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Lewis Lapham: Machine-Made News

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A decade ago, I wrote a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, about the world I had worked in for a quarter-century. I already had at least some sense, then, of what was bearing down on the book. Keep in mind that this was a couple of years before Facebook was launched and years before the Kindle, the Nook, or the iPad saw the light of day. Still, back then, for my novel's characters -- mostly authors and book editors like me -- I imagined an electronic book-in-the-making, which I dubbed the "Q." It was the "Q-print," officially, with that initial standing for "quasar"-- for, that is, a primordial force in the universe.

When one of my younger characters, an editorial assistant, unveils it -- still in prototype form -- it's described as "a sleek, steno-pad sized object... a flickering jewel of light and color." And he imagines its future this way: "Someday it'll hold a universal library and you'll be able to talk with an author, catch scenes from the movie, access any newspaper on earth, plan your trip to Tibet, or check out a friend on screen, and that probably won't be the half of it."

An older publishing type, on the other hand, describes its possibilities in this fashion: "In a future Middlemarch, the church will offer public service ads when Casaubon appears, the drug companies will support Lydgate, and architectural firms can pitch their wares while Dorothea reorganizes the housing of the poor." A decade later, that may still be a little ahead of the game, but not by so much. The inexpensive version of the Kindle is awash in ads by now and, books and all, the iPad, of course, is a riot of activity.

Don't think of me, though, as the Nostradamus of online publishing. It was evident even then that the coming machines of our electronic lives, no matter the tasks they might be dedicated to, including reading The Book, would have little choice but to "generalize' into all-purpose entities. The urge for email, a video camera, ads, apps, you name it, has indeed proved overwhelming.

Personally, like Lewis Lapham below, I see everything right about reading a book in any format, including on a machine. (Admittedly, I don't do it yet, but I read just about everything else except a single daily newspaper that way.) The problem is that a book read on a machine heading for riot mode with the ad encroaching is, in the long run, likely to prove to be something new in our world.

Historically, the book, almost alone, has resisted that great colonizing form of our age, the ad (a subject I've written about elsewhere). That, in turn, meant you could be assured of one thing when you opened its covers: that you were alone in the book's world and time. No longer. Sooner or later, the one thing the coming successor generations of e-book are guaranteed to do is smash the traditional reading experience, that sense -- when you step inside those covers -- of having plunged into another universe. You can't really remain in another universe long with your email pinging in the background. So the book, enveloped in our busy world and the barrage of images, information, and so much else that comes our way incessantly, is bound to morph into something different, as is the experience of reading it.

Along with its gains, just what our new electronic landscape, and its melding of the ad and the word, may take from the human experience is Lewis Lapham's latest subject. The famed former editor of Harper's Magazine now edits Lapham's Quarterly, which, four times a year, brilliantly unites some of the most provocative and original voices in history around a single topic. (You can subscribe to it by clicking here.) TomDispatch thanks the editors of that journal for allowing us to offer an exclusive online first look at Lapham's elegant little history of the word and the machine, his introduction to "Means of Communication," the Spring 2012 issue of the magazine. Tom

Word Order
The Internet as the Toy With a Tin Ear

By Lewis H. Lapham

I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.
-- Emperor Charles V

But in which language does one speak to a machine, and what can be expected by way of response? The questions arise from the accelerating data-streams out of which we've learned to draw the breath of life, posed in consultation with the equipment that scans the flesh and tracks the spirit, cues the ATM, the GPS, and the EKG, arranges the assignations on Match.com and the high-frequency trades at Goldman Sachs, catalogs the pornography and drives the car, tells us how and when and where to connect the dots and thus recognize ourselves as human beings.

Why then does it come to pass that the more data we collect -- from Google, YouTube, and Facebook -- the less likely we are to know what it means?

The conundrum is in line with the late Marshall McLuhan's noticing 50 years ago the presence of "an acoustic world," one with "no continuity, no homogeneity, no connections, no stasis," a new "information environment of which humanity has no experience whatever." He published Understanding Media in 1964, proceeding from the premise that "we become what we behold," that "we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us."

Media were to be understood as "make-happen agents" rather than as "make-aware agents," not as art or philosophy but as systems comparable to roads and waterfalls and sewers. Content follows form; new means of communication give rise to new structures of feeling and thought.

To account for the transference of the idioms of print to those of the electronic media, McLuhan examined two technological revolutions that overturned the epistemological status quo. First, in the mid-fifteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg's invention of moveable type, which deconstructed the illuminated wisdom preserved on manuscript in monasteries, encouraged people to organize their perceptions of the world along the straight lines of the printed page. Second, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the applications of electricity (telegraph, telephone, radio, movie camera, television screen, eventually the computer), favored a sensibility that runs in circles, compressing or eliminating the dimensions of space and time, narrative dissolving into montage, the word replaced with the icon and the rebus.

Within a year of its publication, Understanding Media acquired the standing of Holy Scripture and made of its author the foremost oracle of the age. The New York Herald Tribune proclaimed him "the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov." Although never at a loss for Delphic aphorism -- "The electric light is pure information"; "In the electric age, we wear all mankind as our skin" -- McLuhan assumed that he had done nothing more than look into the window of the future at what was both obvious and certain.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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