Books and not-Books

I just got a new e-book reader.  I love it but it provides an opportunity to think about what the digital revolution implies for the information format that has served for hundreds of years.  I am by no means predicting the end of the book; books in paper or electronic form will always survive and be part of humankind’s legacy. Yet the transformation of them into electronic bits and bytes offers a new way of thinking about storing and transmitting information.  One can argue that this is also true for audio, video and photographs as well, but I only want to talk about the book and the educational process.  Academia is a strange place to say the least, but it and the book as repository of knowledge grew up in the same place: the monastery.  They are intimately intertwined, share fundamentals and are both threatened by this digital revolution.  For example tenure is based upon how much content published in peer journals or at reputable publishing houses a person may have done. Some of this content is provided for free at journals and such in exchange for publishing services provided by the publisher.

The contemporary institutions of both that is, the publishing house and the university, treat the digital revolution with suspicion so they have embraced it tentatively and gingerly.  It threatens the way they have done business and endangers the control over the fatted cows that provides them with a living.  To get back to tenure digital publication and open source availability challenges the cozy relationship between the two.  Both institutions have been struggling to decide what to do about it. How will digital publications weigh in tenure decisions?  How does the publishing industry respond to the less fettered distribution of information in the digital world? Yet there is an even more fundamental question.  How does each institution respond to things that are not-books.  I have intentionally coined this as a new word to indicate that this is not just the absence of book form, but the presence of  different forms. The most powerful thing someone ever said to me about computers is that to the computer audio, video, text etc. are all just data. It can handle any or all of them and it treats them all the same. As such we can now create things that are multimedia compilations of them in many different forms. These new forms, the not-book, change all our conceptions of what information is and how we transmit it. For example take time.  Books are “frozen” forms and part of the time in which they are created. They change slowly with new editions if they change at all. A not-book even one with only text can be constantly updated and changed.  Putting information on a web site for example means that it has to be maintained, possibly updated and threatens its preservation if the institutions that so carefully preserve the written word do not take on this task. While wars and natural disasters surely threaten the existence of books, apathy and overwhelming quantity surely threaten the existence of not-books.

This is only one of the differences between books and not-books and the critical evaluation of what this change in formats means for civilization I will leave for scholars to explore or administrators to ponder. The cultural critique of digital media is closer to the prenatal stage than it is to its infancy but there are growing numbers of scholars attacking the problem. I would just like to ask people for a moment to consider what will happen if one substitutes “not-books” for “books” in whatever aspect of academia is your bailiwick.  For the scholar it may be the advent of digital scholarship in your discipline or digital forms of information presentation.  For the department chair it may be how will will judge the merit of scholarship and scholars in this new format. For the teacher it may be what does this change mean for my pedagogy, syllabus and assignments? For the administrator it may range from the design of classrooms to the allocation of personnel and space. What new capabilities does the digital revolution offer for you, what new restrictions, what changes in the way you do your business does it mandate, make possible, or allow? Make no mistake the digital revolution has already changed things and will continue to shake up your life. The choice you have is to get left behind, get out of the way, be carried along or to get out in front.  I recommend the latter.

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