Since my arrival at the symposium on the future of
the book I have been expecting somebody to quote "Ceci tuera cela."
Both Duguid and Nunberg have obliged me. The quotation is not irrelevant
to our topic.
As you no doubt remember, in Hugo's Hunchback of
Notre Dame, Frollo, comparing a book with his old cathedral, says: "Ceci
tuera cela" (The book will kill the cathedral, the alphabet will kill
images). McLuhan, comparing a Manhattan discotheque to the Gutenberg Galaxy,
said "Ceci tuera cela." One of the main concerns of this symposium
has certainly been that ceci (the computer) tuera cela (the
We know enough about cela (the book), but it
is uncertain what is meant by ceci (computer). An instrument by which
a lot of communication will be provided more and more by icons? An instrument
on which you can write and read without needing a paperlike support? A medium
through which it will be possible to have unheardof hypertextual experiences?
None of these definitions is aufficient to characterize
the computer as such. First, visual communication is more overwhelming in
TV, cinema, and advertising than in computers, which are also, and eminently,
alphabetic tools. Second, as Nunberg has suggested, the computer "creates
new modes of production and diffusion of printed documents." And third,
as Simone has reminded us, some sort of hypertextual experience (at least
in the sense of text that doesn't have to be read in a linear way and as
a finished message) existed in other historical periods, and Joyce (the
living one) is here to prove that Joyce (the dead and everlasting one) gave
us with Finnegans Wake a good example of hypertextual experience.
The idea that something will kill something else is
a very ancient one, and came certainly before Hugo and before the late medieval
fears of Frollo. According to Plato (in the Phaedrus) Theut, or Hermes,
the alleged inventor of writing, presents his invention to the pharaoh Thamus,
praising his new technique that will allow human beings to remember what
they would otherwise forget. But the pharaoh is not so satisfied. My skillful
Theut, he says, memory is a great gift that ought
to be kept alive by training it continuously. With
your invention people will not be obliged any longer to train memory. They
will remember things not because of an internal effort, but by mere virtue
of an external device.
We can understand the pharaoh's worry. Writing, as
any other new technological device, would have made torpid the human power
that it replaced and reinforced just as cars made us less able to
walk. Writing was dangerous because it decreased the powers of mind by offering
human beings a petrified soul, a caricature of mind, a vegetal memory.
Plato's text is ironical, naturally. Plato was writing
down his argument against writing. But he was pretending that his discourse
was related by Socrates, who did not write (it seems academically obvious
that he perished because he did not publish). Therefore Plato was expressing
a fear that still survived in his day. Thinking is an internal affair; the
real thinker would not allow books to think instead of him.
Nowadays, nobody shares these fears, for two very
simple reasons. First of all, we know that books are not ways of making
somebody else think in our place; on the contrary they are machines that
provoke further thoughts. Only after the invention of writing was it possible
to write such a masterpiece on spontaneous memory as Proust's Recherche
du temps perdu. Second, if once upon a time people needed to train their
memory in order to remember things, after the invention of writing they
had also to train their memory in order to remember books. Books challenge
and improve memory; they do not narcotize it.
One is entitled to speculate about that old debate
every time one meets a new communication tool which pretends or seems to
substitute for books. In the course of this symposium, under the rubric
of "the future of the book," the following different items have
been discussed, and not all of them were concerned with books.
1. Images versus alphabetic culture
Our contemporary culture is not specifically image
oriented. Take for instance Greek or medieval culture: at those times literacy
was reserved to a restricted elite and most people were educated, informed,
persuaded (religiously, politically, ethically) though images. Even USA
Today, cited by Bolter, represents a balanced mixture of icons and
ters, if we compare it with a Biblia Pauperum.
We can complain that a lot of people spend their day watching TV and
never read a book or a newspaper, and this is certainly a social and educational
problem, but frequently we forget that the same people, a few centuries
ago, were watching at most a few standard images and were totally illiterate.
We are frequently misled by a "mass media criticism
of mass media" which is superficial and regularly belated. Mass media
are still repeating that our historical period is and will be more and more
dominated by images. That was the first McLuhan fallacy, and mass media
people have read McLuhan too late. The present and the forthcoming young
generation is and will be a computeroriented generation. The main feature
of a computer screen is that it hosts and displays more alphabetic letters
than images. The new generation will be alphabetic and not image oriented.
We are coming back to the Gutenberg Galaxy again, and I am sure that if
McLuhan had survived until the Apple rush to the Silicon Valley, he would
have acknowledged this portentous event.
Moreover, the new generation is trained to read at
an incredible speed. An oldfashioned university professor is today
incapable of reading a computer screen at the same speed as a teenager.
These same teenagers, if by chance they want to program their own home computer,
must know, or learn, logical procedures and algorithms, and must type words
and numbers on a keyboard, at a great speed.
In the course of the eighties some worried and worrying
reports have been published in the United States on the decline of literacy.
One of the reasons for the last Wall Street crash (which sealed the end
of the Reagan era) was, according to many observers, not only the exaggerated
confidence in computers but also the fact that none of the yuppies who were
controlling the stock market knew enough about the 1929 crisis. They were
unable to deal with a crisis because of their lack of historical information.
If they had read some books about Black Thursday they would have been able
to make better decisions and avoid many wellknown pitfalls.
But I wonder if books would have been the only reliable
vehicle for acquiring information. Years ago the only way to learn a foreign
language (outside of traveling abroad) was to study a language from a book.
Now our children frequently learn other languages by listening to records,
by watching movies in the original edition, or by deciphering the instructions
printed on a beverage can. The same happens with
geographical information. In my childhood I got the
best of my information about exotic countries not from textbooks but by
reading adventure novels (Jules Verne, for instance, or Emilio Salgari or
Karl May). My kids very early knew more than I on the same subject from
watching TV and movies.
The illiteracy of Wall Street yuppies was not only
due to an insufficient exposure to books but also to a form of visual illiteracy.
Books about the 1929 crisis exist and are still regularly published (the
yuppies must be blamed for not having been bookstore goers), while television
and the cinema are practically unconcerned with any rigorous revisitation
of historical events. One could learn very well the story of the Roman Empire
through movies, provided that movies were historically correct. The fault
of Hollywood is not to have opposed its movies to the books of Tacitus or
of Gibbon, but rather to have imposed a pulpand romancelike version of both
Tacitus and Gibbon. The problem with the yuppies is not only that they watch
TV instead of reading books; it is that Public Broadcasting is the only
place where somebody knows who Gibbon was.
Today the concept of literacy comprises many media.
An enlightened policy of literacy must take into account the possibilities
of all of these media. Educational concern must be extended to the whole
of media. Responsibilities and tasks must be carefully balanced. If for
learning languages, tapes are better than books, take care of cassettes.
If a presentation of Chopin with commentary on compact disks helps people
to understand Chopin, don't worry if people do not buy five volumes of the
history of music. Even if it were true that today visual communication overwhelms
written communication the problem is not to oppose written to visual communication.
The problem is how to improve both. In the Middle Ages visual communication
was, for the masses, more important than writing. But Chartres cathedral
was not culturally inferior to the Imago Mundi of Honorius of Autun.
Cathedrals were the TV of those times, and the difference from our TV was
that the directors of the medieval TV read good books, had a lot of imagination,
and worked for the public benefit (or, at least, for what they believed
to be the public benefit).
2. Books versus other supports
There is a confusion about two distinct questions:
(a) will computers made books obsolete? and (b) will computers make written
and printed material obsolete?
Let us suppose that computers will make books disappear
(I do not think this will happen and I shall elaborate later on this point,
but let us suppose so for the sake of the argument). Still, this would not
entail the disappearance of printed material. We have seen that it was wishful
thinking to hope that computers, and particularly word processors, would
have helped to save trees. Computers encourage the production of printed
material. We can imagine a culture in which there will be no books, and
yet where people go around with tons and tons of unbound sheets of paper.
This will be quite unwieldy, and will pose a new problem for libraries.
Debray has observed that the fact that Hebrew civilization
was a civilization based upon a book is not independent of the fact that
it was a nomadic civilization. I think that this remark is very important.
Egyptians could carve their records on stone obelisks, Moses could not.
If you want to cross the Red Sea, a book is a more practical instrument
for recording wisdom. By the way, another nomadic civilization, the Arabic
one, was based upon a book, and privileged writing upon images.
But books also have an advantage with respect to computers.
Even if printed on acid paper, which lasts only seventy years or so, they
are more durable than magnetic supports. Moreover, they do not suffer power
shortages and blackouts, and are more resistant to shocks. As Bolter remarked,
"it is unwise to try to predict technological change more than few
years in advance," but it is certain that, up to now at least, books
still represent the most economical, flexible, washandwear way to transport
information at a very low cost.
Electronic communication travels ahead of you, books
travel with you and at your speed, but if you are shipwrecked on a desert
island, a book can be useful, while a computer cannot as Landow remarks,
electronic texts need a reading station and a decoding device. Books are
still the best companions for a shipwreck, or for the Day After.
I am pretty sure that new technologies will render
obsolete many kinds of books, like encyclopedias and manuals. Take for example
the Encyclomedia project developed by Horizons Unlimited. When finished
it will probably contain more information than the Encyclopedia
Britannica (or Treccani or Larousse), with
the advantage that it permits crossreferences and nonlinear retrieval
of information. The whole of the compact disks, plus the computer, will
occupy onefifth of the space occupied by an encyclopedia. The encyclopedia
cannot be transported as the CDROM can, and cannot be easily updated;
it does not have the practical advantages of a normal book, therefore it
can be replaced by a CDROM, just a phone book can. The shelves today
occupied, at my home as well as in public libraries, by meters and meters
of encyclopedia volumes could be eliminated in the next age, and there will
be no reason to lament their disappearance. For the same reason today I
no longer need a heavy portrait painted by an indifferent artist, for I
can send my sweetheart a glossy and faithful photograph. Such a change in
the social functions of painting has not made painting obsolete, not even
the realistic paintings of Annigoni, which do not furfill the function of
portraying a person, but of celebrating an important person, so that the
commissioning, the purchasing, and the exhibition of such portraits acquire
Books will remain indispensable not only for literature,
but for any circumstance in which one needs to read carefully, not only
to receive information but also to speculate and to reflect about it.
To read a computer screen is not the same as to read
a book. Think of the process of learning how to use a piece of software.
Usually the system is able to display on the screen all the instructions
you need. But the users who want to learn the program generally either print
the instructions and read them as if they were in book form, or they buy
a printed manual (let me skip over the fact that currently all the manuals
that come with a computer, online or offline, are obviously written
by irresponsible and tautological idiots, while commercial handbooks are
written by intelligent people). It is possible to conceive of a visual program
that explains very well how to print and bind a book, but in order to get
instructions on how to write such a computer program, we need a printed
After having spent no more than twelve hours at a
computer console, my eyes are like two tennis balls, and I feel the need
to sit comfortably down in an armchair and read a newspaper, or maybe a
good poem. It seems to me that computers are/diffusing a new form of literacy
but are incapable of satisfying all the intellectual needs they are stimulating.
In my periods of optimism I dream of a computer generation which, compelled
to read a computer screen, gets acquainted
with reading from a screen, but at a certain moment
feels unsatisfied and looks for a different, more relaxed, and differentlycommitting
form of reading.
3. Publishing versus communicating
People desire to communicate with one another. In
ancient communities they did it orally; in a more complex society they tried
to do it by printing. Most of the books which are displayed in a bookstore
should be defined as products of vanity presses, even if they are published
by an university press. As Landow suggests we are entering a new samizdat
era. People can communicate directly without the intermediation of publishing
houses. A great many people do not want to publish; they simply want to
communicate with each other. The fact that in the future they will do it
by Email or over the Internet will be a great boon for books and for
the culture and the market of the book. Look at a bookstore. There are too
many books. I receive too many books every week. If the computer network
succeeds in reducing the quantity of published books, this would be a paramount
One of the most common objections to the pseudoliteracy
of computers is that young people get more and more accustomed to speak
through cryptic short formulas: dir, help, diskcopy. error 67, and
so on. Is that still literacy? I am a rarebook collector, and I feel
delighted when I read the seventeenthcentury titles that took one page
and sometimes more. They look like the titles of Lina Wertmuller's movies.
The introductions were several pages long. They started with elaborate courtesy
formulas praising the ideal addressee, usually an emperor or a pope, and
lasted for pages and pages explaining in a very baroque style the purposes
and the virtues of the text to follow. If baroque writers read our contemporary
scholarly books they would be horrified. Introductions are onepage
long, briefly outline the subject matter of the book, thank some national
or international endowment for a generous grant, shortly explain that the
book has been made possible by the love and understanding of a wife or husband
and of some children, and credit a secretary for having patiently typed
the manuscript. We understand perfectly the whole of human and academic
ordeals revealed by those few lines, the hundreds of nights spent underlining
photocopies, the innumerable frozen hamburgers eaten in a hurry...
But I imagine that in the near future we will have
three lines saying "W/c, Smith, Rockefeller," which we will decode
as "I thank my wife and my children; this book was patiently revised
by Professor Smith, and was made possible by the Rockefeller Foundation."
That would be as eloquent as a baroque introduction. It is a problem of
rhetoric and of acquaintance with a given rhetoric. I think that in the
coming years passionate love messages will be sent in the form of a short
instruction in BASIC language, under the form "if... then," so
to obtain, as an input, messages like "I love you, therefore I cannot
live with you." (Besides, the best of English mannerist literature
was listed, if memory serves, in some programming language as 2B OR/NOT
There is a curious idea according to which the more
you say in verbal language, the more profound and perceptive you are. Mallarme
told us that it is sufficient to spell out une fleur to evoke a universe
of scents, shapes, and thoughts. It is frequently the case in poetry that
fewer words say more things. Three lines of Pascal say more than three hundred
pages of a long and tedious treatise on morals and metaphysics. The quest
for a new and surviving literacy ought not to be the quest for a preinformatic
quantity. The enemies of literacy are hiding elsewhere.
4. Three kinds of hypertext
It seems to me that at this time we are faced with
three different conceptions of hypertext. Technically speaking, a hypertext
document is more or less what Landow has explained to us. The problem is,
what does a hypertext document stand for? Here we must make a careful distinction,
first, between systems and texts. A system (for instance, a linguistic system)
is the whole of the possibilities displayed by a given natural language.
In this framework it holds the principle of unlimited semiosis, as defined
by Peirce. Every linguistic item can be interpreted in terms of ~t~uistic
or other semiotic items a word by a definition, an event by an example,
a natural kind by an image, and so on and so forth. The syst'¢~m is
perhaps finite but unlimited. You go in a spirallike movement ad
)4finitum. In this sense certainly all the conceivable books are comprised
by and within a good dictionary. If you are able to use Webster's Third
you can write both Paradise Lost and Ulysses. Certainly,
if conceived in such a way, hypertext can transform every reader into an
author. Give the same hypertext system to
Shakespeare and to Dan Quayle, and they have the same
odds of producing Romeo and Juliet.
It may prove rather diff~cult to produce systemlike
hypertexts. However, if you take the Horizons Unlimited Encyclomedia, certainly
the best of seventeenthcentury interpretations are virtually comprised
within it. It depends on your ability to work through its preexisting links.
Given the hypertextual system it is really up to you to become Gibbon or
Walt Disney. As a matter of fact, even before the invention of hypertext,
with a good dictionary a writer could design every possible book or story
or poem or novel.
But a text is not a linguistic or an encyclopedic
system. A given text reduces the infinite or indefinite possibilities of
a system to make up a closed universe. Finnegans Wake is certainly
open to many interpretations, but it is sure that it will never provide
you with the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, or the complete bibliography
of Woody Allen. This seems trivial, but the radical mistake of irresponsible
deconstructionists or of critics like Stanley Fish was to believe that you
can do everything you want with a text. This is blatantly false. Busa's
hypertext on the Aquinas corpus is a marvelous instrument, but you cannot
use it to find out a satisfactory definition of electricity. With a system
like hypertext based upon Webster's Third and the Encyclopedia
Britannica you can; with a hypertext bound to the universe of Aquinas,
you cannot. A textual hypertext is finite and limited, even though open
to innumerable and original inquiries.
Then there is the third possibility, the one outlined
by Michael Joyce. We may conceive of hypertexts which are unlimited and
infinite. Every user can add something, and you can implement a sort of
jazzlike unending story. At this point the classical notion of authorship
certainly disappears, and we have a new way to implement free creativity.
As the author of The Open Work I can only hail such a possibility.
However there is a difference between implementing the activity of producing
texts and the existence of produced texts. We shall have a new culture in
which there will be a difference between producing infinitely many texts
and interpreting precisely a finite number of texts. That is what happens
in our present culture, in which we evaluate differently a recorded performance
of Beethoven's Fifth and a new instance of a New Orleans jam session.
We are marching toward a more liberated society, in
creativity will coexist with textual interpretation.
I like this. The problem is in saying that we have replaced an old thing
with another one; we have both, thank God. TV zapping is an activity that
has nothing to do with reading a movie. Italian TV watchers appreciate Blob
as a masterpiece in recorded zapping, which invites everybody to freely
use TV, but this has nothing to do with the possibility of everyone reading
a Hitchcock or a Fellini movie as an independent work of art in itself.
5. Change versus merging
Debray has reminded us that the invention of the photograph
has set painters free from the duty of imitation. I cannot but agree. Without
the invention of Daguerre, Impressionism could not have been possible. But
the idea that a new technology abolishes a previous role is much too simplistic.
After the invention of Daguerre painters no longer felt obliged to serve
as mere craftsmen charged with reproducing reality as we believe we see
it. But this does not mean that Daguerre's invention only encouraged abstract
painting. There is a whole tradition in modern painting that could not exist
without the photographic model: I am not thinking only of hyperrealism,
but also (let me say) of Hopper. Reality is seen by the painter's eye through
the photographic eye.
Certainly the advent of cinema or of comic strips
has freed literature from certain narrative tasks it traditionally had to
perform. But if there is something like postmodern literature, it exists
because it has been largely influenced by comic strips or cinema. This means
that in the history of culture it has never happened that something has
simply killed something else. Something has profoundly changed something
It seems to me that the real opposition is not between
computers and books, or between electronic writing and printed or manual
writing. I have mentioned the first McLuhan fallacy, according to which
the Visual Galaxy has replaced the Gutenberg Galaxy. The second McLuhan
fallacy is exemplified by the statement that we are living in a new electronic
global village. We are certainly living in a new electronic community, which
is global enough, but it is not a village, if by that one means a human
settlement where people are directly interacting with each other. The real
problem of an electronic community is solitude. The new citizen of this
new community is free to invent new texts, to annul the traditional notion
of authorship, to delete the tradi-
tional divisions between author and reader, to transubstantiate
into bones and flesh the pallid ideals of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida.
(At least this is what I have heard said by enthusiasts of the technology.
You will have to ask Derrida if the design of hypertexts really abolishes
the ghost of a Transcendental Meaning I am not my brother's keeper
and as far as Barthes is concerned, that was in another country and
besides, the fellow is dead.) But we know that the reading of certain texts
(let us say, Diderot's Encyclope'die) produced a change in the European
state of affairs. What will happen with the Internet and the World Wide
I am optimistic. During the Gulf War, George Lakoff
understood that his ideas on that war could not be published before the
end of the conflict. Thus he relied on the Internet to spell out his alarm
in time. Politically and militarily his initiative was completely useless,
but that does not matter. He succeeded in reaching a community of persons
all over the world who felt the same way that he did.
Can computers implement not a network of onetoone
contacts between solitary souls, but a real community of interacting subjects?
Think of what happened in 1968. By using traditional communication systems
such as press, radio, and typewritten messages, an entire generation was
involved, from America to France, from Germany to Italy, in a common struggle.
I am not trying to evaluate politically or ethically what happened, I am
simply remarking that it happened. Several years later, a new student revolutionary
wave emerged in Italy, one not based upon Marxist tenets as the previous
one had been. Its main feature was that it took place eminently through
fax, between university and university. A new technology was implemented,
but the results were rather poor. The uprising was tamed, by itself, in
the course of two months. A new communications technology could not give
a soul to a movement which was born only for reasons of fashion.
Recently in Italy the government tried to impose a
new law that offended the sentiments of the Italian people. The principal
reaction was mediated by fax, and in the face so many faxes the government
felt obliged to change that law. This is a good example of the revolutionary
power of new communications technologies. But between the faxes an: the
abolition of the law, something more happened. At that time I was traveling
abroad and I only saw a photograph in a foreign newspaper. It portrayed
a group of young people, all physically together, rallying in front of the
parliament and displaying provocative posters. I do
not know if faxes alone would have been aufficient.
Certainly the circulation of faxes produced a new kind of interpersonal
contact, and through faxes people understood that it was time to meet again
At the origin of that story there was a mere icon,
the smile of Berlusconi that visually persuaded so many Italians to vote
for him. After that all the opponents felt frustrated and isolated. The
Media Man had won. Then, in the face of an unbearable provocation, there
was a new technology that gave people the sense of their discontent as well
as of their force. Then came the moment when many of them got out of their
faxing solitude and met together again. And won.
It is rather difficult to make a theory out of a single
episode, but let me use this example as an allegory: when an integrated
multimedia sequence of events succeeds in bringing people back to a nonvirtual
reality, something new can happen.
I do not have a rule for occurrences of the same frame.
I realize that I am proposing the Cassiodorus way, and that my allegory
looks like a Rube Goldberg construction, as James O'Donnell puts it. A Rube
Goldberg model seems to me the only metaphysical template for our electronic