Undying Faith in Technology

James Howard Kunstler questions a very real quasi-religous fatith in technology:

The Aspen Institute is supported by a bizarre array of corporate donors and individuals ranging from the secretive, devious, extreme right-wing Koch brothers to Goldman Sachs, to Michael Eisner to Duke Energy. The mission of the Environment Forum is divided about equally between publicizing the gathering horrors of climate change and promoting an ethos of wishful thinking that all the problems of mankind will yield to technological rescue remedies.
It’s a very odd mix of hard-headed science and the most dismaying sort of crypto-religious faith in happy endings, tinged with overtones of corporate log-rolling and government propaganda. The basic message is: the world is hopelessly fucked up but thank God for technology. There is not even a dim apprehension that many of the aforementioned vexations originate in technology itself, and its blowbacks. Alas, this is about the best that the American intelligentsia can do right now, collectively, and it explains why we have such uniformly impotent and clueless leadership across the board in America, from the White House to the CEO offices to the diploma mills to the news media and every other realm of endeavor where thinking realistically about the future might be considered valuable.
The implication is that technology is good for its own sake: without it, where would we be? Kunstler follows up this question more fully in his new book “Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation“, which I’ve just finished. A fair portion of it is a re-hash of his previous volume, “The Long Emergency,” which, he says, we are now finally dealing with. Essentially, if the peak oil production numbers of 2005 were not the official starting gun, the financial crash of 2007-2008 was. We are now officially in decline, and things will only get stranger from this point on.
It’s worth keeping this point of view in mind, even if you think of Kunster as a doom and gloom crank (I don’t.) Kunstler notes in the (new) book that even libraries, for instance, are now devoid of the gadgetry that kept them running before the advent of cheap, ubiquitous electricity. Card catalogs are largely gone, more of what we have to offer students and researchers are electronic in nature, namely databases, e-books and free Wi-Fi and internet connections.
On the one hand, he’s right. We have completely changed over to the new stuff, mostly because we have had no choice in the matter. We keep ourselves financially solvent by changing, adapting, improving services. If he turns out to have been premature in his estimation of what the quality of life in the next thirty years entails and we do somehow manage to tech our way out of the decline he says we’ve entered, then we’ll still be needed. If not, we’ll be needed even more.
I expect the truth will fall somewhere in the middle, but in the mean time, we’re still tagging our collection with those fancy RFID chips and adding new databases to our electronic stable.

Bookless Libraries Should Provide Cultural “Third Space”

David A. Bell, writing in The New Republic, has this to say regarding the future of libraries:


IF LIBRARIES ARE to survive, and thereby preserve their expertise, their communal functions, their specialized collections, and the access they provide to physical books, they must find new roles to play. The critics of the NYPL Central Library Plan claim that it has put the library’s standing as a premier research institution in jeopardy, but they finally fail to acknowledge that the very nature of premier research institutions—and all other libraries—is changing in radical and inexorable ways. Clinging to an outdated vision of libraries is in fact the best recipe for making them look hopelessly obsolescent to the men and women who control their budgets, thereby ensuring that the nightmare scenario that I have laid out actually comes to pass.

In imagining new roles, it is important to think about the way that the digital revolution has already changed the world of learning as a whole—above all, in its democratizing effects. To be sure, the world of learning has always had its democratic institutions, with the NYPL itself among the greatest. Anyone can walk in off the street into the Schwarzman Building, get a reader’s card, and have immediate access to one of the greatest troves of learning ever assembled. And yet, in practice, most people have not had the resources, physical or intellectual, to make use of such a wonderful resource. Doing so required time that working adults could not easily spare. And in most cases it also required a high level of education. For every autodidact who found in its collections the keys to a new universe, many other well intentioned readers, less motivated or less skilled, ended up turning away in confusion.

Today interested readers, or aspiring amateur scholars, have far more help available, most of it at their Internet-enabled fingertips. There are full undergraduate courses online, complete with lectures, free from the likes of Harvard and MIT. There are excellent and accessible lecture courses geared explicitly to the general public from sources such as The Teaching Company, for a low cost or for free from a public library. There are half a dozen allegedly “educational” television networks, even if ones such as The History Channel have increasingly shifted to routine entertainment programming. And of course there are an infinity of websites offering introductions to every subject under the sun. Caveat lector, yes—but what an embarrassment of riches.


I took the title for this post from librarian Kate Adler, who pointed out that Bell’s argument rests on the idea that even if somehow all books disappear as physical objects, there would still be a need for a meeting space of the type that only libraries provide. I think the entire thing is worth reading and considering.

Anyway, I’m heading to Vermont for two weeks, where the internet is rather more spotty than in NYC. As a result, no posts next week apart from Twitter and Facebook tidbits. Back on the 14th.


University of Minnesota Pays Professors to Use Open-Source Textbooks

The University of Minnesota wants to save money for their students by making open-source textbooks available to the student body by way of its Open Access textbook catalog. As textbooks are obscenely overpriced already, this is a good thing.

The university however, is also willing to pay its faculty to "review and adopt" the new open access books:

“High textbook costs are one of the many factors that are contributing to the increasing financial burden that students are facing,” said Lizzy Shay, U of M undergraduate student body president. “Affordable open textbooks would go a long way in relieving that burden.”

The catalog currently lists 84 open textbooks that are in use in classrooms across the country. Over the next year, CEHD will work with U of M faculty to review the texts in this collection, making it easier for users to judge textbook quality. CEHD will support faculty who choose to review and adopt open textbooks with $500-$1,000 stipends.

I share a problem with all academic librarians, namely, the promise of new technology if only the faculty would embrace it. Not all faculty do for a number of reasons. The younger ones tend to be adjuncts and even if they like the new tech, don't have the pull with the Deans or full-time faculty to advocate for it. The faculty are frequently nervous about any change to the status quo, and many don't even understand how the library works or why we develop technology policies. And the Deans are administrators more often than not. A given technology's promise to them is how much money it can bring into the corporate coffers and how quickly. Obviously, free on-line textbooks don't measure up to that ideal, at least, not yet.

So, in that context, I can see why providing a stipend for the review and use of such things would be warranted. Nothing opens the eyes and loosens the tongue like silver in one's palm. At the same time, I would expect that once the University of Minnesota completes its catalog, it will stop paying out to promote its electronic wares. What happens then?

We shall see.


“A Novel About an Electronic Book in an Electronic Format That Pretends to be a Paperback”

Ben Cameron at the Huffington Post has noted an essential difference between print volumes and their electronic versions: rules of process, i.e., how they get used by readers.

In his introduction to the 2009 edition of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies praises the tattered old paperback copy of Douglas Adams' sci-fi classic that he carried around in his back pocket in his school days. I had one too and I loved it just as much.

Davies ends his introduction with, "Maybe ebooks are going to take over one day, but not until those wizzkids in Silicon Valley invent a way to bend the corners, fold the spine, yellow the pages, add a coffee ring or two and allow the plastic tablet to fall open at a favourite page."

In a word, it's the experience incurred in one's use of a thing that defines its substance.  And it gets worse:

There are two ironies at work here. First, I read that introduction on the ebook version on my Kindle, which the publisher digitised straight from the print version of the book without a second thought. And second, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the book that Adams' book is about, is an ebook. Here is how Adams describes The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "…a device which looked rather like a largish electronic calculator. This had about a hundred tiny flat press-buttons and a screen about four inches square on which any one of a million 'pages' could be summoned at a moment's notice."

He has just described my Kindle.

Ironies aside, Cameron actually does an enormous service in thinking about his paperback turned e-book this way. He informs us that E-Books have rules of engagement that print volumes don't.

The rule of process for a paperback are easy:

Step 1: Pick up.

Step 2: Open.

Step 3: Read.

Step 4: Close when finished (Optional).

Step 5: Place in a secure location (Recommended).

The rules of process for an E-Book are rather more complicated:

At the moment publishers are quickly churning out ebook versions of the mainstays of their print backlists. But more often than not they are doing so without giving a moment's thought to making even the simplest of changes to the printed book. So we end up with an introduction to an ebook that sings the praises of paperbacks or ebook cover images taken straight from printed books that boast of illustrations – when the illustrations have been stripped from the ebook editions.

Rule 1: the contents do not always reflect reality.

That's a cheap shot–there are plenty of print volumes that don't reflect reality due to their age, the limitations of the author, or the fact that they're not meant to inform as much as propogandize–but it bears thinking about. A more precise statement would be that the contents of an E-Book does not always reflect the medium. Part of that is human nature. It's just plain impossible to keep with with every new thing that presents itself and very little of the new apps, coding languages, or gadgets take advantage of how people think or behave. We adopt to the tech, not the other way around. Meanwhile a publisher needs to make money now, not lay the groundwork for what will be happening in five or ten (or fifteen or twenty) years. Shortcuts are taken, expediency wins over c0ntext. That thirty year old introduction is taken verbatim from the print edition and slapped into the electronic version. Stuff happens.

Rule 2: E-Books are naturally fragile.

I think that Russell T. Davies said this better in the above quote than I could. Print books don't break when you drop them, short out when you spill coffee on  them, or disappear into the ether when a publisher stops producton. E-Books (and their readers) are known to do all that. Show me a Kindle that has survived as well as the Edwin Smith Papyrus and I'll rethink my position.

Rule 3: E-Books are often published as afterthoughts.

This is starting to change as publishers and editors who are used to working primarily with electronic editions come into their own. That said, when the big five publishers and their subsidiaries try to do this, the results are rather like what Cameron describes in the case of Douglas Adams: a direct port into a what is essentiqally a giant PDF. At the moment, small press publishers and writers who write for niche markets have a real advantage over the giant. Want the really cool electronic titles? Keep an eye on that space.

Cameron concludes by noting what should be obvious to us to live and breathe among these gadgets:

Certainly Douglas Adams was a pioneer of computerised content including game versions of THG2TG, so my guess is that he would have been pushing forward the boundaries of book technology – a fact that should play to his publishers' strengths. By and large publishers are creative people. Creativity is what they do well and enjoy. And with creative publishers technology can be used in ways that expand traditionally printed books. The app version of Stephen Fry's Chronicles, My Fry, was a great example of this. Recognising that it was a book for dipping in and out of, Penguin Books created an electronic version that emphasised the index so that readers could move about the book in a non-linear, topic based way.

So, with all that technology has to offer now, why am I reading a science-fiction novel about an electronic book in an electronic format that pretends to be a paperback?

Solid question.


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