Category Archives: india

a leap into the post-industrial

I’ve just returned from a quick trip to India: with my brain yet furry from jetlag, I’ve yet to come to any understanding of what I experienced there, should such be possible. But while in Delhi, I picked up an enormous book entitled 60 Years of Book Publishing in India, a compendium edited by Dina N. Malhotra in 2006, which I made my way through on the flight back to New York. If you’re looking for an overview of the Indian publishing industry and how books function in modern India, as I was, this is a decent place to start. As you might expect, book publishing in India is enormously complex: 80,000 books are published a year by 16,000 different publishers in India’s 22 major languages. Translation happens between Indian languages and to and from non-Indian languages. Piracy is a major issue: a number of contributors bemoan the fact that anything published in Bengali is immediately pirated in Bangladesh (and shortly thereafter on sale in the shops of my neighborhood in Queens). It’s not hard to get any book copied and rebound in an Indian town of any size; pirated books are readily sold on the street.
While there are Indian libraries, they’re not organized or particularly supported by the government. (The pictures scattered through this are from the Asiatic Society Mumbai, the city’s largest library open to the general public.) India’s linguistic diversity – a level comparable to that of Europe – is one of its great strengths, but this complexity has also complicated efforts to systematize knowledge. A more complicating issue is the issue of literacy, a function: while the country has made astounding gains since independence, adult literacy is still around 60%. An article by Mohini Rao entitled “Publishing Children’s Books” gives a sense of the space that books in India exist in:

India is a country of extremes and contrasts where the very modern and the very old coexist. On the one hand, we are anxious to use the latest printing technology and, on the other, there are some parts of the country where people have not even seen a printed book! People are at various stages of development. The Space Age has taken over even before the Dark Age could completely recede into history. We are facing the post-literacy problems even before achieving complete literacy. We are coping with the information revolution even as we struggle with pre-industrial problems. . . . According to the report of the committee on TV software, ‘. . . Electronic media like the radio and TV have the potential of transcending the literacy barrier and therefore also the class barrier.’ TV has made it possible for the non-literate masses to have access to information, and consequently, to the fruits of development without first crossing the literacy barrier. People belonging to the pre-industrial era can take a leap into the post-industrial era without passing through the stages through which the West had to pass.

(p. 257.) The prospect of a leap to the post-literate (however that might be defined) isn’t one that’s strictly confined to India. In a broader sense, it’s an issue the entire world is facing, and an issue that if:book has been engaged with since its inception if not always consciously. We look at reading and writing through an historical context that we’ve passed through: we can only think of what comes past the book by thinking through the book. No writing on technology can be entirely immune from this perspective. (A number of the articles in 60 Years, for example, offhandedly remark that the problem of book piracy in India will be solved at that point copyright is enforced as it is in the West, a position which seems hopelessly optimistic: copyright laws can’t escape Benjamin’s avenging Angel of History.)
Much of the criticism of Sven Birkerts’s Gutenberg Elegies accused the author of being blind to the future because of the past. But Birkerts, I think, was right in a very basic sense: we can’t help but see the future through the lens of the past. The narrative of the Gutenberg Elegies is autobiographical, tracing a life constructed through books. The conversation that takes place on this blog is a product of the same forces, regardless of one’s preference for print or screen reading. We’d like the Institute’s values to be those of literate humanism: how do we account for a possible future post-literate population? The book to come belongs to everyone: it would be presumptuous to assume that everyone is like us, or should be like us.
If a lion could speak, Wittgenstein pointed out, we could not understand it. St. Jerome, patron saint of translators and noted lion-keeper, ordered his lion about, though he’s not recorded as listening to what his lion might have had to say. But understanding the coming position of the book in India and the world is probably not a matter of translation, which requires literacy, but rather one of transformation, a making of new forms. How can we start thinking about this problem in a sensible way?

the children’s machine

That’s now the name of the $100 laptop, or one laptop per child. Fits up to six children inside.
Why is it that the publicity images of these machines are always like this? Ghostly showroom white and all the kids crammed inside. What might it mean? I get the feeling that we’re looking at the developers’ fantasy. All this well-intentioned industry and aspiration poured into these little day-glo machines. But totally decontextualized, in a vacuum.

This ealier one was supposed to show poor, brown hands reaching for the stars, but it looked more to me like children sinking in quicksand.
Indian Education Secretary Sudeep Banerjee, explaining last month why his country would not be placing an order for Negroponte’s machines, put it more bluntly. He called the laptops “pedagogically suspect.”
An exhange in the comments below made me want to clarify my position here. Bleak humor aside, I really hope that the laptop project succeeds. From the little I’ve heard, it appears that the developers have some really interesting ideas about the kind of software that’ll go into these things.
Dan, still reeling from three days of Wikimania earlier this month, as well as other meetings concerning OLPC, relayed the fact that the word processing software being bundled into the laptops will all be wiki-based, putting the focus on student collaboration over mesh networks. This may not sound like such a big deal, but just take a moment to ponder the implications of having all class writing assignments being carried out wikis. The different sorts of skills and attitudes that collaborating on everything might nurture. There a million things that could go wrong with the One Laptop Per Child project, but you can’t accuse its developers of lacking bold ideas about education.
Still, I’m skeptical that those ideas will connect successfully to real classroom situations. For instance, we’re not really hearing anything about teacher training. One hopes that community groups will spring into action to help develop and implement new pedagogical strategies that put the Children’s Machines to good use. But can we count on this happening? I’m afraid this might be the fatal gap in this otherwise brilliant project.

subtitles and the future of reading

After enduring a weeks-long PR pummeling for its dealings in China, Google is hard at work to improve its image in the world, racking up some points for good after slipping briefly into evil. Recently they launched a website for the Google Foundation, the corporation’s philanthropic arm and central office of evil mitigation. Paying a visit to the site, the disillusioned among us will be pleased to find that the foundation is already sponsoring a handful of worthy initiatives, along with a grants program that donates free web advertising to nonprofit organizations. And just in case we were concerned that Google might not apply its techno-capitalist wizardry to altruism as zealously as to making profit, they just announced today they’ve named a new director for the foundation by the name of — no joke — Dr. Brilliant. So it seems the world is in capable hands.
One project in particular caught my eye in light of recent discussions about screen-based reading and genre-blending visions of the book. Planet Read is an organization that promotes literacy in India through Same Language Subtitling — a simple but apparently effective technique for building basic reading skills, taking popular visual entertainment like Bollywood movies and adding subtitles in English and Hindi along the bottom of the screen. A number of samples (sadly no Bollywood, just videos or photo montages set to Indian folk songs) can be found on Google Video. Here’s one that I particularly liked:

Watching the video — managing the interplay between moving text and moving pictures — I began to wonder whether there are possibly some clues to be mined here about the future of reading. Yes, Planet Read is designed first and foremost to train basic alphabetic literacy, turning a captive audience into a captive classroom. But in doing so, might it not also be nurturing another kind of literacy?
The problem with contemporary discussions about the future of the book is that they are mired — for cultural and economic reasons — in a highly inflexible conception of what a book can be. People who grew up with print tend to assume that going digital is simply a matter of switching containers (with a few enhancements thrown in the mix), failing to consider how the actual content of books might change, or how the act of reading — which increasingly takes place in a dyanamic visual context — may eventually demand a more dynamic kind of text.
Blurring the lines between text and visual media naturally makes us uneasy because it points to a future that quite literally (for us dinosaurs at least) could be unreadable. But kids growing up today, in India or here in the States, are already highly accustomed to reading in screen-based environments, and so they probably have a somewhat different idea of what reading is. For them, text is likely just one ingredient in a complex combinatory medium.
Another example: Nochnoi Dozor (translated “Night Watch”) is a film that has widely been credited as the first Russian blockbuster of the post-Soviet era — an adrenaline-pumping, special effects-infused, sci-fi vampire epic made entirely by Russians, on Russian soil and on Russian themes (it’s based on a popular trilogy of novels). When it was released about a year and a half ago it shattered domestic box office records previously held by Western hits like Titanic and Lord of the Rings. Just about a month ago, the sequel “Day Watch” shattered the records set by “Night Watch.”
nochnoi dozor.jpg
While highly derivative of western action movies, Nochnoi Dozor is moody, raucous and darkly gorgeous, giving a good, gritty feel of contemporary Moscow. Its plot grows rickety in places, and sometimes things are downright incomprehensible (even, I’m told, with fluent Russian), so I’m skeptical about its prospects on this side of the globe. But goshdarnit, Russians can’t seem to get enough of it — so in an effort to lure American audiences over to this uniquely Russian gothic thriller, start building a brand out of the projected trilogy (and presumably pave the way for the eventual crossover to Hollywood of director Timur Bekmambetov), Fox Searchlight just last week rolled the film out in the U.S. on a very limited release.
What could this possibly have to do with the future of reading? Well, naturally the film is subtitled, and we all know how subtitles are the kiss of death for a film in the U.S. market (Passion of the Christ notwithstanding). But the marketers at Fox are trying something new with Nochnoi Dozor. No, they weren’t foolish enough to dub it, which would have robbed the film of the scratchy, smoke-scarred Moscow voices that give it so much of its texture. What they’ve done is played with the subtitles themselves, making them more active and responsive to the action in the film (sounds like some Flash programmer had a field day…). Here’s a description from an article in the NY Times (unfortunately now behind pay wall):

…[the words] change color and position on the screen, simulate dripping blood, stutter in emulation of a fearful query, or dissolve into red vapor to emulate a character’s gasping breaths.

And this from Anthony Lane’s review in the latest New Yorker:

…the subtitles, for instance, are the best I have encountered. Far from palely loitering at the foot of the screen, they lurk in odd corners of the frame and, at one point, glow scarlet and then spool away, like blood in water. I trust that this will start a technical trend and that, from here on, no respectable French actress will dream of removing her clothes unless at least three lines of dialogue can be made to unwind across her midriff.

It might seem strange to think of subtitling of foreign films as a harbinger of future reading practices. But then, with the increasing popularity of Asian cinema, and continued cross-pollination between comics and film, it’s not crazy to suspect that we’ll be seeing more of this kind of textual-visual fusion in the future.
Most significant is the idea that the text can itself be an actor in a perfomance: a frontier that has only barely been explored — though typography enthusiasts will likely pillory me for saying so.