A Bookfuturist Manifesto

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Thumbnail image for Duchamp_-_Nude_Descending_a_Staircase.jpgThe first thing to understand about bookfuturism is that "book" modifies "futurism" as much as the other way around. So bookfuturists aren't just people promoting the future of the book; they're also a different kind of futurist, the way a cubo-futurist painting like Duchamp's "Nude Descending A Staircase" is different, or Afro-futurism was/is different from typically white science-fiction culture.

A futurist (in Marinetti's original sense) wants to burn down libraries. A bookfuturist wants to put video games in them. A bookfuturist, in other words, isn't someone who purely embraces the new and consigns the old to the rubbish heap. She's always looking for things that blend her appreciation of the two.

I started using the words "bookfuturist" and "bookfuturism" because of Joanne McNeil's name for her Twitter list of wordly nerds who like to think about books and new media: "bookfuturism." I was one of the people she put on the list, and as soon as I saw the name, I wrote, "I want to write a bookfuturist manifesto!"

Before that, there was Bob Stein's Institute for the Future of the Book, and Chris Meade, the co-director of the institute, had a blog called "Bookfutures." In other words, there have been people both inside and outside of universities and publishing houses and tech companies who really cared about books and technology, knew a lot about the history of media, and were interested in serious thinking about the future of reading.

A bookfuturist manifesto could never really be like an avant-garde or political manifesto, partly because the whole idea of bookfuturism is to critically unravel these contradictions, rather than stake out definite positions that we'd cling to no matter what. For instance, when Amazon's Kindle first came out, I was completely of the mind that these text-only files cheaply mocked the experience of reading a book without actually including all its rich physicality, or trying to create a new, specifically digital experience. Now, as the whole industry's moved towards multimedia tablets and touch interfaces, I find myself thinking, "you know, maybe just focusing on text, and making that experience as useful and enjoyable as possible, is a really good idea. Text and textual interfaces are incredibly resilient and powerful. Bring back the command line!"

Bookfuturism turns out to be not just about books as such, but a kind of aesthetic and culture of reading, literacy, history, in connection with (only rarely in opposition to) other kinds of media culture. And reading here would also obviously include newspapers and magazines, and even things like maps and advertisements and data visualizations, plus whatever's displayed on the different screens most of us look at all day at home or work. What does it mean to live in this hyperliterate world? How do we make sense of it? There I think we need to actually articulate something like Jason Kottke's motto: "Liberal Arts 2.0."

The other way you can describe bookfuturism is by distinguishing it from what it's not. The bookfuturist is profoundly different from the two people he might otherwise easily be mistaken for at first glance - the technofuturist and the bookservative. These positions are easier to recognize, because most of our public discussions of new technology takes place as an argument between these two camps. And it's heating up now, because for a long time, even though people like CP Snow talked about "two cultures," these people were really on separate tracks - the engineers were doing their thing, the traditional culture people another. They didn't really understand each other, but mostly respected each other's credentials and institutional authority. Those disciplinary and technological walls started to fall apart at the same time as the elevated platforms separating enshrined experts from engaged citizens vanished. Authority is no longer a given, or given at all.

Now, even bookservatives acknowledge that things are changing. But they fear that these changes will result in catastrophe, for some part or whole of the culture they love. Because of that, they would prefer that book tech and book culture stop, slow down, or go back.

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Tim Carmody is a contributing editor for The WireMore

Tim Carmody is a contributing editor for The Wire. He was previously a senior writer for Wired and The Verge, and has also written for The Atlantic, National Geographic, Newsweek, Technology Review, Hazlitt, and elsewhere.
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