The most recent future of the book conference was at MIT, May 3-4, 2012. Entitled, “UNBOUND: Speculations of the Future of the Book”, the core program provided presentations that deconstructed the book from its legacy functions, then speculated on the reshaping of the book and concluded with influences of electronic literature.
This synopsis of the state of book based culture transmission was almost too abstract. Included for the preservation perspective was a fiery noetic performed by Christian Bök who is conducting a experiment called The Xenotext which involves genetically engineering a bacterium that can become an archive for storing a poem in its DNA genome for eternity. Over apochal, near eternity time spans the evidence of a sentient species on this planet, will otherwise disappear. Bök rates documentary mechanism as inadequate beyond 10k years. Yet as Bök remarks, his cypher for noetic preservation and genetic archiving is a bizarre ecological mission against the existential threat.
What I have noticed is that the one constituency with the best overall grip on the prospects for the future of the book is the publishers’. Scientists, engineers, scholars, poets and artists perspectives on book prospects tend to be distorted and lack authentic immersion in the continuities and changes in reading behaviors. To be fair it (the future of the book) is an extremely wide topic but the MIT audience is unusual in its high interest in cross-disciplinary study. The MIT press (both its Cambridge outlet and its editorial director) provided the needed reference coordinates. They are watching reading behaviors, attention band-width, and added cross-product values. Gita Manaktala provided a terrific synopsis of shifting reading practice, wider reader attention and broader publication values and tenure gate-keeping methods. While the general discussion is 95% screen university press people also understand that 90% to 95% of their revenue is from print. They await evolution of the commodities of electronic formats, not just scenarios concerning their operability and allure.
The MIT meeting was well attended (240 attending) and engaging although somewhat reminiscent of an ambiguity of the assimilation together of paper and screen display and delivery. These meetings sometimes exemplify an orality-based discussion of literacy that offers the worst of both worlds without looking between.
Have more than ten years of conferences popularized and resolved the future of the book or neither? These events have bred an enclave of specialists. There is also emergent premise. With the new screen environments the partition between reading and writing is dissolving and the overlap space is useful for thinking. This was one of Bob Stein’s MIT contentions as he discussed his newest educational program called SocialBook. Bob was at the first 1991 conference demonstrating his Voyager, media based, books and has been a tireless tracker. This read/write position aligns suggestively with another conference evaluation that the flood of information is more difficult for authors than it is for readers. The actual commodities that will span the print/screen book are still emerging.
In early stages of interaction of print and screen books we can consider other tried models of media intersection that can assist our expectations. These span history and are fairly well transacted including such as scroll to codex, manuscript to print or the evolution of paratext ecologies of such as monograph books, magazines, newspapers or fanzines. Another particularly useful model that is well transacted is paper and printing and their convergence.
Paper and printing originated as rather isolated crafts. Printing emerged from stamping and de-bossing while papermaking first served an alternative to cloth. But soon the paper and printing merged together into print publication products. But paper and printing could not produce such products alone. Yet another constituent was also needed. This was a method and technology, of bookbinding, to commodify this composite product.
The paper/printing/bookbinding product composite may a useful model again to position requisites of the content delivery, display and commodification as we merge print and screen books. As a model it is also suggestive that printing, more closely associated with content transmission, received most of the focus as an agent of change. The display mechanism and the product integration, represented by paper and bookbinding, have been less regarded as agents of change. But as we known all components were needed and needed to be integrated to transact change.
An essay by the editor of futureofthebook.com is in the Archival Products Newsletter.