The Paradox of a Book
Being Digital (1995)
The Paradox of a Book
Being dyslexic, I don’t like to read. As a child I read train timetables instead of the classics, and delighted in making imaginary perfect connections from one obscure town in Europe to another. This fascination gave me an excellent grasp of European geography.
Thirty years later, as director of the MIT Media Lab, I found myself in the middle of a heated national debate about the transfer of technology from U.S. research universities to foreign companies. I was soon summoned to two industry-government meetings, one in Florida and one in California.
At both meetings, Evian water was served in one-liter glass bottles. Unlike most of the participants, I knew exactly where Evian was from my timetables. Evian, France, is more than five hundred miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Those heavy glass bottles had to traverse almost one-third of Europe, cross the Atlantic, and, in the case of California, travel an additional three thousand miles.
So here we were discussing the protection of the American computer industry and our electronic competitiveness, when we seemingly could not even provide American water at an American conference.
Today, I see my Evian story not so much being about French mineral water versus American, but illustrating the fundamental difference between atoms and bits. World trade has traditionally consisted of exchanging atoms. In the case of Evian water, we were shipping a large, heavy, and inert mass, slowly, painfully, and expensively, across thousands of miles, over a period of many days. When you go through customs you declare your atoms, not your bits. Even digitally recorded music is distributed on plastic CDs, with huge packaging, shipping, and inventory costs.
This is changing rapidly. The methodical movement of recorded music as pieces of plastic, like the slow human handling of most information in the form of books, magazines, newspapers, and videocassettes, is about to become the instantaneous and inexpensive transfer of electronic data that move at the speed of light. In this form, the information can become universally accessible. Thomas Jefferson advanced the concept of libraries and the right to check out a book free of charge. But this great forefather never considered the likelihood that 20 million people might access a digital library electronically and withdraw its contents at no cost.
The change from atoms to bits is irrevocable and unstoppable. Why now? Because the change is also exponential – small differences of yesterday can have suddenly shocking consequences tomorrow. […..]
Read more of the electronic version of “Being Digital”:
|Angela Genusa on Wednesday Oct 24th, 2012|
Over the past 15 years, poet, novelist, and filmmaker Tan Lin has been at work creating an “ambient” mode of literature that engages a set of practices including sampling, communal production, and social networks, addressing issues such as relaxed copyright, boredom, plagiarism, and the commodification of attention.
He has written 10 books, most recently Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking; Insomnia and the Aunt; and HEATH COURSE PAK. His video work has screened at the Yale Art Museum, Artists Space, the Drawing Center, and the Ontological Hysterical Theatre. He is currently finishing work on a novel, OUR FEELINGS WERE MADE BY HAND. He teaches creative writing at New Jersey City University.
We talked by Skype, G-chat, email, phone, and used Google Drive in real-time to talk about the many different uses of technology in his work and what its implications are for the future of literature:
How would you prepare someone who has never read a Tan Lin book to read one of your books?
It’s a little hard to say. I think a book is something consumed slowly over many years—it’s a little like watching a plant reproduce. What are HEATH and 7CV? I’m not sure, but maybe a delayed reading experience that involves Course Paks, marketing departments of publishing houses, seminars at the University of Pennsylvania, RSS feeds, and Post-it notes. And, of course, other books—with 7CV, The Joy of Cooking—and with plagiarism/outsource, blogs that chronicled Heath Ledger’s death. Why insert The Joy of Cooking into the title of 7CV? Because it was the cookbook my family used to become American and because I thought the title would increase Google hits. I consider Google a mode of (loose) autobiography. A book in Google Books, like someone’s search history, isn’t really a book; it’s data connected to other data, and it’s searchable. Reading, like autobiography, is a subset of a search function…