Books and the Problem with their Future

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.  

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The Rise and Fall of New Media

My essay "the Rise and Fall of New Media" can be found in the twentieth anniversary issue of Frieze and online their site here. It's paired with an essay by Lauren Cornell of Rhizome and the New Museum. Together, both deal with the issue that far from being a niche interest, as Cornell writes, "every kind of artistic practice has been touched by the Internet as both a tool and as something that affects us in a broader sense…" 

Posting has been light this summer as I've moved into a new house (modernism, even!) but things have been moving behind the scenes. With the new semester coming up, expect more on the way.

  

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Everybody’s a Critic

Over at Urban Omnibus, Diana Lind reports on Critical Futures #3, an event at Storefront that I was unfortunately unable to attend. If I had attended, I probably would have said something on the nature of the following. 

There's a constant and sustained rhetoric of crisis among architecture critics now. Roughly summed up, there seems to be a sense that something has gone wrong in criticism—some people think that critics are too reactionary and mean spirited, others seem to think that they are in bed with architects—that blogs are a threat because of their peculiar obsessions (although what these may be never seems to be clearly stated), and that all this must be fixed.

I'll play puzzled for a minute. When was this golden age of criticism. Was it in the 1970s when architecture critics typed their columns on typewriters in Philip Johnson's office? The days of Montgomery Schuyler? When was it? And how are these mysterious bloggers to blame? Bldgblog seems to be invoked from time to time but to blame Geoff Manaugh is a category error. Geoff writes about architecture, but he has his own take on it which has less to do with contemporary criticism and more to do with creating a particular vision of architecture that is studiously idiosyncratic and extends much beyond the boundaries of the discipline. If every now and again he might get excited about a building, I hardly see him as a critic in the traditional sense, any more than I see Things Magazine as a critic. In contrast, we have blogs like Enrique Ramirez's Aggregat 4 5 6, Owen Hatherley's Sit Down, Man You're a Bloody Tragedy, Charles Holland's Fantastic Journal, Sam Jacob's Strange Harvest, Stephen Becker and Rob Holmes's Mammoth and Mimi Zeiger's Loud Paper. These are the blogs I read regularly (I'm sure I've omitted a few and I apologize). Indeed, these are the writers on architecture that I read regularly. All have particular, distinctive voices. Although two (Owen and Mimi) also write criticism, I regard them more as writers who occasionally have to keep themselves fed by writing about buildings. If there's a long list of blogs that I should be reading and I'm not, please enlighten me. There's archinect, but that's less a blog these days and more a news source coupled with a forum.

What interests me about all of the above blogs is that they situate architecture within a broader context. Disciplinarity is dying at a rapid clip. I suspect the lament is partly a reaction to the end of disciplinarity. We are losing our ability to talk about architecture on its own terms. On its own, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Many of my readers—and many of the critics out there today—are too young to remember the bad old days of the early 1990s when architects mumbled ill-informed nonsense about Derrida* and showed random squiggles during their lectures that were supposed to be about the emptiness of nothing. Those were bad days, supposedly the days of disciplinarity. We don't want to go back there.

But speaking of the 90s, I think that what we are experiencing now is a crisis akin to that which critical theory went through in that decade. These conferences and articles (typically blog posts, thus reminding me of Johannes Trithemius's De Laude Scriptorum) are attempts to work through, or mourn the death of traditional criticism. We no longer live in an era in which people want to be told what to think. Those days are over and the old Bourdouvean critique no longer works so easily. Critics are something like travel critics today, largely serving to get buildings on the front page of papers, validating the next work of must-see starchitecture. It'd be great if they could have an impact on the generally shoddy quality of work that passes for advanced design today, but it's unlikely On the whole, however, the practice of describing a buliding in print is obsolete. Under network culture, everybody's a critic. 

People just aren't interested in traditional criticism anymore. That's something that critics will need to get used to, just as historians of architecture have had to get used to the idea that there are precious few positions in that profession left anymore (starting a Ph.D.? do you have a particular angle or hook? perhaps a large trust fund?). Coupled with the destruction of ad-based revenue for newspapers and magazines that has led to mass butchery of editorial staffs and you have the reason for the crisis of criticism. Just don't blame the bloggers. They're not playing the same game.  

*Note well. I am a big fan of Derrida.

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On Writing Fiction These Days

Bret Easton Ellis gives an informative interview on what it means to write books these days over at Bigthink.com.

I think that Ellis is right, that portable formats such as the Kindle are not yet fully developed as reading devices (the lack of page numbers makes them unsuitable for academics and Amazon's strange delivery pricing means that publishers are loathe to include illustrations), but suggests they are already changing readership and not necessarily for the worse.

Most interesting to me, however, was Ellis's discussion of how word processing allowed authors like David Foster Wallace to achieve lengthy, extensively footnoted works more easily. 

Ellis writes: 

… when I look at a lot of fiction now and how dreary a lot of it is—and also not only how dreary a lot of it is but also I think our collective impatience with fiction, like just holding a book that's just full of words about a made-up situation, made-up characters. I mean, I think we now live in a society where we want more of that, what you're talking about.  More of an interactive experience.  We want to see images.  We want to see a lot more of a lights show or something.  That makes sense to me and I think that can be incredibly exciting.  So once that really does start happening I don't know, that could even possibly reenergize my faith in fiction.

I've argued before that fiction lost a tremendous amount of steam in the last two decades and I think that to some degree he's right. Still, this smacks of the age-old indictment of the visual and the spectacular. To me, the Internet is largely a textual experience, punctuated by imagery but far from the largely textless world of television. My sense is that the connections the Internet provides, both to people we know and to people who we don't know but with whom we share taste cultures, are more of the culprit. Why indulge in another fantasy life when you can indulge in your own? In that sense, network culture encourages an interest in what I call "immediated reality," and fiction pays the price.   

Moreover, as I argue in the Network Culture project, subjectivity is changing, away from a model of interiority toward a more modulated, schizophrenic existence in which we are composed by flows. If the centered subject emerged with the novel, then we shouldn't be surprised that the novel proves less compelling as that centered subject dissipates.  

I suspect that the Internet is also changing fiction writing in terms of research. On the one hand, the easy of retrieving information about virtually anything today can produce the sort of intensity we see in William Gibson's Zero History trilogy. On the other hand, it means that such books are subject to collective increased scrutiny as readers band together to uncover the sources of such knowledge.

I'm working on material like this in the Network Culture book and once this crazy month is over hope to have a chance to return to it with renewed energy.

PS

Yes, against all odds, I'm trying to post more, but I should probably not acknowledge that since I'm so likely to fail.   

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Against Print

I don't see how can I avoid sounding like an ogre or troll in this post but there's no sense in writing for print anymore. 

I'm faced with a huge amount of work on my plate and something has to what give. Since I'm already spending too little time on the blog and my book, I have to find something to cut. The victim is the print-only journal. I wish it well.

Network culture begins with a condition of information overload. Having grown up in a house with a massive library, I can appreciate the desire to have books and journals at hand and I sought to emulate my father in collecting for a while, but gave it up almost a decade ago. Objects consume scarce resources and space. Books and journals are still the worst offenders in my house. Even as cull them without mercy, they pile up around me, largely unread, passed by in a day when there's too much to do. 

Let's face it, a personal library is the academic's version of an SUV. It's handy for when you need it, but it's big and unwieldy, a poor choice when it comes to ecology and not a defensible option in a world of limits except for those who really, truly need them.  

The journals that I read regularly—the New Left Review, Mute Magazine, Eurozine, and Domus (to name a select few)—are already on the Net. There are few print-only publications and I read none of them regularly. Fetish objects like the New City Reader, Junk Jet, Volume, or Loud Paper generally wind up on the Internet in reduced or pirated form. You have to pay—or otherwise seek out—the original format if that's what you want, but the content is there for the taking.

Google books makes it possible to search through new and old books alike while pirate book sites mean that it's easy to carry thousands of books in a laptop. Pirating may be illegal now, but it's thriving—take the book scanning movement, for example—and is just the faintest ripple in the surface of the ocean before the tides pull back and then the tsumani hits.

If not in this decade, then surely within two decades virtually all publishers—book, journal, and newspaper will provide universities with everything they publish in digital form. Within that time, as I pointed out at the CCA on Thursday, most archives will also be online.  

A book or journal that in print form only is inadequate for our age. It cannot be properly searched. Hand-made indices have some degree of utility, but no matter how intelligent the maker of the index was, remain reductive, the product of one mind that can't adequately foresee everything the text will be used for. Full-text search is revolutionary for scholarship.  

Then there's portability. Like so many of my colleagues, I travel frequently, both overseas and across the Hudson to Columbia. I clung to slides until 2006 when travelling to Ireland to teach made that impossible. Books are the same. It's entirely different to have my library at my fingertips as I type.

But is this historian's desire so new? While teaching in Brazil, Braudel would visit Europe periodically and employ microfilm to record material in archives for later references. I'm confident that if Benjamin were alive today, he'd be surfing book pirate Web sites instead of frequenting old bookstores, collecting PDFs in his laptop, just in case the sites wind up shut down.

Moreover, there's another ethical question, beyond the viability of publishers which I suspect will survive in this new world (printing presses, may be another matter). A friend once told me that while she was teaching in South America, she translated my texts for her students. At the time, she explained, my work was just about the only informed commentary on contemporary architecture available online and her university lacked the funds to acquire books and journals or pay for access to material behind paywalls. Her message hit home: print publications and paywalls maintain a global imbalance of intellectual resources.     

There's nothing more tiresome than the aged (or young) scholar lamenting the lack of intellectual rigor online. Surely such learned individuals have heard of the Johannes Trithemius, the Abbot of Sponheim who published his De laude scriptorum manualium, defending the tradition of script against the printing press in 1492? Our fields were hardly more rigorous in the postmodern 1980s or the post-structuralist 1990s let alone the heroic era of the 1920s. Plenty of material not worth the ink and paper it cost to print was published back then. 

Instead of lamenting print, let's work together to break down paywalls, physical or electronic. Those of us in the academy are not in the business of knowledge, we're in a community of knowledge, a community that transcends old limits. Let's embrace that.  

 

 

 

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The Spectacle of the Innocent Eye

So many of the recent events and discussions in architecture remind me of material I covered in my dissertation. Some of the writing is juvenalia, some of it is prophetic. Either way, it ensured I’d be persona non grata around Cornell ever since.

Enough people ask me about it that I should upload it and see what the response is. Since the original files are now fifteen years old, forgive me for the inevitable formatting problems and the lack of illustrations (a list is appneded to give you an idea of what you missed).

I produced the attached text a few months after the dissertation itself, incorporating further revisions.

The abstract reads as follows.

 

The Spectacle of the Innocent Eye:
Vision, Cynical Reason, and
The Discipline of Architecture in Postwar America
1994

 

 

In this dissertation, I trace the growth of cynical reason and the spectacle in postwar American architecture by examining the emergence of a new attitude toward form in postwar American architecture and the rise of the group of architectural celebrities that represented it.

From the 1950s onward, a number of architectural educators–most notably Colin Rowe and John Hejduk–derived a theory of architectural design from the visual language developed by graphic art educators Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Gyorgy Kepes. The architectural educators’ intent was to solidify architecture’s claim to artistic autonomy through a focus on the rigorous use of form. In doing so, they hoped to resist the threat to architecture as a discipline, then having its domain of inquiry attacked by the encroaching social sciences and engineering.

Like Moholy-Nagy and Kepes, the architectural educators aimed to create an innocent eye in the student, restricting vision to instantaneous, prelinguistic perception of two-dimensional formal relationships. The student would become a retinalized subject under the influence of outside forces rather than an agent capable of independent action and hence ethically responsible in their life and architecture. In addition, the new theory of architecture was unable to divest itself of its origin in graphic art and produced a formally complex but atectonic, cardboard (-like) architecture.

Against this background, I investigate the rise of the movement’s representatives–Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Richard Meier, and Robert Stern–and their relationship to their patron, Philip Johnson. Together, they promoted each other and cardboard architecture, as well as a history and architecture reduced to image.

But history has a material reality: in the 1930s, Johnson participated in the American fascist movement and left as evidence a body of fascistic and antisemitic texts he wrote for publications in the movement. Since then he and his promoters, among them Stern and Eisenman, have carefully repressed his past by making it into a public secret. Ultimately, the kids do not have innocent eyes: along with Johnson they have promoted a spectacular architectural discourse of cynicism.

 

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