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This article examines the developing publication forms in the electronic environment in the light of recent critical perspectives on textuality, historical dimensions of technological change, and practical considerations of economic and political culture. The article suggests that the book will be significantly altered in the networked future - transformed into something new - but concludes that impediments to change are cultural - not economic or technological.
In the 1977 film "Annie Hall," Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are standing in line for tickets to see the documentary movie "The Sorrow and the Pity" when a man behind them begins pontificating on movies and the media. When he incorrectly describes Marshall McLuhan's views on television as a "hot" medium, Allen can no longer take it. He turns to the viewer and says with exasperation, "Can you believe this?" The man demands equal time to express his opinions. When Allen dismisses him, saying he obviously knows nothing about McLuhan, the man responds that in fact he is an expert who teaches a course in "Television, Media, and Culture." Casually, Allen then says, "Well, I've got McLuhan right here," and produces him from behind a lobby billboard. McLuhan confirms Allen's opinion of the man. He says, "You don't know what you're talking about. How you got to teach anything is amazing." Allen says to the viewer: "If only life were like this."
"Annie Hall" is a movie that breaks the boundaries of convention. Combining isolated stand-up comedy routines with animation, cultural criticism, and a conventional love story, it exploits fully the visual medium, which is, in this case, also, in a sly way, the message. Looking back at the scene now, one might be tempted to describe it as an early example of "hypertext" - an electronic jump across the boundary of one medium to another, the source itself. Allen calls up McLuhan to annotate his "text." McLuhan is a footnote but one that is more believable because the man himself is there - well, he is on the screen, a "virtual" authority. McLuhan must have relished doing the bit.
McLuhan's (1962) book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, announced the end of print, which he characterized as a linear mode of communication emphasizing left-brain rationality. He described an emerging "electric" medium that "is not mechanical but organic and has little sympathy with the values achieved through typography, `this mechanical way of writing,' as it was called at first" (p. 135). The impetus for McLuhan's argument was television, which he described as "cool" because it "demands participation and involvement in depth of the whole being. It will not work as a background. It engages you" (p. 125). On the other hand, "hot" media, such as radio, fill in all the imaginative spaces. He saw in this new electric medium the potential to recapture the values of oral tribalized culture and to create a new global village based on intuitive right-brain behavior. Although The Global Village, his last book, was published post-humously in 1989, its argument is quintessentially of the 1960s, "the medium of the language itself as a public trust rather than of the reader as a private consumer" (McLuhan, 1962, p. 227).
A few years after The Gutenberg Galaxy, Jacques Derrida (1967) also declared emphatically, but more enigmatically (and to a much smaller audience), the death of the book. "The end of linear writing is indeed the end of the book," even if "it is within the form of a book that the new writings literary or theoretical allow themselves to be, for better or for worse, encased" (p. 86). Although this sounds like a postmodern species of having it both ways, the futurist critic hedging his bets, all communication is certainly at some point encased for delivery. The question is whether a book is ever anything other than folded and bound pages filled with type.
Derrida and McLuhan were both insisting that multimedia culture requires new ways of thinking about text (and the meaning of text), and both were remarkably prescient in imagining the approaching communications revolution. Although Derrida was interested in text as an ontological category more culturally complex than McLuhan's technology of print, his insights (as well as those of other cultural critics such as Roland Barthes) prepared the intellectual ground for questioning the sanctity of the written word. The more widely read McLuhan captured a cultural restlessness that was about more than modes of communication. Although McLuhan was wrong about television (in itself) as the medium of the future - and his insights about television are not necessarily transferable to computer communications - he correctly identified the technological imperative as an important fact of Western cultural - not only economic - life. Television definitely changed the way people experience the world. On the other hand, the printed word and the book appear to be very much alive.
It was once thought that microfilm would revolutionize print media and lead to the end, or at least to the transformation, of the book. In 1935, Eugene Power, the founder of University Microfilms, saw the potential of the technology to revolutionize the preservation and reproduction of manuscript and printed materials. Microfilm remains, however, an important storage technology that has never seriously challenged the dominance of print (and the failure of microfilm to affect the shape of the book is often used now as an argument for moderation in making predictions about the fate of print in the computer era).
Vannevar Bush, a former scientific advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, envisioned in a 1945 article in The Atlantic Monthly one use for microfilm that has led to a completely new way of thinking about information and manipulating text in electronic networks. What Bush described in "As We May Think" was a desktop apparatus he called the "Memex," comprising a "slanting translucent screen on which material can be projected for convenient reading" (p. 107). It was "a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory" (pp. 106-07). Operated by levers, buttons, and a keyboard, and based on microfilm storage technology, the contraption was a model in mechanical form of the desktop computer as a medium for retrieving and viewing information. More than that, it allowed a reader to "add marginal notes and comments, taking advantage of one possible type of dry photography, . . . just as though he had the physical page before him" (p. 107). The idea is that of a "virtual" text. Essential to Bush's conception was the ability of the Memex to facilitate associative links among texts. "When numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail. . . it is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book" (p. 107). He developed the concept as a way of dealing with an explosion of information but, more importantly, he saw the Memex as a system that works as the human mind works. In talking about existing methods of storing and classifying knowledge, Bush complained that "the human mind does not work that way" (p. 106). Rather, he said, it works by association, snapping from one idea "to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain" (p. 106).
What Bush described is …