This post is a blast from the past, first published exactly five years ago, but become perhaps more timely in the intervening half-decade.
“What is a book?” seems too simple a question at first glance. The closer we look the further a simple answer eludes us. Even if we associate “book” with the physical form that writing has historically taken in modern times, the printed codex of more than a certain number of leaves (smaller codices being “booklets!), the notion is still problematic.
- How is a collection of essays, which most of us would call a “book” different from a similar collection that appears as one fascicle of a Journal?
- Some of our “books” today existed already in the manuscript age, were they “books” then? Are manuscript texts not books today?
- Some even existed as scrolls, so should the notion of book be technology agnostic?
- What is the relationship between a “phone book” and its electronic equivalent?
So, to what extent is “book” a technology independent concept, or to what extent is it technologically bounded?
In a thought-provoking post, “the network made visible – some thoughts on the present continuous of books“, Sebastian Mary (one of the interesting bloggers associated with the Institute for the Future of the Book) offers this list of “common and often unexamined assumptions that underpin the tradition of the book.
Physicality – Books are physical: text and sometimes pictures organised in a linear form, and collected in physical libraries.
Authority – Books are time-consuming and expensive to make. Their ‘authority’ exists in proportion to this scarcity. The implication is that no-one would bother laboriously to typeset, print and bind drivel; so if a book doesn’t make sense then the fault lies with the reader. , and hence failure to comprehend a text lies with the reader, not with the text. This principle of authority in proportion to scarcity can be seen by comparing the medieval reverence for hand-copied books, through to modern offhand treatment of mass-produced ‘airport novels’. Authoritative texts reinforce their authority with reference to one another.
Fixity – The physicality of books perpetuates the impression of text as something immutable. This physicality also give rise to a tradition of books holding otherwise ephemeral knowledge in fixed form for posterity, and thus of books’ being timeless in a way that human life is not.
Universality – This is the trope most heavily challenged by twentieth century theory. The traditional ideal – and arguably the central proposition of the canon – is that books marked thus are of value to everyone, regardless of who, when and where.
Boundedness – Being a physical object, a book cannot contain everything.
The whole post/essay is really worth reading, please do not be satisfied with this chunk alone, torn from its context.
The opening paragraphs of the section “Whither Authority?” lead me in a different direction fro that Sebastian Mary takes, though that is probably the more interesting and significant direction (so, again read the post!) since my direction is different, after quoting the paragraphs I will diverge and follow my own nose!
On the Net, readers write, and writers read. Anyone can self-publish. So, following the principle that the status and authority of a text is in direct proportion to its scarcity, to write is no longer to be the privileged accessor and producer of canonical, authoritative texts. Notions of authorship and any but the most provisional and conversational kind of intellectual leadership become meaningless.
The boundary between ‘worth reading’ and ‘worthless blah’ is blurred by the visible, trackable emergence of content from the swamp of chatter. And, watching content emerge, it is plainly impossible to posit for the Net a set of human-centric values as (however speciously) the literary canon allowed. The Net has no transcendental signifier except itself, no cohesion to celebrate except that of technologically-enabled pseudo-diversity.
I am tempted by this dystopian vision, of a net that diminishes everything to a level morass of equal and opposite worthlessness. (Which is not quite what SM means, but provides a neat caricature of this tendency.)
Except, it ignores the imperial power of Google. (Using “Google” as a convenient shorthand for “Search Engines and other means of sorting and finding material on the net”.) Google prioritises pages. If I am looking for material: population statistics, poetry, pictures… I never trawl the net myself, and nor do you. We always use some meta-site (like NT Gateway or iTanakh ;-) or search engine/directory like Yahoo to begin our “surfing”.
This “beginning” also orients us. It provides an authoritative list. Explicitly: because the contents are selected (meta-sites) or ranked (Google) and implicitly: because in the past I have found the material they list, or that ranks highly, to be useful (more often than not, the occasional foray down to page three of the Google list is strangely rare, hence all the brouhaha over SEO).
Which brings me back to SM’s post…
The grammar of the Web is not one of human languages or literary forms, but one of computer languages. Online, the Writers (in the sense of those invested with weight, status and Authority) are software developers. No text writer may have the final word; nor will he shape the grammars he works with. Coders, on the other hand, create the enabling conditions for interaction.
For in the net it is the composers of Google’s algorithms who confer “authority”, and not mere authorship – which belongs to all without fear or favour. And yet it is not! For, given the complexity of the net, the algorithms can hardly take account of each page, or author, or even site. Rather, as well as the material itself:
- the material itself:
- is it coherent?
- tight? etc…
they consider things like:
- how others have viewed this material:
- How many link to it?
- Do these pages use similar keywords?
- Are those sites “authoritative”? etc…
In other words, they consult the great unwashed, go for the wisdom of crowds, and all the rest. And as a result among the networked, some are more authoritative than others.
In a way it is the reverse of the old culture, which authorised by excluding. As SM put it the economics of print or manuscript writing creates “principle of authority in proportion to scarcity”. Publishers, in other words authorise this work by excluding others. In a sense the old Vatican Index Of Forbidden Books – a list intended to ensure certain books were/are not read – was the epitome of this approach. By authority by exclusion cannot work on the net.
Except if Google (in this case meaning both the broad category of search facilitators and the particular eponymous example) were to select and exclude on grounds other than the views of the mass of netizens. Which is what in fact happens. Google does censor the data. Authority in the net is powerful, if Google bans you who can find your work, yet hidden and secretive. Big Brother may no be watching you, but whether you know it or not, whether he is intent on “doing no evil” or not, his censorship has unauthorised works you might wish to see.
Quis custodiet Google? Although it may seem that the net is egalitarian, once the “whither” of authority is recognised one can see that it has not “withered”, but merely disguised its hegemonic tendency behind a benign smile.