The Olive Tree
|Dan Blicksenderfer worked in the Friends office as an intern during the Spring 2000 semester as part of ENG 496: Field Experience in Technical Writing. He currently works with faculty developing Internet courses at the Continuing Education Division and is a senior studying English at the University of Maine. Our series of guest essays on tradition and technology continues with Dan's review of The Future of the Book.|
|The Future of the Book collects 11 papers (and Umberto Eco's final remarks as an afterword) originally given as presentations at a conference at the University of San Marino in July of 1994. The conference was held to explore the issues facing the conventional bound and printed book in an expanding age of ubiquitous electronic storage and retrieval. The essays examine new technologies such as hypertext from the perspective of authors and publishers of traditional print media, as well as anthropologists, philosophers and others. Many of the essayists try to imagine where books will fit within the new order.|
A scene from Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame provides a historical frame for several of the essayists. In the scene, Frollo angrily proclaims that "Ceci tuera cela" ("This will kill that"); that the book will kill his cherished cathedral. Is the book now at the same crossroads again, cast this time as the unwitting victim of new technology? This idea is challenged by many of the essayists. The ancient, inevitable clash between old and new technologies is shown to be a builder of the Next Thing - something that, with hindsight, seems completely predictable and normal, as the book is now. The essays explore the historical and cultural place held by books (and other media) in intellectual life more than they are a collective cry to "save" the book from its future.
Writing this review, I noticed my own patterns of use with regard to "the book" and its new "competitors." While reading the essays from a paperbound copy of the The Future of the Book, I used a nearby networked workstation to define words at Webster's web dictionary site, to read published criticism of the book, to search the URSUS online catalog, and to find more information (a word which Geoffrey Nunberg painstakingly deconstructs in his included essay Farewell to the Information Age) about the essayists and events in technology since the conference. Now that four technology-packed years have passed since the book's publication, some of the essays seem to glow with the early golden-promise-of-technology. This promise says in an infectious, enthusiastic voice, "Look at this great new thing!" Reading them now, I remember feeling that way in 1989 when I first used a modem to connect to a computer in another state. Now, many people rely on (and consider natural) the global, nearly instantaneous, non-linear access to scraps of facts afforded by technology. I can't wait to see what happens next.
What happens next is surely impossible to predict. One of the essayists refers to the futuristic house of 1950's advertising; a smiling woman douses her plastic furniture with a garden hose to demonstrate the ease of house cleaning in the future. The essayist wonders why we are still cleaning houses in this perfect, plastic future.
his thoughtful afterword, Umberto Eco reinforces the idea that new
technology tends to augment and change old technology in unexpected and
positive ways without necessarily destroying that which came before. He
uses the example of Daguerre's high-tech invention, the photographic
process. Eco asserts that rather than destroying the art of painting,
the daguerreotype camera freed painters from their former role as
realistic recorders and imitators and allowed Impressionism to evolve.
He writes of our electronic future and the future of the book as a
"Rube Goldberg model," restating an observation from James J.
O'Donnell's essay. O'Donnell states in his essay that, despite the
"passion and affection" he feels about books, they are only
secondary culture delivery devices, and that culture is us. He then
defines the Rube Goldberg model by explaining that, "every now and
then the complex and gawky constructions will be rebuilt, may perhaps
even collapse of their own gaudiness. The genuine spirit of our culture
is not expressed by applying small pieces of cellotape to hold together
the structure we have received, but in pitching in joyously to its