The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book
Nunberg, Geoffrey and Patrizia Violi, editors. The Future
of the Book, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California
Between the ranting of the bibliophiles and the technophiles, some
tempered voices are raising important questions about computers and books. The
Future of the Book, edited by Geoffrey Nunberg, is a collection of such voices.
The essayists are librarians, professors and writers. There's even an afterword
by renowned semiologist and novelist Umberto Eco. This work frames the debate
about the future of the book in the digital age with a lot of erudition but also
some unwarranted concerns.
Several essays provide information about the history and development
of the book. They remark that the paper-based book, like the alphabet, was once
the latest technological rage and was met with resistance, like the computer,
from the establishment because books are more than delivery systems for
information. They are a way of life developed over centuries. As Carla Hesse,
James J. O'Donnell and Paul Duguid explain, our concepts of authors, readers,
the canon of texts, and texts as intellectual property were not inevitable but
"were the cumulative results of part social and political choices...." (21)
Most of the essayists are concerned with what O'Donnell calls the
"reconstruction of our culture"1 by
computers. This revolution can radically alter the concept of the book as a
legal, even sacred, object, undermining current concepts of the author and the
reader as well. It will disrupt established publishing and distribution methods
for texts. It will decentralize control and access of information currently
dominated by the government, universities and libraries. It even threatens to
redefine the nature of texts and, more important, the nature and function of
George P. Landow, for example, thinks that "Unlike all previous forms
of textuality, the digital word is virtual, not physical." (216) Regis Debray
agrees that hypertext and the lack of closure it brings would make computer
texts "fatherless and propertyless, borderless and customs-free text, which
everyone can manipulate and which can be disseminated everywhere." (146)
The notion, however, that printed books are spatial and computer texts
are temporal is like assuming that radio waves are not physical because we can't
see them. Text on computer screens is not suspended in some parallel universe.
Computer text does exist in some type of very real, though invisible, memory -
RAM, ROM or cache. And, as Luca Toschi says, even if we link texts, each of
those computerized texts will have an author and a copyright. (169) As for
authorship, surely the last 20 years of postmodern critical theory have done
enough to discredit notions of closure that try to privilege authors'
interpretations of their texts. As a reader, teacher, literary critic, author
and publisher, I have yet to see any author control a reader's interpretation.
Closure is an illusion, albeit a necessary one for texts. Cyberspace will not
destroy the concept of authorship and texts as legal entities. Just read those
dire warning labels about copyright infringement on the latest web page you
surfed or on that software you just bought.
Geoffrey Nunberg sees hypertext leading to a loss of quality
information because he thinks criteria for publishing on the Internet is not
controlled as well as it is by established publishing norms. To him, "Computers
don't preserve the social and material boundaries... they disrupt the properties
embodied in the notion of publishing." (124) Nunberg is correct. But, I don't
think removing control of publishing from the hands of a few communications
conglomerates, whose bottom line is money, is such a terrible thing. Sure, a lot
of junk will get published on the Internet. But, take a look at most of the
books sold at large chainstores. Are they really the purveyors of any culture to
which you want to be seriously connected?
Others, like Nunberg, are also concerned about the collapse of
catalogs and classifications of information by hypertext because collections
won't be materially constrained. The chaos that surely will follow is to him
akin to removing library walls and seeing the reading rooms fill up with street
people." (129) Understand, the government, universities and libraries have
controlled information and access to it for centuries. They have done a pretty
good job. But like other bureaucracies, they won't easily surrender their
control. In spite of this, computers have made revolutionary changes in how
information is accessed. Most of the changes suggest that it will be a more
democratic, less elitist and bureaucratic system, at least for a while.
Virtual reality (VR), more than hypertext, is seen by many of these
essayists as the major threat to the book as the purveyor of our culture and a
particular threat to verbal language. (268) A good part of their concern has to
do with an apparent lack of closure to VR worlds. It is true that VR will create
entertainment, work and instructional environments all over the known landscape.
But, there is a vast difference between having a VR experience and writing a
novel about a VR experience. For example, I planned to produce a computerized
video novel (CVN) about a VR experience in which I was going to use VR as a
technique in the novel itself, much like a stream of consciousness or omniscient
point of view. The work was a paper-based manuscript submitted to my multimedia
publishing company. It was about a motel whose rooms narrated stories about its
guests. I wanted to create a VR interface so that readers could enter the hotel
and walk around the rooms. They could watch TV and even hear the toilet flush.
The novel had a beginning, middle and end. It had the prerequisite illusion of
closure. It was to be the second in a series of computerized video novels that I
was writing and publishing. In them, I do "renegotiate words and images," but I
find that words are the primary medium. These CVNs are not interactive. The
reader does not change the stories or role-play the characters or write
themselves all over the text. And, I can assure you that I go to great lengths
to maintain copyrights and trademarks for authors. Consequently, I can agree
with Michael Joyce that even virtual worlds are structures of words.2 But, there
is a critical difference between looking through and experiencing virtual worlds
and looking at and creating texts about them as Richard Lanham points out
elsewhere.3 Again, the
difference between experiencing a VR world and writing a text about that
experience is clear. One is life; the other is art.
But, anxiety about virtual reality runs even deeper. It has to do with
what Jay David Bolter calls "the renegotiation of word and image" with images
dominating text and leading "to a crisis in rhetoric." (264) He and others
direly predict that VR is a movement toward "an unmediated perception of the
world" away from language altogether, toward natural signs. I find these
comments interesting but unrealistic.(269) When, for example, was the last time
you had an "unmediated perception?" Maybe once, back in the womb? If you're not
sure, maybe it's time to reread Mikhail Bakhtin.4 And, how
can a sign be natural once we make it symbolic?
One common word runs through most of these essays - "closure."
Possibly because, like Debray, others here believe, "You can't have culture
without closure." (148) Translation: "You can't have the culture of the book
without closure." These essayists understand that "closure" is just another word
for having everything left to lose. It's about appropriation, power and control
- control over the meaning of texts; control over who and what gets published;
control over information and access to it; control over the canon of texts;
control over the use and functions of language; and more.
Some of the essayists express serious concerns about the effect of the
computer on the culture of the book. Others express unwarranted speculations.
Many happily conclude that society is not at the mercy of implacable
techno-forces. O'Donnell, for one, asks not what computers can do to or for
people, but rather what people can do with computers "by pitching in joyously to
the ongoing reconstruction of our culture." (54) The main flaw of "The Future of
the Book" is that it's a book - with some outdated information and flawed
assumptions. More important, it offers vital insights into how we can shape our
multimedia future and still preserve the cultural connection to our most
glorious, printed past.
It is this "reconstruction of our culture" (54) by computers, however, that
concerns most of the essayists. Geoffrey Nunberg quickly and amusingly dismisses
those bibliophiles who whine about computers replacing books because they can
not curl up by the fire and read a computer or take one to the beach. Nunberg
points out that those "twitchy little screens" are continuously improving while
books as we know them today took centuries to refine.
While I agree in principle with O'Donnell that often predictions about
computers are made by "mugs," I think it is possible to see more than
"twenty-minutes into the future" by people who, like me, work on a daily basis
publishing on CD-ROMs and the Internet. I think desktop computers are currently
powerful enough to become home servers, like main frame computers once were.
They can hold all the hardware and software necessary to keep Intel and
Microsoft contented beasts. But these desktop servers should shortly be equipped
with cordless terminals, like telephone extensions. I picture these terminals as
if they were slim volumes of poetry. Not only will we be able to curl up by the
fire and read on them, we will be able to haul them to the beach. I would
suggest putting solar panels on the covers of these PC terminals so that when we
snooze with them over our faces as we soak up the sun they'll be recharging.
As for predictions, I wish Time and Newsweek, etc. would stop
asking Bill Gates what the next major revolution in computers will be. Bill
Gates is not the Louis Daimler of the computer; he's the Henry Ford. His genius
lies in seeing the viability of other people's inventions and then using his
power and wealth to make them necessities for the masses.
The same would apply to Michael Joyce's Hotel MOO. It can never be literature
because it does not have an author creating a universe that has a beginning,
middle and ending. Instead, the MOO is an experience such as playing a very
unique and interesting game of charades. It could only become literature if
Joyce or someone else wrote a novel that simulated a MOO. In this case, the MOO
program, like the VR technology in our CVNs, could be used as a novelistic
technique. Joyce would have to create the characters, manipulate their behavior,
and write their stories. And yes, he would have to fake closure. Again, the
difference between experiencing a MOO and writing a text about that experience
is that one's life, the other art.
Lanham, Richard. The Electric Word: Democracy, Technology and the Arts,
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Richard Lanham describes two ways of
looking at texts here and elsewhere. The first is a looking through the text;
the second is a looking at the text. Nowhere in this work is Lanham referring to
Virtual Reality that I'm aware of. I have applied his theory about two ways of
looking at a text to Virtual Reality because I think it works in explaining the
dilemma some of these essayists find themselves in when they fail to distinguish
between experiencing a VR, MOO, MUD, or hypertext and recreating these
experiences in literature. The former would be like going through the funhouse
at the State Fair. The latter would be like reading John Barth's Lost in the
Funhouse. The former is looking through the experience; the latter is
looking at the textuality that recreates the experience in an attempt to
understand the experience, among other things.
T. Todorov, translated by W. Godzick, Mikhail Bakhtin:The Dialogic
Principle, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. "No member of a
verbal community can ever find words in language that are neutral, exempt from
the aspirations and evaluations of the other, uninhabited by the other's voice.
On the contrary, he receives the word by the other's voice and it remains filled
with that voice. He intervenes in his own contexts from another context, already
penetrated by other's intentions." (13:131)
H. M. Franking writes books and software and owns a multimedia
software publishing company. Her latest work is Celebrity Ink - "The First
Internet Trash Tabloid with Text, Video and Music."
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