Category Archives: future_of_the_book

a book by any other name

Predicting the future is a fool’s errand, but it comforts me to look back on the past and see that some questions are important enough to revisit in each new age. In the 1996 collection The Future of the Book, edited by Geoffrey Nunberg, there are several essays that treat the same questions that we are concerned with now: how will reading change in the digital environment? What will be the form of digital texts? What role for the author? The reader?
Dan’s recent post provoked a range of commentary that clearly illustrates the ongoing status of the debate. Despite the fact that these questions were raised, and treated, more than a decade ago—and certainly even further back, in texts I am unaware of (please make recommendations)—their answers are still unknown, which makes their relevance undiminished. The discussion is necessary, as Gary Frost pointed out, because “we do not have a vernacular beyond synthetics such as blog or Wiki or live journal or listserv.” We haven’t developed a canonical term for this idea of a digital text that includes multimedia, that accretes other text and multimedia from the activity of the network. When you are working at the edges of technology, inventing new terms of art to try and explain and market your concept, the jargon production is fever pitched. But we just haven’t been exploring this question long enough to see what odd word will stick that can serve to separate the idea of a physical book, in all its permutations, from the notion of a networked book, in its unexplored mystery. It’s a fundamental direction of our research at the Institute, and the contributions from our community of readers continues to be instructive.

pendulums, spirals, edges and mush

In friday’s Christian Science Monitor article about networked books, Geoff Nunberg who along with Umberto Eco convened the seminal conference on The Future of the Book, suggested that collaboration has its limits.

Some thinkers argue that while collaboration may work for an online encyclopedia, it’s anathema to original works of art or scholarship, both of which require a point of view and an authorial voice.
“Novels, biography, criticism, political philosophy … the books that we care about, those books are going to be in print for a very long time,” says Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley. “The reason they aren’t more jointly offered isn’t that we haven’t had technology to do it, it’s that books represent a singular point of view.”
Take three biographies of Noah Webster and you’ll have three distinct lenses on the man’s life, but an amalgam of the three would say virtually nothing, Mr. Nunberg argues.
“When people are using collaborative tools, they will naturally collaborate to a more neutral, less personal point of view,” he adds. That homogenization kills originality and dulls a work. “The thing you can say about Wikipedia’s articles is that they’re always boring.”

For awhile now, I’ve been saying that the value of the wikipedia article is not in the last edit, but in the history; that the back and forth between individual voices theoretically brings the points of disagreement, which must by definition be the important stuff, into sharp relief. So, if one could find a way to publish a meta biography of Webster which allowed the individual voices to have an honest conversation the result, far from being mush might provide a triangulated synthesis much closer to the truth than any single voice.
Curious, I looked up the wikipedia article on Noah Webster and went directly to it’s history. What struck me right away is that it hard to “read” the history. in part, this is because the interface isn’t very clear, but there’s a deeper reason, which no doubt contributes to the failure of the design, which is that we just don’t know yet how to conduct a debate within the context of an expository text. [flashing lights and pealing of alarm bells — great subject for a symposium and/or design competition].
On Friday I was discussing this with John Seely Brown who suggested that one of the values of print over online publication is that you get closure and that without closure you do end up with mush. He said we need edges.
Back in the late 80’s i remember making a particularly impassioned critique of Bob Abel’s Columbus Project, which compiled a pastiche of hundreds of film clips and images which taken together were supposed to say something about Columbus’ role in history. I decried the absence of a clear authorial voice, saying that readers needed something solid to come up against, otherwise how could they form an opinion or learn anything.
So i found myself thinking that the pendulum (at least mine) has swung decisively in the other direction as we work to blur some of the distinctions beween authors and reader and to imagine the “never-ending” book. I’m not suggesting that it’s time for the pendulum to swing back — god knows, we’ve just started exploring the possiblilities of the networked book — but maybe it’s time to begin considering seriously how we’re going to design networked books so that there is something solid for readers to react to. If we can do a good job of this, then it won’t be a pendulum swing back to the authority of the single author but rather a ramp up the sprial to a new synthesis.