The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32

Why reading machines?

When it came out that NASA was going to shoot some rockets into the moon so they could see what would happen, I immediately thought of this classic sketch from Mr Show with Bob and David:

The obvious climax of the sketch is when Galileo the monkey wisely asks the scientists who plan to destroy the moon, “Why? Why do you want to blow up the moon?” Of course, NASA quickly replaces Galileo with a circus monkey who doesn’t know sign language, “who will do the job, no questions asked.”

Yesterday, commenter Ami Marie probably felt a little like Galileo:

Why am I reminded of the fat people in the movie Wall E when I read about this electronic book stuff??? Is there some thing wrong with an actual book? Other than that nasty paper wasting thing, and the toxic ink, oh yeah.…the list goes on. But isn’t a Kindle or a Nook going to end up in a landfill too when the newest, latest and greatest gadget hits the scene???? So I guess turning into a blob staring at a TV screen is our future.….nevermind!!!

“Is there something wrong with an actual book?” This is a serious question, and deserves a serious response.

For my part, obviously, the answer is no. As I wrote in my reply comment:

Hey, look: here at Snark­market, we love printed books so much, we made one our selves. We love them so much, we write love let ters to 16th-century Venetian print ers. I love books so much that when I broke my arm and couldn’t hold onto a heavy paperback with two hands, I cried.

I’ll expand: I’m a PhD in Comparative Literature and a postdoctoral fellow who teaches freshman how to write about literature, philosophy, and science. I teach a class called “From Scroll to Screen: The History and Theory of Writing.” I insist for this class that my students BUY THE BOOKS, and bristle at any suggestion that the books cost too much or pose too much of a physical burden. I study the history of the book (and of other material texts) and write papers and attend conferences on the same. I wrote my dissertation on something I call “Paper Modernism.”

But books just aren’t my professional life; they’re my life. As I say routinely, books are my drug of choice. I can’t imagine living without them.

But I don’t feel entirely like Galileo the monkey. I’m full-on into new media too; I teach cinema and media studies ALONG WITH books and newspapers — part of my thesis argues that we actually can’t entirely separate these media streams from one another, because they’re created and circulated and especially EXPERIENCED together, not identically, but as part of a total media system. And I have become, somewhat surprisingly, a computer person: a blogger and blogreader who totes around a laptop and smartphone. Just as I can’t imagine my life without books, I can’t imagine it without screens either.

Part of what we do at Snarkmarket — as screen people talking largely to other screen people — is to chart and celebrate and critique screen culture, and above all, to try to figure out where it’s going. I think we do this in a way that’s reflective and ethical, understanding that every technological change is in turn an anthropological change, one that both says something about and directly informs our fundamental values.

And yet — on something like electronic readers, where it’s so easy to ooh and aah at the new tech, or to snipe on janky designs or “old-media” people who “don’t get it” — I don’t want to be Koko the monkey either, mindlessly cheering the scientists on as they blow up the moon! Let me say that I don’t think we will ever totally lose books, or print — but even the loss of influence that the printed word that we’ve seen over the last century has been a genuine loss.

More precisely: there are people, and industries, and experiences, that HAVE LOST; that will CONTINUE TO LOSE; and this will be because digital media will gain in influence, partly at print’s expense. Anyone doubting this, or expecting otherwise, is like Mitt Romney telling voters in Michigan that if they keep working hard enough, the industrial jobs will come back. An era is passing. We have to treat it accordingly.

So. Why reading machines?

1. Because readers are already there. We are already reading more on electronic devices, on screens ranging from TV to computer to cellular phone. What’s more, while book-reading and newspaper and magazine subscriptions are down across the country (and across the world), electronic reading is GROWING. It’s growing in share, it’s growing in readers, and it’s growing in influence. If you are in a reading-intensive business, you want to get your content on a screen, because that’s where the readers are, and will be in the future.

Dedicated e-book readers have emerged because booksellers couldn’t get into that market, onto those screens. First and foremost, there was no real marketplace. And, there are several things about both computers (in any form factor) and smartphones that make them less than ideal for long-form reading. Readers needed a device, and they needed a store; Amazon wasn’t the first to offer both, but like the iPod before it, the Kindle was the first such device and store to be taken seriously, even as its total numbers haven’t exactly set the world on fire. Barnes and Noble saw a different way to approach the same market, and created a device and a software and store model to take advantage of it. But essentially, even as they’re inticing old readers in, booksellers and publishers are playing catch-up to the rest of the reading market.

2. Because otherwise publishers may not survive. It’s ironic that booksellers, especially online booksellers, have done so much to push e-reading, because they’ve already solved the problems of storage and circulation of material, discovering the long tail of content, etc. Electronic books are just one more step in Amazon’s reconstruction of retail — but they would have been okay anyways.

Really, it’s publishers who are screwed. Paper and printing costs, plus the expense of storage and transfer and delivery, are killing publishers — in books, magazines, journals, and newspapers. They can either raise prices or cut standards or go completely exclusive, high-end, luxury — and watch their market shrink even further — or turn to electronic delivery as the last best way to cut that knot. If we want to continue to have inexpensive books, news, commentary, and entertainment, we as readers and producers of media have to embrace digital delivery. The status quo is unsustainable.

3. This one is a little more metaphysical, but: Something has to be next. Our current forms of media, and our current interfaces for them, are exhausting themselves. Much of this is purely economic. But it’s also ideological and cultural. If books and newspapers and magazines and movies and television and radio and even blogs and web pages have slowly but inexorably calcified — and I think the signs are good to suggest that they have — then something has to happen next. Or, we resign ourselves to it, playing out the string, until elderly people die off, and the kids forget that there was such a thing as vitality in culture.

That’s when you wind up in the Wall-E universe, Ami Marie; when we forget that we can change things, when we stop exploring.

Let me return to something I wrote a few months ago, about the surprising rekindling (no pun intended) of literacy in the digital age:

As recently as 2000, it seemed inevitable that any minute now, we were going to be able to turn in our quaint keyboards and start controlling computers with our voice. Our comput­ers were going to become just like our telephones, or even better, like our secretaries. But while voice and speech recognition and commands have gotten a lot better, generally the trend has been in the other direction — instead of talking to our computers, we’re typing on our phones…

The return to speech, in all of its imme­diacy, after centuries of the technologi­cal dominance of writing, seemed inevitable. Film, radio, television, and the phonograph all seemed to point towards a future dominated by communication technologies where writing and reading played an increasingly dimin­ished role. I think the most important development, though, was probably the telephone. Ordinary speech, conversa­tion, in real-time, where space itself appeared to vanish. It created a para­digm not just for media theorists and imaginative futurists but for ordinary people to imagine tomorrow…

This is where most of the futurists got it wrong — the impact of radio, television, and the telephone weren’t going to be solely or even primarily on more and more speech, but, for technical or cul­tural or who-knows-exactly-what reasons, on writing! We didn’t give up writ­ing — we put it in our pockets, took it out side, blended it with sound, pictures, and video, and sent it over radio waves so we could “talk” to our friends in real-time. And we used those same radio waves to download books and newspa­pers and everything else to our screens so we would have something to talk about.

This is the thing about literacy today, that needs above all not to be misun­derstood. Both the people who say that reading/writing have declined and that reading/writing are stronger than ever are right, and wrong. It’s not a return to the word, unchanged. It’s a literacy transformed by the existence of the electronic media that it initially has nothing in common with. It’s also trans­formed by all the textual forms — mail, the newspaper, the book, the bulletin board, etc. It’s not purely one thing or another.

The word is transforming, and being transformed. If you wanted to stick your hand in the dike, to stop what is happening to the book, you need to go back a century or more.

For my part, I find myself continually grateful for and delighted by what is happening, because while reading in some individual media is falling off, reading as such is actually flourishing. As I tweeted a week ago:

The revelation of the present isn’t that the printed word is in decline; it’s that reading and writing haven’t been destroyed along with it.

It is to keep reading and writing alive, and to keep them innovative, reflective, and exploratory, that I do everything — let me say it again, EVERYTHING — that I do.

To every reader of Snarkmarket, let me say: thank you for letting me do it here; and above all, for doing it with me.


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