Thursday, 29 July 2010

One way street to the iPad, paywalls and linked data

Writing in 1925, Walter Benjamin senses a radical change, not just in the physical forms which contain writing, but also in the nature of writing itself:

"Just as this time is the antithesis of the Renaissance in general, it contrasts in particular to the situation in which the art of printing was discovered. For whether by coincidence or not, its appearance in Germany came at a time when the book in the most eminent sense of the word, the book of books, had through Luther's translation become the people's property. Now everything indicates that the book in this traditional form is nearing its end."

This from a section entitled "Attested Auditor of Books" in Benjamin's brilliant collection One-Way Street, written in his usual aphoristic (blogging?) style (from which I will, with apologies, quote extensively). The internet has also been credited with allowing cultural output to become "the people's property", and leading to important changes in the forms which that output takes.

Benjamin isn't talking about the internet, but he is talking about a change in the form of "print", driven and shaped by economic and technological forces:

"Printing, having found in the book a refuge in which to lead an autonomous existence, is pitilessly dragged out onto the streets by advertisements and subjected to the brutal heteronomies of economic chaos."

So there are further parallels. The production of text, once controlled by publishers (in the broadest sense), is now subject to different forces - the kind of economic chaos Rupert Murdoch is trying to tame with his paywall? Perhaps.

There follows a lovely passage about the perpendicularity of text:

"If centuries ago it began to gradually lie down, passing from the upright inscription to the manuscript resting on sloping desk before finally taking to bed in the printed book, it now begins just as slowly to rise from the ground. The newspaper is read more in the vertical than the horizontal plane, while film and advertisement force the printed word entirely into the dictatorial perpendicular."

There's no argument that electronic content has, in the past, been mainly consumed on upright monitors in the "dictatorial perpendicular". There has been a lot of toing-and-froing over how effectively e-readers and the like can mimic "real" books (screen brightness, electronic ink) - I wonder how much thought has been given to the angle of reading and how it affects our consumption of print. Do the Kindle and the iPad herald an era when texts will once again cosily recline on their beds?

(Lacking either an iPad or a Kindle, I attempted to mimic "horizontal reading" by laying my monitor flat on the desk - don't try this at home. And yes, it does seem to make an immediate difference to one's attitude to the text, at least for this reader.)

If all this seems a bit prophetic - how about this for child/internet anxiety, 1925-style?

"... before a child of our time finds his way clear to opening a book, his eyes have been exposed to such a blizzard of changing, colourful, conflicting letters that the chances of his penetrating the archaic stillness of the book are slight"

It might sound like Benjamin is fondly harking back to this "archaic stillness" - but read on:

"... the book is already, as the present mode of scholarly production demonstrates, an outdated mediation between two different filing systems. For everything that matters is to be found in the card box of the researcher who wrote it, and the scholar studying it assimilates it into his own card index."

Not content with scholarly research databases, Benjamin goes straight onto linked data:

"It is quite beyond doubt that the development of writing will not infinitely be bound by the claims to power of a chaotic academic and commercial activity; rather, quantity is approaching the moment of a qualitative leap when writing ... will take sudden possession of an adequate factual content."

So words will not just carry the "ordinary" meaning that they have in text, but will be imbued with further meaning by the nature of their representation. Anyone who has worked with XML, let alone RDF (a "method for the conceptual description and modelling of information") will find this kind of thing familiar.

Signing off, Benjamin says that "poets" will be the new masters of language, implying that an understanding of the deep and various meaning of words will once again become of prime importance in a new system of communication. Perhaps we all need to be poets in the modern world. Again, his words seem prophetic:

"With the foundation of an international moving script they [poets] will renew their authority in the life of peoples, and find a role awaiting them in comparison to which all the innovative aspirations of rhetoric will reveal themselves as antiquated daydreams."

In the jargon of the poetry workshop, or equally of the linked data practitioner "don't tell - show!"

Anyone in search of a real treat could do worse than track this book down - if only for the next section, subtitled "Principles of the Weighty Tome, or How to write Fat Books" - point II as an example:

"Terms are to be included for conceptions that, except in this definition, appear nowhere in the book"

Or the wonderful, and thankfully, online Writer's Technique in Thirteen Theses

"Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight"

So much for Benjamin the blogger!

1 comment:

Huw said...

And a nice Wired post by Jonah Lehrer on book vs screen and the brain