In case you missed the news last week, Siva has locked up a deal with the University of California Press to publish the North American print edition of The Googlization of Everything. It’s due out late summer, 2009. Profile will publish it in the UK and British Commonwealth. We’re currently brainstorming next steps for the blog as Siva moves into intense drafting and revising mode. Congrats, Siva!
A pair of important posts, one by Siva Vaidhyanathan and one by Henry Jenkins, call for an end to generationally divisive rhetoric like “digital immigrants” and “digital natives.”
Partly, I resist such talk because I don’t think that “generations” are meaningful social categories. Talking about “Generation X” as if there were some discernable unifying traits or experiences that all people born between 1964 and pick a year after 1974 is about as useful as saying that all Capricorns share some trait or experience. Yes, today one-twelfth of the world will “experience trouble at work but satisfaction in love.” Right.
Invoking generations invariably demands an exclusive focus on people of wealth and means, because they get to express their preferences (for music, clothes, electronics, etc.) in ways that are easy to count. It always excludes immigrants, not to mention those born beyond the borders of the United States. And it excludes anyone on the margins of mainstream consumer or cultural behavior.
In the case of the “digital generation,” the class, ethnic, and geographic biases could not be more obvious.
In reality, whether we are talking about games or fan culture or any of the other forms of expression which most often get associated with digital natives, we are talking about forms of cultural expression that involve at least as many adults as youth. Fan culture can trace its history back to the early part of the 20th century; the average gamer is in their twenties and thirties. These are spaces where adults and young people interact with each other in ways that are radically different from the fixed generational hierarchies affiliated with school, church, or the family. They are spaces where adults and young people can at least sometimes approach each other as equals, can learn from each other, can interact together in new terms, even if there’s a growing tendency to pathologize any contact on line between adults and youth outside of those familiar structures.
As long as we divide the world into digital natives and immigrants, we won’t be able to talk meaningfully about the kinds of sharing that occurs between adults and children and we won’t be able to imagine other ways that adults can interact with youth outside of these cultural divides. What once seemed to be a powerful tool for rethinking old assumptions about what kinds of educational experiences or skills were valuable, which was what excited me about Prensky’s original formulation [pdf], now becomes a rhetorical device that short circuits thinking about meaningful collaboration across the generations.
Walt Whitman’s poem “Sparkles from the Wheel” beautifully captures the pleasure and exhilaration of watching work in progress:
WHERE the city’s ceaseless crowd moves on, the live-long day,
Withdrawn, I join a group of children watching – ?I pause aside with them.
By the curb, toward the edge of the flagging,
A knife-grinder works at his wheel, sharpening a great knife;
Bending over, he carefully holds it to the stone – ?by foot and knee,
With measur’d tread, he turns rapidly – ?As he presses with light but firm hand,
Forth issue, then, in copious golden jets,
Sparkles from the wheel.
The scene, and all its belongings – ?how they seize and affect me!
The sad, sharp-chinn’d old man, with worn clothes, and broad shoulder-band of leather;
Myself, effusing and fluid – ?a phantom curiously floating – ?now here absorb’d and arrested;
The group, (an unminded point, set in a vast surrounding;)
The attentive, quiet children – ?the loud, proud, restive base of the streets;
The low, hoarse purr of the whirling stone – ?the light-press’d blade,
Diffusing, dropping, sideways-darting, in tiny showers of gold,
Sparkles from the wheel.
I was reminded of this the other day while reading a brief report in Library Journal on Siva’s recent cross-blog argument with Michigan University Librarian Paul Courant about Google book digitization contracts. These sorts of exchanges are not new in themselves, but blogs have made it possible for them to occur much more spontaneously and, in Siva’s case, to put them visibly in the context of a larger intellectual project. It’s a nice snapshot of the sort of moment that can happen along the way when the writing process is made more transparent -? seeing an argument crystallize or a position get clarified. And there’s a special kind of pleasure and exhilaration that comes from reading this way, seeing Siva sharpening his knife -? or argument -? and the rhetorical sparks that fly off the screen. Here’s that Library Journal bit:
Discussion of Google Scan Plan Heats Up on Blogs:
Now this is why we love the Blogosphere. In launching his blog, University of Michigan’s (UM) dean of libraries Paul Courant recently offered a spirited defense of UM’s somewhat controversial scan plan with Google. That post drew quite a few comments, and a direct response from Siva Vaidhyanathan the author, blogger, and University of Virginia professor currently writing the Googlization of Everything online at the Institute for the Future of the Book; that of course drew a response from Courant. The result? A lively and illuminating dialog on Google’s book scanning efforts.
As far as the dream of textual connectivity and annotations — making books more “Webby” — we don’t need new devices to do that. Nor do we need different social processes. But we do need better copyright laws to facilitate such remixes and critical engagement.
So consider this $400 device from Amazon. Once you drop that cash, you still can’t get books for the $9 cost of writing, editing, and formating. You still pay close to the $30 physical cost that includes all the transportation, warehousing, taxes, returns, and shoplifting built into the price. You can only use Amazon to get texts, thus locking you into a service that might not be best or cheapest. You can only use Sprint to download texts or get Web information. You can’t transfer all you linking and annotating to another machine or network your work. If the DRM fails, you are out of luck. If the device fails, you might not be able to put your library on a new device.
All the highfallutin’ talk about a new way of reading leading to a new way of writing ignores some basic hard problems: the companies involved in this effort do not share goals. And they do not respect readers or writers.
I say we route around them and use these here devices — personal computers — to forge better reading and writing processes.
We’re very excited to announce that Siva’s new Google book site, produced and hosted by the Institute, is now live! In addition to being the seed of what will likely be a very important book, I’ll bet that over time this will become one of the best Google-focused blogs on the Web.
The Googlization of Everything: How One Company is Disrupting Culture, Commerce, and Community… and Why We Should Worry.
…a critical interpretation of the actions and intentions behind the cultural behemoth that is Google, Inc. The book will answer three key questions: What does the world look like through the lens of Google?; How is Google’s ubiquity affecting the production and dissemination of knowledge?; and how has the corporation altered the rules and practices that govern other companies, institutions, and states?
I have never tried to write a book this way. Few have. Writing has been a lonely, selfish pursuit for my so far. I tend to wall myself off from the world (and my loved ones) for days at a time in fits and spurts when I get into a writing groove. I don’t shave. I order pizza. I grumble. I ignore emails from my mother.
I tend to comb through and revise every sentence five or six times (although I am not sure that actually shows up in the quality of my prose). Only when I am sure that I have not embarrassed myself (or when the editor calls to threaten me with a cancelled contract – whichever comes first) do I show anyone what I have written. Now, this is not an uncommon process. Closed composition is the default among writers. We go to great lengths to develop trusted networks of readers and other writers with whom we can workshop – or as I prefer to call it because it’s what the jazz musicians do, woodshed our work.
Well, I am going to do my best to woodshed in public. As I compose bits and pieces of work, I will post them here. They might be very brief bits. They might never make it into the manuscript. But they will be up here for you to rip up or smooth over.
That’s the thing. For a number of years now I have made my bones in the intellectual world trumpeting the virtues of openness and the values of connectivity. I was an early proponent of applying “open source” models to scholarship, journalism, and lots of other things.
And, more to the point: One of my key concerns with Google is that it is a black box. Something that means so much to us reveals so little of itself.
So I would be a hypocrite if I wrote this book any other way. This book will not be a black box.
We’re just a couple of days away from launching what promises to be one of our most important projects to date, The Googlization of Everything, a weblog where Siva Vaidhyanathan (who’s a fellow here) will publicly develop his new book, a major critical examination of the Google behemoth. As an appetizer, check out this First Monday podcast conversation with Siva on the subject of Google’s book activities (mp3, transcript).
Q: So what’s the alternative? Who are the major players, what are the major policy points?
SIVA: I think this is an important enough project where we need to have a nationwide effort. We have to have a publicly funded effort. Guided, perhaps led by the Library of Congress, certainly a consortium of public university libraries could do just as well to do it.
We’re willing to do these sorts of big projects in the sciences. Look at how individual states are rallying billions of dollars to fund stem cell research right now. Look at the ways the United States government, the French government, the Japanese government rallied billions of dollars for the Human Genome Project out of concern that all that essential information was going to be privatized and served in an inefficient and unwieldy way.
So those are the models that I would like to see us pursue. What saddens me about Google’s initiative, is that it’s let so many people off the hook. Essentially we’ve seen so many people say, “Great now we don’t have to do the digital library projects we were planning to do.” And many of these libraries involved in the Google project were in the process of producing their own digital libraries. We don’t have to do that any more because Google will do it for us. We don’t have to worry about things like quality because Google will take care of the quantity.
And so what I would like to see? I would like to see all the major public universities, public research universities, in the country gather together and raise the money or persuade Congress to deliver the money to do this sort of thing because it’s in the public interest, not because it’s in Google’s interest. If it really is this important we should be able to mount a public campaign, a set of arguments and convince the people with the purse strings that this should be done right.