Thursday, September 08, 2005

Bloggity Bloggy Blog, Sir, Can I Please Have a Job?

Alphonse and John say it well. As does Jodi. There is a part of me that wonders sometimes about the wisdom of leaving a record such as this, whether it will risk standing in for the more serious work of writing, and for that which he would like to devote his deepest care (and eventually, perhaps, someday in some way be known). There are moments when he tells himself he will delete it all, possibly as soon as tomorrow, and in order to begin for real. But then isn't this just another vein of vanity? Blogging is a distraction, yes, but one that refuses to permit you to forget it is a distraction.

As I've said before, the thought is comforting that this is a blog (a fitting word that sounds just like the burp of "book"), something other than the ideal of putting pen to paper or publishing per se, as part of a deathly serious oeuvre (or plucking with that patient, mechanical integrity of the typewriter). And while it hopefully reflects something of the worklessness of an Open Text, and engages implicitly with the very question of (re)reading, of economies of interest in the digital future to-come, something in the distinction between blog and book is still worth retaining. Those who feel threatened by blogging, who would prefer their employee not to have any broadcast voice, fundamentally misunderstand the medium. Blogging is not publishing; blogging is, ideally, the refusal of the market-driven drivel by perfusion of drivel, and the putting of the written word and the value of the binded book back in its proper place. Good books are those worth holding, to be absorbed between the physical turning of paper pages, to be revisited for the pencil notes scrawled in the mildewy margins. To give off scent of dust and mildew, library aura from which they come: Time. This is not fetishism merely. Everything belongs on a blog.

Umberto Eco, writing in 1996:
Books will remain indispensable not only for literature, but for any circumstance in which one needs to

read carefully, not only to receive information but also to speculate and to reflect about it. To read a

computer screen is not the same as to read a book. Think to the process of learning a new computer

program. Usually the program is able to display on the screen all the instructions you need. But usually

the users who want to learn the program either print the instructions and read them as if they were in

book form, or they buy a printed manual (let me underevaluate the fact that presently all the computer's

Helps are clearly written by irresponsible and tautological idiots, while commercial handbooks are

written by smart people). It is possible to conceive of a visual program that explains very well how to

print and bind a book, but in order to get instructions on how to write (or how to use) a computer

program, we need a printed handbook.

After having spent no more than 12 hours at a computer console, my eyes are like two tennis balls, and

I feel the need of sitting comfortably down in an armchair and reading a newspaper, and maybe a good

poem. I think that computers are diffusing a new form of literacy but are incapable of satisfying all the

intellectual needs they are stimulating.

In my hours of optimism I dream of a computer generation which, compelled to read a computer

screen, gets acquainted with reading, but at a certain moment feels unsatisfied and looks for a different,

more relaxed and differently-committing form of reading...

We are marching towards a more liberated society in which free creativity will co-exist

with textual interpretation. I like this. But we must not say that we have substituted a old

thing with another one. We have both, thanks God. TV zapping is a kind of activity which

has nothing to do with watching a movie. A hypertextual device that allows us to invent

new texts has nothing to do with our ability to interpret pre-existing texts.

There is still another confusion between and about two different questions: (a) will

computers made books obsolete? and (b) will computers make written and printed

material obsolete?

Let us suppose that computers will make books to disappear. This would not mean the

disappearance of printed material.

The computer creates new modes of production and diffusion of printed documents. In

order to re-read a text, and to correct it properly, if it is not simply a short letter, one needs

to print it, then to re-read it, then to correct it at the computer and to reprint it again. I do

not think that one is able to write a text of hundreds of pages and to correct it without

printing it at least once.

We have seen that - if by chance one hoped that computers, and specially word processors,

would have contributed to save trees - that was a wishful thinking. Computers encourage

the production of printed material. We can think of a culture in which there will be no

books, and people will go around with tons and tons of unbound sheets of paper. This

will be pretty difficult, and will pose a new problem for libraries.

People desire to communicate with each other. In ancient communities they did it orally; in

a more complex society they tried to do it by printing. Most of the books which are

displayed in a bookstore should be defined as products of Vanity Presses, even if they are

published by a university press. But with computer technology we are entering a new

Samisdazt Era. People can communicate directly without the mediation of publishing

houses. Lot of people do not want to publish, they simply want to communicate each

other. Today they do it by E-mail or Internet, will result in being a great advantage for

books, books' civilization and books' market. Look at a bookstore. There are too many

books. I receive too many books every week. If the computer network will succeed in

reducing the quantity of published books, it would be a paramount cultural improvement...

Until now I have tried to show that the arrival of new technological devices does not

necessarily made previous device obsolete. The car is goes faster than the bicycle, but cars

have not rendered bicycles obsolete and no new technological improvement can make a

bicycle better than it was before. The idea that a new technology abolishes a previous role

is too much simplistic. After the invention of Daguerre painters did not feel obliged to

serve any longer as craftsmen obliged to reproduce reality such as we believe to see it. But

it does not mean that Daguerre's invention only encouraged abstract painting. There is a

whole tradition in modern painting that could not exist without the photographic model,

think for instance of hyper-realism. Reality is seen by the painter's eye through the

photographic eye.

Certainly the advent of cinema or of comic strips has made literature free from certain

narrative tasks it traditionally had to perform. But if there is something like post-modern

literature, it exists just because it has been largely influenced by comic strips or cinema.

For the same reason today I do not need any longer a heavy portrait painted by a modest

artist and I can send my sweetheart a glossy and faithful photograph, but such a change

in the social functions of painting has not made painting obsolete, except that today painted

portraits do not fulfill the same practical function of portraying a person (which can be

done better and less expensively by a photograph), but of celebrating important

personalities, so that the command, the purchasing and the exhibition of such portraits

acquire aristocratic connotations.

This means that in the history if culture it has never happened that something has simply

killed something else. Something has profoundly changed something else.

I have quoted McLuhan, according to which the Visual Galaxy had substituted the

Gutenberg Galaxy. We have seen that few decades later this was no longer true.

McLuhan stated that we are living in a new electronic Global Village. We are certainly

living in a new electronic community, which is global enough, but this is not a Village -

if by village one means a human settlement where people are directly interacting each other.

The real problems of an electronic community are the following: (1) Solitude. The new

citizen of this new community is free to invent new texts, to cancel the traditional notion

of authorship, to delete the traditional divisions between author and reader, but the risk is

that - being in touch with the entire world by means of a galactic network - one feels

alone.... (2) Excess of information and inability to choose and to discriminate. I am used

to saying that certainly the Sunday NYT is the kind of newspaper where you can find

everything fit to print. Its 500 hundred pages tell you everything you need to know about

the events of the past week and the ideas for the new one. However, a single week is not

enough to read the whole Sunday NYT. Is there a difference between a newspaper which

says everything you cannot read, and a newspaper which says nothing, is there a difference

between NYT and Pravda?

Notwithstanding this, the NYT reader can still distinguish between the book review, the

pages devoted to the tv programs, the Real Estate supplement, and so on. The user of

Internet has not the same skill. We are today unable to discriminate, at least at first glance,

between a reliable source and a mad one. We need a new form of critical competence, an

as yet unknown art of selection and decimation of information, in short, a new wisdom.

We need a new kind of educational training.

Let me say that in this perspective books will still have a paramount function. As well as

you need a printed handbook in order to surf on Internet, so we will need new printed

manuals in order to cope critically with the World Wide Web.

Let me conclude with a praise of the finite and limited world that books provide us.

Suppose you are reading Tolstoj's War and Peace: you are desperately wishing that

Natasha will not accept the courtship of that miserable scoundrel who is Anatolij; you

desperately wish that that marvellous person who is prince Andrej will not die, and that

he and Natasha could live together happy forever. If you had War and Peace in a

hypertextual and interactive CD-rom you could rewrite your own story, according to

your desires, you could invent innumerable War and Peaces, where Pierre Besuchov

succeeds in killing Napoleon or, according to your penchants, Napoleon definitely defeats

General Kutusov.

Alas, with a book you cannot. You are obliged to accept the laws of Fate, and to realise

that you cannot change Destiny. A hypertextual and interactive novel allows us to practice

freedom and creativity, and I hope that such a kind of inventive activity will be practised

in the schools of the future. But the written War and Peace does not confront us with the

unlimited possibilities of Freedom, but with the severe law of Necessity. In order to be

free persons we also need to learn this lesson about Life and Death, and only books can

still provide us with such a wisdom.

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