About Books and Electronic Culture
Jno Cook

originally written for Uturn on-line Magazine

I was sitting on my back porch amid 800 books which had just been declared surplus from my library: technical books, outdated books, psych books I never learned anything from, classics I will never get to. They are destined to go to used book stores and giveaway programs. I just can't throw them out.

I can't throw them out because I still believe books are made to exist forever; they are valuable because some authors have gone to the trouble of selecting what was important and organizing it into compact, hand-holdable volumes. In fact, I still retain a perspective about books which predates the age of printing, before books became truly ubiquitous and became a disposable commodity. I simply can't throw books away.

In these books, I might find some small or large fact of importance, something which reflects on life, and will be important in explaining the human condition. Right now, I am puzzling about concepts surrounding the new media: electronic graphics and communications, web pages, the Internet.

Paging a book by Harold Bloom I'd read, I recall that he said something to the effect that "an awareness of the infrastructure of a culture is death to that culture." This paraphrase strikes me as relevant to what I am musing about, and I now interpret it in relationship to the electronic media as, "the awareness of the infrastructure of a media is death to that media," using "media" as a shorthand for "the electronic culture," and translating "infrastructure" to any awareness of radical underpinnings. Does this interpretation hold as an analogy? I feel it does and it doesn't. It probably doesn't matter -- perhaps I should toss the book.

In art-making, this analogy certainly does not hold: art is always about the process of presentation; it always harkens back to earlier work; and it always paints in terms of root causes. As a working artist, I cannot remove myself from the proposition that art is a radical critique. We would have to say that art-making -- painting, sculpture, etc. -- is always dying because almost all of it deals with aspects of an awareness of the underlying structure.

And books? Although I am less familiar with book culture, I'm acquainted with the works of contemporary book artists. It seems that their critiques of books as the awareness of the "infrastructure" almost entirely revolve around the physical aspects of books rather than their content. It is mainly in literature that there is a considerable body of works that piecemeal disassembles the sources of content, from Tristram Shandy to Joyce' Ulysses .

But neither the awareness of form nor of content has put the slightest dint into the publishing industry, which has not noticed its demise. Today, more books are being published annually than ever before. Nor have previous predictions of the demise of books through displacement by another media (like the dire warnings which accompanied commentaries on the influence of television, decades ago) ever taken hold.

Art-making certainly has not died from an overdose of self-awareness. In fact, it might be held that the radical renewal and continuous inquiry into its sources is the tonic which keeps it alive. With respect to the electronic media, we are only slowly (in my humble opinion) resolving those attitudes. Only after some twenty years are critics becoming aware that we have a new media here, with roots which need to be explored, with basic concepts which are not an extension of magazine publication or books.

The ultimate production of the radical critiques will come from the workers in this media, not just from the critics. With the immense expansion of web sites and internet traffic, and the incursion of visual artists into this domain, we can offer both sorts of critiques in this issue of U-Turn .

I direct your attention to two items which have come across my view: One is a bare-bones analysis of an IRC-like chat location, "msgs: Messages " by Benjy Feen. The other is a spoof, "MRML, Mind Reading Markup Language " by Michael O'Neal-Petterson and Brandon J. Rickman, directed at the commercial greediness of the browser industry.

Benjy Feen, a systems administrator in Colorado, looked at a small group of students who stay in almost constant contact via the internet, even though they are separated by thousands of miles. The home location is a computer in Urbana, Illinois, and the means of contact is a messaging system. Feen sees a new social structure defined here, based on the exchange of comments by a group of people who, for the most part, have never met each other. Only those who know what it is like to leave a terminal window open on a Unix X-Windows screen (while progressing with other things, like homework or web browsing) might have any concept of what it is like to remain in contact in this way. Without the internet this wouldn't happen. At the same time, it is the internet that shapes the dialogue and comments, and filters each individuals concepts of what they are like. I checked in recently: messages were at a count of some 60,000, and building at a rate of hundreds per day.

The range of content has not changed much since Feen's analysis. There are still many comments on the media itself, but I have also seen a series of political debates rage, as well as endless comments on bands, cars, lunch, and, of course, "The X-Files". Also, there are a lot of spurious comments generated, equivalent to muttering under your breath, but now broadcast to a larger group of people (some of whom may at the moment be tuned-in to your undirected grumbling). While there are not always responses to these grumblings, there is often a lot of follow-up and support for particular personal feelings and problems.

The second item, "MRML, Mind Reading Markup Language," by Michael O'Neal-Petterson and Brandon J. Rickman, is clearly directed at Netscape, and in general at browser industry attitudes. It stands as another reaffirmation of the absolute anarchy of the internet, which is the very thing that first attracted me to it. Having seen quite a few diatribes and rantings about Web pages regarding their form and format, I was absolutely delighted to run into this piece because it just dismisses the issues as intellectually untenable and as not worthy of serious consideration. These issues, which have raged across the Usenet and the Internet, deal by and large with concepts of consensus, but reduce at the bare-bones level to matters as mundane as the appropriateness of the HTML standards. It is this concern with HTML standards to which O'Neal and Rickman first direct our attention, with a ludicrous set of non-existent HTML tags. But then you begin to notice their ironic reflection on the past politics of Netscape: the wish for total control -- "LOL" (laughing out loud) as the folks at {msgs} would express it in their shorthand. You might even look at the source code for this document, for O'Neal and Rickman have accurately included some of the new tags in appropriate places.