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The really modern library - click opera
February 2010
 
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Wed, Oct. 17th, 2007 09:49 am
The really modern library

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.

41CommentReplyShare


(Anonymous)
Wed, Oct. 17th, 2007 09:06 am (UTC)

Soul only projects.

Interesting days.


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lobsterbelle
lobsterbelle
-
Wed, Oct. 17th, 2007 09:29 am (UTC)

Are you familiar with the art of Stelarc? I'm more interested in his early skin hanging projects, but his current stuff involves becoming one of your post-human zombies.


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kaipfeiffer
kaipfeiffer
Kai Pfeiffer
Wed, Oct. 17th, 2007 09:47 am (UTC)

i couldn't agree more with all you said here. while the internet grants possibilities that are indispensable for me, in publishing and receiving, and i can't even really imagine what it was like to try and get information on something really obscure before google, i think, that exactly because the computer seems to be able to present "everything" in digitized form (which isn't really true at all), the printed book will even be more valued in the future, precisely because so much is going on in the digital world, but all on the same level. in a digital presentation, shakespeare's collected works are indistinguishable from endless forum babble. the existing (still quite limited) computer interfaces are all about distraction, hopping from link to link, program to program. the book is all about focus. and the code filling its pages, in letters or pictures, has always been as virtual a reality as the cyber experience. it's still all in the brain. and even when digital paper gets ready for the market, it will replace printed newspapers, but not books that are produced with care for the materials and their haptic aspects. those are part of the ritual necessary to give a literary text or picture-writings, works that are not foremost about the factual information they contain, their value as singular entities. numinosity.


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cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Wed, Oct. 17th, 2007 09:52 am (UTC)

Have you heard of Project Gutenberg? What do you think of it's concept?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Oct. 17th, 2007 09:56 am (UTC)

I actually slagged it off yesterday at the meeting. It seems already somewhat neglected and abandoned. My experience with it is that you want, say, a bit of Moliere and instead you're confronted with this huge blurb about Project Gutenberg itself, and with copyright issues. It really confirms, for me, that the medium is the message. That an electronic text is not at all the same thing as a book. That we have to rethink what books are -- it's not good enough just to digitize them up and sling them up on the web "plain vanilla".


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Oct. 17th, 2007 09:55 am (UTC)
get off the internet

Interesting...
A few days ago, I went to this ESEM seminar (European Seminar for Ethnomusicology) to present a paper on digital sound archives for popular music, arguing that we know a lot about digitizing the sound of "special" (traditional and non-stereophonic, wax cylinders, 78 rpm's, etc., etc.) recordings... and we don't know own to deal with popular music (and popular culture) materials... "what should enter the archive, and what should be sent to the trash"... I also argued that it's important for the sound archive not only the sound material but the carrier... so I couldn't agree more with you... People at libraries and archives look to the digital domain as a messianic solution to their money, storage, and preservation problems, and so on.

I cannot resist of remembering your post on iTouch when you proclaimed that with those iSometing (iTouch, iPod or iPhone) you simple cannot get off the internet (as the song from Le Tigre)...

I think this a non-ending debate! Get off the internet and let's look at the rabbits... in order for us to learn something that we keep forgetting...

Pedro Félix
(felixlx@yahoo.com)


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cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Wed, Oct. 17th, 2007 01:08 pm (UTC)
Re: Jargon in red*

Out of curiousity: Have you read Marshall McLuhan?


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Oct. 17th, 2007 02:19 pm (UTC)

Let's not forget the simple fact that staring at a screen is a killer on the eyes. I can't surf and read text sites soildly for more than maybe a couple of hours before I begin to get a headache, whereas I can read printed text for twice as long with no ill effects at all.

Plus books don't crash, freeze up, get edited by the author half way through...

Let's see how easy this "digital paper" is on the eye, eh?


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Oct. 17th, 2007 02:40 pm (UTC)
thanx

I would appreciate if everyone kept up this conversation. I'm a 'librarian' (whatever that means these days) and participating in a panel in a couple months on ethics, digital libraries, and community. All very pertinent.

<3, c


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merrow_sea
merrow_sea
Wed, Oct. 17th, 2007 06:37 pm (UTC)
Re: thanx

I have old prints and pages from books that are 500 years old and in beautiful condition. My 2 year old 300GB external hard drive, the repository of digital information I value, is starting to get buggy and I expect it will fail within the next 2 years. Despite its own vulnerabilities, paper might be the ultimate back up.

And the concentration I experience when reading a physical book is far richer than the hyper-scanning I do online. I also agree with previous comments on the damage computer use causes to our eyes, our necks, our souls, our attention spans and our relationships with human and animal companions. I love/hate my computer and our dysfunctional and consuming relationship with the internet. Can't imagine life without it, but this isn't the life I imagined. A constant struggle against turning into an 'autistic node'. lol.


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pay_option07
pay_option07
Wed, Oct. 17th, 2007 02:43 pm (UTC)
http://www.culturalcurrency.ca/

I would like to see everything backed up on clay tablets.
After EM pulses and fire storms they will be the only surviving artifacts.


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cerulicante
cerulicante
cerulicante
Wed, Oct. 17th, 2007 11:28 pm (UTC)
Re: http://www.culturalcurrency.ca/

I store all my scientific discoveries in knotted rope form.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Oct. 17th, 2007 02:55 pm (UTC)

The more I think about this stuff, the more I think the McLuhan quote is apt.

I just read somewhere that apparently the average newspaper reader spends more time with a print edition on a single day than the average visitor to a paper's website spends in an entire month. That's fascinating, because it means exactly the same content is being used in radically different ways depending on the medium. More specifically, the vast amount of choice we have on the Internet actually narrows our intake in some ways. We glance at a newspaper website, click on a few headlines, maybe scan a longer piece and that's it. All the peripheral stuff - which might turn out to be the more interesting stuff - passes us by.

- Hugo


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niddrie_edge
niddrie_edge
raymond
Wed, Oct. 17th, 2007 05:58 pm (UTC)
Momus on Jackanory

I like the storytellers. Momus' youtube recitations and his audio lectures were some of the highlights of my year. Reading to audiences has become a large part of libraries community activities here. Writers in residence and all that. Transfer this to the greater audience of the Internet with some nice visual ambiance, the campfire etc and I think we are on to something. I'd like to hope that the social aspects of libraries - a warm place to meet, access, encouragement - are still fundamental in the digital environment.
Before the mp3, we would raid the Audio Library's world music cd's. Up there on the bikes and then to the tape shop to get blanks to make compilations. Stop off at the swimming baths then round to someones house for a cup of tea and some new African or Central Asian musics. Lots of exercise. When filesharing came in the audio library became a less frequent destination. It still had great books even when the Internet started to up its music database availability. Ease of access to information on the Internet has not necessarily enhanced the social in this respect.

I have just jettisoned years of an accumulated personal digital library. No one was coming round to use it. Just me. It's a common cliche to say that the piles and towers of dvd-r's and spindles and folders were beginning to build some kind of Trap or Maze.

At this point I phone my mate the Librarian and ask if he has any internal library plan layout diagrams he can get for me. Do we prefer isolation down some parallel channel, viewing the other through a shelf, over some book spines. Or, do we like the panopticon or open plan where we can see and hear everything that is going on.

Have you ever visited Colinton Library in Edinburgh, Nick? Its like a beautiful little cottage in a leafy suburb. A strange early 20th Century green seems to predominate.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Oct. 18th, 2007 01:11 am (UTC)
Re: Momus on Jackanory


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Oct. 17th, 2007 10:42 pm (UTC)

Why?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Oct. 18th, 2007 08:00 am (UTC)

I must say, this piece by Cory Doctorow is brilliant.


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