The Global Transformation of Books and Reading
- The Book as Object
- Video Usurps the Sovereignty of the Book
- Not the End of Books, But of Reading As We Know It
- Printed Media Metaphors and Electronic Media Browsing
- From Icons to Icons, Books to Letters
- How Monitors Transform the Meaning of Paper
- Memory Media and Virtual Reality
- "External Brain" No Longer Touches the Keyboard
The Book as Object
Books are like buildings; they are tools to be used and lived in. They have a permanent physical presence as "things." They create an environment. A book can sit for ten or twenty years on a shelf, an unmoving object. But the moment you remove it from the shelf and open it, a book transcends its objecthood and begins to tell a story.
We may view books as capsules of knowledge or information, and compare them as such with electronic memory devices, judging them by the quantity of data they hold. This perception of books ignores their physical aspect, however. A book is not merely the information it contains. The cover of the physical book acquires a patina of other substances, both material (fingerprints and stains) and emotional (memories and associations).
If its only purpose is to provide information, then a book need not be made of paper. In examining the history of the book, we understand that it acquired its present form only a few hundred years ago. If the page is now to be replaced by the computer monitor, that is part of the natural order of things.
So far, electronic books have imitated books on paper. But today's videos and computer software products lack the substance of books, the physical presence that books share with streets and buildings. Electronic books may well have their own physical aspect, but this has yet to take an established form. We are therefore likely to see a further polarization between books that exude a classically physical aura (hand-bound books, antique books and the like) and books that serve
purely as capsules of information.
Video Usurps the Sovereignty of the Book
For some time now, a book that tells you all you need to know about it from a cursory skim has proliferated. Publishers today are interested only in books that sell in large quantities. People discard books without a second thought; booksellers no longer carry the kind of book
that is difficult to throw away. The bookshop was once a place that helped us accumulate and store history and memory, but no more: its sole function today is to move product.
Is this merely a transitional stage we must suffer through until a new medium capable of replacing the book acquires a physical substance worthy of its role? Or is it an omen of a fundamental transformation in the sense of time -- of memory, history, continuity -- that has sustained what we know as "culture"?
Today, the primary usurper of the book's sovereignty is not the computer, but the videocassette. On a deserted city street anywhere in the world at midnight tonight, the only illumination emanates from a video rental shop. Some streets may not offer bookstores, but they always have video stores. Their atmosphere resembles a bookshop from days gone by: customers pore over the spines of the cassettes that line the shelves, reaching out to grab the ones they want.
Pictures make people lazy. Whether at a scientific conference or a sales presentation, today's norm requires you to make your point visually -- using video, OHP transparencies, slides or computer programs like PowerPoint. At first glance, visual aids seem to make information easier
to understand. But even when information is fundamentally wrong, the momentum of images tends to gloss over errors and persuade the viewer that the information is correct. Viewers are denied the opportunity to delve into the material for deeper comprehension. Just like background music, the information flows by us, all too easy to ignore. We already are predisposed to absorb information that accompanies incoming video images; the medium evokes in us a different response from that of books we read.
Once we are habituated to reading, we can lose ourselves in books as well. We turn the pages one after the other, totally immersed, then suddenly look up and realize how far we've read. But even at its most unconscious, reading is an active undertaking -- unlike video, which comes at us from outside. Without the active participation of the reader, a collection of abstract symbols cannot metamorphose into a sensuous human character or inspire us with dynamic action.
The laziness induced in us by visual media has destroyed the culture of the book. Techniques for producing "easy-to-read" text have made great strides over the past fifty years. Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno recognized this trend from early on and adopted a strategy of deliberately exacerbating the established inclination toward abstruseness. History, however, responded by ignoring them and minimizing their readership. Meanwhile newspapers and magazines, which
covet the maximum possible readership, became thralls to the ideology of readability, of ease of comprehension. Their strategy paid off with soaring circulations of unprecedented, dare we say blockbuster, proportions.
However, this concern with readability has served to truncate the process of reading and comprehension. When you can grasp the full purport of a book from a cursory look at its title or table of contents, there is no need to read it. Indeed, not a few copies of every best-selling book are merely purchased, set aside and never perused. People buy these books not to read them, but simply so they can say they have them. "Oh yeah, I bought that, but I haven't read it yet." We need
a label for this new type of consumerism, which neither consumes nor comprehends the purchased product.
Not the End of Books, But of Reading As We Know It
Since the 1960s, the popularity of semiotics has inspired such turns of phrase as the "reading" of images. Movies and videos are "read"; "image syntax" is analyzed. But at the same time, audio-visual media have moved progressively towards demanding less effort of the audience who "reads" them. Reading takes place not only on the explicit level of consciousness or will, but also on unconscious or subconscious levels. Reading does much of its work in the realm of dreams.
There is a big difference between reading and listening: the presence or absence of motivation. We hear many sounds without intentionally listening to them, but text does not come alive for us until we read it. For this reason, books have absolutely nothing to fear from computers. On the contrary, the spread of computers may help revive the practice of reading from its current video-weakened state.
On the computer screen, the act of turning pages and gazing at text may actually gain a new lease on life, in both form and substance. Even now, electronic books seek to reproduce the original book format as faithfully as possible, to adopt the special characteristics of books in a more flexible form. From now on, the rendezvous between book and computer also will increasingly take on the appearance of the computer's subordination to the book. Computers may even be designed to look like books, with electronic screens serving as their pages. Think of cars and refrigerators -- ostensibly products of pre-computer technology yet equipped now with their own internal computers -- which have for all practical purposes metamorphosed into computer systems themselves.
We must concern ourselves not with the purported demise of the book, but with the transformation of reading, the process of thinking and feeling as we absorb words from a page. Television did not put an end to movies, but it significantly altered the way we look at them. Inevitably, this forced changes in the function of movies and the way they are made. Pacing became less narrative, more explosive. Overall flow took a back seat to instantaneous stimulation. The same trend has begun to appear in books.
In his book Orality and Literacy (Methuen, 1982), Walter J. Ong argues that the custom of reading books sequentially, from beginning to end, first gained popularity on a mass scale with the advent of the detective novel in the 19th century. Although this sequential reading process was already implicit in printing technology itself, earlier novels tended to reflect the episodic patterning of the oral storytelling tradition that preceded printing. In other words, pre-whodunit fiction could be read starting from any point in the book, not necessarily the beginning.
Printed Media Metaphors and Electronic Media Browsing
The browser has made it much easier to use computers. A browser is a GUI-based [GUI=Graphical User Interface] viewer that creates an interactive environment for the computer user. Without the development of browsers, the Internet would never have come to enjoy the universal popularity it does today. To browse means to skim, to read here and there, a choice of terms which suggests that a computer screen by definition is not something to be read from start to finish; users will not read the computer as they would a detective novel. If this is so, then electronic books, to the extent that they reflect the special properties of computers, will favor the browsing or skimming approach.
Electronic media differ from printed media in that they discard the essentially metaphorical function of the latter -- the function of conjuring up something before or behind the reader, and pointing the
reader toward it. In his book In the Vineyard of the Text (University of Chicago Press, 1993), Ivan Illich addresses an issue that at first glance would appear to be unique to medieval Europe, but in fact is the most critical problem we face today, in the computer age. Illich, who speaks of the past with the present always in mind, wrote this book out of an awareness that the "classical" reading format which has endured for the past 450 years is approaching its end. Illich argues that the
foundation supporting the culture of the book over so many generations is not the art of printing, as is commonly claimed, but rather a technological revolution that occurred twelve generations before the invention of the printing press.
Whether it consists of phonetic letters of the alphabet or ideographic kanji, text as we perceive it is nothing more than a conduit to something it evokes beyond its form. The perception of ancient text as a metaphor that foretells our fate, a mystical code that must be deciphered, came about because the essence of text is metaphor. "Beyond" is one meaning of the prefix "meta."
Text has an obligation to deliver the concepts conceived by all things. The computer seeks something other than these metaphors or concepts. As with any technology and in keeping with the usual pattern of history, the true nature of this "something" will remain masked for some time.
The images disseminated through photographs and films have been interpreted within the tradition of text; today we still hear about semiotics and semantics of cinema, studies of the symbolism and
metaphors of video. But editing remains the decisive method of handling graphic data, and the key factor that distinguishes it from text. The only authentic way to deal with images is not to elucidate their meaning, but to play with the medium itself -- to manipulate it, alter it..
According to Illich, the book as we know it today had its origins in the latter half of the 12th century with the establishment of techniques for the "alphabetical arrangement of key words." The invention of headings, tables of contents, and indexes, which had not existed before, eventually came to impose a new, unprecedented order and discipline on architecture, city planning, law and economics. Gutenberg's accomplishments in the 15th century were thus a natural extension of
developments three hundred years earlier. But it still would take several hundred more years after the birth of printing before this trend would make itself felt on a mass scale.
The age of readership is now drawing to a close. Neither characters nor images function as "text" anymore -- i.e., as symbolic systems that metaphorically suggest something transcendental. At first glance, hypertext appears to be a technology for digitally flipping the pages of a book. Hypertext arguably permits more random access than is possible with a book; yet a veteran book reader can use his fingers to turn deftly to the desired page of a book he knows well. The forte of hypertext, in fact, is not so much reading as referencing. Referencing requires the ability to jump instantaneously from one point to another; it is not a sequential process of movement from point A to point B.
This difference becomes obvious when we use an Internet Web browser. To be sure, there is no dearth of text-heavy home pages, but we do not read them as we would a book. Instead, we browse. Particularly when we jump from screen to screen, the question is not what metaphorical meaning a given image possesses in the iconic sense. What does become important is the referential relationship between one screen and another. Characters and images today are systems of reference. The term "web" is apt for its evocation of a substance whose form is still hazy and in the process of emerging.
From Icons to Icons, Books to Letters
The word "icon" used to refer to a religious symbol; today it means a display marker on a computer. The shift from the icon of symbolism or iconology to the icon of the computer has occurred outside of the computer environment as well. We no longer visualize something holy beyond the icon. When we talk about using an icon, we do not envision Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak floating above the Apple logo, but ourselves clicking on Control Panel or Selector and linking to the files we want.
Letters (in the sense of mail) differ from "bookish" text in that the latter is complete, while the former are infinite in their linking potential. In Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (English translation by
Dana Polan, University of Minnesota Press, 1975), Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari write that "the letters are a rhizome, a network, a spider's web. There is a vampirism in the letters, a vampirism that is specifically epistolary... There is something of Dracula in Kafka, a Dracula who works by letters."
The "vampirism" of letters has been systematized in the e-mail of the Internet. The Internet may well spur a proliferation of letter-writers who never write books.
E-mail allows us to use such expressions as "exchanging mail," but in fact it has little to do with "exchange" in the modern sense of the word. E-mail comes to life as part of an infinite series of links; the "exchange," if one can call it that, is an exchange without end. When we send e-mail, it is not to initiate an exchange in which we await a reply from the recipient. Rather, we type on the keyboard out of a desire to cast a net of multiple links between one place and another. We do so to
be like Kafka, who, in the words of Deleuze and Guattari, "understands his body as the means while in bed to cross thresholds and acts of becoming."
The shift from reading to referencing, from exchange to linkage, signals the beginning of the end of our modern era. The end is coming on all levels, from that of knowledge to that of industry. By "referencing," of course, we mean something beyond the linguistic definition; by "linkage"
we mean more than a network connection. But if these words are not metaphors or concepts as we have described them above, then it is not our task to search for meanings that lurk behind them. Rather, the words themselves must be infinitely referenced, infinitely linked. So what exactly are we supposed to do? Exactly that. These words take on meaning only in a flash of linkages across cyberspace. Instead of reading them, we let them flash into our consciousness.
How Monitors Transform the Meaning of Paper
Media today have already entered the postmassmediatique era, to borrow a term from Felix Guattari. By postmassmediatique, we do not refer merely to a transformation of the sort cited by Alvin Tofler, in which the consolidating and homogenizing functions of the mass media are
superseded by a tendency toward dispersion and pluralism. Nor do we refer to the thesis, first presented by Marshall McLuhan over thirty years ago and still repeated like a religious litany today, that electronic media will replace printed media. The transition from print to electronic media is in fact not a replacement, but a reorganization or deconstruction of the former by the latter.
Today, the meaning and function of paper are being transformed by its encounter with the computer. Let us try to avoid lapsing into the tired debate over the need to choose between paper and the paperless monitor screen. While people capable of viewing the issue in only two dimensions continue to chant "paper or paperless?" or complain that paper consumption keeps rising even in the computer age, a sea change is taking place in the role and significance of paper itself.
Once a medium for worship, paper eventually became a medium for keeping records. Today it is moving into a new role, that of an interface. We increasingly treat the printout from computers, copiers and fax machines as media with a very short lifespan, something we can discard without
further thought. That is no coincidence. Paper is turning into yet another monitor screen, one that is both cheaper and more stable than a CRT or LCD.
We switch on a computer monitor only when we need it, but there is a growing tendency to leave the power on all the time. We desire a computer screen that is never off -- i.e., one just like paper.
Unfortunately, if we persist in clinging to the relative "stability" of characters and images printed on paper even while we continue to use electronic technology, we must be prepared to pay a high price in environmental degradation.
When a computer serves only as a processing machine, it is controlled by the tradition of the printing culture, that of accumulating and holding on to information. If, instead, we view the computer as an accessing machine, we cannot ignore the concept of the network -- whereby
information is not hoarded, but shared and reconstructed. According to this model, communication for the purpose of data transmission or exchange is less important than communication for the purpose of resonance.
Memory Media and Virtual Reality
In a sense, the history of media is the history of devices that substitute for memory. As Frances A. Yates wrote in The Art of Memory (University of Chicago Press, 1966), there was a time when city streets and buildings were the media of memory, but books took over this role in the modern era. Books gradually eliminated the tradition of remembrance as a talent or cultivated art. Now electronic media and the computer are working together to transform memory itself.
The media-ness of streets or books was defined by the fact that they were not perfect substitutes for memory. By treating memory as the representation or reproduction of a given reality, electronic media are able to provide the perfect substitute. They are ready to recreate, under exactly the same conditions, the sensations, thoughts, and actions you experienced ten years earlier -- or, if you like, they will virtually alter reality to conform to the sensations you experience in the "now" of ten years hence. The technology of virtual reality is the technology of sampling the imagination and making it real.
Despite the fact that the very meaning of memory is changing as we speak, people tend to either lament the loss of memory or speak optimistically of the perfect substitution of memory by computer
technology. While it is true that memory is being lost, this process was underway before the arrival of the computer. At the same time, the sort of memory that computers appear to be replacing is qualitatively different from the memory that we have always held so dear.
Memory is basically a recollection of place. In this place, data, linguistic concepts, images and so on are successively updated each time they are recalled. The memory of an electronic storage device is fundamentally different.
The tendency of computer technology is to substitute this memory of place with memory by accumulation, thereby accelerating the ongoing loss of memory of place (which began with the development of printing technology). However, if we properly recognize the ontological distinction between memory of place and accumulated memory, computer technology may yet prove useful in sharpening the memory of place.
A world dominated by digital technology represents the extreme limit, the final fulfillment, of the tendencies of the modern age. It becomes a world of objects transformed into mirrors, a completely virtual world where no one can distinguish reality from illusion any longer (except those who, out of a concern for the historical implications of this trend, have labeled it with the adjective "virtual").
"External Brain" No Longer Touches the Keyboard
Meanwhile, as everything grows increasingly virtual, what will remain in the end that is physical or corporeal?
Where thought is concerned, the fundamental medium is the hand. Kant once spoke of the hand as the "external brain"; yet modern society has pushed as far as it possibly can toward eliminating the need to use our hands. If the hand is indeed an external brain -- not in the sense of a separate entity from the internal brain, but as the terminal of the brain -- then to eliminate the use of the hand requires that we replace it with something else. And indeed, the ultimate aim of modern technology has been to replace thought with artificial intelligence.
In Divided Existence and Complex Society (published in the Netherlands, 1963), J.H. van den Berg suggests that before technology accelerated the division of labor that has defined modern society, more deep-seated impulses toward division had already paved the way. In this regard he focuses attention on the "alienated hand." The 18th century, van den Berg writes, was a time not only of the division of labor, but of the division, the breaking down into many parts, of nearly everything.
Diseases, plants, animals, human egos -- everything split into multiple selves. In examining this phenomenon, we must pay particular heed to the relationship between the hands and production. Consider the manufacture of bottles, for example. In the "old days," bottles were made by one
man's hands; by the time of Adam Smith, division of labor meant that bottles were made by the hands of many men; and by the era of Karl Marx, machines produced bottles that were no longer hand-made -- indeed, they were not even touched by human hands.
The keyboard has deprived the hands of their role as an autonomous external agent of the chaotic brain and chained them to an extremely simple and infantile set of repetitive tasks. To be sure, hands have been relegated to a fairly simplistic job description ever since the advent of writing by pen on paper, but one hand always remained free of this activity. The keyboard has succeeded in enslaving both hands to monotony.
The computer has acquired a variety of other interfaces besides the keyboard, but the keyboard remains dominant. Recently, however, the computer has begun to handle sounds and images, not merely numbers and letters. Moreover, it now allows the user to manipulate these sounds and
images at the whim of the imagination. Consequently the keyboard can no longer bind the hands to the 26 letters of the alphabet or to a series of prescribed finger movements. The mouse and the joystick are nothing more than stopgap attempts to resolve this contradiction. Inevitably, the computer interface of the future will detach itself from the keyboard.
(This was written in 1998 in Japanese for the digital version of The Book and The Computer and translated into English by Kenji Muro et alii.)