Via David Weir at BNET comes notice of Steve Moyer’s article “What IF?” (“IF” stands for Institute for the Future of the Book, a technophile think tank). The article, appearing in the July/August 2009 issue of Humanities, concerns the future existence of the book, both as a material object and as a text (a distinction lit-crit types love to draw).
The former, it appears, is on its way out. Replacing it is the latter — the text in all of its virtual, electronic permutations.
The virtualization of the book, according to Moyer, has been a subtle, almost clandestine affair, thanks in no small part to the dispersed, decentralized nature of cyberspace. “No one, it seems safe to say at this point,” writes Moyer, “does fully comprehend what’s afoot as the printed page begins to give some ground, perhaps much ground, to the networked screen.” The fact that the computer networks have stolen a march on the printing presses is something to which just about everyone in print journalism can attest, as newspapers lose readers and revenue to Internet journalism and its supernumerary “chattering class” of bloggers.
Suffice it to say, however, that such chatter has largely drowned out stentorian intonations from great gray New York Times on down. And now books are poised to follow suit, much to the chagrin of some and to the delight of others. “Two camps have formed … at opposite ends of a readers’ continuum,” Moyer continues:
The first is represented by an “infotopian” dream of more than six billion minds united by the Internet’s promise of access to every book on earth. The second is loyal to the traditional image of an engrossed reader holding and poring over a physical book.
Access to every book on earth involves, of course, eliminating those aspects which prevent its ready communication to everyone. This includes the very materiality of the book — the cardboard, paper and ink that make it the object it is.
Yet the object is precisely what the “engrossed reader” so deeply esteems (one is tempted to say, fetishizes). To this kind of reader, universal access to books means nothing if one cannot hold them or turn their pages. Moyer does not say it, but one need not read between the lines too strenuously to tease out a critical implication: the “engrossed-reader” position — the position that gives primacy to having over sharing books — is clearly reactionary, because it assigns more value to the material object’s preservation than to the de-materialized text’s dissemination.
The engrossed-reader contingent, in other words, invests deeply in maintaining the relative scarcity of books, not for the book’s sake necessarily, but for the status distinctions which come with scarcity. Writer Susan Scafidi, whom Moyer paraphrases in his article, puts the matter quite well. She claims “that books are the scented candles of the twenty-first century” in the sense that “they are becoming identity-bearing goods.” Lifestyle once again shows itself the enemy of real progress. Giving up printed books altogether is a small price to pay for the creation of what amounts to a library that put ancient Alexandria’s to shame, but it is a price the book fetishist, whose very sense of self depends printed books, is unwilling to pay.
These fetishists fail to realize that the very books they fetishize result from an initiative of increased access to texts advanced most famously by Johannes Gutenberg, who introduced the printing press to Europe around 1439. Were today July 15, 1309, one wonders how many of these same book fetishists would rate among the have-nots, lacking the resources to procure quills and vellum, to hire a scribe, and to borrow a manuscript for copying.
Gutenberg’s printing press effectively removed these barriers, thus facilitating greater access to texts. And what was result? The Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Rights of Man, the scientific method, the nation-state, the welfare state, the moon landing … and, eventually, the science responsible for the personal computer and the Internet.
Periods of great change can frighten, certainly. This shouldn’t, however, excuse reactionary responses to such change. The “Great Disintermediation” that futurists and technophiles prophesied decades ago remains a work in progress. How thoroughly it changes the print industry, as well as those whose very identities depend on the industry’s present form, is likewise yet to be seen.“What this [emerging online technology] … implies for skills in the literary arts is anything but clear,” Moyer writes, “but we should begin to get some indications over the next ten years or so about which cultural shifts will take hold.”
We at Generation Bubble suppose that at this juncture there’s as much reason to believe that these cultural shifts will be terrible as there is reason to suppose they’ll be wonderful. The nation’s current economic situation encourages one to bet they’ll turn out fine, if for no other reason than there are few other choices. Universal access to every book can only come as a blessing to cash-strapped schools and libraries, and to the citizens who depend on them. Book fetishists can keep their fiefdoms of the mind. We’ll take infotopia.