Marginal Technologies: The Future of Books in a Digital Age
Claire Stewart from Electric Bookshop chaired the discussion today about print and digitally formatted books. She was joined by Reif Larson, author and academic at St. Andrew’s University, and our own Dominic Smith from the Philosophy department.
Reif kicked the event off with a presentation looking at the future of books from a writer’s perspective (as opposed to an editorial or publishing one). Focusing on his 2009 novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, released at a time when E-readers were blooming and readers feared for the fate of the printed book. Six years later, however, our fear has somewhat subsided – Reif comments on “the intimate relationship we have with print books and places that house print books.” In accordance with this, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet was released as a print book which included all the boundless benefits of an E-reader or tablet by including illustrations and added information in the margins with arrow to the main text, effectively acting as a hyperlink. “The story demanded this form,” he tells us. From this, he moved on to discussing his next project which combined narrative with images from Google Maps, something which appealed to both guest speakers .
Dominic followed with more of a lecture than a presentation, including excerpts from several modern philosophers. He used these passages to show the differing metaphors that can be used to describe the Book: a finite resource (Lars Iyer), a thick collection of letters (Peter Sloterdijk), or as a device for the imagination (Vannevar Bush). His points were very academic and well structured; I confess I was at a bit of a loss in trying to understand his various arguments, philosophy never being one of my strong points.
This was then followed by a discussion and questions from the floor, which soon got quite heated. The first question stated rather than asked that E-readers, like Google Maps and the surveillance it incorporates, are an invasion of privacy. The man’s point, to his credit, is that when reading a kindle it monitors your reading speed and how long you spend on certain pages, relating this feedback to Amazon, demonstrating a grim irony of how books are now reading us. However, reflecting back on a point made by Dave Gibbons on Thursday, E-readers and digital print can in some ways offer more privacy. For example, the book cover is hidden from the public, thus allowing more discretion for the individual reader. The second question, which is again not a question and just as aggressively presented as the first, is that the fear of digital reading is only an issue of the moment, as not too long ago reading was an entirely public event as families would read aloud to one another, and even the roots of storytelling are oral. This again disputes the question of privacy as well as the future of books, which is an ever changing dilemma. A solution Dominic offers is to remove the idea of privacy from the Book.
The final question, which is again infuriatingly not a question, is that the “technologizing of literature is dehumanising.” These are strong words, and like the statements before them (from both audience and panel), they reveal a strong passion for both digital and print books. People seem greatly polarised on the subject, attacking and defending digital books in equal parts. What seems an optimistic solution, that the panel have identified, is to use the boundless possibilities of digital formatting within narratives or to derive narratives. This is why, they agree, Google Street View is interesting and complicated as it offers another perspective by capturing (voyeuristically) the everyday life of other people.