|Issue No. 142
|28 June 2002
Interview: Safe as Houses
Safety: Ten Steps to Safety
History: Staying Alive
Unions: Choose Life
International: Seoul Destroyers
Corporate: Crash Landing
Activists: The Refusenik
Review: Dumb Nation
Poetry: Helping Out The Rich
The Locker Room
Week in Review
Good News from the Pilbara
Go Mark, Go
Back to the Future
I think we are all a bit tired of the new, new thing, of the idea that somehow the next technology is the one that is finally going to make the future arrive. I want to suggest, to the contrary, that the internet is only now starting to appear in its true colours, now that it is some 20 years old. It is not a bridge to the 21st century. It's a bungee jump into the 18th century.
To put it a bit schematically, the 18th century was when a few things came together. One was the printing press. This was really a very cheap and reliable technology by this time. A second thing is a certain degree of freedom from state control. A third was a very weak and leaky copyright regime. A fourth was a network of distribution, the post. Put these things together, and what you got was that magic thing we call a 'public sphere'.
We are all used to the high peaks of literature that poke out through this era. It's when novels were fun. Its when political and social thought really gets cracking. But what we forget is the great mass of popular literature, the diatribes, the libels, the letters -- all the network of things that make a literature great. There can be no literature without the post office.
Well, I think we're back in the 18th century again, only better. This time around, the public sphere isn't just for white men in tights and wigs. Its for everyone, at least potentially. We have the undergrowth, the network of writing that is in my mind more important than the few beached whales of great literature that we remember from the 18th century. It was more than that -- it was an ocean of thought.
The things is, we may lose this neo-18th century public sphere just as surely as we lost the first one. The consolidation of so-called intellectual property law, the narrowing of the cultural forms for use of the internet, the commodification of its spaces. It could get rather bleak. Communication is culture. The design of the vectors along which information flows sets a limit to the kinds of culture and society that can bloom along it.
I think writing is most interesting when it takes into account, at the level of the text, the things that are going on in terms of distribution and archiving, or in other words, at the level of the vector. The 18th century version of enlightenment was both a theory and a practice, a way of thinking and a means of communicating. We're right in the middle of a flowering of just this kind of comprehensive writerly culture. You don't see it reflected all that much in the old print world, but its there, informing it. There's still a reason to write and publish books. I publish a book series, media.culture books. Graham's new book Future Forward is in that series. But like all the books I publish, it is informed by the networks of communication that the internet makes possible.
People wonder what will happen to the book in the internet age. I have two answers. One, the book will always be with us. It's a really convenient vector. On the other hand, the book really disappeared completely about 10 years ago now. Now there are no books at all. Authors, editors and publishers all work digitally, with computers. The book is now a computer print out to read on the bus or the bog, or to give as a present to someone you want to impress.
The future health of the book depends on the health of this neo-18th century style public sphere, where ideas can move freely and cheaply. Books are already in a large part the beached whales tossed up by this very energetic ocean, the internet. So if you want to save the whales, preserve the seas. Keep information as free as possible, both in terms of access to archives, the liberty to use them, and the liberty to become your own favourite author, editor and publisher.
Speech to the Sydney Writers' Festival by Pluto Press Culture Series Editor, McKenzie Wark
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