Tuesday, July 21, 2009

From the Archives: At the End of the Anomaly of the Age of Printed Books

Originally posted on June 10, 2009


I've been thinking about what we call paradigm shifts and whether what on the surface looks like a major one with regard to the Digital Age, may in fact be part of a much broader situation that's been occurring since the advent of the printing press and the obsolescence of the manuscript codex.

Back in college, I took a course called 'European Culture in the Middle Ages' with Jan Ziolkowski. Now, this was just about the last place I ever would have thought a discussion of the Internet would have arisen. But, in his discussion of the nature of the Medieval manuscript codex, Ziolkowski made an observation that has stuck in my mind ever since: in it's ability to be quickly redacted, altered, and republished, the text-experience of the Internet actually has more in common with the text-experience of the manuscript codex than with the text-experience of printed books.

In essence, as I took his meaning, it was incorrect to think of the text-experience of the Internet as an elaboration based on the text-experience of printed books. Rather, the text-experience of printed books was actually an anomaly in the history of how humans communicated via text. The text-experience of the Internet marked therefore not a paradigm shift forward, but rather a correction of the anomaly of printed books.

There is a distinction to be had between technological paradigms and ideological paradigms. Their influence on one another is what's so interesting.

Take for instance our notion of transportation. A horse gets you from point A to point B just as a car gets you from point A to point B. The technology changes, but the idea and purpose primarily remain the same. However, the car is able to overcome certain obstacles to the speed and carrying capacity of the horse; this shifts the idea of what can be accomplished via transportation. In other words, the idea paradigm changes according to the re-evaluation of what the tech shift means in terms of innovation.

The shift ultimately depends upon the worth of the innovation-exchange that both the technology and the idea produce.

With regards to communication, the situation is a bit different. Communication has sped up -- not unlike the automobile -- but, is it really able to overcome the obstacles of itself? In other words, whereas there are bio-technical distinctions to be made between horse and car, there is no such distinction to be made between written word on manuscript page and written word on computer screen. The distinctions are only in what you do with those words, which then amounts to syntactical hub-bub which could produce a shift but which in and of itself is not the shift.

The words are the words.

During the anomaly of printed books, the printed words took on a different connotation: they became 'the standard'. Newspapers were more 'authoritative' than handwritten broadsides; we argued about whether song lyrics should be considered 'real poetry' if they were typed up in a book.

Neil Simon wrote that once you wrote something down, it was considered truth; I'd append that to read: once you wrote something down that was then mass produced, it was considered 'the standard'.

That's changing.

Our current age of Diigo looks far more like the critical age of Medieval glossing than it does the age of shiny mass-produced magazines and textbooks. Our current age encourages 'writing in books'. No more of those fussy signs in the library discouraging highlighting.

Highlight away.

And look at what he said, and she said, and I said while you're at it.

You wanna know what the real paradigm shift is? It's that the Digital Age itself isn't a paradigm shift. It's a realignment.

The realignment itself is not the shift. The fact that we are realigning and re-evaluating the printed word is the shift.

In this way, 'Post-Print' is a better designation for our current environment than 'Digital Age'. Because, the Internet and Web 2.0 is not something new, rather it is the broad and global manifestation of something much older and more human than printed books ever were.

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