in english | How to proceed into the unpredictable ?

intervention à Futur-en-Seine (juin 2011) : "Comment lirons-nous demain ?"

Merci à l’université de Berkeley pour l’invitation au colloque de San Francisco, 25 & 26 octobre, Reading & thinking in digital age, où j’interviendrai en compagnie de Bernard Stiegler.

Mon intervention aura pour titre : Already beyond the e-book age ?, et en voici le pitch :

Each of the previous and rare transformations in reading and writing has revealed itself unpredictable but global and irreversible. In the brief and chaotic story of the current ongoing transition, we’re confronted with stories and fictions that are born from digital perceptions and experiences of the world, and we have to fulfill the old task of literature in the very place where these practices are designed. Far beyond the digital book, this disruption affects both the author’s status, and the publishing and archiving forms and temporalities – and in very different ways in the USA and in France.

Bien sûr, le contexte a changé en 2 ans, mais je tiens à rendre accessible à celles et ceux avec qui la discussion va s’engager, ce texte de juin 2011. La traductrice a souhaité rester anonyme, un grand merci évidemment. Lire la version française originale de 2011 : Comment lirons-nous demain.


François Bon | How to proceed to unpredictable ? (2011)

We are living directly through one of the rare transformations in writing. What we know from previous experience, is that these transitions are complex, but that they are irreversible and global. What the Internet changes is not the relationship to the book, it’s our relationship to the world. What are the consequences for our stories, our fables ? How does one invent them ? Transmit them ?


1/ 6 | context of the mutation

We are living directly through a considerable mutation in writing : not only limited to reading, digital technology affects the entirety of our use of language, in its relationship to others, in its relationship to the world, in the relationship that we maintain within ourselves, oneself to oneself, with writing and reading. Digital technology also likely affects a part of language itself, by adding on its codes – the code as language.

First axiom : we are lucky enough to experience this mutation in the pre-sent, but its most immediate future is unpredictable. Every technical micro-evolution shakes the possibilities of reading – and never in the way that we had imagined. And this has already been going on for at least 10 years.

Every attempt at predicting the immediate future (the CD-Rom abandoned for the ADSL, the uses of the iPhone, electronic ink) has been dis-avowed by the arrival of unpredictable mediums – and it keeps going.

Second axiom : we are charged with ensuring the continuity and trans-mission of civilization’s values, for which the book was primarily respon-sible, and in a context that has become brutal and erratic ; structured on economic struggles at a global scale, and not on the aforementioned values.

Is there nothing we can possibly plan for ? At our disposal, do we merely have an awareness of the present, and the examination of materials, customary use ? The first task is to step backward. In the long period of sta-bility – even a constantly evolving one – which the book symbolized, this look toward the past was relegated to the background, becoming a part of what we falsely named, “the history of the book.”

A double movement establishes us as a community through language. On the one hand, state what most closely surrounds us, the world, present tensions, on the other hand, there is a distance created between oneself and the immediate statement ; where language constitutes an interval in thought, reflection.

First remark : one does not even need writing nor the book for it. Written languages constitute, at best, a third of all languages. Very complex constructions in mythology, legends, social and cultural relationships, were formed and transmitted without using writing. Let us not be afraid today of what puts language, the story, in movement – the flow, the burst, the ephemeral.

Second remark : in the long history of writing, what surprises is the extremely limited number of these transformations, if one were to compare to the history of social, urban and esthetic transformations.

Firstly, the three-dimensional object whose long history spans from 3200 BC to 300 AD : the clay tablet. A complex object that hosts sacred writings as well as private correspondences, war reports, and accounting documents ; that divides its methods for archiving (there are uncooked tablets that one can reuse), that includes means for verifying authenticity (a thin envelop covers the principal text with the same text recopied), and whose evolution (in the beginning lines were written in circles around the four sides of the object) in turn influences the evolution of language, the passage toward syllabic writing. The transformation of the tablet to the papyrus roll, brings the two together, coinciding over several centuries.

Next, the transformation of the roll to codex, faster, but nevertheless lasting roughly a century and a half. Next the transformation – and not that of Gutenberg’s – which produced a reduced number of bibles (about 160) : a heavy, fixed object definitively linked to the cathedral which harbors it. The modern printer is invented in Venice, at Aldo Manuzio’s, with a technique that attaches type settings to rods from Korea. In Ven-ice, where manuscript copying is a mass industry, Manuzio strives to en-sure printed books be distinguishable from hand-copied books. Remember that one of our most modern print type settings, the Garamond, was copied from the manuscript handwriting of Ange Vernèce, the calligra-pher for King François 1st.

Finally, an ultimate, major transformation right near us : the irruption of the press and the serialized story, le feuilleton, the industrialization of the printer.

Third axiom : in each case, what characterizes these transformations, is that they are all encompassing. In every case, they influence private and epistolary uses, and redefine literary form. Forms that seem to us to have always been there ; Herodotus’ “The Inquiries,” Homer’s Odyssey, were born from the appearance of a new recording medium. Rabelais invents the farces of “Pantagruel” right at the printer where he and his friends edit scholarly books (for Rabelais, annotated translations of the Greek doctors, Hippocrates and Galen). In the XIXth century, Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black” entitled, “morals”, and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary “provincial morals,” not novel.

In 1845, in a magnificent text, “The Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire marvels that drawings by Constatin Guys created on the battle fields of Crimée, captured from life, very quickly, reaches London in less than 9 days, and appears just as quickly in the newspapers. A historic, far away event is made known to us as it simultaneously takes place. And, by transmitting itself with an image, history is able to do away with a story told in words. We have since changed the cursors of simultaneity and the number of images : but today’s mutation is a direct extension of this last transformation in writing, by the press and the serialized story.

Last axiom : everyone of these transformations was complex and con-flicting, but irreversible. Of course, we still raise horses, but we rarely use them, over the last 150 years, to travel from town to town : the important thing is not to know “how we will read tomorrow,” it’s to know that the current path, though timid, embryonic, does not have the responsibility of bringing with it existing publishing and distributing structures. Our responsibility does not concern the structures, but the values of civilization, and of transmission, which we place in written content.


2/6 | in its recent form, the book is an ecosystem.

For those in my generation, the imaginary, the sense of language, the perception of the world (we knew how to read before the arrival of television), was formed by the book. We were constructed by the book.
But the idea of a sense of stability for the book is distorted today by the interior re-composition of its industry.

“A great publisher lives on ten to fifteen books,” said one of these “greats,” a few weeks ago. Fewer than five hundred titles cover two thirds of all sales. The average lifetime of a work in a bookstore is five weeks. And I would say, that for a long time – if it ever was the case – printed works only compensate the financial cost of creation for a few hundred widely-selling authors. This system is worn out.

The French system of author rights was born in the XIX century, in a context where theatre and the serial novel gave a popular dimension to literature. It is fully linked to the transfer of a material object, and property, the book. Two examples : France is the only country where the publishing contract based on the duration of intellectual property, makes an exception for commercial rights, which limits its duration to ten years : in addition, France is the only country where an author’s compensation, according to intellectual property laws, is based on the sale price of the book, and not on the variable earnings of the publisher. This system is worn out.

How will we read tomorrow : but do we understand well enough, that today, the books that we read are websites ? Ten years ago, even fifteen years ago, publishing became digitized. A modern printer uses an en-semble of text files, metadata, and CSS frameworks.



3/6 | It’s not reading that has changed, its our customary use

first point, the subscription

Forty years ago, I was proud of my first long-playing vinyl records, it was the arrival of rock. Almost 25 years ago, at the beginning of the 1980’s, I bought my old records again, in CD form. For the last 5 or 6 years, I haven’t bought a single CD, but I listen to music from my computer. For 1 year, I don’t download music on my iTunes, but I listen directly to music on line with a Spotify membership.

That means, that even over a long period – I was curious about music my whole life – I listen differently. I pass from one music to another by analogies, extensions, arborescence. I listen as much as I want, and I sometimes listen to what I don’t like, I discover rare things I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. In return, I require the supplier of the subscription to loyally pay back the creators with a part of their earnings, even if it concerns extremely rare musicians. The annual sum of this subscription equals 8 CD’s – a lot more than I would buy.

Why this detail ? It shows that at least two years ago – at least in music – we accepted the idea that we would not be owners of what we listen to. How can we predict today, what will result from this idea, when it is just beginning to be applied to texts ?

second point : educate curiosity.

You know the old French expression from the world of : “look for a needle in a hay stack.”

If we look for a needle in a haystack, search engines – whatever they may be – will find it in a fraction of a second.

Now, the question is what we are looking for.

When a customer at a library, or library user, expresses a request, even a vague one, the intuition of the bookseller or librarian will be to decipher the request in a way adapted to the person who is asking. That is what Amazon does with your searches and in its engines, using your previous purchases.

Nobody needs literature, texts and poems that present a risk. And even less so, when they no longer have the symbolic approval that scholarly reviews bestowed upon them, the interior partitioning of bookstores, even the organization of society itself.

New axiom : the computer concentrates a mass of comfort use, utilitar-ian use, and we will need to build a call for content through the same framework, which ruffles feathers, that demands a dense reading, an separate interval for thought, without providing compensation in exchange.
Our tool : serendipity – or : how to find what we’re not looking for. Digital books contain metadata that allows for the possibility of associating it with a request which has not been formulated. But the standard international system of classifying books, BISAC, used by Apple and others, is only in English : a book of poetry will be classified as “Continental European.”

Nothing more. More categories for religion than for fiction. More categories for domestic animals than for philosophy. How will we read tomorrow : it’s about organizing resistance to the tools of today.


4/6 | Internet doesn’t exist.

Internet is destined to disappear.

Digital technology is disappearing, as such, because it inserts itself in the finest, complete sense, in our relationship to the world, including our most private, or intimate customary practices.

In the past, everyone read their favorite newspaper. One generally easily recognized a reader of Le Figaro from that of a reader of l’Humanité. Intellectuals bought the Le Monde book supplement as soon as it was in kiosks Thursday afternoon. Today every individual creates his or her own information filters, by organizing our personal kind of “watch” containing fluxes that will associate very general sources to very specialized sources.
Not a week goes by without bringing up another scornful phrase for the blogs. “Internet is just rubbish.”

But literature always had its lungs : small periodicals, literary gatherings (and even the “salons” of the XVIIIth century until Mallarmé). It must constantly have what it needs to be its own rough draft. In the 1950’s, until the end of the 70’s, literary periodicals had that role. It has now entirely passed onto the web.

The universe of creative blogs is astonishingly complex. Giant blogs by a single author, and some are only 12 years old. Collective periodicals. For digital art, the base of the NT2 laboratory in Montreal, counts 3000 : at least 2/3rds of them include uses of text. But also the principal of exchanges between blogs : in France “the convoy (convoi) of glossolalies,” the “général Instin”, “The 807” are collective literary creations, within which each author has his or her own blog. Another example : the first Friday of every month, the “vases communicators” (mutual flow of communicating vessels) – each one writes in the blog of the other. It has ex-isted for 2 years, and often regroups some 60 blogs. Each one writes as a function of the publication location hosting him and his partner : once a month, hundreds of us read the resulting web object – it’s not a book, but it’s clearly a very strong interaction in web literature.

Are we “weaker” readers, or more fragile on the screen ? We read several windows simultaneously, and what of it ?

What matters : our use of language toward others, toward ourselves, our possibility to tell the story of the world, to represent ourselves what is further away from us, passed on by these multiple screens, which we will soon no longer notice. Literature, according to Maurice Blanchot, is “language reflected upon.” In this multiple and diffused location, which is the screen, literature is what questions these languages – codes, sto-ries, representation – as such. We don’t need to transport the forms and objects that materialized this questioning to literature, before the time of the screen.


5/6 | do we need the digital book ?

I am interested by this frontier between the great fluidity of the web, which is our home, and the place where we invent. And the resistant magic of what symbolizes for me, the book : small stiff packet, susceptible to make its way on its own, and to awaken in a relationship that ex-cludes me, and only concerns it and its far away reader, unknown and anonymous.

It seems to me that therein lies the magic that still justifies what one calls the “digital book” : how a small bit of my web site, which is my artist’s studio, can separate – from the site, and from me – to go awaken itself amid an intimate relationship of another, with their reading ?

Of course we fully accept the techniques involved : circulation, digital distribution, format standards, ability to make sure that the reader alone defines the uses he chooses, with the apparatus he chooses.

We accept the present : no longer need a postman to bring the mail, no longer need a newspaper or magazine bought at the train station kiosk, no longer need to go by foot to the city library (or yes we do : to work with several others, with our own computers). And yet, we have never been so passionate about texts, images, stories and fables, peculiarities – of voices too, since the radio programs them for us, recorded via the web. So never, in this profusion, has attention been subject to such pres-sure, and such a consensual push, normalized culture, the dominant “majors.”

But never before have our tools been as pertinent for resisting, and propelling forward what is singular.

One of the great misfortunes of the traditional book industry, is the partitioning of its fields : recent re-editorialisation tools for streams (using Instapaper, FlipBoard and the rest) are not a “meditation effort” on writing, or the press agency for the publishing house – in the same way that with epub, the ergonomics of the page are part of the story itself (this was already the case with the traditional book, but it became invisible), the stream is part of what we name the book. Another surprising example of the unpredictable : the technical function that allows us to send, with one click from a web consultation, an article on one’s Kindle or iPad, or rather, to comfortably read personal documents by sending them to oneself by e-mail, are not simply “pluses” in technique. They affect the content of our reading and what we hope to propose in our writ-ing – how could we have imagined it only six months ago ?


6/6 | explore, invent, advance, but not conclude or predict

Conclusion in three points :


Enough of protection talk (author’s rights, copyright, pirating), but a new economy in profusion and sharing : first try, and then see in what space and for which forms, a future state of stability might rebuild – but we are far from that, because the support mediums themselves don’t contain this stability. “We are inventing the dinosaurs of the future,” this axiom also remains pertinent.


For the first time in human history, the library is a general library, films, music, texts, one must admit the shift is irreversible : we have, from eve-rywhere, access to everywhere – how can this axiom also not have significance, reversibly, for the creation of content itself, and the definition of the artist or the writer ?

Technical mediation that enables financial support of the artist (canvas, book sales), based on the process of putting work material at one’s disposal, can no longer stand on its own, but through the service it pro-poses, inserting the functions for recommendations in one community (social network), proposing updates, event information about the artist, etc : a micro ecosystem linked to the work.

For the authors, it’s up to us to enter resolutely into a new pact – the fabric of literary activity is in itself a living, constant redefinition – presence on the web, when it is not simply a window anchored on the old world, of the where to buy my books genre / what press reviews and three photos, it is a powerful instigator for experiences.


Enough of the catastrophe talks, forever the web as a “threat”, or the book that must “defend itself” from digital technology : industrial mass culture is a recent invention, less than forty years for music, even less for the book
that we must reward our art amid a relationship to the world that is not as-sociated to a culture-based industry, would only be, from the point of view of the history of literature and arts, a return to the norm.

Let us rejoice, on the contrary, that web tools, live-stream, networks of writing workshops, collective works, offer us new mediums for consideration : the figure of the “professional” writer was never a dominant figure, nor important in the history of literature – let us accept letting go of it.

Not an economic approach from the specific transformation of an object, but the general redistribution of tasks, and the social forms of these tasks :
starting from the text, thinking only of the text – but of the marvelous text born of our personal web use : when we write on our computer, we write with our entire computer, it’s image possibilities, sound, documentation, received mail, network messaging – there is no “enhanced book”” the traditional book was a projection in a technical universe of reduced dimensions resulting from it own industrial constraints.

we cannot know “how we will read tomorrow”, but we can, with confidence, take risks in “how we write today”, and the hell with the rest.


© François Bon, 2011

responsable publication François Bon © Tiers Livre Éditeur, cf mentions légales
diffusion sous licence Creative Commons CC-BY-SA
1ère mise en ligne 23 juin 2011 et dernière modification le 1er septembre 2013
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