print and i.t.

Is it accurate to call print an information technology?

I ask this question because my work concerns, among other things, the effects of print upon eighteenth-century Britain, and I’m uncertain if what is going on in this earlier period is part of the same historical narrative that includes the impact of the Internet, say, on contemporary life. I used to say yes, but now I’m not so confident.

Print presents information, but it doesn’t process it or reprocess it in response to input from the user, which seems to be one of the defining characteristics of information technology.

I’m willing to argue about it. Can anyone refer me to a source that considers this question?

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14 thoughts on “print and i.t.

  1. “Is it accurate to call print an information technology?”
    Yes. (Check out Adrian Johns, _The Nature of the Book_, for an extended account of how print does change in response to “input” from users, diverse and sundry.)

  2. Just on impulse, I’d agree with Matt, but I have a pretty flexible definition of “processing” and “reprocessing.”

  3. Matt,
    Sure, I’m familiar with Johns’ book. But I take his main point to be that “the nature of the book” is anything but technologically determined, something he (fairly or not) accuses Elizabeth Eisenstein of asserting in _The Printing Press as an Agent of Change_. And while he does address in some detail the many different “users” involved in print production and distribution, I’m thinking of the role played by the reader as user, and the print product as the technology. Maybe this is a problem. Too limited a framework.
    I am not sure that Johns addresses the presence or lack of historical continuity between the advent of print and the advent of electronic forms of information.
    I need to think more about how to frame the issues. In particular, one would need to define “information technology” before arguing whether something belongs in the category or not. Ditto for “user” and “input” and “change.” And, as Chuck suggests, for “processing” and “reprocessing.”
    If a reader if figured as “user,” then can’t we assert that a printed book does not reshape itself [bracketing the question of interpretation as reshaping] in response to input? A database-driven website, by contrast, can deliver a great many different permutations of a page based on user-expressed parameters; these pages do reshape themselves in response to user input.

  4. I’ve been reading Katherine Hayles’ _Writing Machines_, and she moves toward answering some of these questions there. Since I’m presenting on Hayles in the electronic pedagogy seminar at Tech on Wednesday, I’ll be working through some of the ideas.
    One of the strengths of Hayles’ book is her emphasis on the materiality of the medium, which seems to be a concern of yours as well, but in my reading of the book she mostly focuses on how the materiality of the medium (the book, the computer) structures reading (sequential pagination, the opacity of the page).
    She also cites Espen Aarseth’s notion of ergodic texts, which he defines as “those literary systems that require ‘nontrivial effort’ to allow the user to traverse them” (Hayles 28). By nontrivial effort, Aarseth (and Hayles) is referring to the “choices” that a hypertext user might make (not the effort of reading or the physical effort of turning a page).
    I don’t really think his notion of the “user” holds, though. As I mentioned in an electronic pedagogy discussion, by Aarseth’s definition, channel surfing can be seen as “nontrivial effort” whereas reading is not. I’m not sure this comment answers any of your questions and it may be a bit of self-indulgence on my part, but I happened to be thinking about some of these questions due to my forthcoming discussion of Hayles.

  5. I think that Aarseth’s cybertext paradigm is both useful at times and terribly obscuring (clearly, I’m wishy-washy here!). In an attempt to define a notion of “interactivity” that actually lends meaning to a oftentimes meaningless word, Aarseth puts forward this idea of “ergodic” (root meaning: work/path). And yet what is the definition of “nontrivial”? I can think of some stuff that I have read – plain text, confusing narrative – that just makes my brain *hurt* (Derrida might top the list). On the other side of things, by the time I played my 200th game of Super Mario Brothers, I could save the Princess in about thirty minutes or less. With my eyes closed. It became a rote exercise – a completely trivial event. In other words – does “nontrivial” effort have more to do with the reader, the material composition, the narrative composition, the repetition of play, or what?
    I’ve just started digging into Writing Machines and I’m very interested in what it has to say. I do see a marked shift in Hayles’ approaches – discussing a materiality in computing seems quite different than her earlier “flickering signifier” conception of computing and ephemerality. I’m looking forward to Matt’s _Mechanisms_, which will brighten this discussion of materiality considerably. As I read more and more work for my dissertation, I’ve noticed this transition from the digitally ephemeral to the digitally material in many scholars’ thinking – a recent, important and significant move, I think.
    Finally, I completely agree – the notion of “user” is a tricky one. Since I’m dealing with a variety of media – film, books, e-lit, computer games – I’m having trouble framing a term for the audience that does not privilege one medium over another. I don’t want to say, for instance, that a person “reads” a game – first, that’s just not right; second, using it for convenience intentionally (or not) privileges a form of knowledge consumption /creation over another. What then to do?

  6. Hey, this is getting pretty interesting. Don’t have time to jump back in now, but I do want to offer a quick sidenote: “materiality,” as important as it is in media studies, is not an idea that originates with Hayles, and certainly not with me. The immediate progenitors here are people like Johanna Drucker, Jerry McGann, Marjorie Perloff, Charles Bernstein, and Randall McLeod, who have been mining the materiality vein in rich and sophisticated ways for quite some time now in their writing about the avant garde (and textual studies). For the full genealogy you’d want to go back further than that, to fuddie-duddies like W. W. Greg and Fredson Bowers, the founders of descriptive and analytical bibliography (the scientific study of the book as a physical artifact). They were doing media studies three quarters of a century ago.

  7. I was worrying over my phrasing of that on my way into work this morning, so I’m glad you brought it up. The reason I didn’t post a follow-up to my own post was the way I had originally phrased it:
    /snip from my post above/
    “the digitally ephemeral to the digitally material in many scholars’ thinking”
    It’s an important clarification that you’re bring up Matt and one that I tried to make myself by stating “digital ephemeral to the digitally material.” Certainly, McGann, Bernstein, Drucker, etal. have made important, consistent contributions to discussions of material culture in literary/media studies. But I think in terms of computer work – e-texts, hypertexts, word processing, games, whatever – for quite some time there was a bit of Pollyanna regarding the ephemeral nature of these objects. I point to Landow, Bolter, Hayles’ flickering signifier as initial examples (when I have a chance later, I’ll try to pull some books off the shelf and put out some specific quotations). Scholarship in the early to mid- 90s seemed to focus on this as an important shift away from print culture. I think now, and in large part because of the influential work from Drucker, McGann and others, we are correctly the misalignment (which is to say, taking the beneficial parts from both arguments).

  8. I probably misspoke when I implied that Hayles had introduced materiality into media studies. Certainly there’s a long history of that, as Jason’s more recent comment points out.
    I was just working through some ideas that I’ll be presenting to the electronic pedagogy seminar on Wednesday (I’m supposed to present on Hayles) and her discussion of the materiality of the medium represents a significant departure from some of the other texts (Aarseth, Landow, Lanham, etc) that we’ve been reading, which, of course, doesn’t mean it’s an idea originating with Hayles.
    It brings up some other interesting questions for me as a film studies scholar, specifically in terms of the (mis)treatment of the materiality of film. People coming from that type of schooling tend to buy into the “flickering signifier” vocabulary that Jason describes. Digital also complicates (in ways that many film scholars don’t acknowledge) discussions of “spectatorship.” I’m really enjoying this discussion.

  9. The issue of materiality, however, has never seemed to me to be an important line of differentiation between “new media” and print, in part because the immateriality of electronic information is an illusion that relies upon a user’s ignorance of how computers store, process, and deliver information for its success. This illusion might be an interesting social or cultural phenomenon to talk about, but it is not evidence of a characteristic inherent to digital texts.
    That said, I’m still left with a nagging sense that there is something fundamentally different about what a computer does and what a printed book (or newspaper, or broadsheet) does, even if I can’t quite articulate it in terms of current debates. And, as I’ve said elsewhere in this discussion (email? IM?), I’m unclear if I’m wrestling with a difference in degree or a difference in kind, but I think it’s a difference in kind.
    To be honest, my gut sense is to go with the narrative that posits the widespread use of movable type as an early chapter in the development of our current information tools. But I’m resisting that, and I want to problematize the easy adoption of this narrative. If everything is information technology, doesn’t that mean that nothing is information technology? Or rather, that it’s a term without significance?
    Walter Ong has said, famously and persuasively, that writing is a technology that restructures thought (see chapter 4 of _Orality and Literacy_). Can we call *writing* information technology? Is a painting information technology? Or does something have to be (mechanically) reproducible or reproduced in order to qualify?
    How do we begin to define the term in ways that are meaningful without being arbitrary?

  10. The M-Word

    There’s a good discussion over at George’s about print, information technology, and materiality (a word that’s gotten a lot of play lately). While I greatly sympathize with a number of recent efforts to recuperate an appreciation of “materiality” in di…

  11. Can print be called an Information Technology?

    Here is a current interesting discussion I came across while reading George H. Williams blog site on whether it is…

  12. These are really good questions. I think the complication of the term “information technology” (IT) is important, especially observing that the overuse of the term empties it of meaning (in much the same way that semiotic analyses of “texts” have emptied that word of meaning).
    I need to read Ong before I’m fully confident about answering any of them, but it introduces one question: what do you mean by “mechanical reproducibility?” Certainly I could go buy or look at a mechanically (or digitally) “reproduced” version of the _Mona Lisa,_ but in this case there is a clear “original,” presumably with some degree of “aura.”
    I’m still dodging the more important question, though, about IT. The information is definitely “stored” in a different way (numeric code, etc) and the manipulations themselves seem different. I think I’m cautious about emphasizing the differences too heavily simply because, especially in discussions of film and photography, too much has been surrendered to the so-called easy manipulation of the digital image (as in William J Mitchell’s _Reconfigured Eye_).

  13. sketchy thoughts on materiality

    I wrote a paper… a first draft, anyway, in part prompted by this post on Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Web log (and

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