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So last millennium

April 18th, 2004

Following up on a discussion at Crooked Timber, I looked at this much-linked piece by Camille Paglia, and was struck by its dated references to television and the 60s[1]. She goes on to talk about computers, but apparently sees the computer as nothing more than a turbocharged TV set. This impelled me to dig out a piece I wrote nearly ten years ago, making the point that far from privileging visual media, the computer, and particularly the Internet are contributing to a new golden age of text. Blogs weren’t thought of when I wrote this piece, but the argument anticipates them, I think.

fn1. Oddly enough, although the main argument is a restatement of positions that were familiar 50 years ago, the piece is full of references to the young, as though the current generation of young adults has been, in some way, more saturated in TV than were the baby booomers.

h3. The Coming Golden Age of Text

The recent explosion of interest in the ‘information superhighway’ has spawned renewed predictions of the demise of text-based culture. Some prophets of the multimedia future such as Nicholas Negroponte, welcome this development, though expressing regret that literate people over thirty will effectively be disenfranchised from the new culture. Others, like Dale Spender express alarm that women, having finally gained broadly equal access to text-based culture, will be excluded from the new computer-based centres of power and influence. But at no time since the heyday of Marshall McLuhan has there been such a consensus that text is on the way out.

In reality, the explosive growth of the Internet, and particularly its most recent manifestation, the World Wide Web, holds out the promise of a new golden age of text. The very vocabulary of the Web tells the story. The starting point for Web exploration is a Home Page, from which you use a program, called a browser, to explore other pages. Bookmarks are used to keep track of your favorite pages. Everywhere, metaphors from the world of text abound.

Many of these pages contain graphics. The best of them can resemble a medieval manuscript, the worst a hastily flung together ‘coffee-table’ book. But in the vast majority of cases the text is primary. The graphical capacities of the computer network have the potential to liberate text from the grey conventions of industrial-era printing, and make reading a sensuously appealing experience. But it is still text.

There are basic economic reasons for this. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in computer terms it takes up the same space as a hundred thousand. The cost difference is even more dramatic with video. A few minutes of talking head video, with perhaps two hundred words of information content, can take up the same space (and require the same transmission time) as an entire book. Over time, the steady reduction in the cost of computing and communications will erode the importance of this factor. But for some years to come, the time-lag associated with downloading images will discourage msot Internet users from visiting pages consisting primarily of pictures.

Differences in the cost of producing material will be more durable. A single minute of an average Hollywood movie costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce. Even with the cost reductions offered by computer technology, the production of video at anything above home movie standard requires lots of time, technical skill and expensive equipment. For the past forty years or so, the high cost of producing video has been offset by the availability of cheap and instantaneous distribution through broadcast and cable TV networks. There is already more channel capacity than there is worthwhile content to fill it. The advent of the information superhighway will not change this. Its most alluring promise, as far as video is concerned, appears to be the capacity to dial up our favorite episodes of Leave it to Beaver or Gilligan’s Island whenever we choose.

By contrast, the Internet makes a huge difference to the distribution of text, by liberating it from the confines of print. Already, bulky, inaccessible and often out-of-date reference volumes have been replaced by instant on-line access to databases. An academic journal process that took a couple of years to publish articles is being supplanted by a preprint distribution network that takes seconds. This process is now extending to popular culture. Instead of waiting a week for Time magazine to appear in print, you can now browse through its pages on a daily basis. The gains for Australians who face a lag of weeks or months in getting access to most publications from Europe or North America, are even greater.

More fundamentally, text, unlike video, is an inherently nonlinear medium. A book or a newspaper can be skimmed or browsed, read in many different orders. But the nonlinearity of text has been constrained by the limitations of print. The academic article, with its array of footnotes, cross-references and citations is an elaborate attempt to surmount these problems. The World Wide Web and other innovations offer the potential of ‘hypertext’ (the term is due to computer visionary Ted Nelson, and the basic technology of the Web is called Hypertext Markup Language). While reading a page on, say, Nelson Mandela, you can jump to a description of the main tribal groupings in South Africa or on cultural changes in the townships. Then, if you are sufficiently disciplined you can return to the original page. Alternatively, you can wander off into pages on world music or anthropology (with sound and maybe video clips, but still organised around text).

Nothing like this is feasible with video. A string of loosely connected video clips makes, at best, a music video or an art film and, at worst, a mess. Admittedly, the best multimedia artworks can give the viewer a feeling of free movement while maintaining some degree of coherence. But the effort involved in constructing such works is immense, and the freedom of movement is illusory compared to that of hypertext.

Will all of this be for boys only, as Dale Spender fears ? I doubt it. The male orientation of computer culture, particularly at school level, reflects partly male values of mastery over complex technology and partly the computer-as-video-game syndrome.

But the need for technical prowess in using a computer has virtually disappeared. Since the advent of the Macintosh, and its more popular imitation, Windows, we no longer see the articles (mostly by women) on the theme ‘I bought this PC but I can’t make it work’ that abounded in newspapers and magazines a few years ago. The Internet, long the playground of arcane Unix wizards, has taken a little longer to open up, but the World Wide Web is now accessible to all.

Boys will undoubtedly continue to dominate the computer game scene. But skill at blasting aliens in Doom does not translate into much of value in the wider world. Indeed, the lack of fit between the male culture typified by video games and an increasingly text-based and information-based society is part of the reason why boys are doing so much worse than girls at school. When it comes to actually using computers to do something useful, the male advantage is eroding fast.

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  1. Factory
    April 18th, 2004 at 15:35 | #1

    Bad:
    “The graphical capacities of the computer network have the potential to liberate text from the grey conventions of industrial-era printing”
    Erm, at least in the blog world, innotive layout is pretty much unknown, and one could apply this to most other bits of the web too. OTOH we are not constrained by the costs of industrial era printing.

    Good:
    “Differences in the cost of producing material will be more durable.”
    Indeed, and one should factor in that as far as actors/talking heads are concerned, they are a cost that technology cannot lower. In the case of blogs, one could either read the info onesself, which would be bad because most ppl are not photogenic, and have poor speaking voices. Or get get someone else to read, which will be expensive (or organisationally expensive if one gets someone else to do it).

    OTOH consumers might also lower their expectations of what to expect from images/video. But then again since reading many a blog, the average opinion piece, erm, I have to say comes off looking like something in a blog that wouldn’t make it to my subscribed blogs.

  2. Andrew
    April 18th, 2004 at 23:58 | #2

    Speaking as a male and a computer professional, I have to say the Internet is a huge resource for my work.

    Almost all of it is in text form (programming examples, tweaks, registry hacks, batch files, SQL script etc etc) with detailed and voluminous text explanations.

    Try the Microsoft Developer Network online to see how much graphical content is used.

    There are literally hundreds of thousands of pages of quite densely written techincal support stuff, and it is a very heavily used site.

    And there are innumerable other computer sites as well. It may not be poetry but computers run on type not pix and computer professionals (apart from the small sub-class of web graphic and 3D artists) work almost exclusively in a text-based world.

    Your stereotypical computer nerd may play computer games all night, but I can guarantee they’ll be damn good touch-typists as well.

    On another subject, I found her choice of Art indefensibly bland. There was a good deal more to the Rennaissance than the box-office stars daVinci and Michelangelo, and better sculpture from Rome and Greece than the Laocoon group.

    The choice of the Lascaux rock art is unforgiveably Eurocentric. What about Australian works. I’ll bet Paglia has never even heard of the Kimberleys.

    And to ignore ALL of Asia? Where the majority of the world’s population has lived for at least the past 7000 years?

    It smacked of those Introduction to the Classics CDs that only include pieces you can already hum.

    I cannot believe that her audience of artists, sculptors, designers etc would not have been familiar with her chosen images to the point of ennui.

    Not an impressive speech at all.

  3. April 19th, 2004 at 01:10 | #3

    What Andrew said. However, to focus on the net for a moment – it is true that we work mostly in text, but that is because we belong to a verbal gang. There’s plenty of flash maddies; and Invisible Shoebox and Loobylu are just lovely, while boynton does delicate text that leads to pictures…

    So its out there. Part of the problem is that it is very very time consuming, so doesnt turn up on so many blogs. And genuine multimedia sites are resource intensive… see for instance Cornerfold Online magazine, or Black Friday, both of which cost a heap of dough. The Melbourne online mag Sleepy Brain is a lovely voluntary example.

    Don’t forget, too, that there are significant IP problems building anything visual that uses more than requoted images or links.

    And who among us would dare to forget the Governor-General?

  4. Don
    April 19th, 2004 at 11:20 | #4

    John,

    I think you’re spot on in your criticism of Paglia. PCs, the web and other text based technologies are doing with literacy what pocket calculators and PC stats packages did with numeracy in the 70s and 80s.

    It’s hard to see how economics and the quantitative sciences would be improved by banning PC stats packages and pocket calculators and reinstating slide rules. People who have achieved a reasonable degree of numeracy can now go much further with analysis and hypothesis testing than they ever went before.

    Now text based disciplines are feeling the same kind of effects. For example, it’s now so much easier to search across all of Shakespeare’s plays to make comparisons which would once have been too labor intensive to bother with.

    And in disciplines like antropology and sociology it’s now possible to organize data from qualitative interviews and analyze it using tools like NUD*IST. Assertions now need to be backed up by evidence from transcripts and they can be checked by reviewers. While this creates more work for researchers it can make the work far more rigorous.

    I was amazed to read Paglia comment that:

    “I still believe that only through prolonged, comparative study of books can one learn how to assess ambiguous or contradictory evidence and sort through the competing claims of putative authorities.”

    What better way is there to undertake a “prolonged comparative study of books” than to be able to search the text electronically as well as on paper?

    And hasn’t she heard of the hundreds of online reading groups who are busy conversing about literary works every day?

  5. John Quiggin
    April 19th, 2004 at 14:37 | #5

    Factory

    “Erm, at least in the blog world, innotive layout is pretty much unknown, and one could apply this to most other bits of the web too. OTOH we are not constrained by the costs of industrial era printing.”

    Even the most pedestrian blog (mine, for example) is lightyears ahead of roneod or photocopied typescript, which was the standard technology available to individuals before the rise of computers.

  6. April 19th, 2004 at 19:26 | #6

    True. I started on a Cyclostyle machine. And I think there’s a fair bit of angsting gone into the look of most blogs, even though they are discreete. And often pretty elegant. As the right cardigan can be elegant.

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