I am delighted that tonight I will be participating in a reading from my colleague Michelle Fornabai's book ink Or “V is for Vermilion as described by Vitruvius” An A to Z of Ink in Architecture.
The fall of old media and the maturing of new is a key aspect of network culture. Never before have the forms of media and the means by which they have been distributed and read changed so quickly.
But speaking as a historian, designer, and author (not to mention as media review editor of the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians), I am concerned about the future of media. In particular, I worry about how the formats being developed in media are evolving.
Books and periodicals have proved robust over time. It's easy to pick up a book from the sixteenth century and read it. The publications of our day, on the other hand, are posing a problem to future readers.
On the one hand, we have PDFs. Nobody seems to like PDFs and their capabilities are rather limited. They are hard to protect and easy to disseminate, making publishers wary of them (the vast majority of book piracy is in PDF). PDFs maintain the format of the printed page, which is great when you need it, but also a limitation (for example, older readers can't make the text larger). eBooks such as found on the Kindle and on Apple's iBooks stores seem to have more robust digital rights management protection but can also be hacked and freely distributed (never underestimate the book pirates: they will win in the end just as they did with music). But these eBooks are even more limited than PDFs. Formatting is quite limited and adding rich media such videos as to the text hasn't proved possible yet. These eBooks are, if anything, a step back from the PDF and even the book, becoming nothing less than some kind of weird intermediary between the scroll and the codex.
Then there are app books for the iPad, Android, and other tablet computers, such as Wolfram's the Elements or Phaidon's Design Classics. As librarian John Dupuis points out on his blog, these are visually compellling but an outright disaster for users in the long run. The model of book ownership that prevailed for so many years is now replaced by a model of licensing. Yes, it appears that you purchased Design Classics, but can you resell it? Can you give it to a friend for a birthday present? Can you take the pages in it and cut them up for an art project? Can you check it out from a library? Will you be able to take it with you if you tire of your iPad and want to move to an Android? Generally speaking, all of these are impossible.
As Dupuis suggests, some kind of open access and standards based authoring environment needs to be developed for the book world. How long will this take to emerge? When I first saw Apple's Hypercard authoring environment in 1987, I was certain that the future of the book had arrived. But now, that future has gone into the past, almost irretrievably so (go ahead, just try to open a Hypercard stack from 1987 such as the incredible Zaum Gadget).
Nor is the Web immune to these problems. HTML is limited so Web owners turn to authoring environments like Flash or content management systems like Drupal, (which serves this site). But if I stop updating this site, even if I continue to pay the bills for the hosting and the domain name servers, one day the PHP programming language or the MySQL database on which Drupal run will be updated to the point that an update to Drupal will be required. Drupal has this mantra called "the drop keeps moving" which basically means any module or extension involved in this site (and there are many) as well as the theme (or graphic layout) will break unless it is updated too. Even if someone was able to log into my site and update it, they would have to update the modules and the theme. Now, I am sure my readership would rather that I write more and update the architecture to my site less (unless that update is necessary for functionality) so I try to update as little as possible but when I do a major update, I generally devote two to three weeks to update all of my sites (audc.org, networkarchitecturelab.org, docomomo-us.org, networkedpublics.org and so on). Now I could export everything to HTML and forget about updating the site ever again. That could last a long time (for example, my friend Derek Gross died in 1996 but his site is still up) but that conversion process too is likely to take at least a week and would require a Drupal developer. Is that going to happen? Probably not.
None of this is new. The Institute for the Future of the Book has been talking about this for years now. But this is a crisis of major proportions for anyone involved in thinking about human culture in the long term and we need to make all the noise about it we can.
It has become a cliché that the iPad, which is available for pre-sale this Friday will save the book industry. Apple’s proprietary book purchasing and reading application, Steve Jobs tells us, is so easy to use and so sexy that it will make consumers flock to Apple’s e-books.
If it only were that simple. Capital is in a new position now, having become far more efficient than Communism ever was for creating weapons to destroy industries. Creative Destruction is now loosed like never before, the contradictions that capital inspires destroying industries without offering any hope that they will be replaced.
In this case, my educated hunch is that Apple’s painfully quaint bookstore will be an also ran. This doesn’t mean it, and it its competitor at Amazon, won’t make money. After all, the iTunes Store has been a smashing success. On the other hand, what I suspect is that book piracy will be to this decade what music piracy was to the last. Today, with a little bit of legwork, you can find virtually any music you ever wanted online for free. I predict that in less than a decade this will be true for books as well.
"I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am." That’s how Walter Benjamin begins the essay which, not surprisingly, he calls "Unpacking My Library." Benjamin, whose library has been packed in boxes during two years of instability caused by personal and political troubles, recalls his intellectual development as he pulls books out one by one. Each book reminds him of where he bought it, why he bought it, and his frame of mind at the time. Thinking of himself as a specimen of that twentieth-century type, the collector, Benjamin writes
…ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.
The library, Benjamin’s passage suggests, is not only a data bank, it is an mnemonic device for an intellectual’s life.
Like many days this year, I find myself in the same situation as Benjamin. When we moved from Los Angeles, I decided to put most of my books in storage, leaving them in boxes in the basement. The official story I told was that we would be moving out of the place we were renting into a permanent home soon and it would be too much of a hassle to unpack all of the books only to repack them a few years later. Moreover, with a toddler around the house, the books would be sitting targets.
But this was only a ruse. I had decided long ago that it was time to rid myself of these things. Moving from Los Angeles only confirmed my feelings. After the movers had gone, I looked at my apartment and thought about the shelves that once lined them, stuffed full with books.
"The modernists had it right all along," I said to myself, "but damn them. They wrote too many books." I resolved to do something about this.
With three of my own books published last fall, my pace slowed from frantic to manic and I had some time in the evenings to unpack my library, but not to lovingly put it back on the shelves as Benjamin did. Instead, I would sell it off mercilessly.
As I unpack a book, I evaluate it. What are the chances that I’ll want to read it again? If not (and in most cases I am not going to read a book that has sat in a box for two years anytime in the near future), I enter the book’s ISBN code into a Web page on Amazon.com, describe its condition, and assign a price, which according to an unwritten code shared among the more honorable book sellers on Amazon, will be a penny less than the least expensive exemplar of that book already on sale. When an order comes, I have a procedure set up. I print out the packing slip, put the book in an appropriate envelope, weigh it, and then print out a mailing label on a label printer. On average I sell a book or two a day, but as I put more of my library up for sale, the number of books I sell rises. The curious can see what I have for sale here.
[not my library but rather Philip Johnson’s]
Into my thirties, this would have been foreign for me. My father is an artist and a book collector although he prefers the term bibliophile. His collections are not insignificant and are on display in Vilnius, Lithuania in a museum dedicated to them (together with his art work) and have been the topic of a dissertation at Vilnius University. Emulating him, I began collecting books as a child, although sadly all of those were discarded over the years by my parents (from a psychoanalytic point of view, I suspect my past and present attitude toward book collecting is related to this loss). From the 1980s through the late 1990s, I built a small library of art, architecture, and theory books, perhaps four or five thousand volumes, along with a reasonable collection of records and CDs. In this, I could empathize with both Benjamin and my father.
But things are different now. Benjamin was only twenty-five years older than my father and they shared the same world. Book were precious objects, defined by their scarcity. The bookstore, particularly the used bookstore run by a keen-eyed bookseller in a large city, was a shrine for them.
My moment is quite different. Today virtually any book is available on the Internet for a few dollars and a few days wait. Used book stores are disappearing. London’s famed Charing Cross, mecca for the book lovers from around the world, is all but defunct.
[another image from Johnson’s library]
The musty smell of the used bookstore fades from my memory. I can’t recall the last time I went into one for pleasure. Perhaps a decade ago in Los Angeles? I remember the bitterness that I felt when I tried to sell a box of art boxes to that bookseller and he offered me twenty dollars. I knew that I had spent dozens of times that amount on the books within and I knew he would retain a substantial margin. Of course he had to eat and he employees and rent to pay, but nevertheless I left in disgust. I was a good customer but I wouldn’t return. On Amazon, my books sell for a sizable fraction of their original price. Some books, out of print but still in demand, sell for much more.
Today if I need a book, I can guarantee that it will be here in a matter of days. So why should I hang on to it when I am done with it? It’s better to pass it on into the hands of someone else who wants it enough to pay for it.
There is no question that I lose memories as I sell off my unwanted books, but there are other considerations. My father is proud of his collection—after all it is part of the Lithuanian National Museum now—but he is also melancholy. The amount of matter to haul around and preserve weighs heavily on the soul. Selling my books allows me to realize, if even partially, Superstudio’s greatest dream: life without objects.
The global continuum of information and product flow that we live in means anything is available to anyone at any time. When that is possible, the need for permanent ownership ceases. Does life become a constant field of variation, our possessions an endlessly reconfigurable but minimal set of objects?
The introduction to my book on Network Culture is up at
If there’s anywhere I want user comments, it’s there.
Clocking in at 5,600 words or so, it’s a start for this big project, certainly the most important and ambitious that I’ve ever undertaken. As I whip the other chapters into shape, I will post them as well although not necessarily in sequential order. Don’t expect to see all of the chapters online for some time, but do expect that the work is well underway.
An online preface can be found at https://varnelis.net/network_culture.
Over at Bookforum, Terence Riley reviews the Philip Johnson Tapes. I am thoroughly delighted by the review. The Philip Johnson Tapes was fascinating to put together and its great that it’s getting some attention.
Two things are worth expanding on. I certainly appreciated Riley’s point that at times the interviews "do little to make Johnson more accessible, underscoring instead how impossibly distant his life experience was from most of ours." Absolutely. As T. J. Clark has written, "modernity is our antiquity." I am glad the book conveys the foreignness of that time to us.
When Riley mentions that "the most rigorous of historians will have to look elsewhere" to fact-check certain information on Johnson, it’s unlikely that people will find much more. The archives have largely been exhausted and the team of researchers at Stern’s office did an first-rate job digging up what they could. Here and there, I’m sure we’ll find something, but on the whole, great mysteries are going to remain barring the release of unseen archival material. For example, what was Johnson doing translating Werner Sombart’s Weltanschauung, Science and Economy? What was his involvement with the Veritas press, which was, in part at least, sponsored by the Nazi government? How about his friendship with Viola Bodenschatz, wife of Major General Karl Bodenschatz, Hermann Goering’s top aide? Johnson’s life falls in the inconvenient period in which people neither communicated primarily via letters (his chief letter-writing phase ends around 1931, or so it seems) nor via e-mail but rather via telephone. To address that difficult time, as I explain in my conclusion to the book, historian Allan Nevins developed oral history. And so it is, that with the oral history of Johnson’s life in hand, we’re unlikely to get a whole lot more.
Once again, for emphasis: modernity is our antiquity.
Amazon has finally made the Infrastructural City fully available on their site, roughly a month and a half after it first hit the U. S. shores. I’m not sure where the SNAFU was, but I’m relieved that it’s finally over albeit annoyed that we missed the Christmas sales season.
On Monday I’ll begin a series of posts going into detail about Networked Publics and the Infrastructural City and focusing on the significance of the arguments we laid down in these books with respect to contemporary culture, in particular, new government policies on infrastructure and the Internet under the incoming Obama administration. Over the course of the next week, I’ll mix these with a discussion of the Zines show and panel at Studio-X.
Régine Debatty posted a review of the Infrastructural City at We Make Money Not Art. Régine has kind words about Blue Monday and riffs on Infrastructural City by curating her own selection of images. Many thanks, Régine!
It’s amazing how much attention my post about the lack of good architecture these days got compared to how nobody remarked on last Saturday’s post on newspapers. It’s also amazing how quickly I got buried again. This must change fast.
In the meantime, how about a shameless plug?
With Christmas coming up, if you’re thinking of giving (or receiving!) presents, think about two books with beautiful shades of blue in the cover, e.g. Networked Publics and the Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles. Don’t ask me why the latter is not at Amazon yet or why ACTAR just shipped it to them yesterday. I don’t know. On the other hand, the MIT Press bookstore has it, as does St. Mark’s (two left on hand) and Hennessey and Ingalls. If those aren’t options, then how about Blue Monday? And don’t forget Philip Johnson feeling blue, which he recounts in The Philip Johnson Tapes: Conversations with Robert A. M. Stern, which I also edited. See Michael Beirut’s blog post about that book (and two other books he and his team designed) here.
People have been asking me what I’m up to lately, what better way to find out than to buy a book for your holiday reading?
I was at the MIT Press bookstore the other day where I saw that the Infrastructural City is already available. Since Amazon has apparently already run out of stock, just minutes after the book finally became available there, MIT is your best bet for a few days.
I also bought the new issue of Perspecta on “the Grand Tour” since it features AUDC’s most recent piece “An American Pastoral.” This is our first project since Blue Monday and marks a new direction for us, away from the model of the cabinet of curiosities and toward a more universal understanding. If we were suspicious of master narratives when we began writing Blue Monday, by the end we realized that—pace to that grand narrativist Lyotard—fantasies of escape from the master narrative were dubious, if not impossible. To lead to anything at all, curiosities, like life demand master narratives (more, from a more theoretical perspective, on this soon!). After all, just because the academy gave up its ambition in favor of minor narratives doesn’t mean that power did. Take a good look at the last eight years for evidence of the utter failure of that strategy on the part of the academic left. In any event, our new work, of which this is a fragment, sets out as nothing less than an inventory of the contemporary world.
A few of you who saw the piece complained about the design making it hard to read the text. I know. I’m not really sure what to say about it except to observe that our experience is that many graphic designers think that a straightforward text with straightforward photos need a non-straightforward layout. Architecture is like that too, I suppose. Maybe it’s the Hawthorne Effect? Robert and I often observe that the Hawthorne Effect is nothing less than the operative principle for all culture. Is that, perhaps, the title for our next book? I ran it by Robert and he thinks so. Could be!