BMCR 1994.08.03

1994.08.03, Conference: The Future of the Book

“Ceci tuera cela!” “This will kill that!” So said the 15th century archdeacon in as he brandished a printed book in the direction of Notre Dame cathedral in Victor Hugo’s novel (while the hunchback was elsewhere engaged). The idea that new technologies threaten long-held cultural and social values was heavy in the air at a conference on “The Future of the Book” held 28-30 July 1994 in the fortified town of San Marino overlooking the sweltering plains and hills of northern Italy. Several speakers quoted the archdeacon’s words, and they returned as a mantra in the final remarks of the conference’s star speaker, semioticist and novelist Umberto Eco. Eco acted out the anxiety of the present by holding up a paperback book, then reaching under the table for his laptop computer and juxtaposing them as the archdeacon had done with the book and the cathedral.

For one who has often attended meetings of librarians and publishers gathered to discuss the practical implications of new publishing and communications technologies, it is thus a rare treat to participate in an event where scholars step back and ponder the meta-issues: what do the new technologies mean for our society, how do they alter the character and nature of knowledge and cultural memory, does technology determine the ways in which we communicate, or can we shape the way in which technology works for us? This meeting, sponsored by Rank Xerox and the Institute for Semiotic and Cognitive Studies of the University of San Marino, presented a dozen academic papers to a meeting of some 50 people in a setting that fostered formal and informal discussion. Unlike many of the future-oriented meetings of recent years, this one featured no in-lecture demos, no Internet connection, and little attention to the obsessive real-world issues of platform independence, copyright, cost-recovery, or the like. The focus was cultural and theoretical.

Several speakers addressed the literary prospects of hypertext in one way or another: Jay David Bolter of Georgia Tech was theoretical, Michael Joyce, already a veteran hyperfiction author, was more venturesomely poetic, and George Landow of Brown University linked their themes. Will the author disappear? Will the reader disappear? Will hypertext be better understood as the system within which reading takes place as we all link from document to document, or will individual creations with pre-formed links take a dominant role? Perhaps most striking was the confidence with which all agreed that in hypertext we have a new way of handling text somehow.

Venerable questions of predestination and free will bubbled beneath the surface as well. Many speakers, e.g., Carla Hesse of the University of California (noting ways in which idealistic dreams of a future of free discourse quite comparable to those of the Internet were common currency among eighteenth century philosophes), Raphaele Simone of Rome (concerned about a return to pre-modern “disarticulated” texts and consequent cultural incoherence), James J. O’Donnell of the University of Pennsylvania (finding in medieval and early modern navigators of similar cultural transitions a ground for venturesome pragmatism as a model), and Paul Duguid of Xerox PARC, all vigorously denied any determinist leanings, insisting that whatever transformations now occur are not in the first or second instance matters of technology, but matters of social choices made about institutional and cultural structures. Just how those choices are made and how far they are susceptible to rational control were questions debated repeatedly through the conference. By contrast, the one rank optimist was Patrice Bazin of the municipal library of Lyon, using experiments there to envision the “meta-lecture” of the future; Luca Toschi, associated with the universities of Verona and Florence, was the closest thing to a “techie” in the group.

Duguid was joined by Regis Debray, the veteran theoretician of Latin American revolution from the 1960s now reincarnated as a “mediologue,” in strikingly conservative warnings about the consequences of the “demassification” or “dematerialization” of the physical artifacts by which culture is borne. Debray in particular warned that as societies have looser and looser ties to places and things, they may find themselves subject to reactionary forces grasping for old certainties at least as brutally as do Balkan or fundamentalist Islamic peoples today.

In fact, the speakers were strikingly conservative in outlook, and it was as though a kind of reaction is setting in against the prophecies of electrozealots. There was discussion in this vein as well: how well do we prophesy? Geoffrey Nunberg of Xerox, chief organizer of the conference, delivered a paper entitled “Farewell to the Information Age,” making the interesting substantive point that we risk “naturalizing” (i.e., taking for granted, as though they were natural givens and not artificial cultural products) many of our conceptions when we make such predictions. He showed an old Popular Mechanics cartoon of the housewife of c. 2000 doing her housework by spraying her waterproof living room furniture with a garden hose. His point was not only that the prediction was wrong, but that its biggest mistake was in assuming that the “housewife” with her perm and poodle skirt would still be the same in 2000. So too, Nunberg, argued, information itself is hardly a natural resource but a carefully created and nurtured form of cultural artistry, and he convincingly showed the true rise of the information culture to lie in 19th century mechanism and atomization, driven by business and journalism. What lies beyond, he implied, is much harder to know with certainty than our easy prophecies make it seem.

The star of the conference was host Umberto Eco, and he made the most of his position at the end with “conclusive remarks” in which he thoughtfully drew together themes and made his own distinctions. For Eco, it was important to emphasize that McLuhan was wrong at least twice: first, in thinking that image would dominate alphabet in the new electronic culture (alphabetic material is far more easily moved and manipulated on the information networks), and second, in thinking that electronic technology would usher in the intimacy of a global village. Far more likely, says Eco, that solitude will be the problem of the new age. He offered well-constructed insights from contemporary Italian life of the power and influence of new ways of thinking, while at the same time cautioning that old cultural expectations will continue to control the choices that societies make. Hypertext he welcomes cannily, the Internet he welcomes in principle (though to this eye he seemed to be speaking of a culture he has not yet inhabited), but he still does not see where and how the role of “publication” will be fulfilled in an e-world that for him more closely resembles the samizdat of late Soviet authors denied formal access to a wide public.

Will the book disappear? This was the red herring question of the whole conference, for though it seemed to be an implicit expectation, all speakers and discussants were at pains to insist that it will not. What emerged to this library-formed participant most strongly was that it is the scholars and authors who have the most fixed and in some ways narrow conception of the book as vehicle of culture. Though speakers were strikingly anxious to maintain a place for the book in culture, it was clear that the book they care about takes up only a small space on our library shelves and forms only a small part of the flooding output of printed matter that emerges today. Here it seems that the library community is already far ahead in considering the multiplicity of forms in which information already comes and will increasingly come. Seen in that light, this was a conference not so much on the Book and its Future as on the Idea of the Book, in many ways a more fragile and threatened artifact than the Book itself.

The one part of the future of the book most confidently predicted is the appearance of the conference papers in hard covers sometime in 1995.