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Author: David J. Staley
Title: Digital Historiography: Books
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 2003

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Source: Digital Historiography: Books
David J. Staley

vol. 6, no. 1, April 2003
Article Type: Book Review

Digital Historiography: Books

David J. Staley

Books mentioned in this review:

  • Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Boston, London: Faber and Faber, 1994)
  • Jay David Bolter, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1991).
  • N. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines. (Cambridge, MA.: The MIT Press, 2002).
  • Brian Kahin and Hal R. Varian, Internet Publishing and Beyond: The Economics of Digital Information and Intellectual Property ( Cambridge, MA.: The MIT Press, 2000).
  • Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. (New York: Vintage Books, 2001).
  • Scott McCloud, Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology are Revolutionizing an Art Form. (New York: HarperCollins/Perennial, 2001).

It was widely believed in the 1990s that the end of the book was near. "The printed book," observed literary theorist Jay David Bolter in his book Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext and the History of Writing, "seems destined to move to the margin of our literate culture." While there would still be literacy, while we would still engage in writing and reading, in the future these activities would be carried out on the screen, in an electronic environment. Moving literacy from book to screen was part of the larger history of writing; after all, had not the written word moved from clay to papyrus to parchment to paper? The shift from printed book to computer screen, reasoned Bolter, was part of this larger historical process. "We are living," Bolter concluded, "in the late age of print."

Critical literary theorists well recognized that they were living in the twilight of the printed book. Jacques Derrida proclaimed the end of the book; poststructuralist critics described print culture as exhausted, dying, and vanishing. "Critical theorists," insisted the theorist George Landow in Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, "continually confront the limitation—indeed, the exhaustion—of the culture of print." In contrast, theorists working with hypertext found in the computer a new writing space upon which to transcribe literate culture. The book was an old, exhausted technology, but the computer screen offered a new, invigorating space for literate culture. Hypertextual reading and writing would transcend the limitations of printed books. Hypertexts were non-linear and participatory, blurring the boundaries between author and reader, providing readers the opportunity to interact with and alter texts in a way not possible in linear, author-dominated, out-dated printed books. Rather than lamenting the end of the book, these theorists welcomed the new Golden Age of writing on the screen.

The view that we were living in the twilight of print culture was echoed even by technophobes. Sven Birkerts wrote The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, a collection of essays that noted with dismay the passing of the book. While Birkerts unrepentantly, if quixotically, proclaimed that "the bound book is the ideal vehicle for the written word," he was realistic enough to recognize the same historical transformation identified by Bolter, Landow, and Derrida. "The displacement of the page by the screen is not yet total (as evidenced by the book you are holding)—it may never be total—but the large-scale tendency in that direction has to be obvious to anyone who looks," Birkerts wrote in 1994. Birkerts, unlike hypertext theorists, was not pleased with this transformation, but seemed resigned to the fact, powerless to do anything about it. Indeed, it seemed obvious to most thoughtful observers by the end of the 1990s that writing was inevitably migrating to the screen.

I include myself in this list of, if I may be permitted the conceit, thoughtful observers. I wrote a guest column for a student newspaper in 1996 that echoed many of the observations above. I noted that the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation presented a compelling picture of the future of literacy and of books; compelling, if disheartening to bibliophiles like myself. On the Enterprise, there was a great deal of reading and writing—look at all the textual information stored on the ship's computer, accessible on those little hand-held devices—but there were very few books. Captain Picard read books in his leisure time, but hardly anyone else on the Enterprise did. The books Picard did read seemed old, as if no one had published a book in centuries. Picard read books the way museum patrons observe paintings by Old Masters: cultured sophisticates acquire books, but these are relics, collector's items for eccentrics, not a vital part of the lives of the crew. So, I told the students, you will still be reading and writing in the future, just not with printed books. Like Birkerts, I was resigned to the inevitability. Clearly, in the 1990s the belief that books were an old, dying technology was suffuse throughout both scholarly and popular culture.

I am not convinced that we can continue to hold to this belief in the year 2003. Book sales continue to remain brisk, and ebooks and other digital products have hardly made a dent in the book market. While many in the 1990s predicted the imminent arrival of the paperless office—the harbinger of the end of the book—researchers Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H.R. Harper document that the paperless office has yet to emerge; in fact, according to their research, offices are actually using more paper. In the same way historians change their view of the past when confronted with new evidence or a compelling new interpretation, so futurists must be ready to change their view of the future. While the end of the book is certainly a plausible scenario of the future, this is far from the inevitability predicted in the 1990s. Indeed, rather than hastening the end of the book, computers and other new technologies may in fact be enhancing our ability to produce and distribute printed books, ensuring that books will continue to be a part of our future.

If we truly live in the late age of print, this will be because the production and distribution of written words will increasingly migrate into cyberspace. Instead of holding a physical object, the reader of a "book" would instead be looking at a screen. This was the assumption of many visionaries in the 1990s, such as Bolter and Landow, that the screen would replace the page as a reader's main interface with written language. This screen need not be the computer monitor that currently sits on our desk; hand-held "e-books" may well be that interface. These devises may soon have the capabilities of wireless technologies, meaning that a reader could download an entire text into the ebook as one might download a file into a stationary hard drive. A college student would need only have access to an ebook, and then have all their textbooks downloaded. An entire bookbag worth of coursebooks could be easily stored in one ebook device.

E-books and e-journals are already commonplace among scholars—as evidenced by the journal you are currently reading—and advanced versions of these may become the common method for accessing all written materials. The AHA's Gutenberg-e books, or some similar digital version, might very well represent the future of the academic monograph. The step to such ebooks is not as far as we might imagine. Today, most scholars compose their written works in electronic form, like on the word processor I am using now. I can write a journal article as a Word document and attach it to an email to the editor of a journal, without ever creating a paper version. The journal editors then work with this electronic document, editing it and formatting it. Only at the end of the process does the production staff of that journal convert the electronic document into a printed paper version that can then be bound between covers and shipped to libraries. Especially in its editorial functions and peer review processes, JAHC is very much like a print journal except that the final product of the production process remains in electronic form. Rather than printing off and binding a paper version, our editors simply upload the electronic article to the website, which can be accessed by any reader who wishes to view it (and has the requisite technology, of course, a non-trivial consideration). Readers of our journal pay nothing to read the articles, which we can afford to do in part because, unlike a print journal, our distribution costs are essentially zero.

This economic reality may be the most important factor in the future of books. Modern economic theory is based on the study of the scarcity and exclusivity of material goods. The assumption underlying economics is that goods are scarce precisely because they can be used up, or used by only one person at a time. If I buy an automobile, I am the only one who can use it; you and I (or thousands of other people) cannot use the product at the same time. Moreover, for an object like a lump of coal, once I use the product, it is used up. I cannot burn a lump of coal and then in turn hand it over to you to use.

Information, on the other hand, is non-rival and non-excludable. When economists say that information is non-rival, they mean that two or more people can use it at the same time and at the same cost. When reading an on-line version of a written text, thousands of people can read the same article at the same time. The cost to reproduce this article for all those readers is next to nothing, as opposed to a print version of the article. By having access to this digital article, a reader does not have exclusive use of the article. Because it can be easily and cheaply reproduced, reading the article does not exclude another reader from reading the same article. Unlike a lump of coal, many readers can use the same digital article, without ever "using up" the information; unlike a physical object, information cannot be exhausted. When produced and distributed digitally, information can retain its non-rival, non-excludable form. Information is not a material object, and the explosion of the Web has demonstrated that information is simply evanescent bits of data that are not subject to the conventional laws of economics.

Prior to the arrival of the printing press, medieval scholars treated ideas as if they were held in common by all. "The indifference of medieval scholars to the precise identity of the authors whose books they studied is undeniable," observed E.P. Goldschmidt. "The writers themselves, on the other hand, did not always trouble to 'quote' what they took from other books or to indicate where they took it from; they were diffident about signing [their own works] even when it was clearly their own in an unambiguous and unmistakable manner." For medieval thinkers, ideas were more like a commons rather than a form of property. A commons, as defined by legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, is a resource held in common, held jointly and enjoyed by a number of people, free to anyone who wishes to use it. Commons are often non-rival and non-excludable. The invention of the book acted as a type of intellectual enclosure movement around the commons of ideas.

The Internet was originally designed as a commons, argues Lessig, and the ideas that flow across it should similarly be viewed as a commons, not as "intellectual property." That ideas could be a type of property struck Thomas Jefferson as odd:

If nature had made any one thing less susceptible that all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possess the less, because every other possess the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should be freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement, or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

Jefferson could very well have been describing the contemporary debate over books, intellectual property and the digitalization of information. When one "divulges an idea," one is "publishing" that idea, keeping in mind that the root of the word "publish" is "to make public." An idea in my mind is private; once this idea leaves my mind, however, I have made it public. Indeed, prior to the printing press, to publish was to make public an idea, either by reading aloud or by distributing in written form. As Goldschmidt noted, medieval writers did not lay personal claim to ideas; they cared little for citation or personal recognition for their works, in contrast to the printed author. Ideas, Jefferson recognized, are non-excludable and non-rival; while he does not use these exact terms, Jefferson does note that ideas are like a candle's flame: lighting your candle with mine does not diminish the amount of my flame. In arguing that ideas should spread over the globe, for the edification of mankind, Jefferson sounds as if he is describing the flow of bits of information through cyberspace, spreading freely for the benefit of all.

It should come as no surprise that this long quote from Jefferson forms the basis of Lessig's thinking about the future of ideas in cyberspace. He agrees with the Founding Fathers that authors and other creators should have some control over their creations for some limited time, but this should not mean control over ideas in perpetuity. Lessig is concerned with the suffocating influence of large media "middlemen:" corporations who have, in Lessig's estimation, misused the idea of copyright to maintain stultifying control over ideas. Lessig is especially concerned with the ideas flowing through cyberspace; that these should not be "enclosed" by copyright and the control of media giants. Shutting down Napster is but the tip of the iceberg: media giants will make every effort to maintain control over film, music, written words, computer code and a whole host of ideas that could potentially flow through cyberspace. These corporations are acting contrary to the original spirit of the Internet, which was designed to act just as Jefferson might have described it: to allow for the free flow of ideas, open to anyone, under the control of no one.

For the cartoonist Scott McCloud, such a system of production and distribution can change the economics of comic books (and possibly all books), to the benefit of the authors and their readers. Not unlike Lessig, McCloud sees digital technology as a way for artists, writers and other creators of content to maintain greater control of their work, and to keep more of the proceeds of this work. The average price of a comic book is about three dollars. "In the print industry," observes McCloud, "each step in the process [publishing, printing, distribution, warehousing] takes its cut, until that three dollars turns to thirty cents in the creator's pocket." The system of production and distribution enabled by networked computing, on the other hand, has the potential to keep more money—and creative control— in the hands of authors. McCloud favors a subscription-based system, where a creator makes his creation available on the web for a nominal cost (since there are no middlemen to increase costs) all of which the author keeps. In such a system, the middlemen of the print industry are eliminated, along with any control over content they may exert. McCloud's vision is based on the assumption that readers will be willing to pay for content on the web, which even McCloud understands has been far from successful. Few people today have been willing to pay for on-line content, largely because of the high transaction costs and the dubious security of "on-line cash" (encryption of which drives up the costs of the transaction). But McCloud is confident that this problem will eventually be solved.

If Lessig's vision of the future unfolds, intellectual property will disappear because the physical containers for that property—including printed books—will have disappeared. Digitalization makes written language cheaply and easily reproduced, distributed instantaneously, to be used simultaneously by all. If the printed book was the container for the concept of intellectual property, the elimination of that container would spell the end of intellectual property as we have known it since the 15th century.

The historical significance of the printed book was that it turned written information into "intellectual property," a physical commodity that was both rivalrous and excludable. As literary theorists have long maintained, the printing press enabled the invention of the "author," the individual who claimed ownership of an idea. Jefferson was not entirely correct: once ideas and information are made material, as in the form of a book, they are subject to the same laws of supply and demand that govern all other physical objects. A printed book, in other words, turns written information into a commodity. This is McCloud's contention: "print industries" exist to control the production and distribution of physical objects and the information contained within them.

If books continue to exist in the future, this may well be because authors and other copyright holders will want to maintain their intellectual property. Books will survive because they are material, because they are tangible objects—not in spite of this fact, as technophiles often claim. This is not the same as the argument that says that books will survive because readers find them "easier to take to the beach or in the bathtub." Instead, my argument is that the economics of intellectual property will necessitate its survival in printed, bound, "old-fashioned" book form.

The computer may be more like the printing press than we ever imagined before. Think of what the printing press did: it transformed the production and distribution of written codices. Compare a medieval manuscript to a printed book. There are clearly physical differences between the two objects, in terms of the layout of the pages, the materials used in each, the labor required to manufacture both, the economies of scale, and the audience (and market) for each product. But when all is said and done, the form and structure of the written codex had changed very little. Both manuscripts and printed books contained pages enclosed with a binding. Printed books were clearly not scrolls or lumps of clay; manuscripts and books shared many physical commonalties. Many of the changes from one form to another had to do with the economics of books, the system of production and distribution. It is possible that the computer will have a similar effect on the production and distribution of printed books. Books in the future may very well be different from the books we read now. But in form, they will seem very familiar to us.

Computers may alter the production and distribution of book-making, but have little effect on the physical appearance of books. Consider print-on-demand technology, for instance. With print-on-demand, the written text is stored electronically; when a customer wants a copy of the book, it can be printed and bound (one or a hundred) and then shipped. Shoppers may one day find book-making kiosks in book stores; in the same way that today one can order a custom-made card from a Hallmark kiosk, a customer in the future could order a book from a menu of choices, wait 15 minutes or so while the device prints off and binds a copy, and walk out of the store with a new book. We might even envision a similar technology in the home; rather than ordering a book from Amazon and waiting for it to be shipped via UPS, one could simply produce the book at home. Such "just in time" production methods means that a publisher can match supply and demand for books with some precision. Rather than producing ten thousand copies of a book, and selling only 500, a publisher can print off only the number of books that satisfies demand. Say a university press wishes to begin a monograph series; print-on-demand technology would allow the publisher to produce one or one thousand copies of the book. In theory, a book would never go "out of print;" it would simply idle in electronic form until ready to be made material in book form. Rather than spreading the electronic bits freely across cyberspace, however, the publisher would parcel out the information only to those who wish to pay for its material form. But note: the finished product of this computerized process is a physical object in book form.

While a book in the future might look very similar to the books of today, the pages in that book might look very different. Xerox's PARC research lab recently unveiled "smart paper" technology called Gyricon. This is a thin, flexible rubbery sheet made up of millions of small balls, black on one side, white on the other. When charged, the balls that are rotated to the black side would make a mark on the remaining white background. Smart paper looks something like an LCD screen, only the surface is not rigid but flexible, not unlike a sheet of paper. Imagine hundreds of smart paper pages bound within a cover (the "spine" of the resulting book would hold the electronic components). A reader could download a text like an ebook, yet enjoy the feel of a traditional printed book. At the same time, a smart paper book would be capable of displaying the kinds of dynamic and animated visual data that we associate with a computer screen, not unlike the book described in Neal Stephenson's science fiction novel The Diamond Age. A smart paper book would be as different from a printed book as the first printed books were from medieval manuscripts. But in physical, tangible form, a smart paper book would seem very familiar to a reader of a print book.

Rather than being replaced by computer screens, books of the future might also mimic those screens (even without the smart paper). Literary theorist N. Katherine Hayles believes that books in the future will be as multimedia and hypertextual as computer screens are today. She reaches this conclusion based on her examination of the "materiality" of books. Materiality refers to the physicality of an object, and how that physicality affects our interactions with that object. Literary theorists, as well as those who think about the future of the book, tend to see a literary work only as bits of information, ignoring the role played by the atoms that makes that information material. "Whereas art history has long been attentive to the material production of the art object," she writes, "literary studies has generally been content to treat fictional and narrative worlds as if they were entirely products of the imagination." The eighteenth century legal scholars who established the formal definitions of copyright looked only to information rather than the material upon which that information was stored. A literary work, according to Blackstone, consisted of the "style and sentiment" of the author. That was all that could be protected. "The paper and print are merely accidents, which serve as vehicles to convey that style and sentiment to a distance." Those who believe books will disappear in favor of digital screens as the chief vehicles of written information probably share a similar view, that the material is less important that the information.

Hayles argues that the computer will not displace books, and that books will maintain their materiality. Authors might begin to design books that explore that materiality of the medium, mimicking the writing spaces of the computer screen, suggesting new literary forms. Future books, she speculates, might appear like "artist's books," currently a minor art form but one which provide a model for the future appearance of books. Artist's books are characterized by "the innovative use of cutouts, textures, colors, movable parts, and page order, to name only a few." Artist's books are multimedia objects, like digital hypertexts, except that these books are material and tangible. Writing Machines is itself an example of the kind of book of the future she envisions. Each page features printed words of different size, shape and font, interspersed with cutouts of images and other decorative flourishes. Rather than simply placing quotation marks around quotes, Hayles will reproduce the text in question, the differing font and letter size indicative of the quotation. Her book, quite apart from the arguments she makes in writing, is itself a visual and tactile object (the texture of the cover is ribbed). A reader cannot help but to look at and feel the object in his hand. In the future, books and "text on the screen" may coexist, but those books will increasingly imitate the multimedia space of the screen. That is, the "materiality" of the book will not disappear; quite the contrary, books will become "hypermaterial."

If books survive, it will be because of their materiality, not in spite of their materiality. As a physical object, a book is rivalrous and excludable, conditions necessary to maintain intellectual property rights. To paraphrase Sven Birkerts, the bound book is the ideal vehicle for authors and publishers to maintain their intellectual property rights. If books survive as a vital information technology, it will be because it is in the economic interests of authors and publishers to maintain books in tangible, physical form.

A major reason why books have not yet disappeared—and may never disappear—is that a new economics of information has yet to replace intellectual property. Judging by sales, subscription-based electronic books of the type advocated by McCloud have not been warmly received by readers. The reason my be that if (digital) information is non-rival, and if cyberspace is the ideal vehicle for freely distributing this non-rival information, then why would anyone pay for such information? If digital authors want to be paid for their work, they might have to do as television broadcasters have done and charge for advertising space embedded within their electronic pages, not an unrealistic possibility. Electronic books might begin to look like so many webpages do today, covered with advertisements, with others popping up in new windows. Electronic authors could also resort to PBS-style fund raising, in the same way public broadcasters provide content for free, and ask only for viewers to pledge money. "Without excludability," observe the economists J. Bradford DeLong and A. Michael Froomkin, "the relationship between producer and consumer becomes much more akin to a gift-exchange relationship than a purchase-and sale one." If digital "books" are going to remain non-rival and non-excludable, what incentive will there be for consumers to pay for them?

On the supply side of the equation, we might also ask what will be the incentive for authors to produce? Lessig envisions an on-line world where creators—of software code, of music, of written information—create their content and distribute it for free, because that was the original intention of the Internet. Creators would find it very difficult to profit in such a system; in fact, it would seem that only those who were independently wealthy or who had some other source of income would be able to create content, since they could not rely on their creations as a source of income. That is, Lessig's model of the future of information assumes that creators would be like today's academics. Most academics write not to make money but to establish an academic reputation; a line on their curriculum vita is its own kind of currency, and is usually payment enough for much of the writing they do. Such a similar "academic" system preceded the emergence of the printed book; as Landow observes, the invention of the book allowed authors to live off the proceeds of their work, freeing them from the patronage system that had funded writers before them. In Lessig's digital future, writers would either need to be gentleman amateur writers, academics or would once again require a patron in order to freely distribute their ideas.

If producers and consumers cease to think of information as property, if ideas return to its medieval roots as a freely available commons, then books will not be needed, since only the evanescent bits of information will matter. In fact, books would hinder access to this commons. We really would be living in the late age of print. However, the uncertain economic questions that have arisen about digital information—who will pay? who will produce?—might never be properly answered, ensuring the continuity of our current system of intellectual property rights well into the future. Stated another way, technological change alone will not hasten the end of the book. Rather, economic factors—the behavior of the producers and consumers of information—will play just as important role. If information remains a form of intellectual property, then authors and publishers will continue to maintain control over this property via the best available technology: the printed book.

Editor's note: This fifth anniversary installment of Digital Historiography will be my last, as I will be stepping down as book review editor, so that I might begin the transition into my new duties as the Executive Director of the American Association for History and Computing.