I spent Tuesday in an intense cluster of thinking people gathered around a circular table at the LSE, trying to generate useful (or usefully far-fetched) ideas about the library of the future with Bob Stein's Institute for the Future of the Book
and guests -- about fifteen of us in all. Squeezed in between Cory Doctorow and Eames Demetrios, I scribbled notes in the margins of a copy of Varoom magazine
Adrian Shaughnessy had given me in Denver. Somehow the illustrations, silhouettes and collages helped me formulate my stance: basically, that we shouldn't put all our eggs in the basket of digitization, and shouldn't forget that we have bodies.
Sitting nearby was Vienna-based Ruediger Wischenbart, the man whose translation research I based my article on English-language dominance and airline route models
on. There was an actual librarian, Clive Izard from the British Library, who obviously had a lot to say about digitization and copyright problems, and dominated a lot of the conversation. There was the Tate's Kate Sloss, who archives artists' documents and materials. And, anchoring it all, very much at the centre of the centreless circular table in the Cold War-era wood-panelled room, the brilliant ex-Maoist Bob Stein, a sort of delicate, stooped, careful, pensive, serious, playful Bond villain planning culture's hideaway in a hollowed-out Pacific island.
Basically, my argument was that, while I appreciate the internet, I can't forget McLuhan's idea that the medium is the message. I worry that our windows on the world are getting increasingly ephemeral, and that each one of them is just a series of circular, self-legitimizing metaphors. While I appreciate the net and especially Google's ability to answer just about any question we have, it's the (largely unseen) framings that come with our current metaphor set -- the proscenium arch of the computer screen -- that disturb me. Imagine a cat or a rabbit watching you surf the internet: your body is rigid, you crane towards this small square of white light. For the rabbit, you're being very stupid and boring. The rabbit knows the important stuff is eating and shitting and running around. While we have bodies, we still live in the material world, and that's the basic bottom line. This may, of course, be a critique of culture in general. But if we ask what a more embodied culture would be like, we ought to remember Eno's idea that "the basic unit of cultural currency is empathy".
I wondered how long computers will exist in their current form: with keyboards, and using mostly text as their interface. I wondered if it wasn't time for literature to come full circle back to Homer, and become something spoken again rather than written and read -- because computers can do that for us. I wondered about ubicomp and everyware. I found myself at odds, a lot of the time, with Cory Doctorow, sitting on my right.
Cory is an odd man. Incredibly bright, he seems to have the multitasking skills of Shotoku Taichi
: throughout the meeting, rather than interact with the other people around the table, he tapped away on his laptop, updating Boing Boing
or sifting restlessly through images on File Pile
. The man has the worst case of ADD I've ever seen; a geek so bright he's become an idiot. His speeches on copyright were super-well-informed, but came across like set pieces he'd delivered many times before at similar events.
Cory seemed, above all, completely committed to the internet's now
, not the future; wedded if not welded to his keyboard. Everything, for him, could be fixed by some interface tweak, some new widget. I began to see him as a kind of post-human zombie, bodysnatched by the net itself and the coming machine intelligence it represents; a man whose brightness reflected the internet's ability to tell us everything and nothing at the same time, a man drifting on a rising, rushing white noise tide of information away from basic human-level empathy. Maybe I saw something of myself in him too -- a self I'm wary of becoming. An autistic node on a promiscuous net.
It was refreshing to turn from Cory to Keri Facer from Futurelab
, whose emphasis on social justice and inclusion provided the sort of liberalism, empathy and awareness of the world I found so lacking in Cory's hacker-libertarian worldview (a worldview a lot of my work at Wired was intended to question, unsettle and infuse with some sort of ethical awareness).
If I was keen not to see all cultural information ending up serving some sort of post-human machine age in which we ourselves have become the ultimate "post-bit atom" -- notable for the mere fact of not being digital -- I was also keen not to lose the elitism of the book tradition: the fact that some monologues are better than conversations, that there's a "great tradition of the best that has been thought and felt", that not all text is chatroom or blog ephemera, that the book is actually a much more permanent back-up than the web, that recent digital forms (like Bob Stein's excellent CD-ROMs for Voyager) have been swept away a mere decade after they were invented whereas the book persists (some even say we ought to be backing the web up on paper!). At this point, rather than channeling Eno or McLuhan, I became Lord Reith rolled up with F.R. Leavis.
I felt that we were in danger of becoming Swift's Laputans, scholars so absent-minded they need to be bashed on the head every few seconds by servants carrying inflated bladders on sticks, just to remind them where they are. In our case, that reality is our material existence in a frail, overburdened world, the justice with which we organize human relationships, and the fact that we have bodies. Somewhere in there, I'd like to think, is the continuing existence of a small number of exceptional people who make these things we've called, up to now, books and stored, up to now, in libraries.