[iDC] Media dies more slowly than some would like

Gere, Charlie c.gere at lancaster.ac.uk
Fri Dec 7 09:47:35 UTC 2007

This is a really interesting discussion and most helpful for a masters
module I am teaching next term  on the 'book to come', looking at how
new technologies alter or restructure academic and other text-based

I can't resist throwing in a quote from the essay by Derrida on 'The
Book to Come' which seems to me still relevant in the age of the Kindle.
He suggests that the notion of 'the book to come' might imply a number
of things including

'That the book as such does - or doesn't hasve - a future, now that
electronic and virtual incorporation, the screen and the keyboard,
online transmission, and numerical compostion seems to be dislodging or
supplementing the codex (that gathering of a pile of pages bound
together, the current form of what we generally call a book such that it
can be opened, put on a table, or held in the hands). The codex had
itself supplanted the volume, the volumen, the scroll. It had supplanted
it without making it disappear, I should stress. For what we are
dealling with are never replacements that put an end to what they
replace but rather, if I might use this workd today, restructurations in
which the oldest form survives, and even survives endlessly, coexisting
with the new form and even coming to terms with a new economy - which is
also a calculation in terms of the market as well as in terms of
storage, capital and reserves'.

There is much else of interest in this essay, published in the recent
collection from Stanford, Paper Machine, including the suggestion that
we should 'give up any lamentation' for the supposed 'catastrophe' of
the 'end of the book' because 'we know the book isn't simply going to
disappear', not least the 'fortunately incorrigible' 'festishism' that
sanctifies the 'aura of culture or the cult of the book' and will also
'protect the signs of post-book technologies threatened by even more
advanced technologies'

Charlie Gere 
Head of Department
Institute for Cultural Research 
Lancaster University Lancaster LA1 4YL UK
Tel: +44 (0) 1524 594446
E-mail: c.gere at lancaster.ac.uk

-----Original Message-----
From: idc-bounces at mailman.thing.net
[mailto:idc-bounces at mailman.thing.net] On Behalf Of Raymond Cha
Sent: 07 December 2007 04:17
To: idc at mailman.thing.net
Subject: Re: [iDC] Media dies more slowly than some would like

I was delighted to read Rick Prelinger's intial post and the commentary
that has followed it. I first met Rick and Megan while working at the
Institute for the Future of the Book. Since leaving, I have also had the
opportunity to visit the Prelinger Library, and strongly recommend that
anyone with a few free hours in San Francisco to visit it. It is an
illuminating experience.

Steve Borsch brings up an important point regarding containers. For
centuries, the term book has come to mean both the container and the
information inside the container. Digital media, including ebooks, blogs
and pdf, have liberated the contents of books from the traditional
container of bound pages. We are still gasping to deal with the effects
of this change, which also partially explains our displeasure with how
current ebook readers are confusing experiences.
In the rollout of Kindle, Jeff Bezos has explained that part of our love
for print books is that the container is invisible, we hardly think
about the container through long term use and the fact that it works
very well. On the other hand, there are things that the ebook obviously
excels over the print book, including physical volume and distribution.
If ebook readers could be engineered and used to the point of becoming
invisible, would we still hold an attachment to the physical pbook?

Of course we would, but our attachment to it would change.  One reason
our attachment to print books is so strong, is that they come out of an
era of publishing scarcity. Publishers could only print a limited amount
of text. Physical bookstores have limited shelf space.  In that era,
getting a work produced by an academic or trade publisher inferred
authority. The published author had gone through a vetting process and
received the industry seal of approval. Although self publishing existed
through vanity presses, these works carried the stigma of lacking this

Today, the costs of publishing have dramatically dropped. Anyone who can
afford a computer and network access (which albeit still excludes many
people, especially in the developing world, and this point deserves its
own post) can write and publish an ebook.  Digital born texts can also
be easily transformed into print books through print on demand services
such as Lulu.com and Blurb.com, which challenge the authority of the
traditional publishing gatekeepers.

If anyone, with the technical access and the desire, can publish a book,
how will that change our relationship to print books and the
gatekeepers?  Will this strengthen or weaken the role of the gatekeeper?
Will the long tail effects displace the gatekeeper because readers can
find their authors directly through the Internet?
Or, will the shift to the era of publishing abundance entrench the role
of the gatekeeper because the number of choices is too overwhelming. (Of
course, in that scenario, the gatekeepers may not be traditional
publishing houses and book buyers, but any variety of entities which are
bestowed an authoritative role by readers.)

I am waiting for the blockbuster ebook by someone previously
unpublished, which may reveal the new role of the publishing gatekeeper
and change our relationship to print books and ebooks. By blockbuster, I
mean on the scale of a Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter.
Readers would obtain this ebook via download or print on demand by the
millions.  This book might also be found on online retailers and in
physical bookstores that printed copies for resell.  Many others might
be compelled to purchase their first ebook reader.  For the follow up
book, would the author still need or want to sign with a traditional
publisher?  If millions of people and enjoy a self-published ebook, how
will that change and challenge their notions of authority and their
relationship to print books?

Our attachment to print books is complex. Authority plays one part.
The complexity will only evolve with adoption of ebooks, which will be
gradual with the occasional accelerated push. I agree with Rick's
assertion that is enough room in the ecological of writing, books and
publishing to sustain both print books and ebooks. Both have much
evolving still to do. I am excited to witness the process and further
discussion here.


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