Nunberg on The Information Age

Nunberg, Geoffrey. “Farewell to the Information Age.” From The Future of the Book. U of California P, 1996.
I agree with Nunberg’s founding claim here: discussions concerning the future of the book are plagued by “misapprehensions.” The general public, spurred on by journals and critics, seem convinced that new media technologies are causing the death of the book. But as Nunberg argues, although some print-based forms will be transferred entirely online – and for good reason – there is no evidence that the printed book is at risk. For example, works published in many volumes such as scholarly journals, or those that are printed daily and rely heavily on the prominence of advertising such as newspapers, seem to function better online. As electronic texts these genres are easily to search, index, archive, and most importantly access, unlike their paper bound predecessors. These are not arguments original to Nunberg. What I am interested in is how he supports the claim that “There will be a digital revolution, but the printed book will be an important participant in it” and that “the introduction of these media is bound to be accompanied by sweeping changes…including the relation between the author and reader, the nature of the public, the conception of intellectual property, and the nature of the text itself.” I do not see ample evidence for the former in this excerpt, but there is a slew of interesting support for the latter here. For instance, I think Nunberg is right on when he criticizes theorists for applying “old media” terminology and functions to new media formats – such as “author” and “publication.” Neither of these concepts transfer interchangeably into the digital realm. This is easily proven to anyone who has worked on a blog – those who write posts are given the role of “author” and in order to post their writing they click the button labeled “publish.” This is clearly not the same process as publishing a paperbound book (although in some cases it will reach a greater audience; see Nunberg’s example of the tenure case). Of course this is why born digital texts are rightfully the target of suspicion. Without the policing agents involved in traditional publication, how can we be sure the texts we read online are authentic, reliable, authoritative…and protected under copyright? Obviously these are legitimate concerns, but are they exclusive to born digital texts? I would argue are these the same concerns we must address to every text we encounter… and that is what I teach my students.

Similarly, Nunberg’s concern with intertextuality may not be unique to electronic texts. His claim that electronic texts have no boundaries highlights some inherent truth if you qualify the medium as those digital texts that are dynamic, contain links, and are published under the most liberal Creative Commons licensing. Certainly a locked pdf distributed by a publishing company, or a Google Books image, does not follow this logic. The idea of a “a domain where there can be intertextuality without transgression” is compelling, but I do not think it “rests on an anachronistic sense of the text that is carried over from our experience of print.” Most print bound texts do in fact introduce the reader to many forms of intertextuality – footnotes, citations, references, allusions, definition, etc. Readers rarely encounter a text in isolation, and we educate our students to read with the aid of reference material. Whether I am reading his article in a paper-bound book, a kindle version of the text, or a copy found on the web, I am still going to look up “propadeutic,” its just that my kindle does it with a tap of my finger and the website with two right-clicks.

I am most persuaded by Nunberg’s argument that new media technologies forces us to examine the notion of content. In Nunberg’s estimate, this rests on our inefficient definition of “information;” indeed a difficult term that has not evolved to meet its modern usage. As Nunberg notes, the OED definition contrasts information with data, and obvious issue to any user of modern technology. Furthermore, citing William Weaver and Claude Shannon, “information must not be confused with meaning,” but rather “information as a property of a signal relative to an interpreter.” This leads us to the title phrase “The Information Age,” which indicates not a verb (to inform), but an abstract noun (to receive information). Nunberg attributes this shift to the difference between the seventeenth century notion of information which indicated published, not private content, “a step that implies the commoditization of content that is central to the cultural role we ask information to play,” and the nineteenth view that “resituated the agency of instruction in text and its producers, and resituated the reader to the role of a passive consumer of content.” This leads to Michel de Certeau’s “public shaped by writing.” Therefore, information became associated with the dissemination of content through free exchange in a democratic society.

In this view, information is produced by society and its “instruments,” in Walter Benjamin’s sense of the word. One example of this being the “news,” or journalism and another being reference works. Nunberg writes “Each after its fashion, these forms impose a particular registration on their content, with characteristic syntax and semantics, which in turn elicits a particular mode of reading from its consumers.” Interestingly, Nunberg questions the transferability of information, not from text to person, or person to person, but from one medium to another (ex a novel to a comic book). This raises important questions concerning visualization, presentation, and access. It also draws the distinction between knowledge and information.

So my question is what is lost or gained when we move a print text online? What new genres emerge? How can we view Nunberg’s argument in light of e-readers and similar applications for mobile devices? How does this change the nature of both information and the process of knowledge-making?



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