Monday, August 31, 2009

Employment, History

He had been a precocious child. An intellectual. At twelve, he had translated the poems of T.S. Eliot into English, after some vandals had broken into the library and translated them into French.

(Woody Allen, Without Feathers)

Been born to Bologna 3 January 1952. Married, daughter has one. Graduated in psycology, she is journalist professional from 1979. National secretary of the Forehead of the Youth in 1977, is elect deputy for before turns the 26 June 1983.

(Excerpt from the biography of Gianfranco Fini, then deputy Prime Minister of Italy, briefly published in 2001 on the website of the Italian Government)

Some time in the next few months it will be twenty years since I completed my first paid translation. I picked up those initial jobs rather casually, as a time filler during the interminable hours spent in an office where I was supposed to answer a phone that never rang. Ironically enough, the material I was given to translate concerned early cell phone protocols and preluded to a technology that would make asking a school leaver to man the phones of an otherwise deserted office entirely redundant.

The mobile office had yet to be invented, and my place of employment hadn’t switched to the then primitive version of Windows either, so I worked in WordStar for DOS. Here’s a screenshot, but please be warned that if you are old enough to have used it, clicking to enlarge might be triggering.

Wordstar was a ‘what you see ain’t what you get’ type of word processor, meaning that you had to tag the portions of the text that were to appear in, say, a bold typeface and then, just like that, they wouldn’t look bold on the screen at all, but rather you’d have to keep track of the tags and make sure they were all open and closed in all the right places, or the printout would look all funny. Then at the end you got to save your efforts onto one of these bad boys.

This 5¼-inch floppy disk could easily pack as much as 1.2 MB of data.
It seems like such a primitive setup, doesn't it? Still, it was electronic writing, and you could revise whole paragraphs on the fly without leaving a trace of how poorly you might have expressed yourself in draft form. Outside of school assignments, I have never experienced the act of translation when words couldn’t be recombined at will in that manner. To me, it’s just part of how things have always worked, but for professional writers and translators the transition must have been quite dramatic at the time of its occurrence. I have in fact just learned from Wikipedia that William F. Buckley Jr. loved WordStar so much that he kept installing it on new machines until long after it had become obsolete, and once had this to say: “I’m told there are better programs, but I’m also told there are better alphabets.”

Did you know that banana bunches are sometimes wrapped in bags for protection? Image by Fairsing, from Wikipedia.

I’ve been a translator for nigh on twenty years, and besides the obvious aspects of the job - the writing discipline, what it can teach you about communication, culture and language - I’ve enjoyed it for the insight it has given me into other professions. This is something I have very much in common with my father, the interest in tools of various trades but also and primarily in how people organise in order to carry out certain tasks, the intricacies of which you’re unlikely to discover as an outsider. Translating a company’s internal documents, or the contracts that regulate certain arrangements, or the manuals for this or that working procedure, will go some way towards satisfying those particular curiosities.

Often these documents are written at a time of transition, when a new system is being put in place, and remind me of the history and trends of my own profession. In those early days of sitting in front of Wordstar in a lonely office, I researched my translations through technical encyclopaedias and dictionaries, or by asking experts in the relevant field who happened to be available to my employers, and I delivered my work in the form of printed documents. Then came better word processing, automatic spellcheckers, the delivery of electronic files, the World Wide Web and computer assisted translation - each of them an incremental step in what has been a radical transformation of the industry.

Translating a text about, say, the cultivation of bananas, may still entail the same linguistic skills and fundamental understanding of how to produce a text in the target language that is as close as possible in content, style and feel to the source; but the manner in which these texts are exchanged, and the ways in which the translations themselves are researched and produced, have changed enormously. The initial stages of this transformation, with the perfecting of electronic word processors, could be said (although not by me) to have done little more than make us faster and possibly a little less error prone. But the second phase, which began when the Web reached critical mass in the mid- to late nineties, has had effects that are rather more dramatic.

In my capacity of freelance translator, I work with clients in different parts of the world who sometimes work in turn for other clients in other parts of the world, all from the relative comfort of wherever I happen to be at the time. This means that I can take my job with me when I go to Italy, which is a significant advantage in terms of my ability to remain connected with my family back there; but even that is really not nearly as significant as the fact that I can be a full-time Italian translator living in New Zealand in the first place.

As a professional group we have been scattered around the globe, and are now competing with one another globally. At the same time, and contrary to some early predictions, the Web hasn’t accepted English as its lingua franca, quite the opposite: the credibility of many businesses and organisations has been staked on their ability to offer accomplished and appropriately localised multilingual translations, an aspect of globalisation that is sometimes overlooked. Even open source software and independent media organisations often rely on the efforts of volunteer translators, and the ability to operate in several languages is considered integral to their philosophy - it’s one of several ways in which people on the Web are working to counteract the tendency towards cultural homogeneity inherent in the medium. More and more, the token gestures that were common earlier in the history of the Web are either frowned upon or laughed at, as was the case when the second Berlusconi government published the biographies of its Ministers in a crude Babelfish translation that had to be taken down in a matter of hours (but not before several of us had saved them on our computers, thankfully - that stuff was pure gold).

The geographical scattering is aided by the fact that one no longer needs to reside in the country where a language is spoken in order to access the finest expertise in that language. I took with me three very large dictionaries and a small encyclopaedia when I moved to New Zealand ten years ago, but all of these exist now on disk; more importantly, technical vocabulary that used to require days of research can now in most cases be located by means of a well constructed Google search or, if you're still stumped, by asking other translators or experts in the relevant field who can be easily reached online and are invariably more than happy to assist. With all that help so readily available, having to go a bit further out of my way to nail down the exact Italian word for an obscure piece of machinery or procedure or naturally occurring phenomenon remains, I'll nerdily admit, the source of a professional buzz followed at times by embarrassing smackdown-style exclamations.

So far, so relatively obvious - translating is hardly the sole profession to have gone through these kinds of changes. But some of you might not be familiar with the concept of computer-assisted translation, and the impact it's had on our work. I'll refer in particular to an aspect that is of obvious relevance here, namely translation memory software.

Translation memories are files that store the text entered by a translator against the relevant segments of the source document. Here's what a step in that process might look like.

Created in Wordfast.
The next time that in the course of your work you encounter that exact sentence, or one similar to it, the software will automatically insert your previous translation in the target segment, with a percentage and a colour code indicating how closely it matches the old source. Then you can amend as needed or simply validate the proposed segment and move on to the next bit of text.

Translation memories have been around for a while, but their emergence as a key tool of the trade dates back to the late Nineties. It was at that time that I started using Wordfast, following the recommendation of a colleague, and between then and now I have entered something in the vicinity of three million words in my database. The Woody Allen example above is actually not a very good one in that literary translations are not an area where you're going to find translation memories very useful. But think of technical documents, legal contracts and in general any text that has a large degree of repetition and where consistency of terminology is key. Think also of the needs of an organisation working on a large project that has to be split amongst several translators. This is how we do it, and the benefits in terms of productivity are very significant.

And how do I feel about this?

If you know me or have been following this blog at all you'll know that I'm prone to criticise the semantic slippages that allow the word memory to be applied to something other than the human capacity to remember things, and in ways that obscure what constitutes knowledge and value in favour of the much more easily quantifiable and less problematic category of information. Saying for instance that the Library of Congress contains X terabytes of information is a sure way to get my facial muscles to twitch. But in the case of translation memories and, worse still, my own translation memories, I find it very hard not to concede the point.

Too many times I've approached a text that looked completely new to me only to discover via this other 'memory' of mine that I had translated a nearly identical one five years earlier; too many times I've seen those results pop up in rapid succession, and have yet been unable to recognise anything other than the writing style and idiosyncrasies that I'm not even to supposed to allow to seep into my work; too many times I've seen my computer translate entire chunks of documents thanks to its superior knowledge of my past work. Too many times I have experienced all of these things not to recognise the extent in which not just my past translations - after all, that would be no different from saving on file or committing to paper any old piece of writing - but the method, the style, the approach I bring to my work have been successfully externalised and replicated. It is a form of memory, in that from a collection of words and symbols you can make out meaningful connections, recognise a form of autonomous intelligence. Mine, and yet not mine.

Most soberingly of all, the entire database - the three million words of translation and the glossaries I've compiled over a decade - occupies a mere 160 megabytes. This means that, should I stick with translating until the day I retire, all of my precious words, the definitive memory of my working life, would still most likely fit onto one of these:

Serves me right, I reckon.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Death of Cinema

Aphoristic, cryptic and apocalyptic, this is a frustrating, infuriating little book. So naturally I based my whole PhD on it. When I say ‘based’, I mean more in terms of inspiration than actual analysis or theoretical underpinning, for no matter how many times I returned to it, there was always something at the centre of Cherchi Usai’s book that seemed to utterly elude me, and I could never write about it with the kind of controlled and comprehending, all-embracing perspective that I thought - rightly or wrongly - was expected of me. The genre of the academic dissertation doesn’t lend itself to the approach that film critic Francesco Cassetti took when he presented an earlier version of this book at the Cineteca Italiana in Milan in 1999 and proceeded to tear off its pages one by one - an ingenious solution to the problem of how to make sense of Cherchi Usai’s work.

At the time when he came to New Zealand to deliver the keynote presentation at the Film and History conference held at our national Film Archive back in 2000, Paolo Cherchi Usai was senior curator of the motion picture department at George Eastman House and director of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation - impressive credentials indeed for a commentator who might have otherwise exposed himself to the charge of simply not understanding the potential of digital technologies in the area of film storage, transmission and long-term preservation. And since I was finding myself similarly reluctant, albeit in a broader and less expert domain, to accept the dominant ideology of information and networked computing, his example from the coalface provided much needed support and inspiration.

The day of that conference in Wellington, Cherchi Usai didn’t claim specifically that cinema was dead but made a point that would have been even more provocative to his audience of historians and film historians, namely that the moving image isn’t a document. Both of these counter-intuitive notions - that cinema is unsuited to document the empirical real, and that besides it’s dead anyway - are based on Cherchi Usai’s unique understanding of the moving image, its history and the circumstances that enable its production and consumption. That last term in particular, consumption, is crucial here for its double meaning of fruition and destruction, and its capacity to convey therefore the peculiar being in time of the moving image, which is progressively and inexorably degraded each time we look at it.

Images in decay are the subject of Bill Morrison and Michael Gordon’s extraordinary Decasia, a symphony on the fleeting nature of cinema. But understanding that materials like nitrate and acetate don’t last forever is all too easy, and can be represented just as easily; the digital is something else entirely.

When information loses its body and becomes a pure mathematical abstraction, how do you even fantasise about its loss? We know what a corrupted digital image looks like. We can even simulate it by applying glitch effects or using tools such as Digieffects Damage. But a much more common circumstance in which this decay manifests itself is through a file that just won't open, or a DVD that stubbornly refuses to play. Suddenly there is no longer anything to see. As Cherchi Usai documents in his book, when Pixar went to make the DVD of the original Toy Story, it discovered that
twelve percent of the digital masters had already vanished. For three months, Pixar Animation Studios staff scoured the system for the toys' missing parts - salvaging all but one percent of what had been lost in the computers. The remaining scenes were reassembled. For subsequent Pixar movies, Lasseter said, 'we have a better backup system'. (p. 100)
You’ve got to backup your data, man. Who hasn’t learned this lesson the hard way? And we should, really, for lots of copies keep stuff safe. But just how many copies, and just how much stuff? As Cherchi Usai told his Wellington audience, it was estimated at the time that 1.5 billion hours of moving images had been produced in 1999 alone. I don’t have updated estimates, but I suspect that the projection he proposed back then of 3 billion hours for the year 2010 would be conservative - that was before YouTube and video-enabled cellular phones. Even at that conservative rate, the amount would reach 100 billion hours by the year 2023 or 2024, and once we’re faced with that order of magnitude, will it really matter how much of it is meant for instantaneous consumption - or no consumption at all - rather than in the hope of repeated viewings and a prolonged archival existence? I suspect not, for the sheer weight of the former would likely overwhelm the latter anyhow, and the task of assigning relevance and context to individual items would be of a level of difficulty that stretches the imagination. In fact, if one buys into the myth that digital information can be copied perfectly and stored and retrieved indefinitely, the prospect are even more grim, Library of Babel-style. Writes Cherchi Usai:
If all moving images were available, the massive fact of their presence would impede any effort to establish criteria of relevance - more so, indeed, than if they had all been obliterated, for then, at least, selective comprehension would be replaced by pure conjecture. (p. 19)

Limit cases rightly invite scepticism, and the author's contention that some time this century we'll reach a singularity followed by a collapse of our systems for storing and exchanging audiovisual content is perhaps the easiest of the imaginings on offer to dismiss, if only because it's so hard to imagine: what would such a rupture look like? But even if you don't buy this side of the argument, how about the events that are not at all hard to imagine: global wars, economic crises, companies filing for bankruptcy even at times of relative prosperity, the no longer profitable trendsetters of last month making way for new ventures. We all know what's happening this coming October 26th, right? And how do you feel about Twitter leveraging its users to 'create value' and leaving the issue of how to figure out a revenue stream for later? How comfortable are you that once that phantom business model has taken actual shape the free will remain free, or that those servers one day won't be bought out and gutted to make space for something else? What will happen then to the world's conversation, and to the illusive idea of the commons that it sustains?

The "guillotine", a machine for shredding 35mm feature films after their commercial distribution, located in Cinisello Balsamo near Milan, Italy. (Image from The Death of Cinema, p. 76.)
Similar commercial imperatives regulate the life and death of moving images, and are even stricter in the film industry proper. In Due dollari al chilo (Two dollars a kilo), Paolo Lipari has documented the activities of two Italian facilities where polyester and triacetate film are recycled in order to produce combs, benches and low-cost fuel for other plants. Says the owner of one of these facilities (my translation):
The films that go through our plant suffer a dramatic change in value. Titanic, which cost hundreds of millions to make and grossed even more, arrived here on seven trailer trucks. When it left, on the same seven trucks, it was worth 25 or 30 thousand dollars. Two dollars a kilo. It's a crude way of considering what we do here. About 40 dollars for each film. 40 dollars for a film that affected us, enriched us, entertained us.
But here's the twist: 'Cinema,' contends Cherch Usai, 'is the art of destroying moving images' (p. 7), and therefore death becomes it and is in fact integral to it. The model image immune from decay that the proponents of the digital seductively invite us to imagine doesn't exist, and if it did, it would have no history (p. 41, at least in my interpretation). It follows, in one of the most inspired passages of the book, that film history should be primarily 'concerned with mutations affecting the physical evidence of the image rather than with any evolution in the expression of meanings' (p. 83). And moreover
[m]oving image preservation will then be redefined as the science of its gradual loss and the art of coping with the consequences, very much like a physician who has accepted the inevitability of death even while he continues to fight for the patient's life. In monitoring the progress of image decay, the conservator assumes the responsibility of following the process until the image has vanished altogether, or ensures its migration to another kind of visual experience, while interpreting the meaning of the loss for the benefit of future generations. (p. 105)

For the reasons stated at the outset, I hesitate to sum up the book in anything resembling a declarative sentence, but the concepts expressed in the two paragraphs above are to my mind the key to a cultural project of immense value, and that goes beyond cinema alone. It's a project that recognises and embraces the transitory nature of our cultural artefacts; that values knowledge over information and context over content alone; that treats our collective and individual capacity for attention and comprehension as finite resources to be carefully managed; and finally that takes a longer view in its guardianship, striving to set systems in place that might allow our cultural heritage to remain alive with connections not in the perpetual present of the digital archive, but rather in a concrete future of material realities that we cannot hope to foresee. In the most unlikely of ways, it is a very hopeful project.

I shall return to this time and again, as you've probably come to expect of me by now. But before I go I want to share with you another example of the kind of intervention - in the spirit of Mr. Cassetti's page-ripping rampage - that this peculiar little book can inspire in its readers. Earlier this year I lent The Death of Cinema to the redoubtable Steven Crawford, and when he returned it I discovered he had fashioned for it a most fitting bookmark, this one:


Paolo Cherchi Usai. The Death of Cinema - History, Cultural Memory and the Digital Dark Age. London: bfi, 2001.
Paolo Cherchi Usai. Keynote presentation at the Film and History Conference held at the Film Archive in Wellington, 30 November 2000.

Monday, August 17, 2009

What Do You Know?

Every child has a natural curiosity about the world around him, and WHAT DO YOU KNOW? Sets out to answer questions about some of the most interesting aspects of our planet, including man and the way he has shaped his environment.
  • How Long do tortoises live?
  • Why is Botany Bay so called?
  • How hot is the sun?
  • Which pirate was also an explorer?
  • What is VTOL?
  • Who wrote ‘The Star-spangled Banner’?
Stimulating questions such as these, taken from a wide range of subjects in the fields of science and the arts are collected here in one magnificently illustrated volume for children. […] Whether they read it through or dip into it at random, children will find WHAT DO YOU KNOW? An informative and entertaining introduction to the world of knowledge.

Thus the book jacket of What Do You Know?, a Hamlyn number from 1973 aimed at the boys of Empire. Said boys, it is assumed, would be interested in exploration, geography, science, history - especially the military kind. This knowledge would be presented in easily digested nuggets, simple, concise and uncomplicated, aligned to precise vectors of historical teleology and technoscientific progress: we have conquered the world; we shall conquer the infinitely vast expanses of space as well as the infinitely small world of particles and corpuscles. The information is selected so as to present as little risk as possible of exposing children to uncomfortable facts, especially in the historical section. No mention is made of genocide and other unpleasant aspects of colonialism on the part of Anglo-Saxon peoples (a passing mention of the crimes of Spanish conquistadors, however); nor of major wars, both civil and otherwise; nor of exploitation, slavery, endemic poverty and disease.

The past is a time of conquest and exploration, and the occasional ancient wonder. The future is more conquest and exploration, this time on an intergalactic scale. The present is the wonderfully apolitical worlds of nature and invention. And the questions sampled above in the publisher's own blurb are what passes for 'stimulating'.

What is a pygmy?
Pygmies are a race of unusually short human beings who live in parts of Africa and Asia... A pygmy man who reached a height of 4 feet 11 inches would consider himself very tall indeed...
Whenever I stumble upon one of these books, I am surprised to discover that they aren’t actually older: this one surely would have been outdated in its crude approach to the world of knowledge by the time it came out? Then I cast my mind back to the kind of books that were around when I was a lad - bearing in mind I learned to read some time in late 1974 - and I recall that my friends and I had this ideal of absolute knowledge, and it was based on the Junior Woodchucks Guidebook beloved to Donald Duck’s nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie. In the Disney comics that little book appeared to contain all the facts in the world, so naturally when it was published as a seven volume series by Mondadori, owner of the Italian Disney franchise, we all rushed to purchase it. Alas, it was such a crushing disappointment: despite being physically seven times as unwieldy as the real thing, it contained but a pitiful fraction of all the facts in the world.

Books such as What do You Know?, or Hamlyn's equally popular 365 Things to Know, are exhibits of interest for those who wish to construct a contemporary archaeology of knowledge. By asking such questions, and delivering those particular 'facts', they construct their subjects according to a set of expectations to be embodied. In both instances it's not so much a case of what do you know? but rather of who are you, knowing? and the answer would be the model little male citizen who's going to do well at school, be mindful and respectful of the authority of his elders, and in time dutifully join the caste of the technocrats. A child of positivist rationalism with ready access to a large but finite set of non-problematic units of knowledge.

Who were the Pilgrim Fathers?
In Tudor times a number of Puritans lived in Lincolnshire in England, where they were often badly treated because of their faith...
That is no doubt the critique you'd expect me to put forward, and it's as far as it goes. But I wonder if there is a further dimension to be read into the rhetorical framing of both of these books, specifically how each fact is formulated as the answer to a question. That is meant to mimic the inquisitiveness of children, I suppose, but consider how much more pointed and open-ended actual children's questions are: our seven year old is just as likely if not more to ask us why do we die? or why is there war? as which is the fastest land mammal?

So on the one hand again the books strike us for how they fail to push the door of knowledge any further than a smidgen ajar; on the other, they replicate a key mode of address that is common to many of our technologies of information, from the ancient oracles all the way down to telephones and computers.

What are computers?
Computers are machines, although they do not work like other kinds of machines. They are more like mechanical brains
I've included the telephone there because of one aspect of its evolution that has always fascinated me. When my mother moved to Milan to study, she found work in the local telephone exchange - it was the early Fifties, and in order to call outside of the city you still needed to go through an operator. But as the telephone became more affordable and more people started using it, the company found that it wasn't just to communicate with the owners of other telephones, but also, and surprisingly often, to ask questions directly to the operator. It could be any old question, the sort of things nowadays we ask Google, and since my mother had completed the equivalent of teacher's college, she was one of the operators called upon to try to answer them. She reminisced about that once when the family was sitting in front of a film starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made at the time, Desk Set (1957), which is about the research department of NBC - looking very much like an upscale version of the set up Mum would have been part of - and of the attempt by an engineer to introduce a computer, EMERAC, to do the work of the female staffers.

It's a funny old film, and if IBM was planning to use it to showcase and promote the age of computing, it's likely to have backfired. Anyhow, this is what EMERAC looks like.

The operator sits on the left hand side of the picture and queries the computer by typing questions in plain English onto the terminal; EMERAC then prints out the responses, also in plain English. Now even if it’s not how you approach Web searches yourself, if you run a website you’ll know that a lot of people do just that - type a question, expect to be directed to a site containing the answer, hopefully in something approaching plain language. And most often, they fail. I have mentioned in the past how people have been (mis)directed to this very blog asking the most unlikely questions, but it’s hardly unusual: Robyn saw the funny side of it a while back, while Deborah has furnished a truly disturbing set of examples. I think the interest around the time when Wolfram Alpha was launched also had to do with the prospect of finally being able to ask straight questions of our machines, like in the movies. But of course Wolfram Alpha is just like EMERAC: it can only process facts that were previously fed into it, whereas most of us want to tap into it, the Web, the true font of human knowledge. And our means of doing that are just too imperfect.

Humour me then as I invite you then to delve a little further into whether the idea of the information glut - with its attendant binge thinking I described last week - has any merit. And consider to this end the following proposition: that if books for children like What Do You Know? appear to us hopelessly outdated and outmoded, pitiful relics of a not-so-distant past when some people still aspired to draw a circle around knowledge, and such a small one at that, yet we are vexed today by the inverse of that untenable position: a proliferation of questions lost in a cacophony of answers. The postmodernist in me is quite comfortable with this: the Web is a place of contested knowing(s), which refuses to give definitive answers, and questions in fact at every turn how we can come to anything but provisional conclusions at best - it always asks us, how do you know? But the Marxist in me, far less so, and longs against his better judgment for a time of grand narratives and greater clarity, of questions with answers that led to actions that could change the world.

For now I’m going to leave it there, pointedly hanging, a question with too many possible answers - although naturally you are more than welcome to share some of yours in the comments. Next week we'll take this up with an instalment on the subject of The Death of Cinema. Because maybe it really is

Clifford Parker. 365 Things to Know. London: Hamlyn, 1968.
Kenneth Allen, Neil Ardley, Arthur Thomas, Jean Stroud, Alan Blackwood.
What Do You Know? London: Hamlyn, 1973.

Excerpts from both books in this week's gallery.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Binge Thinking

I know you've got something interesting to say and I’m here to help you say it in a fun and compelling way.

Describe one of your most pleasant surprises. Go on. What three songs are on your summer soundtrack? Which could you spend a whole week in: a treehouse, a tent or an underground bunker? You're stuck on an island with plenty of food, a companion, and a relatively stress-free lifestyle. What do you say when the rescue ship comes?

All these conversation starters are care of Plinky, a new-ish social networking tool whose self-styled business is ‘Inspiration, delivered daily’. Kind of like the Holy Ghost, except in that it doesn’t honour the Sabbath. If you sign up for Plinky you get one of these prompts every day of the week and in providing your answer join others who are doing the same, thus alleviating the world’s dangerous shortage of mindless chatter. For Plinky abhors a vacuum.

Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, ca. 1497-98.
They are from left to right Death, Famine, War and Plinky.
It is difficult, not to mention terribly unfashionable these days, to paint such things as anything other than innocuous pastimes at the very worst. Suggesting anything more sinister or culture-damaging would be like railing against the entertainment industry, or reality television, or television full stop, which opens you to countless and often not unfair charges of elitism, of not getting it, of being nostalgic for old days that weren’t all that good. We’ve gotten quite adept at unpacking the assumptions on which those critics tacitly rely, yet it helps that those same critics in the main aren’t as serious or able as Neil Postman: they really are nostalgic, they really do not get it. None more so than this guy. But for all the buzz-like intensity of the debate surrounding social networks, I don’t think we’re asking forcefully enough the questions of media ecology that Postman no doubt would insist that we ask: what kinds of conversation can be had on these networks? Who’s empowered to speak, authorised to say what, enabled to criticise which institutions and whom? To which I’d add: does the multiplication of voices and the multiplication of utterances really amount to a democratisation of speech, or is there a point where the returns not only diminish, but begin in fact to unravel?

It’s hard to defend Plinky on any of these grounds. Answering one inane question per day, being pushed into pontificating in unison with others under such prefabricated constraints would hardly fit anybody's definition of empowerment; and what kind of value would you yourself or anybody else assign to the word count thus generated? But mostly I want to direct your attention to the demand for constant participation, brilliantly summed up by one of Plinky's rolling slogans.

Silence is the enemy of commerce, and so many attempts to monetise the Internet depend not on the quality, but rather the quantity of interactions, as translated in page loads or ad impressions. That's why it doesn't pay for Plinky to give you so much as a day off a week. But the site’s creators also know that we are liable to ask for that push ourselves, actively seek ways to participate well beyond the point when we ceased to have something to say.

There is a rather wonderful image I recently came across thanks to punster-poet extraordinaire Ian Dalziel, a member of the Public Address community, inspired in turn here by this effort of Emma's and that I've adopted as the title of this post. Ian is the originator I'm going to credit and whose permission I asked for and kindly received, but of course I wasn't surprised when Google informed me that the phrase binge thinking had had other inventors, for it's just too perfect, too apposite, so the culture was bound to have stumbled upon it before, and it will keep finding it again and again. Each time it will be an original discovery, and another sign of how self-reflexively the Web operates, how conscious we all are of the potential for near-infinite expression and of its flipside: the surplus, the excess, the likely addiction.

Plinky asks for your attention on a daily basis and the infinitely more successful Twitter too, strictly on an opt-in basis you understand, offers to ‘nudge’ you via cellphone if you haven't contributed to the site in the previous twenty-four hours. On the face of it, the two services in fact have a lot in common:
Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?
As mission statements go, this is eminently mockable, and so the commonplace mockery goes more or less like this: why should I, why should anybody want to keep their friends, family and (urgh!) co-workers abreast of what they're doing, frequently and quickly? Are we so vacuous and self-absorbed that we need to chronicle the humdrum rhythm and gestures of our lives, inform the world that we are catching the bus, choosing new shoes, worried that it might be about to rain? Not even Clay Shirky himself would manage to make it sound so despairingly pointless and boring.

But even to the casual observer Twitter is obviously so much more than that. I could do all manner of knee-jerk theorising here, call it a Foucaltian nightmare of diffused surveillance and self-surveillance, the fissure that precedes society's Final Crumble, or the din before its Final Rumble. But it's not Foucault, nor is it Orwell. It's Georges Perec, it's James Joyce: a formally constrained collective stream of consciousness, the simultaneous projection of what everybody, or as good an approximation thereof as we are capable of producing, is doing, or thinking, or purporting to do or think. I'm not particularly interested in being on it, certainly not at all interested in letting friends and family etcetera know in real time whether or not I'm picking my nose at any given moment (hint: I probably am), but I'm also pretty sure I could spend my life reading the #Iremember topic alone. And I'd have to, really, in its trend-topping heyday eight weeks or so ago it was growing at dozens of tweets per minute.

'Burning bus during Iranian elections 2009'
Photo by Shahram Sharif licensed under Attribution 2.0
That is it, the binge, right there. And then came the elections in Iran, and suddenly it all became deadly serious, and we all changed our location to Tehran, and it seemed that everybody already knew what to do, how to organise, as if the months spent talking about your Friday night plans had been a rehearsal for that moment when being good at Twitter was going to save lives, or so it seemed. And it's all there, documented, trickling in now but still ongoing. I did a little sampling a few weeks back, precisely between 7 and 8 pm on June 22nd, NZ time: far from the peak of its intensity and when it had in fact been surpassed by #iran as the top trending topic, #iranelection still generated 114 tweets on the first minute, some 7,440 in that hour. It will be a while before anybody could, supposing they wanted to, catch up on the topic, read it whole, as a single continuous historical document of a not insignificant moment in time.

Of course, in the din of the moment, it's not how you do it: you need to find yourself a super-reader, somebody who's following the right sub-set of participants, those with the most meaningful and relevant information, and there lies a point I shall return to in the next couple of weeks: that by far the best search engine on the Internet bar none to this day is still other people. But this week I wanted to expose you all to Ian’s wonderfully elliptical and hyper-concentrated image, for even in that precious moment when it was at its most historically useful, Twitter was also a colossal expression of just that, binge thinking: the surplus of expression that overwhelms our capacity to make sense and participate, and reminds us of just how vain an illusion it is to think that we can use technology solely on our own terms, and not be used by it in return.

I've lost count of the announcements by friends and acquaintances - all well-adjusted, sophisticated, savvy citizens of the Web - that they're taking a break from the computer, or going on a Twitter diet, if only for a day or two. Sometimes it is dictated by external circumstances, such as the recent outage that inspired #whentwitterwasdown, a topic full of slightly shrill witticisms and wise musings about the world without. But mostly, we just unplug.

So, what do you do after a binge?

When I need to step away from the computer sometimes I'll walk up Farnham Street, up to a particular bend in the road where I can see the sea at both ends of the city, let my eyes wander from the Harbour to Island Bay and back again, or contemplate the bush in the foreground and the airport in the background. It is a lovely, quiet spot, my far-too-easily reached place of seclusion: for I am such a domesticated urban beast. Nonetheless it brings to my mind - a little grandiosely, to be sure - those famous lines by Wendell Berry about coming into the peace of wild things:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

But then Plinky taunts me thus:

Yes. Yes, I did. I promise I'll have something ready by next Monday.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Too Loud a Solitude

It's one of the saddest images I've seen, and it's hidden in a book on interior design that I could no longer name, much less track down. It shows a kitchen adorned with shelves of old leather-bound books, beautiful in a patrician and deeply incongruous way - surely the last place you'd want to keep old, valuable volumes is the room in which you fry stuff. But of course the shelves aren't real shelves, just shallow indentations in the wooden panelling, and the books aren't real books, just rows of old spines ripped from Eastern European libraries sold by the metre to some American without a sense of taste or shame, and then glued onto the panelling (the spines, not the American).

I was never able to recover that picture, but thanks to a powerful combination of the Internet and friends I'm able to point you to a couple of lesser examples of this troubling phenomenon: Books by the Yard (h/t Jolisa), whose target clientele comprises people whose 'bookcase or study could use a boost in the books department', and the wonderful replica book panels of The Manor Bindery (h/t Paul) good for a variety of uses, such as decorating the interior of an elevator or even filling a bookcase.

Sitting at the intersection between house porn and the crumbling of civilisation, the kitchen-cum-library fashioned from the former pride of the Eastern bloc goes well beyond the generic and time-honoured practice of decorating with books, though, and is altogether more apocalyptic. Italians have some experience of their culture being ransacked or sold off, but I struggle to think of historical examples that match that particular ignominy of having one’s book collections literally taken apart for the purposes of adorning somebody else’s walls. Even the firebombing of the National Library in Sarajevo had an overtly criminal and memoricidal intent that seems refreshingly above board in comparison.

Czechoslovakian author Bohumil Hrabal wrote Too Loud a Solitude - which happens to be a book about a chap whose job it is to destroy books - in the early nineteen-seventies, at a time when his publishing privileges had been revoked. It has, I think, one of the best opening sentences in literature:
For thirty-five years I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story.
It is also a book about books, not only in the sense of carriers of knowledge and culture but also, and inextricably, in the sense of material objects with a weight, a feel, an odour, a cycle of production and demise. Hrabal wallows indeed with much comic glee in describing the putrid smell and appearance of moulding books (‘a dull, grey-beige mass with the consistency of stale bread’), the colonies of pests that thrive in warehouses where old putrefying paper is kept, the swarms of flesh flies that, unable to resist the lure of the blood from the day’s delivery of used butcher’s paper, stick to the pages of Rilke and Novalis until they too are crushed to death.

The operator of the wastepaper press, Haňt'a, is a sort of book gnome, a drunk, imbued unwittingly, or so he claims, with the contents of those volumes, his work, his obsession. Unable to regard books as mere waste products, things that were always lifeless, he has developed loving and elaborate funeral rites, and packs them for their last voyage into bales that contain just the right mix of German philosophy and Czech poetry or reproductions of impressionist paintings. The odd volume he saves and takes home to a small apartment that he has converted - yes, the kitchen too - into a makeshift library, a perilously unstable cathedral of shelves always in danger of falling and crushing him in his sleep. Think the Capuchin Crypt, but with books - here’s an artist’s impression from an exhibition inspired by the novel:

What a thing, a house of made of books. If it came to that, wouldn’t you want to choose the titles, insist that, say, Plato or Voltaire or Marx rather than Goethe or that leech Wordsworth be used for the foundations and the load-bearing walls?)

But I digress. Haňt'a loves books but what horrifies him is not the thought of having to destroy them - on the contrary, he dreams for his retirement of buying off the press and continuing the work in his garden - but rather the attitude of the new crews, who do so efficiently and dispassionately, without intelligence nor conscience.
For thirty-five years I’d lived with, lived through, a daily Sisyphus complex, the kind so beautifully described for me by Messrs. Sartre and Camus, especially the latter: the more bales driven out of my courtyard, the more wastepaper filled my cellar, whereas the Brigade of Socialist Labour at Bubny was always on schedule. Now they were back at work, nicely tanned, […] they just went on working, pulling covers off books and tossing the bristling, horrified pages on the conveyor belt with the utmost calm and indifference, with no feeling for what the book might mean, no thought that somebody had to write the book, somebody had to edit it, somebody had to design it, somebody had to set it, somebody had to proofread it, somebody had to make the corrections, somebody had to read the galley proofs, print the book, and somebody had to bind the book, and somebody had to pack the books into boxes, and somebody had to do the accounts, and somebody had to decide that the book was unfit to read, and somebody had to order it pulped, and somebody had to put all the books in storage, and somebody had to load them onto the truck, and somebody had to drive the truck here, where workers wearing orange and baby-blue gloves tore out the book’s innards and tossed them onto the conveyor belt, which silently, inexorably jerked the bristling pages off to the gigantic press to turn them into bales, which went on to the paper mill to become innocent, white, immaculately letter-free paper, which eventually would be made into other, new, books. (pp. 68-69)
A book is an object, but an object like no other, and Haňt'a’s loving and self-appointed caretakership is a tribute to that. But suddenly his job too is brutally recycled, transformed, stripped of all extraneous meaning, and he is dispatched to a printing press to make bales of blank paper. ‘I, who couldn’t live without the prospect of rescuing a beautiful book from the odious waste, I would be compacting immaculately, inhumanly clean paper!’ (p. 79) In the interest of not giving away the ending I shall refrain from telling you how Haňt'a responds to this horrifying prospect, except to say it involves one last trip to his beloved subterranean press, there to lie amongst his beloved rejects one final time.

Hrabal's grave in the village of Hradištko. Image credit.
Wait, I did give it away, didn’t I? No matter. Hrabal himself left us enigmatically at the age of 82 when he fall from a fifth-floor window of the Bulovka Hospital whilst feeding some pigeons. He, who had written many times of suicides jumping off the fifth floor of buildings. Make of that what you will, and also of Haňt'a’s little story, written with an understandable surplus of bitterness but also more than a little joy and humour by an author who might have regarded himself as just that, a man in a hole with a shovel, a waste citizen, or a furtive presence in the undergrounds of Prague (mostly a cellar and the sewers, though, nothing too romantic).

Then came 1989 and the publication of those of his works that were still banned in Czechoslovakia, later even a film adaptation of Too Loud a Solitude (in which he starred, already an octogenarian, as 'man with trolley'), nearly three decades after Jiří Menzel’s brilliant Closely Watched Trains. Another adaptation is in the works, this time with puppetry and animation, and you can follow its somewhat uncertain status here. Oh, and there is a graphic novel, too.

I take all this persistent interest to mean that this little novel, timely in spite or perhaps thanks to its forcibly delayed publication, has hit a raw nerve in this, the twilight of the age of print. Perhaps it bears a sense that the book really is a building block, a piece of cultural masonry, and that we need to understand how it fits in our architectures of knowledge before (whilst?) we dismantle them and rebuild them.

Ready to turn into an immaculately, inhumanly blank page at the touch of a button.
We’re going to hear a lot over the next decade, as most assuredly we have already begun to, from TED speakers and tech gurus about outdated business models and necessary ways forward, and why the printed book is an obstacle to the spread of knowledge, an accident of history that needs to make way for the new. They’ll call it perhaps the power of publishing without publishers, and there will be some truth and some value in their ideas. But as a mental exercise, and to get the sceptical juices flowing and memory in its proper gear, I think I shall always pause for a second and mentally replace their garb with the orange uniforms and baby-blue gloves of the Brigade of Socialist Labour at Bubny.
Gone were the days of small joys, of finds, of books thrown away by mistake: these people represented a new way of thinking. Even if each of the workers took home one book from each printing as payment in kind, it wouldn't be the same, it would still be the end of us, the old guard, because we were all educated unwittingly.

Bohumil Hrabal. Too Loud a Solitude (tr. Michael Henry Heim). London, Abacus, 1993.
James Wood. ‘Bohumil Hrabal’.
The London Review of Books, 4 January 2001.
Mats Larsson. ‘Bohumil Hrabal - the Close Watcher of Trains’ (trans. Kathryn Boyer). The Art Bin.

There is a gallery of sorts for this post, here. Some extended quotations and a couple more images.