A Bookfuturist Manifesto

By Tim Carmody

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.

Alan Kaufman wrote an essay on e-books in the Evergreen Review that included the line: "The book is fast becoming the despised Jew of our culture. Der Jude is now Der Book." And: "The advent of electronic media to first position in the modern chain of Being--a place once occupied by God--and later, after the Enlightenment, by humans--is no mere 9/11 upon our cultural assumptions. It is a catastrophe of holocaustal proportions. And its endgame is the disappearance of not just books but of all things human." It's hard to see how this clarifies anything.

On the other side of the aisle are technofuturists. They're winning most of the arguments these days when it comes to e-books, so their rhetoric isn't as wild. Technofuturists are technological triumphalists, or at least quasi-utopian optimists. These are the folks who believe that technology can solve our political, educational, and cultural problems. At an extreme, they don't care about books at all: they're just relics of a happily closing age of paper, and we should embrace the future in the form of multimedia and the networked web. They advocate a scorched earth policy when it comes to publishers, newspapers, bookstores, or libraries. Anyone could see the future coming, and those who refused to adapt, who created and perpetuated a broken, exploitative system, should die, and soon. The best example I can give of technofuturism, as it's applied to books, is Basheera Khan's essay "No more bookshops? Good riddance," which laments the toll of owning physical books, from the paper and ink that make them to the bookshelves that hold them, always needing dusting, and imagines moving house with a library of e-books, "light as a feather." The digital library perfects the badly realized idea of the physical library, sort of like how a soul would be perfect if it didn't have a body. These debates can get very theological.

Bookservatives see the diminishing of the established material and social networks of reading as an unmitigated catastrophe that threatens to destroy humanist and democratic culture. Technofuturists see the same transformation as an unmitigated triumph that realizes humanist and democratic ideals better than the existing order ever could. Now, in point of fact, almost nobody is a pure bookservative or technofuturist. Rather, these are rhetorical positions that anyone can take up, from moment to moment and case to case. Moreover, each is dependent on the other, because each imagines the other as their opponent. They are easy caricatures. But sometimes we ARE caricatures.

 

Take Nicholas Carr and Clay Shirky, for example - these are both smart guys, deeply knowledgable about media history, with sophisticated takes on technology. I'd consider them both, by temperament, bookfuturists, which is part of what makes their contrasts so exciting. But they each fall into bookservativism and technofuturism pretty easily, and then newspaper or magazine stories about their arguments flatten them out even further. There are clear outlets -- clear markets -- for both of these sentiments and styles. They both LIKE arguing against the other.


Bookfuturists refuse to endorse either fantasy of "the end of the book" --  "the end as destruction" or "the end as telos or achievement" as Jacques Derrida would have it. We are trying to map an alternative position that is both more self-critical and more engaged with how technological change is actively affecting our culture.

We're usually more interested in figuring out a piece of technology than either denouncing or promoting it. And we want to make every piece of tech work better. We're tinkerers. We look to history for analogies and counter-analogies, but we know that analogies aren't destiny. We try to look for the technological sophistication of traditional humanism and the humanist possibilities of new tech.

At least, that's what I try to do.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/08/a-bookfuturist-manifesto/61231/