Category Archives: rants

Twenty Years Online

This month marks the 20th anniversary of my first Internet account. I don’t remember the exact date but I know it was in late summer 1993, right before what became known as “Eternal September”. The Internet wasn’t new, but it still wasn’t on most people’s proverbial “radars”.

Had heard one of my professors, Kevin Tuite, talk about the Internet as a system through which people from all over the World were communicating. Among the examples Tuite gave of possibilities offered by the ‘Net were conversations among people from former Soviet Republics, during this period of broad transitions. As a specialist of Svaneti, in present-day Georgia, Kevin was particularly interested in these conversations.

During that fated Summer of ‘93, I was getting ready to begin the last year of my B.Sc. in anthropology, specializing in linguistic anthropology and ethnomusicology. As I had done during previous summers, I was working BOH at a French restaurant. But, in my free time, I was exploring a brand new world.

In retrospect, it might not be a complete coincidence that my then-girlfriend of four years left me during that Fall 1993 semester.

It started with a local BBS, WAJU (“We Are Joining You”). I’m not exactly sure when I got started, but I remember being on WAJU in July. Had first been lent a 300 baud modem but I quickly switched to a 2400 baud one. My current ISP plan is 15Mbps, literally 50,000 times faster than my original connection.

By August 1993, thanks to the aforementioned Kevin Tuite, I was able to get an account on UdeM’s ERE network, meant for teaching and research (it stood for «Environnement de recherche et d’enseignement»). That network was running on SGI machines which weren’t really meant to handle large numbers of external connections. But it worked for my purpose of processing email (through Pine), Usenet newsgroups, FTP downloads (sometimes through Archie), IRC sessions, individual chats (though Talk), Gopher sites, and other things via Telnet. As much as possible, I did all of these things from campus, through one of the computer rooms, which offered amazingly fast connections (especially compared to my 2.4kbps modem). I spent enough time in those computer rooms that I still remember a distinct smell from them.

However, at some point during that period, I was able to hack a PPP connection going through my ERE account. In fact, I ended up helping some other people (including a few professors) do the same. It then meant we could use native applications to access the ’Net from home and, eventually, browse the Web graphically.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

By the time I got online, NCSA Mosaic hadn’t been released. In fact, it took a little while before I even heard of the “World Wide Web”. I seem to remember that I only started browsing the Web in 1994. At the same time, I’m pretty sure one of my most online-savvy friends (likely Alex Burton or Martin Dupras) had told me about the Web as soon as version 1.0 of Mosaic was out, or even before.

The Web was a huge improvement, to be sure. But it was neither the beginning nor the end of the ‘Net, for those of us who had been there a little while. Yes, even a few months. Keep in mind that, at the time, there weren’t that many sites, on the Web. Sure, most universities had a Web presence and many people with accounts on university networks had opportunities to create homepages. But there’s a reason there could be Web directories (strongly associated with Yahoo!, now, but quite common at the time). Pages were “static” and there wasn’t much which was “social” on the Web, at the time.

But the ’Net as a whole was very social. At least, for the budding ethnographer that I was, the rest of the ‘Net was a much more interesting context for observation than the Web. Especially newsgroups and mailinglists.

Especially since the ‘Net was going through one of its first demographic explosions. Some AOLers were flooding the ‘Net. Perhaps more importantly, newbie bashing was peaking and comments against AOL or other inexperienced “Netizens” were frequently heard. I personally heard a lot more from people complaining about AOL than from anyone accessing the ’Net through AOL.

Something about the influx which was clear, though, is that the “democratization” was being accompanied by commercialization. A culture of open sharing was being replaced by corporate culture. Free culture was being preempted by a culture of advertising. The first .com domains were almost a novelty, in a ‘Net full of country-specific domains along with lots of .edu, .net, .org, .gov, and even .mil servers.

The ‘Net wasn’t yet about “paying for content”. That would come a few years later, when media properties pushed “user-generated content” into its own category (instead of representing most of what was available online). The ‘Net of the mid-1990s was about gaining as much attention as possible. We’re still in that mode, of course. But the contrast was striking. Casual conversations were in danger of getting drowned by megaphones. The billboard overtook the café. With the shift, a strong sense of antagonism emerged. The sense of belonging to a community of early adopters increased with the sense of being attacked by old “media types”. People less interested in sharing knowledge and more interested in conveying their own corporate messages. Not that individuals had been agenda-free until that point. But there was a big difference between geeks arguing about strongly-held opinions and “brands” being pushed onto the scene.

Early on, the thing I thought the Internet would most likely disrupt was journalism. I had a problem with journalism so, when I saw how the ‘Net could provide increased access to information, I was sure it’d imply a reappropriation of news by people themselves, with everything this means in the spread of critical thinking skills. Some of this has happened, to an extent. But media consolidation had probably a more critical role to play in journalism’s current crisis than online communication. Although, I like to think of these things as complex systems of interrelated trends and tendencies instead of straightforward causal scenarios.

In such a situation, the ‘Net becoming more like a set of conventional mass media channels was bad news. More specifically, the logic of “getting your corporate message across” was quite offputting to a crowd used to more casual (though often heated and loud) conversations. What comes to mind is a large agora with thousands of people having thousands of separate conversations being taken over by a massive PA system. Regardless of the content of the message being broadcast by this PA system, the effect is beyond annoying.

Through all of this, I distinctly remember mid-April, 1994. At that time, the Internet changed.  One might say it never recovered.

At that time, two unscrupulous lawyers sent the first commercial spam on Usenet newsgroups. They apparently made a rather large sum of money from their action but, more importantly, they ended the “Netiquette” era. From this point on, a conflict has emerged between those who use and those who abuse the ‘Net. Yes, strong words. But I sincerely think they’re fitting. Spammers are like Internet’s cancer. They may “serve a function” and may inspire awe. Mostly, though, they’re “cells gone rogue”. Not that I’m saying the ‘Net was free of disease before this “Green Card lottery” moment. For one thing, it’s possible (though unlikely) that flamewars were somewhat more virulent then than they are now. It’s just that the list of known online woes expanded quickly with the addition of cancer-like diseases. From annoying Usenet spam, we went rather rapidly to all sorts of malevolent large-scale actions. Whatever we end up doing online, we carry the shadow of such actions.

Despite how it may sound, my stance isn’t primarily moral. It’s really about a shift from a “conversational” mode to a “mass media” one. Spammers exploited Usenet by using it as a “mass media” channel, at a time when most people online were using it as a large set of “many-to-many” channels.

The distinction between Usenet spam and legitimate advertising may be extremely important, to a very large number of people. But the gates spammers opened were the same ones advertisers have been using ever since.

My nostalgia of the early Internet has a lot to do with this shift. I know we gained a lot, in the meantime. I enjoy many benefits from the “democratization” of the ‘Net. I wouldn’t trade the current online services and tools for those I was using in August, 1993. But I do long for a cancer-free Internet.

Ethnic Diversity and Post-Nationalism

I normally don’t enjoy Quora. But I was just asked an anonymous question there which made me react. It’s close to the kind of question I get in my intro-level courses in sociology or anthropology, so I like to “do my job” of elucidating these issues.

Here’s the question:

Can there be such a thing as too much diversity?
Up until recently the rule for all immigrants was “When in Rome do as the Romans do.” This appears to have been replaced by “We’re not going to integrate but live as we did back home.”

Is it possible that at some point diversity becomes a detriment that divides society? Just look at how segregated some cities have become

Here’s my answer:

Funnily enough, I’m preparing an exam on material where this very issue appears. Unfortunately, this material isn’t online.
One of sociology’s core perspectives, functionalism, had “extreme diversity” among the conditions under which social order breaks down. The idea, there, was that it went against society’s integration, since the model was based on well-delimited groups.
That theory has been challenged multiple times. For one thing, very few groups have been that well-integrated. The modern notion of “what The Romans were” comes from a biased view and a limited understanding of what went on at the time. In fact, an episode of the Entitled Opinions podcast contains useful discussions of the very issue.

Same thing can be said about a number of other societies, including contemporary ones.
And this is where things get interesting. We’re probably living a transition from a period marked by the Nation-State (19th and 20th Centuries) to a period marked by fluid groupings, including social networks.
In the Nation-State (contemporary Somalia and Japan, along with the fiction of 19th Century France and possibly a short period of time in Ancient Rome), ethnic homogeneity is presumed and ethnicity is managed through a very complex bureaucratic system related to citizenship. The way ethnic groups are treated then is based on what Benedict Anderson called “Imagined Communities”.
In more fluid systems, which include most of human history, diversity is taken for granted and social integration comes from other dimensions of social life.
In the current context, we have an unusual mixture of rigid Nation-State identities in parallel with the reality of transnationalism, postnationalism, Globalization, and blurred boundaries.
So, to answer the question: is it so clear what the limits of the group are? If so, what are those limits based on? If not, why would diversity be a problem?

For those interested in fluid boundaries, a classic work is Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik Barth’s “Ethnic Groups and Boundaries”.

Reviewing TRAUMA

As an art piece, one can evaluate TRAUMA as a relatively effective proof-of-concept based on an interesting concept. It does bring about a sense of alienation as would a classroom exercise in computational arts. Yet it remains attached to a notion of art as a directed endeavour. TRAUMA leaves little room for interpretation and nuance. Unlike an art movie but like an art project, it forces some meanings on what could be a broader experience. Without being unilinear or monovocal, its structure makes it difficult to truly wander around, as would a “tourist” in the Myst worlds.

As a game, TRAUMA’s limitations are even more problematic. While the short duration of the game has been described as a problem, it may make sense in context. TRAUMA could be the game equivalent of a short story. But the limited interaction one has with TRAUMA’s four “levels” closes down the game into too straightforward a series of actions. Sure, most point-and-click adventure games have similar issues. The set of things which can be done in any scene is necessarily limited, and players frequently feel trapped in mindless sequences. But, for several reasons, TRAUMA restricts actions even more than the usual point-and-click adventure game, resulting in an almost-frustrating experience. While it may be that these limitations have a rationale in the artistic side of the piece (as it deepens the feeling of powerlessness), it makes the game experience less playful than it could be. The sense of discovery created by the usual adventure game is replaced by something close to hand-holding.

TRAUMA’s redeeming features have to do with the “craft” side of things. As a type of collage/montage/assemblage, it displays some skill. The music is appropriate and well-integrated. The voice-acting may be off-putting to some but it works in the narrative logic of the piece. Several scenes are reminiscent of well-appreciated German movies. Overall, it’s likely that Krystian Majewski will be involved in interesting projects in the future, either by collaborating with diverse artists, by training artists to do fascinating work, or even by serving as inspiration for groundbreaking art.

(Rating: 3.5/5)

What Not to Tweet

Here’s a list I tweeted earlier.

Twenty Things You Should Never, Ever Tweet for Fear of Retaliation from the Tweet Police

  1. Lists. Too difficult to follow.
  2. Do’s and don’ts. Who died and made you bandleader?
  3. Personal thoughts. Nobody cares what anyone else thinks, anyway.
  4. Anything in a foreign language. It confuses everyone.
  5. Personal opinions. You may offend someone.
  6. Jokes. Same reason as #5.
  7. Links. Too dangerous, since some could be malicious.
  8. Anything in “the second degree.” The bareness of context prevents careful reading.
  9. Anything insightful. Who do you think you are?
  10. Personal replies. Can’t you get a room?
  11. -20: What @oatmeal said you shouldn’t tweet. If it’s funny, it must be true.

In case it wasn’t clear… Yes, I mean this as sarcasm. One of my pet peeves is to hear people tell others what to do or not to do, without appropriate context. It’s often perceived to be funny or useful but, to be honest, it just rubs me the wrong way. Sure, they’re allowed to do it. I won’t prevent them. I don’t even think they should stop, that’s really not for me to decide. It’s just that, being honest with myself, I realize how negative of an effect it has on me. It actually reaches waaaaay down into something I don’t care to visit very often.

The Oatmeal can be quite funny. Reading a few of these comics, recently, I literally LOLed. And this one probably pleased a lot of people, because it described some of their own pet peeves. Besides, it’s an old comic, probably coming from a time when tweets were really considered to be answers to the original Twitter prompt: “What are you doing?” (i.e., before the change to the somewhat more open “What’s happening?”). But I’ve heard enough expressions of what people should or shouldn’t do with a specific social media system that I felt the need to vent. So, that was the equivalent of a rant (and this post is closer to an actual rant).

I mean, there’s a huge difference between saying “these are the kinds of uses for which I think Twitter is the appropriate tool” and the flat-out dismissal of what others have done. While Twitter is old news, as social media go, it’s still unfolding and much of its strength comes from the fact that we don’t actually have a rigid notion of what it should be.

Not that there aren’t uses of Twitter I dislike. In fact, for much of 2009, I felt it was becoming too commercial for my taste. I felt there was too much promotion of commercial entities and products, and that it was relatively difficult to avoid such promotional tweets if one were to follow the reciprocation principle (“I really should make sure I follow those who follow me, even if a large proportion of them are just trying to increase their follower counts”). But none of this means that “Twitter isn’t for commercial promotion.” Structurally, Twitter almost seems to be made for such uses. Conceptually, it comes from the same “broadcast” view of communication, shared by many marketers, advertisers, PR experts, and movie producers. As social media tools go, Twitter is among the most appropriate ones to use to broadly distribute focused messages without having to build social relationships. So, no matter how annoyed I may get at these tweets and at commercial Twitterers, it’d be inaccurate to say that “Twitter isn’t for that.” Besides, “Twitter, Inc.” has adopted commercial promotion as a major part of its “business model.” No matter what one feels about this (say, that it’s not very creative or that it will help distinguish between commercial tweets and the rest of Twitter traffic), it seems to imply that Twitter is indeed about commercial promotion as much as it is about “shar[ing] and discover[ing] what’s happening now.”

The same couldn’t be said about other forms of tweeting that others may dislike. It’d be much harder to make a case for, say, conference liveblogging as being an essential part of what Twitter is about. In fact, some well-known and quite vocal people have made pronouncements about how inappropriate, in their minds, such a practice was. To me, much of it sounds like attempts at rationalizing a matter of individual preference. Some may dislike it but Twitter does make a very interesting platform for liveblogging conferences. Sure, we’ve heard about the negative consequences of the Twitter backchannel at some high-profile events. And there are some technical dimensions of Twitter which make liveblogging potentially more annoying, to some users, than if it were on another platform. But claiming that Twitter isn’t for liveblogging  reveals a rather rigid perspective of what social media can be. Again, one of the major strengths in Twitter is its flexibility. From “mentions” and “hashtags” to “retweets” and metadata, the platform has been developing over time based on usage patterns.

For one thing, it’s now much more conversational than it was in 2007, and some Twitter advocates are quite proud of that. So one might think that Twitter is for conversation. But, at least in my experience, Twitter isn’t that effective a tool for two-way communication let alone for conversations involving more than two people. So, if we’re to use conversation to evaluate Twitter (as its development may suggest we should do), it seems not to be that successful.

In this blog version of my list, I added a header with a mention of the “Tweet Police.” I mean it in the way that people talk about the “Fashion Police,” wish immediately makes me think about “fashion victims,” the beauty myth, the objectification of the human body, the social pressure to conform to some almost-arbitrary canons, the power struggles between those who decide what’s fashionable and those who need to dress fashionably to be accepted in some social contexts, etc. Basically, it leads to rather unpleasant thoughts. In a way, my mention of the “Tweet Police” is a strategy to “fight this demon” by showing how absurd it may become. Sure, it’d be a very tricky strategy if it were about getting everyone to just “get the message.” But, in this case, it’s about doing something which feels good. It’s my birthday, so I allow myself to do this.

Jazz and Identity: Comment on Lydon's Iyer Interview

Radio Open Source » Blog Archive » Vijay Iyer’s Life in Music: “Striving is the Back Story…”.

Sounds like it will be a while before the United States becomes a truly post-racial society.

Iyer can define himself as American and he can even one-up other US citizens in Americanness, but he’s still defined by his having “a Brahmin Indian name and heritage, and a Yale degree in physics.”

Something by which I was taken aback, at IU Bloomington ten years ago, is the fact that those who were considered to be “of color” (as if colour were the factor!) were expected to mostly talk about their “race” whereas those who were considered “white” were expected to remain silent when notions of “race” and ethnicity came up for discussion. Granted, ethnicity and “race” were frequently discussed, so it was possible to hear the voices of those “of color” on a semi-regular basis. Still, part of my culture shock while living in the MidWest was the conspicuous silence of students with brilliant ideas who happened to be considered African-American.

Something similar happened with gender, on occasion, in that women were strongly encouraged to speak out…when a gender angle was needed. Thankfully, some of these women (at least, among those whose “racial” identity was perceived as neutral) did speak up, regardless of topic. But there was still an expectation that when they did, their perspective was intimately gendered.

Of course, some gender lines were blurred: the gender ratio among faculty members was relatively balanced (probably more women than men), the chair of the department was a woman for a time, and one department secretary was a man. But women’s behaviours were frequently interpreted in a gender-specific way, while men were often treated as almost genderless. Male privilege manifested itself in the fact that it was apparently difficult for women not to be gender-conscious.

Those of us who were “international students” had the possibility to decide when our identities were germane to the discussion. At least, I was able to push my «différence» when I so pleased, often by becoming the token Francophone in discussions about Francophone scholars, yet being able not to play the “Frenchie card” when I didn’t find it necessary. At the same time, my behaviour may have been deemed brash and a fellow student teased me by calling me “Mr. Snottyhead.” As an instructor later told me, “it’s just that, since you’re Canadian, we didn’t expect you to be so different.” (My response: “I know some Canadians who would despise that comment. But since I’m Québécois, it doesn’t matter.”) This was in reference to a seminar with twenty students, including seven “internationals”: one Zimbabwean, one Swiss-German, two Koreans, one Japanese, one Kenyan, and one “Québécois of Swiss heritage.” In this same graduate seminar, the instructor expected everyone to know of Johnny Appleseed and of John Denver.

Again, a culture shock. Especially for someone coming from a context in which the ethnic identity of the majority is frequently discussed and in which cultural identity is often “achieved” instead of being ascribed. This isn’t to say that Quebec society is devoid of similar issues. Everybody knows, Quebec has more than its fair share of identity-based problems. The fact of the matter is, Quebec society is entangled in all sorts of complex identity issues, and for many of those, Quebec may appear underprepared. The point is precisely that, in Quebec, identity politics is a matter for everyone. Nobody has the luxury to treat their identity as “neutral.”

Going back to Iyer… It’s remarkable that his thoughtful comments on Jazz end up associated more with his background than with his overall approach. As if what he had to say were of a different kind than those from Roy Hayes or Robin Kelley. As if Iyer had more in common with Koo Nimo than with, say, Sonny Rollins. Given Lydon’s journalistic background, it’s probably significant that the Iyer conversation carried the “Life in Music” name of  the show’s music biography series yet got “filed under” the show’s “Year of India” series. I kid you not.

And this is what we hear at the end of each episode’s intro:

This is Open Source, from the Watson Institute at Brown University. An American conversation with Global attitude, we call it.

Guess the “American” part was taken by Jazz itself, so Iyer was assigned the “Global” one. Kind of wishing the roles were reversed, though Iyer had rehearsed his part.

But enough symbolic interactionism. For now.

During Lydon’s interview with Iyer, I kept being reminded of a conversation (in Brookline)  with fellow Canadian-ethnomusicologist-and-Jazz-musician Tanya Kalmanovitch. Kalmanovitch had fantastic insight to share on identity politics at play through the international (yet not post-national) Jazz scene. In fact, methinks she’d make a great Open Source guest. She lives in Brooklyn but works as assistant chair of contemporary improv at NEC, in B-Town, so Lydon could probably meet her locally.

Anyhoo…

In some ways, Jazz is more racialized and ethnicized now than it was when Howie Becker published Outsiders. (hey, I did hint symbolic interactionism’d be back!). It’s also very national, gendered, compartmentalized… In a word: modern. Of course, Jazz (or something like it) shall play a role in postmodernity. But only if it sheds itself of its modernist trappings. We should hear out Kevin Mahogany’s (swung) comments about a popular misconception:

Some cats work from nine to five
Change their life for line of jive
Never had foresight to see
Where the changes had to be
Thought that they had heard the word
Thought it all died after Bird
But we’re still swingin’

The following anecdote seems à propos.

Branford Marsalis quartet on stage outside at the Indy Jazz Fest 1999. Some dude in the audience starts heckling the band: “Play something we know!” Marsalis, not losing his cool, engaged the heckler in a conversation on Jazz history, pushing the envelope, playing the way you want to play, and expected behaviour during shows. Though the audience sounded divided when Marsalis advised the heckler to go to Chaka Khan‘s show on the next stage over, if that was more to the heckler’s liking, there wasn’t a major shift in the crowd and, hopefully, most people understood how respectful Marsalis’s comments really were. What was especially precious is when Marsalis asked the heckler: “We’re cool, man?”

It’s nothing personal.

Scriptocentrism and the Freedom to Think

As a comment on my previous blogpost on books, a friend sent me (through Facebook) a link to a blogpost about a petition to Amazon with the following statement:

The freedom to read is tantamount to the freedom to think.

As this friend and I are both anthros+africanists, I’m reacting (perhaps a bit strongly) to that statement.

Given my perspective, I would dare say that I find this statement (brought about by DbD)… ethnocentric.

There, I said it.

And I’ll try to back it up in this blogpost in order to spark even more discussion.

We won’t exhaust this topic any time soon, but I feel there’s a lot we can do about it which has rarely been done.

I won’t use the textbook case of “Language in the Inner City,” but it could help us talk about who decides, in a given social context, what is important. We both come from a literacy-focused background, so we may have to take a step back. Not sure if Bourdieu has commented on Labov, especially in terms of what all this means for “education,” but I’d even want to bring in Ivan Illich, at some point.

Hunters with whom I’ve been working, in Mali, vary greatly in terms of literacy. Some of them have a strong university background and one can even write French legalese (he’s a judge). Others (or some of the same) have gone to Koranic school long enough that can read classical Arabic. Some have the minimal knowledge of Arabic which suffices, for them, to do divination. Many of them have a very low level of functional literacy. There’s always someone around them who can read and write, so they’re usually not out of the loop and it’s not like the social hierarchy stereotypical of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages in Europe. It’s a very different social context which can hardly be superimposed with the history of writing and the printing press in Europe.

In terms of “freedom to thinik,” I really wouldn’t say that they’re lacking. Of course, “free thinker” has a specific meaning in liberal societies with a European background. But even this meaning can be applied to many people I’ve met in Mali.

And I go back to the social context. Those with the highest degree of functional literacy aren’t necessarily those with the highest social status. And unlike Harlem described by Labov, it’s a relatively independent context from the one in which literacy is a sine qua non. Sure, it’s a neocolonial context and Euro-Americans keep insisting that literacy in Latin script is “the most important thing ever” if they are to become a true liberal democracy. Yet, internally, it’s perfectly possible for someone to think freely, get recognition, and help other people to think without going through the written medium.

Many of those I know who have almost nonexistent skills in the written medium also have enough power (in a Weberian sense) that they get others to do the reading and writing for them. And because there are many social means to ensure that communication has worked appropriately, these “scribes” aren’t very likely to use this to take anything away from those for whom they read and write.

In Switzerland, one of my recent ancestors was functionally illiterate. Because of this, she “signed away” most of her wealth. Down the line, I’m one of her very few heirs. So, in a way, I lost part of my inheritance due to illiteracy.

Unless the switch to a European model for notarial services becomes complete, a case like this is unlikely to occur among people I know in Mali. If it does happen, it’s clearly not a failure of the oral system but a problem with this kind of transition. It’s somewhat similar to the situation with women in diverse parts of the continent during the period of direct colonialism: the fact that women have lost what powers they had (say, in a matrilineal/matrilocal society) has to do with the switch to a hierarchical system which put the emphasis on new factors which excluded the type of influence women had.

In other words, I fully understand the connections between liberalism and literacy and I’ve heard enough about the importance of the printing press and journalism in these liberal societies to understand what role reading has played in those contexts. I simply dispute the notion that these connections should be universal.

Yes, I wish the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (including the (in)famous Article 26, which caused so many issues) were more culturally aware.

I started reading Deschooling Society a few weeks ago. In terms of “insight density,” it’s much higher than the book which prompted this discussion. While reading the first chapter, I constructed a number of ideas which I personally find useful.

I haven’t finished reading the book. Yet. I might eventually finish it. But much of what I wanted to get from that book, I was able to get from diverse sources. Including that part of the book I did read, sequentially. But, also, everything which has been written about Illich since 1971. And I’ll be interested in reading comments by the reading group at Wikiversity.

Given my background, I have as many “things to say” about the issues surrounding schooling as what I’ve read. If I had the time, I could write as much on what I’ve read from that book and it’d probably bring me a lot of benefits.

I’ve heard enough strong reactions against this attitude I’m displaying that I can hear it, already: “how can you talk about a book you haven’t read.” And I sincerely think these people miss an important point. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that their reading habits are off (that’d be mean), especially since those are well-adapted to certain contexts, including what I call scriptocentrism. Not that these people are scriptocentric. But their attitude “goes well with” scriptocentrism.

Academia, despite being to context for an enormous amount of writing and reading, isn’t displaying that kind of scriptocentrism. Sure, a lot of what we do needs to be written (although, it’s often surprising how much insight goes unwritten in the work of many an academic). And we do get evaluated through our writing. Not to mention that we need to write in a very specific mode, which almost causes a diglossia.

But we simply don’t feel forced to “read the whole text.”

A colleague has described this as the “dirty little secret” of academia. And one which changes many things for students, to the point that it almost sounds as if it remains a secret so as to separate students into categories of “those who get it” and “the mass.”

It doesn’t take a semester to read a textbook so there are students who get the impression that they can simply read the book in a weekend and take the exams. These students may succeed, depending on the course. In fact, they may get really good grades. But they run into a wall if they want to go on with a career making any use of knowledge construction skills.

Bill Reimer has interesting documents about “better reading.” It’s a PowerPoint presentation accompanied by exercises in a PDF format. (No, I won’t discuss format here.)

I keep pointing students to those documents for a simple reason: Reimer isn’t advocating reading every word in sequence. His “skim then focus” advice might be the one piece which is harder to get through to people but it’s tremendously effective in academic contexts. It’s also one which is well-adapted to the kind of online reading I’m thinking about. And not necessarily that good for physical books. Sure, you can efficiently flip pages in a book. But skimming a text on paper is more likely to be about what stands out visually than about the structure of the text. Especially with book-length texts. The same advice holds with physical books, of course. After all, this kind of advice originally comes from that historical period which I might describe as the “heyday of books”: the late 20th Century. But I’d say that the kind of “better reading” Reimer describes is enhanced in the context of online textuality. Not just the “Read/Write Web” but Instant Messaging, email, forums, ICQ, wikis, hypertext, Gopher, even PowerPoint…

Much of this has to do with different models of human communication. The Shannon/Weaver crowd have a linear/directional model, based on information processing. Codec and modem. Something which, after Irvine’s Shadow Conversations, I tend to call “the football theory of communication.” This model might be the best-known one, especially among those who study in departments of communication along with other would-be journalists. Works well for a “broadcast” medium with mostly indirect interaction (books, television, radio, cinema, press conferences, etc.). Doesn’t work so well for the backchannel-heavy “smalltalk”  stuff of most human communication actually going on in this world.

Some cognitivists (including Chomsky) have a schema-based model. Constructivists (from Piaget on) have an elaborate model based on knowledge. Several linguistic anthropologists (including yours truly but also Judith Irvine, Richard Bauman, and Dell Hymes) have a model which gives more than lipservice to the notion of performance. And there’s a functional model of any human communication in Jakobson’s classic text on verbal communication. It’s a model which can sound as if it were linear/bidirectional but it’s much broader than this. His six “functions of verbal communication” do come from six elements of the communication process (channel, code, form, context, speaker, listener). But each of these elements embeds a complex reality and Jakobson’s model seems completely compatible with a holistic approach to human communication. In fact, Jakobson has had a tremendous impact on a large variety of people, including many key figures in linguistic anthropology along with Lévi-Strauss and, yes, even Chomsky.

(Sometimes, I wish more people knew about Jakobson. Oh, wait! Since Jakobson was living in the US, I need to americanize this statement: “Jakobson is the most underrated scholar ever.”)

All these models do (or, in my mind, should) integrate written communication. Yet scriptocentrism has often led us far away from “texts as communication” and into “text as an object.” Scriptocentrism works well with modernity. Going away from scriptocentrism is a way to accept our postmodern reality.

I Hate Books

In a way, this is a followup to a discussion happening on Facebook after something I posted (available publicly on Twitter): “(Alexandre) wishes physical books a quick and painfree death. / aime la connaissance.”

As I expected, the reactions I received were from friends who are aghast: how dare I dismiss physical books? Don’t I know no shame?

Apparently, no, not in this case.

And while I posted it as a quip, it’s the result of a rather long reflection. It’s not that I’m suddenly anti-books. It’s that I stopped buying several of the “pro-book” arguments a while ago.

Sure, sure. Books are the textbook case of technlogy which needs no improvement. eBooks can’t replace the experience of doing this or that with a book. But that’s what folkloristics defines as a functional shift. Like woven baskets which became objects of nostalgia, books are being maintained as the model for a very specific attitude toward knowledge construction based on monolithic authored texts vetted by gatekeepers and sold as access to information.

An important point, here, is that I’m not really thinking about fiction. I used to read two novel-length works a week (collections of short stories, plays…), for a period of about 10 years (ages 13 to 23). So, during that period, I probably read about 1,000 novels, ranging from Proust’s Recherche to Baricco’s Novecentoand the five books of Rabelais’s Pantagruel series. This was after having read a fair deal of adolescent and young adult fiction. By today’s standards, I might be considered fairly well-read.

My life has changed a lot, since that time. I didn’t exactly stop reading fiction but my move through graduate school eventually shifted my reading time from fiction to academic texts. And I started writing more and more, online and offline.
In the same time, the Web had also been making me shift from pointed longform texts to copious amounts of shortform text. Much more polyvocal than what Bakhtin himself would have imagined.

(I’ve also been shifting from French to English, during that time. But that’s almost another story. Or it’s another part of the story which can reamin in the backdrop without being addressed directly at this point. Ask, if you’re curious.)
The increase in my writing activity is, itself, a shift in the way I think, act, talk… and get feedback. See, the fact that I talk and write a lot, in a variety of circumstances, also means that I get a lot of people to play along. There’s still a risk of groupthink, in specific contexts, but one couldn’t say I keep getting things from the same perspective. In fact, the very Facebook conversation which sparked this blogpost is an example, as the people responding there come from relatively distant backgrounds (though there are similarities) and were not specifically queried about this. Their reactions have a very specific value, to me. Sure, it comes in the form of writing. But it’s giving me even more of something I used to find in writing: insight. The stuff you can’t get through Google.

So, back to books.

I dislike physical books. I wish I didn’t have to use them to read what I want to read. I do have a much easier time with short reading sessions on a computer screen that what would turn into rather long periods of time holding a book in my hands.

Physical books just don’t do it for me, anymore. The printing press is, like, soooo 1454!

Yes, books had “a good run.” No, nothing replaces them. That’s not the way it works. Movies didn’t replace theater, television didn’t replace radio, automobiles didn’t replace horses, photographs didn’t replace paintings, books didn’t replace orality. In fact, the technology itself doesn’t do much by itself. But social contexts recontextualize tools. If we take technology to be the set of both tools and the knowledge surrounding it, technology mostly goes through social processes, since tool repertoires and corresponding knowledge mostly shift in social contexts, not in their mere existence. Gutenberg’s Bible was a “game-changer” for social, as well as technical reasons.

And I do insist on orality. Journalists and other “communication is transmission of information” followers of Shannon&Weaver tend to portray writing as the annihilation of orality. How long after the invention of writing did Homer transfer an oral tradition to the writing media? Didn’t Albert Lord show the vitality of the epic well into the 20th Century? Isn’t a lot of our knowledge constructed through oral means? Is Internet writing that far, conceptually, from orality? Is literacy a simple on/off switch?

Not only did I maintain an interest in orality through the most book-focused moments of my life but I probably care more about orality now than I ever did. So I simply cannot accept the idea that books have simply replaced the human voice. It doesn’t add up.

My guess is that books won’t simply disappear either. There should still be a use for “coffee table books” and books as gifts or collectables. Records haven’t disappeared completely and CDs still have a few more days in dedicated stores. But, in general, we’re moving away from the “support medium” for “content” and more toward actual knowledge management in socially significant contexts.

In these contexts, books often make little sense. Reading books is passive while these contexts are about (hyper-)/(inter-)active.

Case in point (and the reason I felt compelled to post that Facebook/Twitter quip)…
I hear about a “just released” French book during a Swiss podcast. Of course, it’s taken a while to write and publish. So, by the time I heard about it, there was no way to participate in the construction of knowledge which led to it. It was already “set in stone” as an “opus.”

Looked for it at diverse bookstores. One bookstore could eventually order it. It’d take weeks and be quite costly (for something I’m mostly curious about, not depending on for something really important).

I eventually find it in the catalogue at BANQ. I reserve it. It wasn’t on the shelves, yet, so I had to wait until it was. It took from November to February. I eventually get a message that I have a couple of days to pick up my reservation but I wasn’t able to go. So it went back on the “just released” shelves. I had the full call number but books in that section aren’t in their call number sequence. I spent several minutes looking back and forth between eight shelves to eventually find out that there were four more shelves in the “humanities and social sciences” section. The book I was looking was on one of those shelves.

So, I was able to borrow it.

Phew!

In the metro, I browse through it. Given my academic reflex, I look for the back matter first. No bibliography, no index, a ToC with rather obscure titles (at random: «Taylor toujours à l’œuvre»/”Taylor still at work,” which I’m assuming to be a reference to continuing taylorism). The book is written by two separate dudes but there’s no clear indication of who wrote what. There’s a preface (by somebody else) but no “acknowledgments” section, so it’s hard to see who’s in their network. Footnotes include full URLs to rather broad sites as well as “discussion with <an author’s name>.” The back cover starts off with references to French popular culture (including something about “RER D,” which would be difficult to search). Information about both authors fits in less than 40 words (including a list of publication titles).

The book itself is fairly large print, ways almost a pound (422g, to be exact) for 327 pages (including front and back matter). Each page seems to be about 50 characters per line, about 30 lines per page. So, about half a million characters or 3500 tweets (including spaces). At 5+1 characters per word, about 80,000 words (I have a 7500-words blogpost, written in an afternoon). At about 250 words per minute, about five hours of reading. This book is listed at 19€ (about 27CAD).
There’s no direct way to do any “postprocessing” with the text: no speech synthesis for visually impaired, concordance analysis, no machine translation, even a simple search for occurences of “Sarkozy” is impossible. Not to mention sharing quotes with students or annotating in an easy-to-retrieve fashion (à la Diigo).

Like any book, it’s impossible to read in the dark and I actually have a hard time to find a spot where I can read with appropriate lighting.

Flipping through the book, I get the impression that there’s some valuable things to spark discussions, but there’s also a whole lot of redundancy with frequent discussions on the topic (the Future of Journalism, or #FoJ, as a matter of fact). My guesstimate is that, out of 5 hours of reading, I’d get at most 20 pieces of insight that I’d have exactly no way to find elsewhere. Comparable books to which I listened as audiobooks, recently, had much less. In other words, I’d have at most 20 tweets worth of things to say from the book. Almost a 200:1 compression.
Direct discussion with the authors could produce much more insight. The radio interviews with these authors already contained a few insight hints, which predisposed me to look for more. But, so many months later, without the streams of thought which animated me at the time, I end up with something much less valuable than what I wanted to get, back in November.

Bottomline: Books aren’t necessarily “broken” as a tool. They just don’t fit my life, anymore.