Whither the Book?

over the last 20 years, we have internalized Marshall McLuhan’s insight “the medium is the message:”  whenever somebody comes up with something, we jump on the bandwagon and reduce our thinking to 140-character-aphorisms, even as, cultural critics are lamenting the demise of traditional media such the newspaper or the pop album, and the demise of the occident more generally.

The media-realists in us know that function follows form and that the media industries need to adapt. It has become conventional wisdom that if new media allow for disruptive modes of production, discovery, search, or distribution and existing media will wither away. Friedrich Kittler developed the framework to reflect this interrelationship between modes of production and text in his seminal work, Aufschreibesysteme 1800/1900 (Discourse Networks1800/1900). In later texts he predicts that in network society all forms of texting will converge into a general repository of knowledge. But will that happen?

Even as the google books settlement is making its way through the courts and the Ipad is seen as the savior technology for media industries in general there is a certain discursive silence about the withering away of the book, our all-time favorite medium:

Google, in contrast, tackles them head on, but not before reiterating its big-picture take on the settlement: its digitization efforts are the only thing preventing another Library of Alexandria-style tragedy, and making the results available is a public good that should override petty concerns raised by its competitors. “Approval of the settlement will open the virtual doors to the greatest library in history, without costing authors a dime they now receive or are likely to receive if the settlement is not approved,” Google’s filing reads. “Nor does anyone seriously dispute, though few objectors admit, that to deny the settlement will keep those library doors locked while inviting costly, fragmented litigation that could clog dockets around the country for years.”

Book writing and reading is special. Even bloggers admit to writing just to get the potential book deal. So we need to think the book not as a physical thing, but as a an event. Our respect of the “platonic” idea of a book forces to slow down our thinking to a level where we actually reflect on what we write, when we write. And reading a book is about as close to experiencing flying in second life.

Therefore, it is time to re-brand books as experiences not hold on to the idea of books as products of the “Gutenberg Galaxy.” This change of perspective will allow us to think in terms of unconventional business models. And Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea of family resemblance (there is not one attribute that you find in all games or metaphorically speaking, the rope that holds the boat is not connected by one very long fiber) reminds us that these business models will be different for different books. What does the book mean to you? How do we frame it beyond its material instantiation? What are viable business models for the book of the future?

About Philipp

Philipp Müller works in the IT industry and is academic dean of the SMBS. Author of "Machiavelli.net". Proud father of three amazing children. The views expressed in this blog are his own.

15. February 2010 by Philipp
Categories: Blog | Tags: , , , , , | 2 comments

Comments (2)

  1. steve@apescience.com'

    I'd like to offer another interpretation of the relationship between the book, and the digital information network paradigm (briefly, too, since this a blog, and ironically, does not lend itself to “deep” conversation). I am referring mostly to the learning context here. My unproven proposal is that the operator in a digital environment is affected by the absence of information scarcity, as opposed to the book operator who becomes attached to the commodity resource in a critical, focused, dependent way. (This is separate from McLuhan's discussion of “attachment” in the print milieu, as a delivery of a detached, uninvolved voice). My point here is that a person who operates under the assumption that (digital) information is infinite, ubiquitous, transferable, and duplicable, will not regard it as important – even if it is. The book, however, is finite. It is prepossessing, and cannot be launched from tangentially at an impulse in quite the same way as the digital information network. The book is (pardon the irony here) a speedbump, and represents to me an opportunity for students to exercise skills in focus and problem solving within prescribed resources. It is curious to me that record collectors had always sought that one rare record, while the digital mp3 collector might only be actualized by collecting such an outrageous and arbitrary quantity, such as 1 million mp3 files. This “dilution” of value of the actual content is the area where I seek to study more. Perhaps, contra-intuitively, by enforcing a scarcity of digital resources, we will enforce value-making.

  2. Steve, would like to hear more from you. Is it really scarcity that we need to value things or is it just because we come from a cult(ure) of scarcity, we try to artificially recreate it in the digital age? Is the figure of the record collector not highly artificial even in analog times? Mike Masnick would argue, you need to combine the scarce with the plentiful, however, maybe even that is stuck in old thinking. Maybe learning to value abundance is not as difficult as we imagine and maybe even managing value creation in such worlds is doable.