Sunday, 24 October 2010

On Being Divided While Books Are Sliced

- my only interest in making money would be to make it. fortunately, however, I should prefer to make almost anything else, including locomotives and roses. it is with roses and locomotives (not to mention acrobats spring electricity coney island the 4th of July the eyes of mice and niagara falls) that my ‘poems’ are competing - e.e. cumming's - from the foreword to is 5 -

I like to think I'm pretty modern about this whole books-as-near-religious-object thing. I may be an English student, but I'm all for ebooks and the digitisation of resources. I'm almost at the stage where I'd buy an e-ink screened device (I still can't quite get used to that glitchy-looking refresh rate), and for certain resources I can even see why libraries might want to develop all-digital collections (text-books, mass-market paperbacks, technical data, legal documents, etc.), though never at the expense of preserving existing physical materials.  The artefacts, after all, can speak as loudly as the words they contain, and not to hear them once in a while is to miss out on a certain richness of history.

In all though I'd like to think that I'm on board with the whole project, and so I've found myself joining in with the scathing glances, the tuts and shakes of the head aimed in the Luddites' direction, at those people so stuck in the past that they cling to their objects, still enjoying the smell and the weight of the pages, and trying to inflict their mythologies of books as the superior reading device on a new generation who would otherwise quite happily never purchase an item of physical media in their lives. They're not wrong in saying books are a fantastic resource, but surely they're going a bit over the top? After all books are just things.

I'm still surrounded by tons of paper books I love, of course, and no, bar .pdfs and newspapers I haven't made a complete switch to reading electronically yet, but I will, when the technology's right. It doesn't mean I'm not there, I mean, like, right there with it all.

I don't think I'm alone in having this tortured conversation with myself, in fact maybe its the condition of most people born in maybe the late 70s, early 80s who take an interest in these things. We know we should be fine with the death of the p-book (bring on the e-!) but something's not quite…right. Right?

Jennifer Howard provided me with a wonderful example of the sort of thing which brings all of this suppressed conversation flooding back in a blog post from last week. In it she discusses the actions of one Alexander Halavais, a communications professor who digitises his own books (yes! One of us!), and has processed about a thousand of them so far by slicing off their spines (oh…) and passing them through a scanner (ah…really?). Yup.

We're assured, by the way, that he "spares the special ones," but anything else is up for grabs.

And suddenly, when Halavais says that "he feels a little bad about what he's doing. 'I’m over a thousand books in, and even now I get that — especially with hardcovers, for some reason —that gut feeling of "Will I be judged by the book gods for doing this?"…Destroying books is very difficult'," when he says that I still wince. And that's why I loved to read Howard's account of his efforts: because it reminded me that when it comes to physical books I'm still faking any acceptance I might have of their demise, because it gave me a glimpse of what a Robert Darnton or a Sven Birkerts must feel all the time.

Oh sure, in theory I'll go paperless, but that's because I haven't done it yet, I haven't had the chance, I haven't had to line up the 'but…'s.

But what about annotations?
But what about the pleasures of browsing second hand?
But what about lending things out to more stone-age friends and relatives?

Even when I'm reading everything from a flexible colour e-ink screen with instant access to every bit of written material we've managed to rend into a stream of bytes I probably won't think that that's ok. Like the hypocrisy, I would guess, of most people and steak, I admire the theory, but I'm not sure that I could hold the knife. Is it really better to know that in the case of books my squeamishness is irrational?

Harder, it seems, than giving up paper might be giving up caring about paper.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Only A Flesh Wound

- when we academics feel ashamed of our intellectual culture, we naturally hesitate to explain it - who, after all, cares? - gerald graff - clueless in academe p35 -

I'm very scared.  I love my current jobs tutoring at two universities, I love teaching.  I love going to conferences and speaking, and debating from the audience, and, when I get the chance, I love having papers published in the hope that I can contribute to arguments moving from a small select group and into the hands of whoever might be interested, whoever might be able to make them more useful.  I would like to carry on doing all of these things that I love after I finish my PhD next September, and I would like to get better at them in the hopes that eventually, after much practice, I will have something significant to offer students, conference attendees, and anyone who reads my work.  I'm confident that accruing and trying to share the best knowledge and ideas that I can muster over a lifetime is a worthwhile goal as I have the utmost respect for, and can see the good done by people who have sought and gone on to find the same.

I'm scared because these things, these attempts, take time, work, and luck.  I can't control the latter, but I'd just started to learn that I had to always try and make it the smallest contributor to any success that I had.  But now I'm beginning to realise that as of this Wednesday, October 20th, I may have far less control over the first two, and be forced to lay my hopes on this last capricious element.

As someone who would like to be an academic I need to be in an academic environment if I am to progress.  Such an environment would require dedicating my time and work to teaching and publishing research, the exact things that I would like to progress in, which is, I admit, very convenient.  As a PhD student with some funding and some jobs I have a fairly decent amount of time, and a fairly decent amount of energy to dedicate to getting into such an environment, and I have long been informed that the usual triad of time, work, and luck is what it will take.  And if I do my best to minimise the luck then I don't mind failing on those terms.  Too lazy to put in the work or time?  Well I missed my chance.  Fine.  Not nice, but fine, get back to work, have another crack, learn from my mistakes.

A few weeks back I saw the following in a call to protest by Sally Hunt, the General Secretary of the University and College Union:

"university teaching and research budgets are to be slashed [by the UK's coalition government] even more than previously anticipated…800,000 learners and 20,000 teaching jobs will be lost in FE if the government pushes ahead with funding cuts of 40 per cent in the forthcoming spending review. In higher education the media are reporting plans to slash university teaching budgets by up to three-quarters and even of letting some universities go to the wall. Yet as our competitors understand, now is not the time to be cutting back on education spending. Others are investing to expand while we cut courses, jobs and undermine our future prosperity" (full open letter here)

Hunt said this on the 1st of October, nearly 3 weeks before the official announcement of the depth of the cuts, and many wrote it off as idle speculation based on hazy media reports.

The BBC reported on a leaked email yesterday, two days before the official figures will be announced, which appears to confirm much of this month's early speculation - it looks like the HE teaching budget may be cut by 79%, or £3.2bn, with a further £1bn taken away from research.  As the BBC states "[a] £4.2bn cut in funding would be almost four times that which universities had been expected to make by the previous government."

We find out on Wednesday if this all proves to be idle speculation.  Maybe the cuts aren't so deep, maybe they're sensitive to balancing arguable economic necessity with the importance of a well educated population capable of the innovation which might help to support itself in the future (not that all education and innovation occurs in and around universities, just that some does, and that it is of a type which is hard to cultivate elsewhere).

But I'm scared.  Scared because I think I can feel which way this is going to go, scared that my worst fears about this government's attitude towards education, towards thought, towards fairness and support, will be amply born out.  I'm selfishly scared that stepping out into such a climate I might not (probably will not) get to do what I really want to, what I'll have put eight years of work, time, luck, and money into, scared that I'll fail on terms I couldn't have predicted or accounted for - the absence of jobs to even apply to.  But I'm also scared of what comes next, for everyone here, because these aren't the only cuts coming, and students and teachers are certainly not the only ones who will feel them.  What is economically and culturally sustainable?  What is the bare minimum on which we can sustain the best that we have cultivated?  And how did we let it get to here, to where we have to ask these questions?

Whatever universities are left will run courses on this.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Reading Askeu, or What Are We Asking of Our Screens?

- not only was it difficult for him to comprehend that the generic symbol dog embraces so many unlike individuals of diverse size and form; it bothered him that the dog at three fourteen (seen from the side) should have the same name as the dog at three fifteen (seen from the front).  his own face in the mirror, his own hands, surprised him every time he saw them - jorge luis borges - from 'funes the memorious' -

I've just started the year's teaching at a couple of universities, and on both courses I'm tutoring 1st year modules which function as introductions to English Studies at a graduate level.  Something I learned while teaching last year is that, particularly for these kind of seminars, terminology can be tremendously empowering.  I'm sure I can annoy the hell of out new students by constantly pinning down the use of various terms, or using what must seem overlong or complex words in 'simple' discussions, but once it clicks, and the student, grasping for the right word to explain what they mean in an argument, turns automatically to some collection of syllables which they would have balked at the week before, then some of the value becomes apparent.  The right word doesn't just give us a way to talk about things, it gives us a way to think about things.  English students, for instance, can't help but learn the loaded differences between the academic use of 'book' or 'text,' and both of these terms become incredibly rich over years of study, fundamentally affecting the way such students think about objects which are read.  But dense language is certainly not just for undergrads - 'e-book,' 'e-reader,' 'electronic text,' 'teleread,' etc. etc. etc., the public sphere has been adding a diffuse and steadily growing (as in expanding and deepening) vocabulary and repository of metaphors to the digital book debate for nearly 30 years now.

I wrote about the QWERTY keyboard a few weeks back, and talked about the reasons for its creation (mostly the need to prevent groups of letters frequently used in series - like i-n-g - being located too close together on typewriters as they jammed up the machine if struck in quick succession) and its continued use despite superior alternatives (e.g. the Dvorak keyboard).  The difficulty of changing from one system to another (teaching the new mode of typing, switching millions of keyboards, etc.) represents a greater effort of will and resources than the proportional perceived benefits of the switch (which, with the Dvorak layout, means maybe a 10% increase in speed in competent typists).  The continued dominance of the QWERTY keyboard in numerous territories is a case of 'path dependence' (def. - past decisions affecting the range of present day options, even if the strictures on those past decisions are no longer relevant), and one which I saw as useful, if only by metaphor, to bring to the discussion of ebooks and electronic texts.

Another useful term we might want to keep in mind for such discussions, one which also happens to be a variation on path dependence, can be found in Timothy Taylor's The Artifical Ape, where he outlines another manifestation of past decision making which continues to be felt in objects in the present, a word the richness of which I think should be put to more extensive use: skeuomorph.  The word refers to

special features of objects, and special types of objects, where the function is more to suggest than to deliver…Simply put they are carryovers from an older technology or way of doing things that had value, and are retained as a semblance, and expectation…The technological reason for the feature has gone, but you expect it - it completes the object.  Open a wine bottle and pour out the wine.  Notice that the bottom is dented-in, in a shape known in France as le voleur ('the thief'), because without it there would be more wine.  When wine bottle were blown, there was no alternative: the molten glass bubbled out like a long balloon with a rounded end; this base was then flipped inside out as the bottle was set down to cool, producing the level circumferential basal ring that would allow the bottle to stand upright…[;] the dent in the base has become a skeuomorph.  Le voleur remains because we expect it to be there (Taylor, The Artificial Ape, pp152-153)

Skeuomorphs differ from path dependence because the features that remain in the contemporary object are true vestiges, serving little or no function, despite unrestricted options (for more examples of skeuomorphs see here and here).  Taylor demonstrates the usefulness of such vestigial design quirks for archaeological study in his outline of a 5000 year old village ceramics industry in Germany which produced ceramic cups with omphalos bases and 'riveted' handles.  An omphalos base, in gold work, resembles le voleur - gold is beaten into a hemispherical shape and then the base is pushed in to form the basal ring on which the bowl sits.  To Taylor, that the ceramics of the German village would feature such bases, as well as ornamental 'riveted' handles, demonstrates, even without the presence of metal in that village's archaeological record, that gold versions would have once been present in the village for the potter to imitate (Taylor's colleague disagrees, suggesting that the skeuomorphic features result from aspirational imitation of a richer culture nearby, see discussion on p154 of The Artifical Ape.  Regardless, the object's detailing suggests a knowledge of metal work in the village which, lacking other evidence, could only be inferred from this feature).

I'm certainly not the first to suggest that page-turn effects, typographical quirks, and even the continued existence of pagination in ebooks are skeuomorphic (see, for instance, this comment at if:book, or the discussion of Apple's obsession with skeuomorphic tics in its software here and here).  But I do think that the term is more neglected than it should be in discussions of digital reading; it's not only useful, but a rather wonderful word to say after all.

Why do we feel that we should read in particular ways, or rather why is there such a widespread resistance to new forms of reading?  Are pages, for instance, a vital part of the process, or are they skeuomorphs?  No longer needed on a screen (why not just keep scrolling down?), do we keep them because certain kinds of reading are bereft without them, or because we're a generation who think that the object, physical or virtual, just isn't complete unless divided by the (usually) arbitrary strictures of a particular edition?  

(I'm aware that this argument doesn't really apply to e-ink screens, such as those found in the Kindle, which can only display a certain amount of information before they need to be refreshed.  But note that the only reason such an object was ever created was because people wanted something book-like; in terms of practicality a steadily scrolling screen is no more or less pressing, in terms of the technological evolution of reading devices, than something with pagination comparable to a physical book.  The demand comes from expectations of a certain kind of reading experience, a demand which needed to be met before the idea of e-reading would even have a chance of wide-spread adoption.  All of which tells us something else about skeuomorphs (and ourselves) of course: things feel right (read: 'safe') when they're familiar, hence their frequent persistence).

If we recognise that our reading prejudices are attached to skittish skeuomorphic impulses (rather than a genuine benevolent concern) then they (should) become a lot harder to inflict on generations which haven't grown up expecting such features to be in place (and wouldn't consider the objects to be incomplete or defective if they were not present).  Will anyone born in the last five years really miss a hokey page-turn animation when they first come to read Pride and Prejudice for their English class?  And are they more likely to see value in referencing pages (different in each edition) over some undoubtedly-soon-to-be-created standard for locating specific words and phrases in electronic texts?  I guess our answer depends on existing questions such as how much we really think we're missing without reading Dickens divided up into serialised editions, or how much we think is lost by our not reading The Odyssey on a series of scrolls (or, rather, not experiencing it performed over several days to a rapt audience).  In fact when we consider how much we lose from the original manuscript recordings of The Odyssey - now we have a skeuomorphic expectation for there to be punctuation, spaces between words, and a notable absence of boustrophedon line order - haven't we been kidding ourselves for a while that physical book reading is the 'true' way to read?  Isn't The Odyssey that we receive now just the form that has been most suited to our particular reading culture?  And what's to say that those norms won't change again?  My Vintage edition, lovely as it was to read, wasn't particularly authentic as an object, though it suited my expectations admirably.  Its design vestiges might be as good a way-in as any to thinking about what people are really campaigning to hold on to in their reading practices, as the slavish adherence to skeuomorphic quirks simply favours safety and familiarity over function.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Reflecting on Extensions

- we can never escape the bio-technological nexus and get 'back to nature,' because we have never lived in nature - timothy taylor - from the artificial ape p199 -

I've been thesis writing this week, trying to get a chapter sorted before I start a new term of teaching at a couple of universities on Monday. I'm trying to define the word 'technology' with greater specificity than we currently use it, to say that technology is more than just an object which helps us get things done. But, of course, that is still a very important part of any definition of technology. Objects which we encounter in use, objects which we use as a means to an end, 'equipment' in Heideggerian terms, are very often technological things. In the thesis I've described the augmentative capacities of certain objects as 'Extension,' as in such-and-such extends our abilities. I haven't posted anything from my thesis here in a while so what follows is a small selection of ideas on technological extension from a couple of other writers which I've found helpful in shaping an early section of the chapter I've been working on.

Extension, of one kind or another, is deeply rooted in any definition of technology, and also in Heidegger’s notion of ‘equipment.’ When we approach an object with a ‘concern’ or purpose, it is because we are able to achieve something through our dealings with it that we could not achieve by ourselves, or the interaction saves us time or effort (again this is about achievement, of a faster speed, or a less tiring process) - “[t]ools and weapons have been called the 'extra-somatic means of adaptation in the human organism,' enhancing innate somatic (or body) strength beyond what would seem naturally possible” (Taylor, The Artificial Ape, 19). We shouldn’t, however, think of technologies as merely implements which exist outside of ourselves to which we must turn in order to perform a task, but instead as equipment which alters the set of default practices we consider ourselves able to achieve in their absence, i.e. if something changes the practices available to us then it moves toward being considered as a technology; we could not travel at speed without cars and planes, we could not type and print without computers, we could not have hunted effectively without spears nor butchered the catch without knives, and we would not think to do so without these items -
it is not too much philosophy to say that the emergence of technology was and is intimately connected with the extension of the range of human intentionality. Without a car...I could not have intended to go fishing..., given the distance involved; without a stone tool technology, our prehistoric ancestors could not have had the intention to kill big game, or make baby slings…[T]he existence of objects, such as saucepans, not just allows actions but suggests them (Taylor, Artificial, 152)
Marshall McLuhan suggested that media technologies are augmentations (extensions) of our basic discursive apparatuses; the phone, for instance, augments the mouth and ear, the television the eye (The Medium is the Massage). All technologies must extend some aspect of ourselves in this way, whether relatively trivially such as a shoe extending the range of abilities achievable by the foot (covering rough terrain, sports use, etc.), or profoundly, such as the spear’s extension of the hunter’s arm, allowing for an immense change in our prehistoric culture and comestibles, and every change that has been entailed by such a shift. This capacity for extension, or at least our panoply of extensive interactions, is a uniquely human trait: “We alone on the planet seem capable of creating and exploiting such a wide variety of action amplifiers, ranging from hammers and screwdrivers, to archery bows and bagpipes, to planes, trains, and automobiles” (Clark, Supersizing the Mind, 157).
Andrew Feenberg discusses technology's extensive abilities in light of its mediation of our embodiment:
God creates the world without suffering any recoil, side effects, or blowback. This is the ultimate practical hierarchy establishing a one-to-one relation between actor and object. But we are not gods. Human beings can only act on a system to which they themselves belong. This is the practical significance of embodiment...Technical action represents a partial escape from the human condition. We call an action 'technical' when the actor's impact on the object is out of all proportion to the return feedback affecting the actor (come back to this sentence in the 'extension' section). We hurtle two tons of metal down the freeway while sitting in comfort listening to Mozart or the Beatles...In the larger scheme of things, the driver on the freeway may be at peace in his car but the city he inhabits with millions of other drivers is his life environment and it is shaped by the automobile into a type of place that has major impacts on him. So the technical subject does not escape from the logic of finitude after all. But the reciprocity of finite actions is dissipated or deferred in such a way as to create the space if a necessary illusion of transcendence (“Critical Theory of Technology: An Overview.” Tailoring Biotechnologies. Vol.1, Issue 1, Winter 2005, 48)
Technology comes between us and the world so that we can temporarily exert a dominion usually beyond us, diminishing our effort, and coming closer to the work of a God immune to Newton's third law.
Timothy Taylor notes that technology tipped the balance of natural selection for humans:
Although the power of technology today is unprecedented, the tipping point occurred over 2.5 million years ago. The dawn of the technological era is signalled archaeologically by the first stone artifact - a tool or weapon plausibly used for killing big game. After that point, for animals confronted by humans, the characteristics that would ordinarily convey fitness could increasingly become a liability. The process of natural selection and survival of the fittest was undermined. Intelligent humans with weapons could kill whichever animals they liked, fit or unfit, young or old, large or small, and the animals, trapped by the biology of inheritance, had no effective response...[H]umans, at a very early stage, turned the survival - and therefore evolution - of the creatures around them upside down. The fit became targets, the weak survived to be valued as 'fit' in terms of which we are the sole arbiters (Taylor, Artificial, 20)
Technology turned 'survival of the fittest' on its head, with the fittest animals now becoming the targets of smart and well-equipped human hunters; the largest animals, the strongest, the ones with the biggest horns and tusks, the biggest feet, the biggest teeth, were suddenly no more likely to escape than the smallest, and in fact may have actively been sought out as better meals and better trophies. Technology meant that the animal kingdom surrounding successful human hunters was made up of significantly weaker breeding pairs, and the reduction in elephant tusk size, for instance, or of cattle size, is a measurable form of human- and technology-driven selection.
But technology alters our bodies too:
Even in the last 10,000 years (the blink of an eye in evolutionary time), our bodies have weakened dramatically. Over this timescale it can be shown that our stature has decreased by 7 percent: Christopher Ruff estimates that we have lost fully 10 percent of our overall bony ruggedness - our so-called skeletal robusticity - in that time. Over the past 100,000 years, we see a 30 percent overall decrease - not as great as in some of the cattle we have domesticated, but remarkable nonetheless...A more gracile body will need less upkeep, and what it can no longer manage by brute force can be managed with specifically designed artifacts that amplify and concentrate strength: slingshots and spears, levers and bows. These technologies allowed our self-domestication just as they aided our domestication of wild animals (Taylor, Artificial, 28)
Technology, then, extends our capabilities both physically, and in terms of what we perceive ourselves to be capable of. But that extension has weakened our physical bodies over time, and is almost certainly still doing so. Is there a danger of over-extension, of putting too much faith in our technological augmentations so that we end up as over-fragile, bereft without our external props? Or is there really no human life without them? Is the move of power from body to object just the logical continuation of an evolutionary drift begun long ago, one which has made us amongst the most successful species, at least in terms of dominating the food chain, on earth? I think that these questions may be part of why people are often so hesitant to adopt new technologies, the fear that this one may be the step-too-far, that this one is 'playing god,' despite the fact that we've been doing that work ever since we've sharpened stone.