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In Defense of Vegetal Memory

By cr8dle2grave in Culture
Sat Dec 06, 2003 at 04:42:11 PM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)
Technology

Umberto Eco, the widely celebrated academic and novelist, recently delivered a lecture, Vegetal and Mineral Memory: The Future of Books, at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt, which has been published in its entirety by Al-Ahram Weekly.


Eco's lecture concerns an array of questions surrounding the future of books in the age of hypertext and digital media: Will hypertext and the internet eventually replace the traditional book? Do the literary possibilities introduced by hypertext spell the end of books and authors as we currently know them?

Eco argues that questions of this sort arise as the result of a fundamental confusion over the important differences between texts and systems. Further, he finds it necessary to distinguish between books conceived as "physical objects" and as "virtual objects."

Considered as physical objects, Eco concedes that, at least in the case of books which are designed to be consulted rather than read--dictionaries, encyclopaedias, reference manuals, and the like--books are likely to disappear over time, as digital media offers numerous and compelling advantages. Research which previously required hours of tedious labor can now be accomplished in a matter of minutes. Additionally, the material requirements for storing large numbers of physical books cannot be ignored.

Let us remember that for a lot of people a multivolume encyclopaedia is an impossible dream, not, or not only, because of the cost of the volumes, but because of the cost of the wall where the volumes are shelved. Personally, having started my scholarly activity as a medievalist I would like to have at home the 221 volumes of Migne's Patrologia Latina. This is very expensive, but I could afford it. What I cannot afford is a new apartment in which to store 221 huge books without being obliged to eliminate at least 500 other normal tomes.
In the case of books designed to be read rather than consulted--novels, poems, essays, and the like--Eco is rather more skeptical about the eventual obsolescence of books as we know them; believing them to "belong to those kinds of instruments that, once invented, have not been further improved because they are already alright, such as the hammer, the knife, spoon or scissors."

On the other hand, when considered as a virtual object, Eco doesn't believe the book is likely to disappear anytime soon. Hypertext certainly opens up the possibility of new literary forms, ones which challenge traditional notions of the author and authority, but the traditional book, one read from beginning to end and following a definite path set out by the author, will remain with us (even if eventually read only in ebook format).

Eco's argument for the durability of the virtual book, that is the essentially linear form of narrative, is an interesting and instructive detour through some of his semiotic theories regarding texts, language, and interpretation. In brief, Eco considers dictionaries and encylopaedias to already be a sort of proto-hypertext; structurally speaking, they, like a grammar, are a system not a text and are therefore infinitely productive and varied. The text, on the other hand, derives its character, its identity, from the limitations it imposes.

Grammars, dictionaries and encyclopaedias are systems: by using them you can produce all the texts you like. But a text itself is not a linguistic or an encyclopaedic system. A given text reduces the infinite or indefinite possibilities of a system to make up a closed universe... A text castrates the infinite possibilities of a system. The Arabian Nights can be interpreted in many, many ways, but the story takes place in the Middle East and not in Italy, and it tells, let us say, of the deeds of Ali Baba or of Scheherazade and does not concern a captain determined to capture a white whale or a Tuscan poet visiting Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.

There may be a place for the sort of open ended and interactive experiments in hypertextual literature which can be found on the internet today, but Eco cautions that we appraise them soberly:
All these physically moveable texts give an impression of absolute freedom on the part of the reader, but this is only an impression, an illusion of freedom. The machinery that allows one to produce an infinite text with a finite number of elements has existed for millennia, and this is the alphabet. Using an alphabet with a limited number of letters one can produce billions of texts, and this is exactly what has been done from Homer to the present days. In contrast, a stimulus-text that provides us not with letters, or words, but with pre-established sequences of words, or of pages, does not set us free to invent anything we want. We are only free to move pre-established textual chunks in a reasonably high number of ways.

The value and charm of the virtual book, the vegetal form of memory, is to be located in the fact that it "offers us a text which, while being open to multiple interpretations, tells us something that cannot be modified."
That is what every great book tells us, that God passed there, and He passed for the believer as well as for the sceptic. There are books that we cannot re-write because their function is to teach us about necessity, and only if they are respected such as they are can they provide us with such wisdom. Their repressive lesson is indispensable for reaching a higher state of intellectual and moral freedom.

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Display: Sort:
In Defense of Vegetal Memory | 77 comments (68 topical, 9 editorial, 0 hidden)
electronic book zealots are irritiating (1.58 / 17) (#4)
by Hide The Hamster on Fri Dec 05, 2003 at 09:44:02 PM EST

until there are cheaply available solid-state technologies which are barely power source-dependent, there will be no market for idiotic e-books. contrary to popular belief, e-books are not in any way more advantageously searchable in comparison to "dead tree" reference sources. Surely a "grep" could be formed on a gay e-book, but without sufficient virtual reality technologies, it is impossible to quickly take advantage of e-book bookmarks. "Dead tree" access to information will remain in a state of higher utility for a great amount of time.


Free spirits are a liability.

August 8, 2004: "it certainly is" and I had engaged in a homosexual tryst.

Not. (1.75 / 4) (#12)
by tkatchev on Sat Dec 06, 2003 at 05:12:06 AM EST

They're cheaper to distribute, though. Cheaper always wins in the end, even if it is unusable.


   -- Signed, Lev Andropoff, cosmonaut.
[ Parent ]

For avid book readers.... (2.60 / 5) (#13)
by GreyGhost on Sat Dec 06, 2003 at 09:35:33 AM EST

E-books represent nothing less than the coming Apocalypse. Even if e-books didn't suck nearly as bad as they do now - traditional book publishers have nothing to fear from that quarter among their core market of devoted book readers. There is also the fact (and I can't explain it), but a lot of avid book readers are incredible Luddites. Of course a lot of writers also appear to be extreme Luddites as well (Pat Cadigan, Philip K. Dick, Stephen King...), so the two complement each other nicely.



[ Parent ]

Luddites (none / 2) (#26)
by jameth on Sat Dec 06, 2003 at 08:03:53 PM EST

I think the cause of so many luddites in readers and authors is that they don't see the need. Avid readers already enjoy the situation, so they don't see the benefit of technology, but they are accustomed to the idea of unintended consequences (multitudes of books are about that) so they have a very rational fear of uncontrolled, swift advance.

For authors, it's more that technology actually isn't an advance. Many authors write so much the way that they always have that learning new technology would slow them down significantly. It's not a matter of not being able to learn something new, it's a matter of not needing to.

Also, a lot of technology made for writing was not made by authors. If you read writing forums, there are entire massive help pages dedicated soley to removing functionality from Word, because it causes so many issues for actually accomplishing work.

[ Parent ]

Except That You're Completely Wrong (none / 2) (#24)
by jameth on Sat Dec 06, 2003 at 07:59:18 PM EST

The trick is that cost involves a lot of things.

For a book, I want:
portablity, readability, appearance, content, that's about all.

So, yeah, an e-book reader hits all of those, right?

Except for portability, because it has a high flat-cost, so I cannot afford to lose it. I can read a book on a boat or on a train, in a bed or in a bath, at my home or at my school, and I can lose it or damage it and be out a very large flat investment.

Paper book, I can do what-ever-the-heck I want, and it's cool. Leave it at the bottom of my bag for a month and get it mashed to crap? Sure. (Actually, I am obsessive in how I care for my books, so none have lined spines or dog-eared pages, but the theory is still there) Do I worry about theft? Not over a seven-dollar book, I don't.

So, e-books lose on cost, and likely will for a while to come.

[ Parent ]

Again. (2.00 / 4) (#35)
by tkatchev on Sun Dec 07, 2003 at 06:50:02 AM EST

Cheaper always wins in the end, even if "cheaper" means it is unusable.

Look at MP3's if you have any doubt.

(The only reason we don't see so much online book trading is simply because there is no easy way of scanning books in one step as of yet.)


   -- Signed, Lev Andropoff, cosmonaut.
[ Parent ]

What? (none / 1) (#43)
by jameth on Sun Dec 07, 2003 at 06:33:42 PM EST

How do mp3's relate? That they won despite lower quality?

Well, if you really look, they only were accepted due to being free, and CD sales still did fine, and do fine, and then they actually picked up in use when they were done in pretty good quality.

Most importantly, you are blatantly ignoring the values mp3's have.

mp3's lose a little quality and a lot of cost, but also drop storage space incredibly, allowing a single device to hold a large set of songs and a computer to hold as many songs as its own really want to own.

It's the same as why Beta lost to VHS. Overall advantages, and I still think e-books are losing on that front.

[ Parent ]

Look. (none / 1) (#49)
by tkatchev on Mon Dec 08, 2003 at 05:43:56 AM EST

MP3's won because they are cheaper, by far, than MC's or CD's.

Ebooks are also significantly cheaper than paper books -- all that is lacking is a usable way of scanning books in one easy step.

   -- Signed, Lev Andropoff, cosmonaut.
[ Parent ]

what? (none / 1) (#50)
by tps12 on Mon Dec 08, 2003 at 08:56:11 AM EST

MP3 files are not "unusable." And they didn't "win" in the same way that CDs "won" over cassettes; for the most part, strides made in bandwidth, storage costs, and compression created a new market dominated by the MP3 format. Every approach I've seen to e-books so far has positioned them as in direct competition with dead tree books, so it's really not an analogous situation.

[ Parent ]
No. (none / 3) (#52)
by tkatchev on Mon Dec 08, 2003 at 10:19:11 AM EST

You're wrong.

   -- Signed, Lev Andropoff, cosmonaut.
[ Parent ]

Proof by emphatic denial (none / 0) (#64)
by Ranieri on Tue Dec 09, 2003 at 10:57:16 AM EST

I am impressed.
--
Taste cold steel, feeble cannon restraint rope!
[ Parent ]
Yeah. (none / 0) (#65)
by tkatchev on Tue Dec 09, 2003 at 11:22:02 AM EST

What, do you want me to explain the Grand Unified Theory of Everything, or something? Go read an encyclopedia if you got problems with general comprehension.

   -- Signed, Lev Andropoff, cosmonaut.
[ Parent ]

You misunderstand the MP3's purpose (none / 1) (#57)
by mcgrew on Mon Dec 08, 2003 at 03:18:55 PM EST

An MP3 is a marketing tool, not a product. The MP3's lossy compression scheme makes it inferior to the CD in sound quality, plus you don't get the music in any tangible form as you do with a CD.

A CD is a thing; it is real. I can feeel it, touch it, own it. When you "buy" a music file from iTunes, what do you actually have? Nothing! You don't own the music. You don't even own the file.

The problem is, the major labels heard "celestial jukebox" when Napster came out and saw dollar signs, when the "jukebox" moniker was false. You don't have a jukebox in your home, you have a media player. Even if you actually do have a real jukebox in your home, you use it as a record player.

Juke boxes are in public places, not in a home. In our homes, we need no license to listen to music. We either listen to the music on CDs/tapes/piano rolls/computers- or we can turn on the radio and hear a semi-random selection of commercial songs that you are free to record on your tape recorder or sample on your computer at no cost, and play at your leisure, again at no cost.

The media moguls are so far winning.

"The entire neocon movement is dedicated to revoking mcgrew's posting priviliges. This is why we went to war with Iraq." -LilDebbie
[ Parent ]

No, you misunderstand. (none / 3) (#58)
by tkatchev on Mon Dec 08, 2003 at 04:35:01 PM EST

MP3 is cheap, end of story.

   -- Signed, Lev Andropoff, cosmonaut.
[ Parent ]

Of course. (none / 0) (#76)
by mcgrew on Fri Dec 12, 2003 at 07:25:03 PM EST

All marketing tools are cheap. DUH!

"The entire neocon movement is dedicated to revoking mcgrew's posting priviliges. This is why we went to war with Iraq." -LilDebbie
[ Parent ]

e-books (3.00 / 5) (#17)
by pyro9 on Sat Dec 06, 2003 at 04:31:36 PM EST

There are many problems with e-books. Some are natural limitations of the technology, and many more are caused by publishers who won't let them be just books in electronic form.

I converted a few Gutenberg texts to a more or less ebook form for my Palm Pilot so I could read them on the train. It wasn't TOO bad, but it wasn't too good either. The display wasn't in any sort of natural size for a book, so reading was more fatiguing. The print was smaller and less distinct. Because of that, in many reading conditions, I could either turn the backlight on and kill the batteries fast, or put the 'book' away. It was certainly a lot more fragile than a paperback would have been.

There's the 'natural problems in a nutshell. Most if not all of those will likely be solved in the next 5 - 10 years. Now for the artificial problems).

First there's proprietary formats. I do NOT want to buy 3 or 4 different ebook readers and carry them all around with me. One should do. Since it already has 90% of what a decent PDA needs, it should BE a PDA to make the cost more paletable. It should also be an MP3 player (why not!) and recorder.

I am not so hopeful for that solution. Too many people want to use format wars to grab the whole market rather than a nice chunk of the market. None of them are willing to shatre with someone who could design a decent PDA. They don't want it to be a general purpose device because someone might write an ebook cracker. The RIAA doesn't want MP3 players that do what the owner wants, and several interest groups don't want mp3 recorders out there (at least if they can't extract a tax from the owners).

The publishers aren't content to merely restrict ebooks to what a real book allows. They want to lock it to a single reader (no lending), prevent printing a page (no using a copy machine), and restrict it to a particular brand of reader (no nearly universal format).

Those are what will truly kill the ebook off. Why would I put up with all of that if I can buy a paperback?


The future isn't what it used to be
[ Parent ]
Not So Much (none / 2) (#28)
by jameth on Sat Dec 06, 2003 at 08:09:42 PM EST

Since it already has 90% of what a decent PDA needs, it should BE a PDA to make the cost more paletable. It should also be an MP3 player (why not!) and recorder.

It really should just be a book reader. All that excess adds power drain and weight. (speakers, mathematical ability, better screen)

I have an AlphaSmart3000. It is a wordprocessor. Everyone says, "Why not a palm, it does more for the same price." Well, the AlphaSmart, by using a processor which isn't capable or more than the most basic arithmetic and have no volatile memory outside of the cache, gets 300+ hours on 3 AA batteries. And, yes, I meant 300 hours. I change them once every year or so. No worries what-so-ever. And, since all I want to do is write, it serves all my purposes perfectly. E-books should be able to function likewise.



[ Parent ]
Not an issue (none / 1) (#37)
by pyro9 on Sun Dec 07, 2003 at 03:30:36 PM EST

If the PDA is well designed, the unneeded portions will be powered off when not in use, including functional units in the CPU. When being used as an ebook reader, the speakers, amp, mp3 codec, and most of the CPU will be powered off.


The future isn't what it used to be
[ Parent ]
Still Weighty (none / 1) (#42)
by jameth on Sun Dec 07, 2003 at 06:30:25 PM EST

The issue that I saw less ability to deal with (and I believe I mentioned) was added weight. It might not seem like much, since it isn't in a total sense, but it is a great deal in a proportional sense. The CPU will be much larger, it will have a heavier battery (so it can use those other features), the speaker adds weight, there will be additional chips for other features (mp3 decoder, whatever).

Also, I am not so sure they will make it power-down quite so well. I've heard that a lot, but the examples people have shown were all uniquely unimpressive. Of course, I don't really know what I'm, talking about too well, as I've never owned one of those devices.

[ Parent ]

Weight (none / 1) (#44)
by pyro9 on Sun Dec 07, 2003 at 06:50:55 PM EST

The added weight will only be an ounce or so, which is less than the added weight and bulk in my pocket if I am obligated to carry a PDA and a reader.

Your argument does make sense for many people though. A good case for a range of models to meet different needs/preferances.


The future isn't what it used to be
[ Parent ]
E-books vs. e-book readers. (none / 2) (#32)
by ffrinch on Sun Dec 07, 2003 at 12:27:38 AM EST

I've read several Gutenberg texts, but, not having a Palm Pilot, I read them on this computer.

Aside from the portability issue, there's reader software (Tom's E-Text Reader for example) that provides a better experience, in many ways, than a dead-tree edition. Font too small? Make it bigger. Don't like the font? Change it. Prefer less contrast, or more? Go for it. To answer Vlad's trolling, you can easily add and access bookmarks.

If you have problems with an expensive electronic reader, or bad print, or bad lighting, it's not so much a problem with the e-book as it is with the hardware you use.

-◊-
"I learned the hard way that rock music ... is a powerful demonic force controlled by Satan." — Jack Chick
[ Parent ]

True to an extent (none / 1) (#38)
by pyro9 on Sun Dec 07, 2003 at 03:35:06 PM EST

That part IS a problem with the hardware that I use. However, the reason I used that hardware is because that's what is available. The hardware I want to use is what I expect in the next 5-10 years. I'm fairly optomistic about that.

The other issues are the real killer. I'm not so sure those will be solved in 5-10 years.


The future isn't what it used to be
[ Parent ]
A very good article. (1.38 / 13) (#9)
by causticmtl on Sat Dec 06, 2003 at 01:17:19 AM EST

Some very interesting points. I don't agree with half of them. I always thought Mr. Eco was a navel-gazing goth asshole.

Mr. Eco makes the same mistake people did 25 years ago when they touted the "paperless society" catch-phrase.

Look at us today. We buy less CDs perhaps, but book sales haven't dropped. E-books are a marginal product at best. Printed matter will not disappear any time soon.

I appreciate the points he brings forth but I think he is referring more on how he conducts his research as opposed to the popularity of books. Yes, the internet is easier than going to the library when it comes to brushing up on your medieval history. That doesn't mean that books will disappear.

Umberto Eco is a drama-queen. A smart drama-queen, but a drama-queen nonetheless.

I was mislead by the title however. I assumed that it would be about homeopathy ... vegetable ... memory ... anyhow, I think you know what I mean.

+1 FP despite the title.

E-Book Flaws (none / 2) (#21)
by jameth on Sat Dec 06, 2003 at 06:52:06 PM EST

The key e-book flaw is disposability. One of my main uses for reading is that it is something to do while I am around during the day (on the bus, at lunch, in a waiting room, ellipsis). E-books don't cut it for this. What if I lose an e-book reader? Well, that's damn expensive.

I probably lose one book every one-and-a-half years. If that were an e-book reader, I'd be out a fair bit of money, not just five bucks.

Sure, I'd never lose the e-book reader: it's the worry that is the real cost. I can leave a book sitting in a waiting room when I go to the doctor, and I don't give a shit, because it's no skin off my back if it gets stolen. Even if its a hard-cover or technical book, that's only twenty-bucks and one book down. With an e-book reader, I can't just risk it like that.

And I can't use it as many places. I read in the bath sometimes. I do not use electronics in the bath.

Until e-books are inexpensive and disposable, r-books have a lock on the market.

[ Parent ]

A good portion of my books... (none / 2) (#22)
by gzt on Sat Dec 06, 2003 at 07:12:37 PM EST

...are $50-$100, and a not insignificant number are more. But, I don't take those to the barber's with me, so your point still stands.

[ Parent ]
I'm curious... (none / 2) (#33)
by ffrinch on Sun Dec 07, 2003 at 12:40:44 AM EST

... how often do you lose your wallet, or your keys, or your iPod/discman/laptop if you have one?

I've never left a book in the waiting room; I take it in with me, along with my jacket and my keys and my wallet and whatever else I happen to be carrying. It's never been a problem.

Your point about the bath is fair enough, but, then, I never take valuable books into the bath either. This trash I picked up at a garage sale, yes; this first edition my grandfather left me, no.

You could probably shift 90% of your reading to electronic editions without any substantial problems.

-◊-
"I learned the hard way that rock music ... is a powerful demonic force controlled by Satan." — Jack Chick
[ Parent ]

Books aren't Small (none / 1) (#41)
by jameth on Sun Dec 07, 2003 at 06:25:53 PM EST

I never leave my keys in the waiting room, they are in my pocket. Likewise, my wallet is in my pocket. My jacket, well I'm wearing that.

Now, if an e-book reader is small enough to slip into my pocket, it is likely too small to read properly.

The other issue is the worry issue. With a random book, I can just not worry. I don't have to worry that I might lose it. Sure, that's not a huge worry, but every little worry adds up, so I'd rather avoid it.

And that special book instance isn't too important, as it those books are the minority. Those books just happen to suffer that same particular side-effect of e-books, that they are valuable and you need to be careful with them.

Also, the e-book reader is required to read any of the e-books, so damage to it is damaging to a great many things. If I damage some random book, all my other books are fine.

On a side note, I like the idea of e-book readers, and will likely invest in one if they can make a passively lit display (so it functions in the same instances as a book) which is low-power, and I can get most of the books I want on it. Right now, I don't see the battery-life I want and the electronic paper stuff is still not too far along (although it should be soon).

[ Parent ]

Drama Queen? (none / 1) (#29)
by cr8dle2grave on Sat Dec 06, 2003 at 08:37:39 PM EST

Whatever do you mean by that?

---
Unity of mankind means: No escape for anyone anywhere. - Milan Kundera


[ Parent ]
Drama queen (none / 1) (#30)
by causticmtl on Sun Dec 07, 2003 at 12:05:37 AM EST

Slaps the back of hand to his forehead as he says "TEH INTERWEB SI TEH SUXORS FOR TEH B0O|<5!!1".

[ Parent ]
Vegeta kicks ass (1.04 / 21) (#10)
by fae on Sat Dec 06, 2003 at 01:37:28 AM EST

Actually I never really watched that show, but the title reminded me.

-- fae: but an atom in the great mass of humanity
Arguments in favor of physical books... (2.77 / 9) (#15)
by skyknight on Sat Dec 06, 2003 at 11:00:45 AM EST

I find having an actual book for reference to be much more pleasing than a virtual copy of the book at most times. In many ways, the data is more accessible. I can flip through a physical book in a way that I cannot with an online source, since there are latency issues that cause metaphor shear. Also, it's very clumsy when a single page cannot be fit onto a monitor all at once at a reasonable font size. Having a physical book gives you infinite granularity in the ability to "pan" and "zoom" in non-clumsy way that a monitor of fixed size and position cannot emulate. A book is also more amenable to a range of body positions, in that you can lie on a couch, hunch over it at a desk, lean back in a chair, stand up with it, etc. A monitor on a desk is fixed, and this results in a fidgety uncomfortableness.

There is a whole slew of subtle factors that make people subconsciously prefer physical book format. At first glance, electronic format seems to be hugely advantageous, but myriad small limitations add up and cause aggravation from the perspective of the user. The user often cannot make the argument consciously, but he/she knows that deep down a physical book is much nicer.

Of course, this is really just a limitation in the electronic hardware that we have right now. What I'm really pining for is a good set of high resolution, low weight, stereoscopic goggles that will let me have the illusion of a book projected onto my eyes. That would be just about the most wonderful thing ever, as it would totally free my absorption of knowledge from infrastructural constraints.



It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
Panning and zooming (none / 1) (#56)
by mcgrew on Mon Dec 08, 2003 at 03:01:50 PM EST

Fixed fonts aren't evil, just stupid. If you want a fixed font, print it on paper. You will appreciate the computer's ability to pan and zoom when the lenses in your eyes start hardening.

I agree with you; this was just a nit.

"The entire neocon movement is dedicated to revoking mcgrew's posting priviliges. This is why we went to war with Iraq." -LilDebbie
[ Parent ]

I had this same idea... (1.28 / 7) (#16)
by Niha on Sat Dec 06, 2003 at 03:25:00 PM EST

 Talking about the subject with my brother, both of us agreed with the idea expressed by Eco.

I also had a chat with my brother about this. (2.00 / 8) (#19)
by rmg on Sat Dec 06, 2003 at 05:47:20 PM EST

Interestingly enough, he disagreed with Eco, while I was fairly ambivalent.

_____ intellectual tiddlywinks
[ Parent ]

I don't have a brother. (none / 1) (#55)
by mcgrew on Mon Dec 08, 2003 at 02:57:12 PM EST

Plus, if he did, he would probably give even less of a shit than I do.

"The entire neocon movement is dedicated to revoking mcgrew's posting priviliges. This is why we went to war with Iraq." -LilDebbie
[ Parent ]

Hey everyone! You don't even need a brother (none / 1) (#61)
by rmg on Mon Dec 08, 2003 at 06:53:46 PM EST

To get in on this thread!

Have a relation you talked to about this? Do you not have a relation who you talked to about this? IT DOESN'T MATTER! Just drop a reply and keep this thread alive!

Agree, disagree, or don't care either way? Well, now's your chance to say it! Don't be shy! Jump right in!

_____ intellectual tiddlywinks
[ Parent ]

Okay then... (none / 0) (#75)
by dgwatson on Fri Dec 12, 2003 at 09:36:01 AM EST

My sister says you're all a bunch of dumbasses. I didn't even talk to her about it, she just mentioned it in passing.

[ Parent ]
Missing the point (3.00 / 8) (#18)
by pyro9 on Sat Dec 06, 2003 at 04:52:44 PM EST

Eco is not arguing about dead tree vs. ebooks at all. He is mostly arguing the linear text vs hytertext vs. multi-media presentation. Perhaps the confusion is because he DID throw in his opinion that dead tree books have a nicer feel for some things.

He argues that reference books (That is booke where you look in the index, then flip to the page, or search althabetically) are already well on their way out while prose, that is books meant to be read from beginning to end will be with us for a long time to come, be it on paper, LCD or some sort of bound smart paper.

The other point is open collaborative works like a wiki vs single authorship. Here he argues that single authorship isn't going anywhere either.

Like much of Eco's writing, the conclusions aren't all that much of a revelation, but the journey from question to conclusion is well worth the read.


The future isn't what it used to be
Correct (2.75 / 4) (#27)
by cr8dle2grave on Sat Dec 06, 2003 at 08:09:18 PM EST

As you point out, most of the comments here are laboring under a misinterpretation of Eco's lecture. Since you obviously got the point, let me ask you... was I unclear in my exposition?

Like much of Eco's writing, the conclusions aren't all that much of a revelation, but the journey from question to conclusion is well worth the read.

True. Anyone's who's read any of the "experimental" literary hypertexts out there can hardly assume that they will ever replace traditional narrative formats. The interesting aspect of Eco's argument is his position that it is by way of limitations (structural, temporal, and linguistic) that texts are distinguished from systems, and his application of this view to the nature "unlimited" or open ended hypertexts.

---
Unity of mankind means: No escape for anyone anywhere. - Milan Kundera


[ Parent ]
Seemed clear (2.50 / 4) (#31)
by pyro9 on Sun Dec 07, 2003 at 12:12:42 AM EST

It seemed clear enough. I can only guess that a fast skim could miss the point since it's not a conventional argument, but it's hard to help that.

Basing the argument on limitation is an interesting and thought provoking approach. It is interesting preceicely because it runs opposite to the vast majority of discussion about computers, the web, and the future of books, and makes a strong point.

It's an argument that the real power lies as much in restraint as it does in capability. I believe I'll sleep on that and then comment further.


The future isn't what it used to be
[ Parent ]
Didn't Miss the Point (none / 0) (#40)
by jameth on Sun Dec 07, 2003 at 06:19:00 PM EST

It's just that the other point is also interesting, so lots of people went off-topic because it was also an interesting direction to go.

[ Parent ]
Coldfire Trilogy (2.57 / 7) (#20)
by jameth on Sat Dec 06, 2003 at 06:46:51 PM EST

I am suddenly reminded of the Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman. In it, a human colonization group has ended up stranded on a distant planet where magic functions.

(Note: No real spoilers, I only mention parts of the backstory and irrelevant facts)

One of them, who actually understands magic, sacrifices their knowledge to prevent the planet from eradicating them. He does this with one single explosion, and effectively removes all their data, which is only possible to do so permanently because it is stored on computers.

Later, a man is trying to rediscover some of what has been lost. He has a damaged drive of some sort and can never access it. If they had been using hard books, he could have actually made an effort at translation and that information would not have been lost.

In general, it just seems that digital storage is extremely fragile, and that is why I keep hard-copies of everything I give a shit about.

Fire (none / 3) (#36)
by tetsuwan on Sun Dec 07, 2003 at 01:35:03 PM EST

Chinese emperors were good at burning books. The successfully eradicated whole chunks of written history at times.

The strength of digital data lies in the ease it can be copied and spread. These colonists only needed a bunch of durable DVDs to have backup against an EMP-attack.

Njal's Saga: Just like Romeo & Juliet without the romance
[ Parent ]

Not EMP (2.50 / 4) (#39)
by jameth on Sun Dec 07, 2003 at 06:17:30 PM EST

The issue wasn't an EMP thing, it was just straight damage. The point is, a single fragment of a book is quite readable, while a single fragment of a disc is practically useless.

Of course, tape drives avoid this somewhat, as a strip of tape is fairly recoverable, but the issue is that all digital media requires a specific device to access it. Books, by contrast, require only the human eyes.

In the story I referenced, the man had an item with perfectly valid data on it, but could not access it in any way. By contrast, even a fragment of a book can be used, and can potentially be deciphered even if the language is not known.

Obviously, hard-copies redundant for digital copies (or the reverse) are the way to go, so there isn't any one point of failure.

[ Parent ]

Backups (none / 0) (#54)
by mcgrew on Mon Dec 08, 2003 at 02:54:26 PM EST

Carve them all in stone as a backup in case the EMP blast that wipes the computer sets fire to the printed copies.

Of course, an offsite backup is needed in case of an atomic blast.

This is pretty silly.

"The entire neocon movement is dedicated to revoking mcgrew's posting priviliges. This is why we went to war with Iraq." -LilDebbie
[ Parent ]

Mixed Emotions (2.83 / 6) (#23)
by virtualjay222 on Sat Dec 06, 2003 at 07:38:52 PM EST

There are a wealth of advantages to virtual books. In addition to the space concerns and the advantages in research, they allow the possibility to read a line from Macbeth and simultaneously watch it played out a variety of ways, without of course going through hours of video by hand.

Unfortunately, computers are not the ideal place to read such literature (I for one am prone to terrible headaches if I read too much at my computer). Call me a bibliophile, but there's something too about the feel of a good book - the weight of it in your lap, it's crisp pages turning beneath your finger - that's been lost in their digitalization.

For those of us who are less nostalgic about their reading there are developments underway to produce very thin, flexible displays that can offer a mix of both advantages. Until they are perfected, though, books are likely to remain in their current tangible but space-consuming state.


---

I'm not in denial, I'm just selective about the reality I choose to accept.

-Calvin and Hobbes


To clear things up... (2.85 / 7) (#25)
by cr8dle2grave on Sat Dec 06, 2003 at 08:01:35 PM EST

Many of the comments here seem to assume that Eco is arguing in favor ebooks, or digital media generally, over and against traditional physical books. He's clearly not, except in the case of some reference works which benefit greatly from being distributed in a digital format (anyone who's ever had to do lots of work with the OED will immediately recognize this).

In retrospect, I guess the confusion can probably be traced to distinction physical/virtual. Unfortunately, among the technologically initiated crowd here, "virtual" is too easily read as synonymous with "digital." When Eco speaks of "virtual" books, he is referring the structural attributes of traditional linear narrative not the media on which it is distributed.

Maybe I was unclear in my exposition, but is it asking too much that people actually read the linked to lecture? Eco was certainly clear in his use of terminology, even if I wasn't.

---
Unity of mankind means: No escape for anyone anywhere. - Milan Kundera


No, you were very clear the first time. (n/t) (none / 1) (#34)
by ffrinch on Sun Dec 07, 2003 at 01:07:26 AM EST

 

-◊-
"I learned the hard way that rock music ... is a powerful demonic force controlled by Satan." — Jack Chick
[ Parent ]
Heh (2.60 / 10) (#45)
by trhurler on Sun Dec 07, 2003 at 07:56:13 PM EST

I have a friend who's a very big Eco fan. He's been to a couple of conferences where the guy spoke and so on, went to Brazil even. This article is a very succinct, if not intentional, explanation of why I am NOT a huge Eco fan.

Sure, the guy is very smart, and he says very smart things. But, most of what he says is glaringly, painfully obvious to those of us with functioning frontal lobes and a sense of perspective. Slobbering kiddies may eagerly await the death of the novel, and doddering old fools may jealously protect their foot thick copies of the OED while muttering curses upon modern technology and all its bearers, but most of us are neither of those things.

And really, if you aren't one of those things, then what has Eco said here that doesn't sound an awfully lot like a speech from Captain Obvious? Nothing at all. Yes, reference texts will be hyperrlinked, and there will be some ongoing if mostly uninteresting experiments in hypertext fiction and so on, but regular old texts will remain the run of the mill in reading material. Big shock.

I respect Umberto Eco, but I do not regard him as someone from whom I am likely to hear anything I don't already know, unless it is some historical detail or other(about which he DOES know a lot of interesting things.)

--
'God dammit, your posts make me hard.' --LilDebbie

hmm, (none / 0) (#46)
by flinxt on Sun Dec 07, 2003 at 09:01:57 PM EST

considering that the above article made it to the front page... i am not certain your argument is completely certain.

consensus is an important tool in allowing exploration to go further.

thanks.

[ Parent ]

Fair enough... (3.00 / 4) (#47)
by cr8dle2grave on Mon Dec 08, 2003 at 01:00:44 AM EST

Eco has made a career of brilliantly arguing the middle-of-the-road position. In the case of subjects such as the ones covered here, I'll grant you that the result is rather pedestrian, but the argument is very well put--particularly the discussion of texts and systems. There's nothing new here for those already familiar with Eco's semiotics, but I thought it was interesting as a concise introduction to such for those not so acquainted.

So, you've got nothing to learn from Eco save a few historical details? Pray tell, have you ever read any of his specialist works? Eco's approach to semiotics is rather unique and very well developed, even if he does eventually arrive at a position which confirms a lot of common sense notions about language and textual interpretation (a quality often severely lacking in the field).

Then again, I'm definitely something of an Eco fan myself, so maybe I just can't see past my admiration for the man.

---
Unity of mankind means: No escape for anyone anywhere. - Milan Kundera


[ Parent ]
Well (2.75 / 4) (#59)
by trhurler on Mon Dec 08, 2003 at 05:04:09 PM EST

I don't like his theory, actually. Maybe I don't understand it, but in every case where I've ever seen it explained, it has worked out to be an overly complicated explanation of what you would have known anyway had you just sat and stared at the problem for a minute or two, and/or has been inaccurate from the get to.

For instance, this business about hypertext fiction letting you have limited options - it isn't even really true, in principle. One could produce, using an organization that would need a long time to work, a ridiculously huge hypertext work in which you had more options than you could ever conceive of in one lifetime. The proper way to word this is in terms of semantics - the text chunks that make up your "options" are too laden with meaning to give you real freedom, because you will practically always, if not always, be able to come up with a set of semantics for the storyline that do not match any given option. In contrast, there are essentially zero semantics assigned to any given letter, and we make up words as we need them, so you can always express something new at that level. Put that way, it is still blatantly obvious, but it is also a logically correct theoretical analysis, which is a wondrous benefit if you're going to bother with theory:)

--
'God dammit, your posts make me hard.' --LilDebbie

[ Parent ]
I fail to see... (none / 3) (#60)
by cr8dle2grave on Mon Dec 08, 2003 at 06:31:41 PM EST

...any real difference between Eco's argument and your's. Granted, he doesn't explicitly invoke semantics, but his argument is dependent on a common sense understanding of meaning. To wit:

You say:

One could produce, using an organization that would need a long time to work, a ridiculously huge hypertext work in which you had more options than you could ever conceive of in one lifetime.

Eco says:

We are only free to move pre-established textual chunks in a reasonably high number of ways.

You say:

the text chunks that make up your "options" are too laden with meaning to give you real freedom, because you will practically always, if not always, be able to come up with a set of semantics for the storyline that do not match any given option.

Eco says:

a stimulus-text that provides us not with letters, or words, but with pre-established sequences of words, or of pages, does not set us free to invent anything we want.

You say:

there are essentially zero semantics assigned to any given letter, and we make up words as we need them, so you can always express something new at that level.

Eco says:

The machinery that allows one to produce an infinite text with a finite number of elements has existed for millennia, and this is the alphabet. Using an alphabet with a limited number of letters one can produce billions of texts, and this is exactly what has been done from Homer to the present days.

---
Unity of mankind means: No escape for anyone anywhere. - Milan Kundera


[ Parent ]
I suppose I'll put it this way: (none / 1) (#66)
by trhurler on Tue Dec 09, 2003 at 05:05:53 PM EST

Eco's argument seems very loose with words to me. Yes, if you follow him very charitably, you end up with something like what I said. But, if you merely look at the words he set down and don't infer anything he didn't say, you get something that's just ridiculous.

--
'God dammit, your posts make me hard.' --LilDebbie

[ Parent ]
You're right, ... (none / 2) (#48)
by Shubin on Mon Dec 08, 2003 at 02:29:24 AM EST

Eco's thoughts seems obvious at the first glance. But aren't obvious ideas of Dostoevsky, Melvill, Tolstoy, Shaw, Fowles ? Art is newer 'what', but 'how'. Calling Eco's ideas obvious is like describing Leonardo's pictures as close to original.

[ Parent ]
Vegetal memory? (2.16 / 6) (#51)
by Kax on Mon Dec 08, 2003 at 09:11:59 AM EST

Can we get rid of this term right away, please?

Motion seconded (none / 1) (#53)
by mcgrew on Mon Dec 08, 2003 at 02:47:55 PM EST

I hate the use of a fifty dollar word when a twopenny word will do the job better. Language is for comunication. If you intend to obfuscate, I don't really want to hear it.

"The entire neocon movement is dedicated to revoking mcgrew's posting priviliges. This is why we went to war with Iraq." -LilDebbie
[ Parent ]

Then you obviously haven't read any Eco (none / 0) (#74)
by dgwatson on Fri Dec 12, 2003 at 09:04:45 AM EST

If you had, you'd know that his books are always written like this - I've been working on "The Island of the Day Before" for about a year now, and still haven't finished it. It's always really interesting to read, just very difficult in quantity.

[ Parent ]
yea (none / 0) (#62)
by IriseLenoir on Tue Dec 09, 2003 at 04:53:45 AM EST

"Let me speak for the sake of simplicity of vegetal memory in order to designate books." Now I really laughed out loud at this.
"liberty is the mother of order, not its daughter" - Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
[ Parent ]
Oh well. (none / 0) (#63)
by Kax on Tue Dec 09, 2003 at 08:55:01 AM EST

Is that really in the article? I didn't bother to read it...

[ Parent ]
Aa Bb Cc Dd Ee Ff Gg Hh... (none / 3) (#67)
by ShiftyStoner on Wed Dec 10, 2003 at 05:21:41 AM EST

 Books are overrated. It doesn't matter whether you read a book off a monitor, or off of paper. The information is the same. If your book is ruined, you have to buy another one. Off of a computer you can save as many copies as you like. Reading from a computer is better than paper any way you look at it. If you're a writer, you don't need an editor. If your half blind, you can make the text bigger. If your blind you can get a program that will read the writing out loud to you. Etc.

 I'm also going to point out if hemp were legalized there would be no need to murder millions of trees. No need to destroy that which gives us life. No need to destroy the lives of millions of creatures. People wouldn't have to doom their futures. I guess ignorance is bliss until you get cancer or simply can't live off of the air outside.

 If only I could knock some fucking sense into all those ignorant fools. Then kill those that are hopeless. All of our paper could be better quality, and cheaper. Of course without demolishing millions of acres of trees. Peoples homes could be made of concrete. Instead of weak ass drywall, and harmful material. We wouldn't have to worry about mold, termites, our houses blowing down, being shook to the ground, or burning up. Nobody would need to worry about there neighbors music knocking things off the walls. Everyone would have to worry far less about intruders.

 No, of course the government can't acknowledge the hundreds of marvelous benefits humanity can receive from marijuana. Humanity should be taking advantage of this glorious plant. Instead, several of my friends, and millions of others are enslaved in prison. Just for choosing to take advantage of as much of what this plant has to offer as they can. Shame on America. Shame on all those who cause detrimental damage to all living things on this planet. Shame.

For those of you who wish to be enlightened click below...

http://www.cannabis.com/untoldstory/hemp_9.shtml

http://www.mpp.org/adolescents.html

>
( @ )'( @ ) The broad masses of a population are more amenable to the appeal of rhetoric than to any other force. - Adolf Hitler

The Advantages of Books (none / 1) (#68)
by Valdrax on Wed Dec 10, 2003 at 01:05:11 PM EST

<em>Books are overrated. It doesn't matter whether you read a book off a monitor, or off of paper. The information is the same. If your book is ruined, you have to buy another one. Off of a computer you can save as many copies as you like. Reading from a computer is better than paper any way you look at it. If you're a writer, you don't need an editor. If your half blind, you can make the text bigger. If your blind you can get a program that will read the writing out loud to you. Etc.</em>

Actually, I find books to better in some way (at least for fiction and other linearly-read works).  Books don't consume electricity to use nor do they run out of battery power.  Books are easily portable and can be viewed from nearly any position.  Books don't strain your eyes as much most of the time because they are higher resolution that current electronic technology and they have no refresh problem.

By the way, while I'm not really pro-legalization, I do agree that America could benefit greatly from industrial hemp production.  I think its doable if farmers have to have a license which allows the ATF to randomly sample their fields for narcotic hemp, but we're unlikely to ever see it in our lifetimes.

[ Parent ]

True (none / 0) (#69)
by ShiftyStoner on Wed Dec 10, 2003 at 01:41:05 PM EST

 Books do have their qualities. I was thinking about what seems to be societies view on books. Books will make you some kind of a genius, solve all the fucking worlds problems, and are more necessary than food. So I was kind of agitated. Though I don't know how much power is really being saved by reading books once you consider how much energy is being consumed by cutting down the trees, not to mention the pollution. I would think more harm is being done by making books than running computers. There are handheld computers now, or handheld devices with Internet access. You could also read these from nearly any position, and are portable as well. I find that with bigger text there is far less strain on my eyes. I shouldn't have completely tried to throw out the use for books altogether though. I'm sure many people would prefer a book, that's still no excuse for using trees to make them.

>  
( @ )'( @ ) The broad masses of a population are more amenable to the appeal of rhetoric than to any other force. - Adolf Hitler
[ Parent ]

Pollution costs (none / 0) (#72)
by Valdrax on Thu Dec 11, 2003 at 04:25:24 PM EST

Though I don't know how much power is really being saved by reading books once you consider how much energy is being consumed by cutting down the trees, not to mention the pollution.

Ah, but consider how much power is consumed and how much pollution is generated in creating the electronic devices and storage media needed to keep e-books.  It's actually a good bit worse than the pollution generated by the modern paper industry, and the end products themselves are far more dangerous to dispose of than books.  Books also don't become obsolete every few years, though once digitized they don't have to be repurchased to replace any broken down media that they might've been on like old paper books do.

Personally, I'm of the opinion that trees are a renewable resource and that the book industry is probably less environmentall damaging that the computer industry, though e-books themselves require very little pollution to distribute and reproduce.

[ Parent ]

Don't agree (none / 0) (#70)
by gpmap on Wed Dec 10, 2003 at 02:44:32 PM EST

Though Eco is one of my favorite authors, I definitely do not agree with him on this point. It is true that today's e-books are not very convenient to use compared to paper books, but this will change soon with better technology. Today's scissors cut much better than last century's scissors. A book remains a book regardless of the technology used to produce and use it. See also this post of mine at Always On.

This article has been brought to you by (none / 0) (#71)
by noise on Thu Dec 11, 2003 at 12:03:40 PM EST

the number 8 and the letters U and P and is a production of the Ecofriends Enlightenment Workshop

Move along, nothing to see here...

LITERATURA - Litterature (none / 0) (#73)
by chanio on Thu Dec 11, 2003 at 08:14:55 PM EST

I guess that that was the meaning of those two latin words that meant something like letters written over a rock...

LETERA (letter) + DURA (strong)

So, it meant that stories are some sort of close systems that are only possible to be rejected or accepted as a reality. But not changed.

Did you ever try to read a book that you were afraid of being altered in some way from the original version? (say 'Bible' for example)

But it is even a stronger feeling when the book was expected to be specially very interesting to you.

What would we had become if we hadn't believed or read certain books in our early days?


________________
Farenheit Binman:
This worlds culture is throwing away-burning thousands of useful concepts because they don't fit in their commercial frame.
My chance of becoming intelligent!

Memory (none / 0) (#77)
by mrrabbit on Sun Feb 29, 2004 at 05:09:36 AM EST

removing paranoia from the equation leads me to rely on electronic media over paper-based media... why would i use two hands when i can use one (evolution?)...the term exogenetic springs to mind...store all your knowledge in external libraries...freeing your mind for the more worthy pastimes of network quake and surfing dubious sites...

In Defense of Vegetal Memory | 77 comments (68 topical, 9 editorial, 0 hidden)
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