Welp. I knew when I did it that there’d come a day when I was like, nope. Not gonna be able to do my homework. Gonna have to come up with some lame excuse that is going to totally damage my credibility. When I said I’d be doing this blog assignment along with the students in Writing for the Web, it was to keep me honest and now, here it is, only the 2nd blog post of the semester due and I am bailing. Lame. So lame.
I am taking my own advice here (I do a “Creating a Sustainable Writing Practice program for faculty in which I make them do a daily writing practice) and taking this random 20 minutes I’ve got before I have to leave for yoga class (hallelujah, I need yoga tonight like you.would.not.believe) and sitting my butt in the chair and writing a post. It may not be the best or most thought-provoking I’ve ever written, but I’m going to quickly throw some thoughts at the [virtual] wall and we’ll see if any of it sticks.
So, in finishing up the last few chapters of The Book, the key idea in Nicole Howard’s discussion of the maturation of the technology of the book is the speed/quality story. It’s simple and unsurprising: most of our technological innovations are about making things faster and better. Innovators in all the technologies that facilitate book production found ways throughout the Industrial Revolution and the age of automation and the subsequent electronic and digital ages to speed up the printing process exponentially and improve the quality of print texts by order of magnitude. Howard notes that this is one of those “web” situations in which things are connected at various points or nodes:
“As historians of technology have shown, webs of technology – interrelated machines or operations – tend to develop as a group.” (115)
So we make “progress”. We speed things up, we make books faster, cheaper, of better quality. But then we’re left in the situation that Alex Wright brought to our attention in Glut: we’ve produced so many texts, so much information, that we are overwhelmed (kinda like me the last week).
So, really, for me, the more complex and interesting story here is the larger cultural effects of these innovations and that goes to the issue of glut. Mass production of text = mass of text = more readers = more demand for more texts =more innovation = economic shifts (e.g., author as a paid profession, copyright laws, “best-sellers,” changes in labor market – new jobs/skills and concurrent displacement of workers made obsolete by new tech, etc., etc., etc.) = more information = more technologies (for managing all that information, for allowing printing on demand) = more texts…and so on ad infinitum. Add in a backlash against mass production that results in a sidetrack of artisanal production and you’ve got the story of “the world’s most critical technology” (158) and the world-changing impact it has wrought. What would we be without books? I can’t even imagine.
What will we become as the digital age advances? I don’t know. But we have a role in shaping that future as writer/designers for the web, so we really must look back critically about the evolution of the book as a technology and the effects that technology has wrought in order to nudge things in directions that might prove beneficial (or at least to do no harm).
Speaking of the future, I was a bit disappointed in Howard’s last chapter, “The Future of Books.” For me, she seems bogged down in a particular concept of what a book is (which makes sense considering her approach to the book as a material object/“thing”). But she doesn’t open the door to radically different conceptions of the book that break out of that very particular and specific material conception of what a book is. Instead of thinking about these magical notions of disappearing eInk and infinitely re-writable ePaper (though it is actually a thing), I’d rather think about re-concieving the book in a less literal way. Can the book be remediated digitally in a way that is more figurative, more associative? Can we draw on what we know is appealing about the book AS a thing (physical properties – feel, smell, tactility, spatiality) and bring those aspects into play digitally? These are questions for us to explore in our design project that we’ll start on Thursday with our first visit to the Special Collections Library. We’ll be looking at a collection of really cool books in the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Collection (everything from medieval manuscripts to contemporary experimental artists books) and seeing what inspires us and putting our new-found knowledge about the history of book technology into practice as we explore these objects.
Whew! Okay, I’ve got to go to yoga now. See – you can knock out 800 words in less than half an hour. Just gotta hit those keys, boys and girls! And now I don’t have to show up to class tomorrow with my tail between my legs. Score!