Page against the machine 1 – Derrida and the great CD-ROM disaster

While the form of the ‘book’ is now going through a period of general upheaval, and while that form now appears less natural, and its history less transparent than ever, and while one cannot tamper with it without disturbing everything else, the book form alone can no longer settle – here for example – the case of those writing processes which, in practically questioning that form, must also dismantle it.

Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, tr. Barbara Johnson (University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 3.

Three starts: firstly, an acknowledgement. I have not invented the first part of this title, although I wish I had. I have borrowed (stolen) it from a March 2011 conference.

Secondly, I am not claiming that Derrida is a kind of literary Mystic Meg and was forecasting the iPad and Kindle some thirty years in advance. I have my own ideas of what the ‘period of upheaval’ for the book was in the late 1970s, but from an academic/historicist position I am sure that for Derrida it must have been philosophical, because the changes – even if he knew about them – from letterpress to photosetting and litho printing seemed dramatic at the time but were gentle compared with today’s savage revolution in techne. But in this quotation I very much enjoy his deliberately tongue-tied prose before the final and violent detonation of ‘dismantle’. Here he discusses the cultural entity – as opposed to the codex qua physical object – of the book. The accumulation of history over 3000 years of ‘the book’, he says, has previously been enough to naturalize its authority; but this, in the 1970s, is now a restriction, a tyranny. In his offer to us of a fuller freedom and truthfulness he gleefully blows up the constricting form. But then in a move that is subversive, fascinating, perverse, inscrutable and ironic, he also publishes his writing in a book. Would we pay much attention to him if he hadn’t? Will e-books ever command the same authority as their paper forebears? Just in case you think I am simply lamenting ‘the book’, did parchment and papyrus formats ever make a difference to the authority of writing? How did or does the book written compare with the word spoken?

Thirdly, I would like deliberately to displace Derrida’s ‘here’ (the one in between the parenthetical en dashes) to one that is here (in this blog) and not there (the book published by University of Chicago Press). When you read the quote above, you read it here, in this blog, not in a book. Now we can take ‘form’ to apply to the physical form of the book. We read it that way first anyway, didn’t we? Clearly, the existence of e-books has transformed the book form – we thought we used to know what it was, but now it has changed. In David Lodge’s novel Small World, a student proposes to write a PhD on the influence of T. S. Eliot on Shakespeare – the older really is different because we have the newer.

So, what’s my commercial point? Rage (not page) against the advent of Mosaic tablets and Messianic Kindles is irrelevant – even if we feel it just a little bit. No one believes the hype for ever, particularly in a permanent hype economy. Hype is one thing, but these machines are decent, useful and – ‘Dull would he be of soul who could pass by / A sight so touching in its majesty’ – rather lovely. I am more concerned here for the sum total of ideas/responses available to book publishers, who are corks bobbing in others’ techno-economic waves. The lack of complexity of a typical publishing analytical model of media and human behaviour runs a great risk of mistaking the waves for a tide – or is it a tsunami?

This is not an academic question. We need to have a more complex multicausal people/publishing model that is broad enough to understand previous technological innovations not just as technology but as the expressions of all of our human wishes and behaviours. That will help us respond at a strategic level to the wired question of e-books. To finish this first part of the post, let us look at the first of the two case studies; the second (like the overdue payment for an invoice) will be in the next post.

Case study 1: CD-ROM. In the 1990s CD-ROMs were very clearly the next big thing for book publishers: no printing costs, minimal cash tied up in stock and greatly reduced distribution problems. Furthermore, control of production and imprimatur remained in the hands of the publisher. Easy piracy of content was a drawback but looked fixable; photolithographic reproduction of expensive print-based reference works was an issue anyway. The CD-ROM workflow chopped off the paper-and-ink end of publishing but left management systems and production of content (including quality control and role of the author) largely untouched. This was particularly attractive to large organizations, whose managers no doubt felt very progressive and in touch with the modern world as they forecast ‘the future’ and commissioned expensive research and trial programmes – all subsequently junked. (By the way, I am certainly not criticizing R&D or the making of mistakes – the point is to try, earnestly and honestly, to develop our understanding of the techno-economic publishing model so that we can really learn from them.) It is now easy to see in hindsight that the internet was a radically faster and more efficient route to market, in turn throwing up radically unrecognizable models of distribution, monetization and the production of content, including a previously unimaginable mobilization of that erstwhile sleeping giant, the reader.

Should or could we have seen the problems in the CD-ROM model of publishing in advance? I think we could.

[to be continued]

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About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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