Friday, July 25, 2008

Books, Books, and Books (That Aren't Books)

  • Kevin Kelly, "The Fate of the Book." Partly cribbed from a 1995 Harper's forum with Kelly, John Barlow, Mark Slouka, and Sven Birkerts:
KELLY: [W]hat is going on now [1995] is more exciting than what was going on ten years ago [uh, c. 1985]. Look, computers are over. All the effects that we can imagine coming from standalone computers have already happened. What we're talking about now is not a computer revolution, it's a communications revolution. And communication is, of course, the basis of culture itself. The idea that this world we are building is somehow diminishing communication is all wrong. In fact, it's enhancing communication. It is allowing all kinds of new language. Sven, there's this idea in your book that reading is the highest way in which the soul can discover and deepen its own nature. But there is nothing I've seen in online experience that excludes that. In fact, when I was reading your book I had a very interesting epiphany. At one point, in an essay on the experience of reading, you ask the question, "Where am I when I am involved in a book?" Well, here's the real answer: you're in cyberspace. That's exactly where you are. You're in the same place you are when you're in a movie theater, you're in the same place you are when you're on the phone, you're in the same place you are when you're on-line.
KELLY: Here you are wrong. If you hung out online, you'd find out that the language is not, in fact, flattening; it's flourishing. At this point in history, most of the evolution of language, most of the richness in language, is happening in this space that we are creating. It's not happening in novels.

BIRKERTS: I wish some of this marvelous prose could be downloaded and shown to me.

KELLY: You can't download it. That's the whole point. You want to download it so that you can read it like a book. But that's precisely what it can't be. You want it to be data, but it's experience. And it's an experience that you have to have there. When you go on-line, you're not going to have a book experience.

BIRKERTS: Well, I want a book experience.

KELLY: You think that somehow a book is the height of human achievement. It is not.

  • Robert Darnton, "The Library in the New Age." About a month and a half old, and I may have even linked to it already, but still good. There are four great transformations in the history of writing: 1) hieroglyphs --> alphabet; 2) scroll --> codex; 3) script --> print/type; 4) mechanical --> electronic.
DARNTON: Each change in the technology has transformed the information landscape, and the speed-up has continued at such a rate as to seem both unstoppable and incomprehensible. In the long view—what French historians call la longue durée—the general picture looks quite clear—or, rather, dizzying. But by aligning the facts in this manner, I have made them lead to an excessively dramatic conclusion. Historians, American as well as French, often play such tricks. By rearranging the evidence, it is possible to arrive at a different picture, one that emphasizes continuity instead of change. The continuity I have in mind has to do with the nature of information itself or, to put it differently, the inherent instability of texts. In place of the long-term view of technological transformations, which underlies the common notion that we have just entered a new era, the information age, I want to argue that every age was an age of information, each in its own way, and that information has always been unstable.


DARNTON: I used to be a newspaper reporter myself. I got my basic training as a college kid covering police headquarters in Newark in 1959. Although I had worked on school newspapers, I did not know what news was—that is, what events would make a story and what combination of words would make it into print after passing muster with the night city editor. When events reached headquarters, they normally took the form of "squeal sheets" or typed reports of calls received at the central switchboard. Squeal sheets concerned everything from stray dogs to murders, and they accumulated at a rate of a dozen every half hour. My job was to collect them from a lieutenant on the second floor, go through them for anything that might be news, and announce the potential news to the veteran reporters from a dozen papers playing poker in the press room on the ground floor. The poker game acted as a filter for the news. One of the reporters would say if something I selected would be worth checking out. I did the checking, usually by phone calls to key offices like the homicide squad. If the information was good enough, I would tell the poker game, whose members would phone it in to their city desks. But it had to be really good—that is, what ordinary people would consider bad—to warrant interrupting the never-ending game. Poker was everyone's main interest—everyone but me: I could not afford to play (cards cost a dollar ante, a lot of money in those days), and I needed to develop a nose for news.

I soon learned to disregard DOAs (dead on arrival, meaning ordinary deaths) and robberies of gas stations, but it took time for me to spot something really "good," like a holdup in a respectable store or a water main break at a central location. One day I found a squeal sheet that was so good —it combined rape and murder—that I went straight to the homicide squad instead of reporting first to the poker game. When I showed it to the lieutenant on duty, he looked at me in disgust: "Don't you see this, kid?" he said, pointing to a B in parentheses after the names of the victim and the suspect. Only then did I notice that every name was followed by a B or a W. I did not know that crimes involving black people did not qualify as news.
TONKIN: The French alternative [to Google Books] – Gallica 2 – went live in March, but with a tiny database of 62,000 volumes. Elsewhere, from Bavaria to Barcelona, destination libraries have begun to fall under the Google spell. Three years ago, I watched Jens Redmer, head of Google Book Search in Europe, mesmerise a bunch of publishers at a conference in a suitably James Bond-ish resort hotel in Greece. Ernst Stavro Blofeld himself could not have chilled them more. "There's no evil masterplan behind this," Redmer assured us. The literary custodians of Old Europe clearly suspected there was, even if they reacted to the promise (or threat) of mass digitisation with all the resolve of a chicken coop when Mr Fox calls.

Now even France has started to succumb. The municipal library in Lyon – the second largest in the land – has signed up with Google Book Search to digitise half a million titles already in the public domain. Gérard Collomb, the mayor of Lyon (and a Socialist, by the way), enthuses that internet access "allows us to open our doors to the rest of the world". Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin could not have put it more succinctly.

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