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The Future of the Book by Geoffrey Nunberg

The Future of the Book (edition 1996)

by Geoffrey Nunberg

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Title:The Future of the Book
Authors:Geoffrey Nunberg
Info:University of California Press (1996), Paperback, 250 pages
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The Future of the Book by Geoffrey Nunberg



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I recently finished reading *The Future of the Book* (FB), which was part of my [[2004 Christmas pull]], a gift from Rosie. (UgP:Rosie) It's an anthology of essays coming out of some kind of Xerox-sponsored conference in Europe; its appeal derives from the editorship of Geoff Nunberg of "Language Log":http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/ and its closing piece by Umberto Eco. (WikiPedia:Umberto_Eco)

The book was fairly interesting. Particularly for someone who, like me, is very interested in the possibilities of [[computer-assisted rhetoric]]. However, it's somewhat antiquated--it was written in 1996, which doesn't sound like a long time ago until I focus on the fact that I was just starting high school & had never met any of the people (excluding close relatives) who could be included under the heading of "people I know." Or until I notice the attention paid in FB to MOOs, or two the two-browser universe anchored by Netscape and Mosaic. Mosaic, I say. Or that the most interesting markup of the time was HTML, apparently, or that Ted Nelson is cited twice. The hottest new thing in computing at the time? *Myst*. (Not that I'm saying *Myst* wasn't cool, or anything.)

But of course, from my standpoint, the big problem is that this was before the time of blogs and wikis, these being the only two really interesting textual innovations of the computer age, as far as I'm concerned. I would very much like to round these people up and ask them to submit a supplement taking these things into account...

Far too much attention is paid to hypertext--as though hypertext were something intrinsically more interesting than cross-referencing and illustrations in an encyclopedia, or footnotes and diagrams in an article. (cf. "this":http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/publications/Projects/digitexts/mcclintock/appendix.html article referenced in "Caveat Lector":http://cavlec.yarinareth.net/ "here.":http://cavlec.yarinareth.net/archives/2004/06/17/on-print-hypertext/) Even when it is acknowledged that these sorts of print strategies are hypertextual, they are ascribed "primitive" status (never a safe word in the world of theory of any kind)...as for multimedia, there is little *functional* and *categorical* difference between the possibilities of print and those of most implementations of electronic hypertext. Books have pictures, many of them move, some of them are three-dimensional, some of them *pop up* (let's see your computer emulate *that* functionality)...flip-books and sliding elements can create motion, and even interactive simulation is possible--I recall a math book that I received as a gift around junior high school that included all sorts of nifty sliding widgets, decoders, and three-d models, all made of paper and/or plastic and/or thread and all packaged as a book. Computing does not enable fundamentally different forms of textuality, only cheaper, easier, faster versions of existing forms...

Except, possibly, for blogs and wikis--which primarily by their *social* nature, not any intrinsic quality of their internal structure, are difficult to imagine without the high-speed interconnectedness of the internet.

But some of the essays are quite interesting; I had not previously given much thought to the similarities of the differences between books and newspapers/pamphlets/etc. and between books and the internet, for example, as Hesse's investigation of the textual forms of the French Revolution reveals. (It's a question of time-scale, you see--the ability to cheaply and rapidly produce a text, as opposed to slowly shepherding it through the editorial process, typesetting, publication, etc., making the fast-text forms more politically useful (and dangerous).) Some of the librarians shored up their own future employability by pointing out the need for information specialists and institutions to mediate the massive information glut. Others emphasized the changing nature of the author (a little silly) and of *authority* (less silly, and more new to me), the latter an interesting problem for projects like WikiPedia, as shown by the recent "Sanger whine.":http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=05/01/03/144207

The best essays are the historical ones, like Hesse's, and Nunberg's "Farewell to the Information Age," which challenges the myth of the computer as a tool of the "information age" using the philology of the word "information" itself, which, he asserts, in the *true* information age of the reference book and the newspaper, acquired connotations of neutrality or pregiven-ness (167) that embody certain epistemological assumptions: "One can be a skeptic about knowledge, but not about information." (ibid) Information serves to "flatten and obscure the subjective social topographies," (Agre, in Nunberg, ibid) and "both covers and covers up much of what was referred to by the anthropological sense of 'culture'." (Bell, in Nunberg, ibid); information can do this because "the authorizing context is folded into the form of the document itself." (122)

Information is felt to be both meaningful and neutral, non-author-dependent, unassailably factual. Nunberg contrasts this with "intelligence", which he regards as the real content-type of the internet: "We read web documents...not as information but as intelligence, which requires an explicit warrant of one form or another," (128) meaning something outside the document must validate, verify, or confirm it. Intelligence always requires us to use judgment in assessing its factual status. (He quotes Emerson at one point: "One must be an inventor to read well.")

This has important consequences for the role of social communication in mediating the whole of the internet, and in this I think history, such as it is, since 1996 has born Nunberg out: "Electronic publication implies a new calculus of reputation, which I think no one has yet come to terms with." (106) This clearly anticipates the expanding importance of technologies like web-of-trust, advogato's trust metric, and friend-grouped-based publication levels on sites like livejournal. Nunberg also points out that,

One of the most pervasive features of these media is how closely they seem to reproduce the conditions of discourse of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the sense of the public was mediated through a series of transitive personal relationships--the **friends of ones friends**, and so on--and anchored in the immediate connections of clubs, coffee-houses, salons, and the rest... (130)

at which point I promptly scrawled "FOAF!":/CMRold/FoaF in the margins. (Wow, I am so witty, or something.)

He also observes that,

One of the most striking things about the web is the secondary traffic of *trouvailles* that it encourages, either in the form of the mail messages that users exchange when they locate an interesting or useful website...or of the active links to ther sites that users embed in their own web pages...(128)

Which is interesting in that this has, since then, become a so-much-more technologized, public (or quasi-public), and formalized practice or set of practices--blogging, feed- and link-aggregators, etc...

Eco's essay is also enjoyable, though insubstantial; it has relatively little interesting "information" or "intelligence" about computers and books, but I did like some of the things he said about TV:

The problem with the yuppies is not only that they watch TV instead of reading books; it is that Public Broadcasting is the only place where somebody knows who Gibbon was.

Today the concept of literacy comprises many media. An englightened policy of literacy must take into account the possibilities of all of these medias. (298)

On the same page he notes, I believe in response to one of the other essays,

In the Middle Ages visual communication was, for the masses, more important than writing. But Chartres Cathedral {as a visual text} was not culturally inferior to the *Imago Mundi* of "Autun.":http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07461a.htm Cathedrals were the TV of those times and the difference from our TV was that the directors of medieval TV read good books, had a lot of imagination, and worked for the public benefit (or, at least, for what they believed to be the public benefit).

Which is just fabulous, and the phrase "directors of medieval TV" is as delightful as Sam's "Pilgrim Detectives" in West Wing. ( )
  kukkurovaca | May 28, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0520204514, Paperback)

The death of the book has been duly announced, and with it the end of brick-and-mortar libraries, traditional publishers, linear narrative, authorship, and disciplinarity, along with the emergence of a more equitable discursive order. These essays suggest that it won't be that simple. The digitization of discourse will not be effected without some wrenching social and cultural dislocations.
The contributors to this volume are enthusiastic about the possibilities created by digital technologies, instruments that many of them have played a role in developing and deploying. But they also see the new media raising serious critical issues that force us to reexamine basic notions about rhetoric, reading, and the nature of discourse itself.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:13 -0400)

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