10/31/09 Hard core (not what you think)
With this post I will take some preliminary steps toward the goal of comprehension (cf my earlier posts on Kantian apprehensio and comprehensio), with the example or target being Twitter’s new “lists” feature, and microblogging’s iterative mode more generally (Josh Marshall of TPM makes reference to this with some frequency – I’ll return to some of his formulations down the line). Taking the form of another page from my notebook, with little commentary for the moment, this will remain a draft even when it’s published; though it may appear obscure for now, I will try over time to make its relevance clear.
The theoretical stakes in thinking through the repetitive, iterative character of Twitter itself and of the user’s experience are very similar those that underlie an essay by Paul de Man entitled “Anthropomorphism and Trope in the Lyric,” which appears in the volume The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia UP, 1984). The latter part of the essay takes the form of a reading of Baudelaire’s sonnet “Correspondances.
The canonical and programmatic sonnet “Correspondances” contains not a single sentence that is not simply declarative. Not a single negation, interrogation, or exclamation, not a single verb that is not in the present indicative, nothing but straightforward affirmation: “La Nature est un temple…Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants.” (243)
Much of de Man’s reading, which I’m only telegraphing here, turns on the meanings and effects of the word “comme” (“like”) in Baudelaire’s text:
When it is said that “les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se repondent…comme des longs echos,” then the preposition of resemblance, “comme,” the most frequently counted word in the canon of Baudelaire’s poetry, does its work properly and clearly, without upsetting the balance between difference and identity that it is assigned to maintain. It achieves a figure of speech…. All this is playing at metaphor according to the rules of the game. But the same is not true of the final “comme” in the poem: ” Il est des parfums frais comme…/Doux comme…/–Et d’autres…Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies/Comme l’ambre. le musc, le benjoin et l’encens.” Ce comme n’est pas un comme comme les autres….here “comme” relates to the subject “parfums” in two different ways or, rather, it has two distinct subjects. If “comme” is related to “l’expansion des choses infinies,” which is grammatically as well as tonally possible, then it still functions, like the other “commes,” as a comparative simile: a common property (“l’expansion”) links the finite senses to an experience of infinity. But “comme” also relates to “parfums”: “Il est des parfums frais…/–Et d’autres…/Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens”; the somewhat enigmatic hyphen can be said to mark that hesitation (as well as rule it out). “Comme” then means as much as “such as, for example” and enumerates scents which contrast with “chairs d’enfants” as innocence contrasts with experience or nature with artifice. This working out by exemplification is quite different from the analogical function assigned to the other uses of “comme.”
In de Man’s reading, this use of “comme” in the sense of “such as, for example” is aberrant, out of order:
For although the burden of totalizing expansion seems to be attributed to these particular scents rather than the others, the logic of “comme” restricts the semantic field of “parfums” and confines it to a tautology: “Il est des parfums…/Comme (des parfums).” Instead of analogy, we have enumeration, and an enumeration which never moves beyond the confines of a set of particulars….” (emphasis added)
Baudelaire’s sonnet thus exemplifies the way in which
Enumerative repetition disrupts the chain of tropological substitution at the crucial moment when the poem promises, by way of these very substitutions, to reconcile the pleasures of the mind with those of the senses and to unite aesthetics with epistemology. That the very word on which these substitutions depend would just then lose its syntactical and semantic univocity is too striking a coincidence not to be, like pure chance, beyond the control of author and reader.” (RR 240-250, emphasis added)
Here, then, are a few more notebook pages waiting to be re-read, ordered and introduced into our ongoing analysis of Twitter.
10/30/2009 Calling all curators. Tend your lists.
For regular readers of this blog: file today’s post under “apprehension,” and not yet “comprehension.”
My Twitter “lists” function was activated today, a full 30 days after the Twitter blog published “Soon to Launch: Lists,” written by the project lead, Nick Kallen (@nk). The mild frustration that marked the wait for the “small subset of users” who got to try the feature on beta to expand to include me and my ilk was comparable to that involved in awaiting the H1N1 vaccine rollout (in the meantime, I got the flu). Thus far, I’ve only had time to locate five lists posted by five trusted sources. I have yet to track these new feeds extensively, or to begin to compile lists of my own (a bit of reaping before I sow).
What first intrigued me about the new feature was the idea that users could “curate” lists of Twitter accounts (@nk’s post uses this term; it also asserts that “lists have the potential to be an important new discovery mechanism for great tweets and accounts”). http://blog.twitter.com/
From early on in my thinking about social media, and certainly in my practice, I have conceived of blogging and microblogging as the curation of ideas, sources and images. To the extent that the lists feature enhances – even as it complicates – the activity of curation, it is a development to be welcomed (and of course monitored).
A quick detour via the Oxford English Dictionary (almost always worth the drive) reminds us that to curate is to “select, organize and look after the items in a collection or exhibition,” and that the Latin root is curare, meaning “to take care of.” My sense, at this early stage, is that care will be required in the thoughtful and progressive deployment of Twitter lists.
For a handy assessment of the potential downsides, check out scobleizer’s posterous (post and extensive comments):
Also worth consulting, as ever, is Dave Winer: http://r2.ly/mgfw
I’ll have more to say on the list as figure in due course.
10/29/2009 Diversify your media portfolio
Morning tonic: some characteristically adept reporting and analysis by The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders, writing from Prague as the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall draws near: “In Czechoslovakia, human network made the message go viral” (October 29, A20; http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/in-czechoslovakia-human-network-made-the-mesage-go-viral/article1343132/ ). Recalling the history of the Czech resistance and its multiple modes of communication, Saunders’ article provides an important context for the vaunting of Twitter and SMS as instruments of political mobilization in our own time.
In 1989, Jirka Meska was in the business of making information move, as fast as possible, around the communist state of Czechoslovakia.
Officially, that meant he was among the country’s highly protected elite software engineers, responsible for writing operating systems and networking applications for the primitive mainframes of the Eastern Bloc.
Unofficially, he had discovered more effective information-spreading techniques. As a secret link to the country’s anti-authoritarian underground network called Charter 77, he was capable of helping cause 10,000 people to appear at a protest suddenly, or to stop work for a day, an escalating wave of actions that played a key role in bringing down the government.
“It got to the point that half the country could know something within a few hours, even though it couldn’t be mentioned in any of the media or spoken over the phone,” the bearded programmer said the other day in his Prague campus office.
Twenty years after the Berlin Wall fell on Nov.9, 1989, and the communist government in neighbouring Czechoslovakia joined its neighbours in giving up power six weeks later,the activists involved are struck by the fact they were able to communicate with a speed and efficiency that would be difficult today – even though they lacked the cellphones, e-mail networks, Twitter accounts and websites used nowadays by anti-government movements in places such as Iran.
Former resistance members in the Czech Republic and the former East Germany say there were two factors that made news move at better-than-Twitter efficiency in the revolutionary days of ’89: A network of human relationships that conveyed information informally on a regular basis, and a population who were highly focused on only a few channels of information, both official and clandestine.
“You didn’t have people looking at 200 different TV channels and 10,000 websites and e-mails from thousands of people,” says Rainer Muller, one of the East German dissidents who brought 200,000 people onto the streets of Leipzig in October of 1989. “You could put something on a Western TV or radio station and you could be sure that half the country would know it.”
The technology was often primitive, for a good reason: Using the telephone was extremely risky, and the print and broadcast media were regime-controlled.
Mr. Meska, the software engineer, held such an important position that the regime had a high threshold for his insurrection. So he became a trusted communication hub for the underground, a human router – though he resorted to a pre-digital medium to reach the nation.
“I went into the research institute’s photocopy office one day with a copy of the underground secret newspaper Lidove Noviny, and I was surprised to find that the woman there let me make a copy of it,” he said. “So later that day I came in and made 200 copies. And after that I became a samizdat publisher, effectively.”
Each of those copies would reach hundreds of people, because they would be circulated among networks of people – not members of the underground, but ordinary citizens who were used to meeting at pubs, passing on information and rumours, and sending them along to other circles of friends the same day….
The phone was a risk – but the East Germans discovered it could be used effectively if large groups of people shared calls from public phones.
And the goal was always to reach radio and TV stations outside the Iron Curtain that reached across the border.
“We would hold a weekly telephone conference in which we would report on what was going on, and the purpose of this was to have someone different each day who could relay all the information to the Western media through West Germany – this proved an extremely effective method to reach the whole country,” said Mr. Muller, the East German…..
After the Berlin Wall fell in Germany, Czechs began to organize a serious resistance movement known as the Civic Forum in early November, 1989, and within six weeks it became the government.
It was launched in typical lo-fidelity fashion: Czechs, who gathered habitually at the theatre, suddenly found the actors reading anti-government news rather than lines from the play. It was massive, fast, and more effective than a text message.
Here I refer my readers to my previous post, “A flock of tweets (like a murder of crows, or a parliament of rooks),” in which I cite Ian Dunt of politics.co.uk, writing in the aftermath of the Stephen Gately/Daily Mail surge on Twitter: “It seems inevitable that within a decade we will see a revolution coordinated by Twitter somewhere in the world.” Revolutionaries everywhere (fledglings included): heed the lessons of Prague. Diversify your media portfolio.
Technorati Tags: Berlin Wall, Charter 77, civic Forum, Czech resistance, Czechoslovakia, Doug Saunders, Globe and Mail, Ian Dunt, Jirka Meska, November 1989, Prague, Rainer Muller, samizdat, SMS, Twitter
10/29/2009 A novice blogger’s inventory
This, it turns out, is my 40th post on fledgling. While it’s not a major milestone by any stretch, I thought it could serve as an occasion for taking stock of the posts to date: not in terms of their quality or effectiveness (that is not for me to say), nor in terms of how many readers they have reached (despite Typepad’s dashboard data, this is not yet clear). What I’d like to inventory for my own purposes going forward is this: What is it that prompts the post in the first place? To what source does it owe its existence?
As of October 28 and excluding this post, my totals are as follows:
– 39 posts
– 11 comments
– 1146 lifetime pageviews
– 28.65 average pageviews/day
So, without regard to any psychological or even analytical response I may have to those numbers at this stage, I’d like simply to tally figures on what sources prompted them.
– A particular tweet or link served up by Twitter: 11
– The Twitter blog: 3
– Other online sources: 8
– Print sources: 4
– Broadcast sources: 1
– My notebooks: 7
– Mostly unmediated experience: 5
For me, these numbers attest to how unpredictably this project has unfolded thus far. I foresaw more posts originating with a conceptual or theoretical claim (which would then be tested against individual cases), and there is an element of pleasant surprise at how many of the prompts have come by way of particular tweets and their indispensable links. At the same time, I am aware that some version of Kant’s two acts of the imagination, apprehension and comprehension, will be required for any critical reading of Twitter (cf my post “Breaking news: Kant weighs in on Twitter, Part 1,” from which I take the liberty of quoting once again in this context).
Apprehension proceeds successively, as a syntagmatic, consecutive motion along an axis, and it can proceed ad infinitum without difficulty. Comprehension, however, which is a paradigmatic totalization of the apprehended trajectory, grows increasingly difficult as the space covered by apprehension grows larger. The model reminds one of a simple phenomenology of reading, in which one has to make constant syntheses to comprehend the successive unfolding of the text: the eye moves horizontally in succession whereas the mind has to combine vertically the cumulative understanding of what has been apprehended. The comprehension will soon reach a point at which it is saturated and will no longer be able to take in additional apprehensions: it cannot progress beyond a certain magnitude which marks the limit of the imagination.
In other words, I could continue ad infinitum taking my cues from successive tweets (which is good to know: writer’s block shouldn’t be an issue). At some stage – or rather periodically along the way – the effort to reach a cumulative understanding of what has been apprehended must, for a time, take precedence.
Thanks to @jayrosen_nyu for providing today’s prompt, in the form of a link to Marshall Kirkpatrick’s coverage, for ReadWriteWeb, of Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s recent interview at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando (http://jr.ly/n9fs ). While much of what Schmidt had to say in the 45-minute interview was directed to business leaders, Kirkpatrick kindly excerpted “6 minutes that we believe is of interest to anyone who’s touched by the web.”
A few highlights from those six minutes bear directly on my last two posts on the new Bing/Google/Twitter configuration. In Schmidt’s own words:
– “Real-time information is just as valuable as all the other information. We want it included in our search results.”
– “We can index real-time info now – but how do we rank it?”
– Learning to rank user-generated info “is the greatest challenge of the age.” [emphasis added]
Kirkpatrick concludes his report with the affirmation that “Schmidt believes Google can solve that problem.” But whether or not this is the case, it is only responsible to ask whether it is Google’s CEO who decides what the greatest challenge of the age might be (perhaps especially when 39 of his allotted 45 minutes were addressed directly to business leaders).
10/27/2009 Twoogle? Googlitter? Key documents, part 2
On October 21, 2009 at 2:41 P.M., @EV posted the following on the Twitter blog:
Our friends down in Mountain View want to organize the worlds’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. A fast growing amount of information is coursing through Twitter very quickly, and we want there to be many ways to access that information. As part of that effort, we’ve partnered with Google to index the entire world of public tweets as fast as possible and present them to their users in an organized and relevant fashion.
We’ve always taken an open approach to how people experience Twitter, particularly in how and where tweets are read. Users have benefited greatly from the abundance of choice provided by our ecosystem partners. We’re honored to take this next step with Google and tap into their expertise to support the rapid, open exchange of ideas.
You can read more about our collaboration on the Google Blog. [emphasis added]
RT@google: Tweets and updates and search, oh my! is the playful title of the update to the Google blog posted by Marissa Mayer, VP of Search Products and User Experience, at 2:09 P.M. (i.e., shortly before @EV posted on the Twitter blog).
At Google, our goal is to create the most comprehensive, relevant and fast search in the world. In the past few years, an entirely new type of data has emerged – real-time updates like those on Twitter have appeared not only as a way for people to communicate their thoughts and feelings, but also as an interesting source of data about what is happening right now in regard to a particular topic.
Given this new type of information and its value to search, we are very excited to announce that we have reached an agreement with Twitter to include their updates in our search results. We believe that our search results and user experience will greatly benefit from the inclusion of this up-to-the-minute data, and we look forward to having a product that showcases how tweets can make search better in the coming months…. [emphasis added]
My own strong hunch (inscribed in the boldface of the emphasis-added) is that, when the laudatory language of all four posts is distilled, the essential consideration that remains to be thought will be time, and specifically the variable and potentially incompatible temporalities of these media and the events they seek to register and archive.
10/27/2009 Twing? Bitter? Key documents, part 1
Once again a perusal of the Twitter blog has opened up possibilities and necessities for reflection on Twitter, its temporalities and its impacts (current and to come) on journalism and historiography. I am transcribing parts of these key documents here, with emphasis added where it may assist in assessing the stakes of what transpired on October 21, 2009.
There are two posts on the Twitter blog with that dateline. The first (the earlier, which thanks to reverse-chronology is not the first you encounter on the page) is by @BIZ, posted at 11:40 A.M. (time zone unspecified) under the title “Bing Goes the Dynamite”:
We very firmly believe the open exchange of information can have a positive impact on the world. Every day we see evidence supporting this belief. Most Twitter accounts are public for a good reason – people find value in openness. An open approach means value for users, value for partners, and value for Twitter.
We have a team focused on delivering value from a search and discovery perspective at Twitter and they’re just getting started. Twitter is earning a reputation for delivering real-time results to queries about things that are happening right now. Moreover, there are already tens of thousands of Twitter apps and more to come because people want the choice to consume and create tweets wherever and whenever they prefer. The folks over at Bing took a keen interest in Twitter and worked fast to establish a working relationship with us in line with an open approach.
You can read more about Bing’s new Twitter search on their blog or just try it out. Twitter is providing Bing access to the overwhelming deluge of public, real-time tweets rushing in from all around the world so they can help you find those that make the most sense right now. While Twitter currently presents tweets based simply on timeliness, Bing is experimenting with new solutions such as “best match.” We hope more working relationships with organizations in the search business will mean even more variety for our users.
Because of our open approach there are many ways to interact with Twitter, and there will be many more to come. As we work to mature our service and platform offerings, we also hope to develop meaningful relationships with companies that share our vision of creating value for everyone involved – especially users. Whether it’s emerging startups, big companies, or people simply sharing information, we’re establishing successful partnerships. Also, it’s fun. [emphasis added]
It sounds like fun. So I was quick to click on the link directing me to the Bing blog, which turned out to be their “community page.” There I found a post dated October 21, 10:24 A.M. (again, no time zone given, but in any event the posting predates that of @BIZ on the Twitter blog). Authored by Paul Yiu and the Bing Social Search Team, it is entitled “Bing is bringing Twitter search to you.”
One of the most interesting things going on today on the Internet is the notion of the real time web. The idea of accessing data in real time has been an elusive goal in the world of search. Web indexes in search engines update at pretty amazing rates, given what it takes to crawl the entire web and index it for searching, but getting that to ‘real time’ has been challenging.
The explosive popularity of Twitter is the best example of this opportunity. Twitter produces millions of tweets every minute on every subject you can imagine. The power of those tweets as a form of data that can be surfaced in search is enormous. Innovative services like Twitter give us access to public opinion and thoughts in a way that has not before been possible. From important social and political issues to keeping friends up to date on the minute-by-minute of our daily lives, the web is getting more and more real time.
Search has to keep up…. today at Web 2.0 we announced that working with those clever birds over at Twitter, we now have access to the entire public Twitter feed and have a beta of Bing Twitter search for you to play with (in the U.S., for now). Try it out. The Bing and Twitter teams want to know what you think…. [emphasis added]
I’d also like to know what you think, but not before you read my next post.
10/26/2009 No end in sight
Monday morning and I am still facing my half-read printout of “The Reconstruction of American Journalism” (http://cjr.org/reconstruction/the_reconstruction_of_american.php?page=all ), the report by Leonard Downie, Jr. and Michael Schudson, published on October 19 in the Columbia Journalism Review, which has already been through the critical ringer on Twitter. I promised myself I’d have it read and processed before this past weekend, to enable timely and substantive commentary, but the truth is that at the halfway point I became convinced – prematurely, I admit – that I had already read the report’s single most interesting line. I cite it here in the context of the paragraph in which it appears.
What is under threat is independent reporting that provides information, investigation, analysis, and community knowledge, particularly in the coverage of local affairs. Reporting the news means telling citizens what they would not otherwise know. “It’s so simple it sounds stupid at first, but when you think about it, it is our fundamental advantage,” says Tim McGuire, a former editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “We’ve got to tell people stuff they don’t know.”
While I’m sure that the CJR report, skewered as it’s been in some circles, offers other formulations pertinent to the fledgling project, this one resonated in the circumscribed context of my own ongoing reflection on the purpose of this weblog. While it does not set out to “report” in any conventional sense, it is certainly written with the goal of telling people – my handful of readers, now and to come – things they don’t know. And the mostly unpredictable ways in which the posts are prompted, how they unfold and where they wind up, more often than not tell me stuff I don’t know, or didn’t know I knew.
I promise to finish “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” but I can’t say whether I will return to it here. What I will pledge to take up is the matter of how reading Twitter with an eye to its impact on journalism and historiography involves an ongoing negotiation between reading individual tweets (in all their idiosyncracy) and theorizing microblogging in general, conceptual terms. There is no end in sight.
10/23/2009 Minister Twitter remembers
One factor that makes blogging a) different from the kinds of writing I’m used to, and b) likely to keep me engaged for some time to come, is this: I don’t sit down at the keyboard with an outline or a set agenda, but rather take my prompts where I find them each day (these tend to fall within the framework of the blog’s long-term project). At this stage, anyway, I often come across a promising starting point while scrolling through my Twitter homepage each morning, without knowing where it might lead. Today, for example, I am taking my cues from three tweets posted by someone I have recently begun to follow.
Of the individuals I track on Twitter, Shashi Tharoor is to my mind among the more compelling. His profile lists his location as New Delhi, though his tweets, from all over the map, prove him to be highly peripatetic. His Twitter bio, by definition abbreviated, retains the quality of an impressive cv: “author, humanitarian, peacekeeper, columnist, former UN Under-Secretary General, now Minister of State for External Affairs, Govt. of India.” He is also the recently elected MP for the district of Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala state (contracted to “Tvm” for tweeting), which I knew, having followed the Indian elections earlier this year.
[The blog from which I borrowed this photo, http://alexp0205.wordpress.com/, includes a post entitled “Shashi Tharoor removes his own posters,” which quotes the then-candidate on his soon-to-be constituency: “This is a beautiful town, and I don’t want politics to disfigure it.”]
But it was less my interest in this accomplished and multifaceted figure than the content of one (then two, then three) of his tweets from yesterday, October 23, 2009, that kick-started this post. I first ran across this one, which I promptly saved to favorites: “Oct 23: day I lost my father, Chandran Tharoor, at age 63, 16 years ago. Still feel the pain of profound loss. But now he’s always with me”. I then noted another tweet from the same time frame: “Oct 23: commemoration of great Tvm fighter Achamma Cherlan who led peoples march for dem rights & responsible govt on 23.10,1938” – hence 71 years ago. Around nine hours later, Shashi posted yet another commemorative tweet with the same dateline: “Oct 23: happy birthday to @23jacob, the man who put me on Twitter!”
The fact that Minister Tharoor was prompted to tweet – thrice in one day – in commemoration of persons and events of importance to him is itself remarkable, and says a good deal about his relationship to Twitter. To dispatch tweets that range from birthday wishes to the person who “put me on Twitter,” to the remembrance of a historic civil rights march in his home district, to marking the anniversary of his father’s death – these are indications that the author takes the medium seriously, and that he may indeed warrant his nickname, “Minister Twitter.”
In keeping with the objectives of this blog, which pertain to the impacts of Twitter and other social media on the history and historiography of our time, I would pause for a moment over the tweet that went out in commemoration of the death of the writer’s father. Very likely these lines mark only one of several ways in which this anniversary was kept. Of broader interest, perhaps, are the idea and the practice of commemorating by way of a medium – Twitter – that is characterized by frenzy and fragmentation. A tweet is, apart from a vapour or a shadow, the furthest thing from a monument; indeed, it is barely an inscription (though it can be of course be archived). What is the intention – and more importantly the effect – of commemorating a death (and so a life), in this most ephemeral of media? It is an exercise “too poignant and too transitory,” to cite William Wordsworth, writing in his Essays Upon Epitaphs. More remains to be said on this matter, as time allows.
Key excerpts from Wordsworth’s text are at http://www.english.ucsb.edu/faculty/ayliu/unlocked/wordsworth/essays-upon-epitaphs.html
In general, I bristle with indignation at any post or tweet (or ad, or conversation, for that matter) that begins with “Best piece you’ll read today….”, or words to that effect. This may be due to the indelible memory of the prophecy delivered by the chair of a department to which I had applied for a job long (indeed a lifetime) ago. After my lecture, having escorted me to my accommodations for the night, he announced with perfect confidence: “This is the nicest hotel you will ever stay in.” Never mind that the chair of a university English department that wanted to hire me had just ended a sentence with a preposition. I was outraged at the assumption that a Victorian guest house in a third-tier destination was to be the apex of my travel experience. Over the next several years I wantonly booked and stayed at several lavish havelis and converted palace hotels in Rajasthan; in ultra-hip boutique hotels with room service from great restaurants in New York; in Willa Cather’s auratic cottage with spectacular views of the Bay of Fundy; in a converted 16th-century monastary high in the Sierra Madre in Puebla state… and in so many other unforgettable spots that I’ve in fact forgotten what the bloody small-town guesthouse in [________] even looked like.
As I was saying…I don’t respond well to anyone telling me in advance what I will think or how I will experience something. But because @NiemanLab is often a Twitter resource worth exploring, because its links usually net me something worthwhile on journalism and social media, I clicked through to what proved to be an interesting site, new to me, called posterous (http://mbattles/posterous.com/ ), which includes a blog authored by Matthew Battles entitled library ad infinitum: the republic of letters and the storm called progress. His post of October 21, 2009, under the title “the novel dies a thousand deaths,” reproduces part of a letter from the novelist F.Marion Crawford to Stewart Gardner, dated August, 1896.
“The old fashioned novel is really dead, and nothing can revive it nor make anybody care for it again. What is to follow it?…A clever German who is here suggested to me last night that the literature of the future might turn out to be the daily exchange of ideas of men of genius – over the everlasting telephone of course – published every morning for the whole world….”
Battles is right to call this a “rich quote,” which can be viewed from several angles. Here are his thoughts on the matter:
In the first [way to look at it], Crawford’s vision is prophetic, if hasty. The nascent, steampunk, fin-de-siecle telephone network took a century to evolve into an internet. The struggle now is to comprehend and accommodate a daily exchange of ideas not among “men of genius,” but among everyone with a connection.
But another way to spin this is to recognize the apolcalyptic mode for what it is: not a harbinger, but a self-renewing mode of modern consciousness. The telephone didn’t kill the novel; neither did radio, television, or rock ‘n’ roll. Yesterday, Barnes and Noble announced that its own ebook reader, the nook, will connect using the AT&T wireless network – the evanescent digitized great-grandchild of Ma Bell (who was still in utero in Crawford and Gardner’s time).
I like to think the two perspectives aren’t contraditory. Eras end, media grow old, new modes of consciousness emerge. And so human life is enriched.
Matthew ends his post on a high note (memo to self – maybe that’s what it takes to get the quantity and quality of the comments he elicited). In response, his reader Tim wrote a thoughtful and supportive message (“I absolutely believe this – so much so that I wrote my dissertation about it!”), which ended with a link that, via several other links (too many to reproduce), led me to the transcript of a BBC radio broadcast aired in July 1927. In that programme, Leonard Woolf and Virginia Woolf debated a question that they had proposed to the producers in advance: “Are Too Many Books Written and Published?” The edited transcript, compiled by my colleague Melba Cuddy-Keane from pages preserved in the BBC Written Archives Centre and published in the journal PMLA (vol. 121, #1, January 2006, 235-244), is of great interest to the literary and cultural historian. I take this occasion simply to note down several of Virginia’s arguments (Leonard’s are also carefully drawn), with an eye to their potential value for reading across media in our own historical moment.
V.W. Yes, that is one of the great drawbacks of books. They last a lifetime. They take up space on our walls for ever. They need dusting for ever. How many times, after all, is one going to read the same book through? Of all the books in your library how many have you read twice? Yet there they stand, unopened and, I am afraid, often undusted, month after month and year after year. What is wanted is some system by which private libraries could be thrown open to other people, so that readers living in the same neighbourhood could use each other’s books. The present system, by which each of us has a certain number of books locked up doing nothing on his shelves is the most wasteful that could be invented.
The concepts of waste and waste management will be of interest, along with the unavoidable matter of biodegradability and what we might term the cultural compost.
V.W.: ….Books will have to be cheaper. Books ought to be so cheap that we can throw them away if we do not like them, or give them away if we do. Moreover, it is absurd to print every book as if it were fated to last a hundred years. The life of the average book is perhaps three months. Why not face this fact? Why not print the first edition on some perishable material which would crumble to a little heap of perfectly clean dust in about six months time? If a second edition were needed, this could be printed on good paper and well bound. Thus by far the greater number of books would die a natural death in three months or so. No space would be wasted and no dirt would be collected – an ideal state of things in my opinion….
No space wasted, no dirt collected. Fine rules for a blog post.