and off in the case of actual plumbing…maybe on an electric stove the dial is no more transparent than the pushbutton format so much more popular now than it was a few years ago. Heck, maybe that pushbutton stove is more honest than that dial stove: “this turns the oven on, and this turns it off.” Which would be an amusing case of a dial-operated stove-maker attempting just what the maker of an e-reader does when he or she includes a “page-flipping” interface: pretending the processes are other than they are. Maybe the dial’s pointer runs through a circle of electrical contacts to engage the user in a misperception of directness! Nevertheless, there is an aesthetic distinction to be made in any case, and in the case of the book it isn’t an interface tricking you into thinking something that isn’t so, anymore than your shower or washing machine does. Meanwhile, nobody even bothers making dishwashers with dials and…damn, where did that point go again…?
11. I think there’s a cool discussion about design to be had in there somewhere, but I guess we’ll have to leave it for another time!
12. Related: excluding literacy itself (though not in every case!), books do not have a learning curve.
13. Books vary in weight, shape, ornamentation.
14. Books have aesthetics very sensitively designed into them: packaging as well as printing. These might themselves be viewed as individual affordances, the affordances of an art object or the affordances of a disposable object or perhaps even some range in the middle.
15. No two books are ever identical.
16. The same book is always available in a variety of different editions.
17. Books are collectible.
18. Books are portable; and, portable to different degrees in different cases.
19. Books can be handled in a very great variety of ways, even handled sensitively in accordance with the whim of the reader.
20. Books are durable.
21. Books are non-metallic.
22. Books are not electronically disruptable.
23. Books are “original copies”, and may in fact be true originals.
24. It’s harder not to order a selection of books than it is to order them — and associations among and between various (and variable!) groupings and sub-groupings of books, along a multitude of different conceptual axes, sometimes many at once, are all but unconsciously created, quickly and effortlessly, reversibly and without cost.
25. Books make nice gifts.
Well, twenty-five seems like a nice round number, doesn’t it? I left off what is in my opinion the most important affordance, because I already mentioned it up above: books are historical objects. No one talks about getting rid of the Mona Lisa because they’ve got a digital picture of it, do they? No. Because there is always something more to discover, about any physical object…but we never know what there is to be discovered, until somebody thinks of it. New Euripides plays are speeding our way because X-rays revealed their texts in mummy-wrappings. Maggie Thatcher might not have cared about that, though. One day we may have a novel based on as-yet-unimagined differences between the 400 different editions of Gulliver’s Travels contained in the Special Collection of the UBC Library, and I like to think she wouldn’t care about that either. Why one day we may even have a whole series of books, beloved worldwide, that sprang from an interest in ancient languages. It could happen.
Though none of that — none of it! — is to say that you can’t make a list of the affordances of e-books that is just as long as my list above. One in particular that I’ve been thinking about for what seems like a long time now, is the advantages that go along with a “powered” reading experience: hyperlinking, we call it on the world wide web. Well, sometimes a sailboat just won’t do, for going where you want to go! Or, you might find that certain kinds of books read better off a phone than anywhere else: this, too, could happen. Certainly for ease of reading when it comes to annotations, footnotes and endnotes and things like that — translations, probably — e-books promise much that books can’t match. But then the idea is that we are not looking for matches; we are looking for the opposite of matches. For differences.
Really, I don’t think we can even get started thinking about all of this properly unless that’s what we’re looking for. If we want perspective, simply adopting positions isn’t enough to give it to us.
The real thing to have, is information.
Man, I hope I can make it to that next lecture tomorrow. Unfortunately to get next to information, you sometimes need money. Me, I need busfare.
But thank goodness I don’t need anything else!
Okay, regularly-scheduled programming resumes tomorrow or so.
Thanks for coming out!