The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Bookfuturism avant la lettre

This is from the introduction* to Steven Johnson’s Interface Culture, a book from 1997 that I hadn’t previously read:

A few final observations, and warnings, about the pages that follow. The first should be a comfort to readers who have tired of the recent bombast emanating from both the digital elite and their neo-Luddite critics. I have tried to keep this book as free of dogma and polemic as possible, emphasizing both the tremendous intellectual liberation of the modern interface and the darker, more sinister implications of that same technology.

From its outset this book has been conceived as a kind of secular response to the twin religions of techno-boosterism and techno-phobia. On the most elemental level, I see it as a book of connections, a book of links — one in which desktop metaphors cohabit with Gothic cathedrals, and hypertext links rub shoulders with Victorian novels. Like the illuminations of McLuhan’s electric speed, the commingling of traditional culture and its digital descendants should be seen as a cause for celebration, and not outrage.

This is likely to trouble extremists on both sides of the spectrum.** The neo-Luddites want you to imagine the computer as a betrayal of the book’s slower, more concentrated intelligence; the techno-utopians want you to renounce your ties to the fixed limits of traditional media. Both sides are selling a revolution — it’s just that they can’t agree on whether it’s a good thing. This book is about the continuities more than the radical breaks, the legacies more than the disavowals.

For that reason, the most controversial thing about this book may be the case it makes for its own existence. This book is both an argument for a new type of criticism and a working example of that criticism going about its business.***


* I added some extra paragraph breaks to the excerpt to make it read more like a blog post.
** Compare my “Bookfuturist Manifesto,” from The, August 2010.
*** I pretty much want to be Steven Johnson right now.


I remember reading this book in high school and finding it both exciting and oddly uneven. If I knew where my copy was, I’d dig it up and see what my annotations were…

Just to clarify, by “I pretty much want to be Steven Johnson right now” is less “I want to write Interface Cultures” and more “I want to be the literature PhD student who goes from shoestring web hustler to author to public intellectual.”

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