Alex Wright

Missing the point?

May 22, 2006

For the last couple of weeks, Kevin Kelly's "Scan This Book" article in the New York Times Magazine has prompted a resurgence of the seemingly endless debate about the death of the book. Yesterday, no less a figure than John Updike joined the fray, exhorting booksellers to circle the wagons against the dark forces of digitization. Elsewhere, Nick Carr throws a damper on the predictable optimism of folks like Steven Johnson, Jeff Jarvis and the if:book folks.

For all this spirited rhetoric, it all feels like old news to me (The Gutenberg Elegies, anyone?). As I have argued elsewhere, books and libraries are far from endangered. But I think it's long since time to broaden the discussion beyond a simplistic dichotomy between "books" and "the Web."

I suppose it's inevitable that writers will tend to view the Web through the filter of books and other printed artifacts; they seem to instinctively look at the Web as a better or worse kind of "book." But that's an awfully restrictive vision. As Walter J. Ong argued, electronic media in many ways resemble oral culture more closely than they do traditional literate culture (a topic I touched on briefly at the IA Summit). This is not to say that online media are by any means identical to oral cultures; rather, they exhibit a "secondary orality," filtered through literacy, that nonetheless bears many hallmarks of older oral cultures. To understand what's really going on, we need to widen our gaze beyond the traditional - and relatively recent - reference points of print culture to understand the role of deeper patterns of spoken communication rooted in our pre-literate past.

This is no easy task; we have such a collective cultural bias towards literacy that we tend to overlook the role of oral culture in shaping the way we communicate. But the reemergence of oral culture online, coupled with the rise of visual symbolism and spatial wayfinding, suggests whole ranges of experience that have little or nothing to do with books. This is a topic I've been probing in the book I've been working on (and about which I should have more to say in the next couple of months).

For now, the writerly crowd seems stuck in this mode of framing the Web exclusively in terms of its relationship to print. As long as the discussion remains mired in this kind of reductionism, I suspect we're just going to keep seeing variations on the same tired themes, and the kind of reflexive confrontationalism that fails to allow for the complexity of what's really happening. Not that it matters all that much; I imagine the Web will go on.

File under: Informatics

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