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.
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.
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.