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<nettime> ?I work here, but I am cool.? (Interview with Alan Liu)
geert on Fri, 24 Feb 2006 10:10:45 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> ?I work here, but I am cool.? (Interview with Alan Liu)


'I work here, but I am cool.'
Interview with Alan Liu
By Geert Lovink

Good books not just tell, they create history. In my case this happened to Alan
Liu's The Laws of Cool, subtitled Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information.
Ever since I found it in a New York bookstore, late 2004, I carried it with me on
planes, trains, on the bike--and remained puzzled about its analytic density. The
Law of Cool is a so-far unnoticed classic of new media theory that is not a hurry
to show off its relevance. The Laws of Cool proved hard to finish, and even harder
to put aside. I got the feeling that I might have had enough of it, yet the book
wasn't ready with me. What fascinates me is its unusually quiet, untimely style.
The Laws of Cool is a thick and comprehensive University of Chicago Press
humanities study by a Wordsworth scholar who digs deep into the contemporary
conditions of knowledge production. As Liu writes, the Cool has always bordered to
the Cold. The writer did not get carried away by the Latest or the Obvious. Liu,
an Californian UC Santa Barbara professor and web editor of Voice of the Shuttle
(http://vos.ucsb.edu/), writes theory from a broad range of perspectives. The Law
of Cool is hard to compare with the Deleuzian MIT Press titles and is light years
away from the ordinary cyberculture readers. It studies business management
bestsellers as serious literature, takes further elements of hypertext theory,
explains the attraction to uselessness and the arbitrary, interpretes HLML
language,??analyses the cyberlitertarian ideology and maps the shift from 'power
to the people' to 'power to the individual'.??Like it or not, cool is the
antipolitics of information and 'bad attitude' is the constitutional gesture.

What makes Liu's study so unique is his redefinition of the contemporary time
scale. Liu discusses 1920s typography, quotes from Processed World and the
Hackers' Dictionary and writes about Jodi as if it is 1996. This study of the
'cultural life of information' focusses on life at the US campus. It investigates
the corporatization and computerization of academia and its impact on the
humanities. Liu: 'It might be said, with Kafkaesque irony: I went to sleep one day
a cultural critic and woke up the next metamorphosed into a data processor.' Liu
calls for an update of Stephen Greenblatt's study on Renaissance self-fashioning,
and produces a number of useful elements for such undertaken. But, before we
re-awake in a New Age, we have to reconcile with destruction in the name of
innovation and creative arts.  Are you ready to slough off yesterday?

??

Liu's motto is 'I work here, but I am cool.' In an Ascribe press release he
explains the cool attitude like this: 'I am not so cool as to actively rebel or
quit, but I am just cool enough to be slightly kinky in the web pages I browse at
work, I'm not quite subversive, but my behavior asserts that I'm me and not just
part of this corporation or that team.' Liu doesn't get excited about this or that
future scenario, nor is he interested in a deconstruction of the hype and spin
that so characterizes the computer and Internet industry. Instead, he observes the
behavioral patterns of 'head work' that perform a subtle play around the ethos of
refusal and resistance. A glimpse at Slashdot will tell you what this often
misunderstood attitude is about. Cool starts to rise when unproductive elements
come into play, 'destructive creativity' plays up and counter-systems of 'style'
develop. 'What is really cool, after all,' Liu asks. 'At the moment of truth on
the coolest Web sites'when such sites are most seriously, deeply cool'no
information is forthcoming. Cool is the aporia of information. In whatever form
and on whatever scale (excessive graphics, egregious animation, precious slang,
surplus hypertext, and so on), cool is information designed to resist information,
a paradoxical 'gesture' by which an ethos of the unknown struggles to arise in the
midst of knowledge work.' Cool is an ethos of information. It is the moment of
awareness of the information interface. It is the wellknown moment of revelation
when you no longer look through a window and instead look at the window frame.
Cool, so Liu, gives the knowledge worker the hope of 'personality'.

??

GL: What makes your book so special is the somewhat different time frame that you
use. The Laws of Cool is neither historical in it is approach, in the sense that
it spans centuries, like media archeology does, nor does it stick to the
ever'present now, as new media theory often does. These days we hardly find
references to 1980s computer culture, but for you that seems like yesterday. How
come? Do you practice a hermeneutics of the digital everyday?

??

AL: "Hermeneutics of the digital everyday" is a nice phrase. My book is in part
about the digital everyday. Every day we go into the cubicle (or office, or
classroom, or Starbucks) and log in to work on our identity, which increasingly
gets swallowed up in some institutional identity or "corporate culture." The kind
of hermeneutics or interpretation I bring to bear on that kind of everyday is
historical.  I try to bring meaning to the digital everyday by breaking down the
hyper-compressed sense of "now" that is its prison (or cubicle) to compare it to
past days. I make a narrative of the genealogy of "knowledge work" and, more
specifically, of the information work that is a kind of carrier wave for knowledge
work. And I use that narrative to make a historical critique. In this critical
narrative, the intermediate "time frame" of the 1980s you point to is pivotal. The
"now" and the far past, I believe, are necessary to each other, but can only be
brought into meaningful engagement if their encounter is staged in a transitional
zone of generational history--the history, that is, of the most recent change
between generations that made us what we are today. Recently, after all,
generational changes (between baby boomers, X's, and now Y's) have been the great
scenes of critique, revision, and sometimes rapprochement. The 1980s witnessed a
generation change simultaneously in society, business culture, intellectual
approaches, and information technology (from the epoch of mainframes to that of
the personal computer and the network). So that becomes the pivot point in my
historical critique of the digital everyday.

??

GL: You write: "Cultural criticism is fundamentally historical." At the same time
History as we know is declared obsolescent.??The history that unfolds is now
partitioned in files and stored in a database. You call for cultural criticism to
become 'ethical hackers' of knowledge work.

??


AL: Your question is interesting to me partly because of the way it is asked.
There is actually no question in your question. No insult intended, but it's as if
you were yourself a database outputting information (a fragment from my book,
sound bites from the culture of obsolescence, etc.). More frightening, you (and I,
too!) are like many professionals today, whether they are information workers,
economists, journalists, bloggers, or professors: we're good at outputting data
without any query (SQL or otherwise) actually having been made by anyone. We call
that knowledge work, which produces a kind of "information overload" from which
corporate culture harvests all its surplus value. (They don't even need to query;
we output!) I play upon the database-like aspects of your question because it's a
way of getting at what my book is about. A long time ago (and, of course, still in
many parts of society today), people had another name for massive information
dumps that occurred spontaneously without any query having been made. They called
it God. It was God, or the gods, who spoke out of the burning bush to tell you
what you didn't even know you needed to ask. Before Oracle, Inc., in other words,
there were oracles.  But since the Enlightenment, secularization, and the many
modern revolutions, that role of the oracle has been renamed History. We know we
are in the presence of history when it preemptively tells us, and enforces upon
us, something we didn't even want to ask about. Gods and history: before we even
know to query or pray, they have their root kit in place. So that accounts for the
perhaps too romantic notion of the "ethical hacker" in my book.

??

It's now unfashionable to summon up prophets who can preempt even the preemptive
force of the gods or history to query, in essence: what have we done that has
called down upon us such a fatal information dump (the Biblical "handwriting on
the wall")? What was the query that we have forgotten? So ethical hackers must
serve in the place of prophets.  Ethical hackers are not just programmers or
engineers, but also humanists, artists, social scientists, scientists, and
occasionally economists, politicians, and media workers, too. Their calling is not
just to query the database of cultural history, but to bring to view the
conditions of critique, speculation, and downright curiosity that allow that
database to speak unannounced, unbeknownst. The risk, of course, is that hackers
of any sort--white or black hat--are just another priesthood, vanguard, or
avant-garde. (So trust only hackers who--on principle, when needed for a greater
good--are willing to turn off their own firewalls and open themselves to being
hacked. Everyone else is just in the techno- or avant-garde priesthood.)

??

GL: Lately I had a short but interesting dispute on the phone. In the midst of a
conversation the lady I talked to used the phrase "knowledge society" and I
objected. I told her that I preferred "information society," despite all its
troubles. She said: "but that term is only used by technocrats." Yes, I answered,
but I like it more, compared to the hyped'up term "knowledge" that, for me, stands
for well'meant, soft exclusion combined with ugly intellectual property right
clauses. Why should others define what knowledge is, and is not? Information is a
much broader term. It's cold and technical, perhaps even anti'human, and leaves
the possibilities. Your book circles around "knowledge work" in the age of
computerization. How do you judge the current knowledge society craze?

??


AL: I think that you were exactly right in your phone conversation with the person
who preferred "knowledge society" to "information society."  "Knowledge" is
supposed to mean a deeper, cohesive, integral, and more spiritually real
apprehension--less a way of knowing, really, than a way of being. Even some
business books (for example, Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline: The Art and
Practice of the Learning Organization) treat it that way. The problem, of course
(paceBourdieu) is that knowledge is also a way of life or lifestyle. I call it in
my book "work style" (lifestyle = work). As such, it is dominated by institutions
that know better than you how to work at knowledge. Such institutions shape
knowledge at the level of workaday protocols ("this is the document format you
will use") and also at the level of overall social protocol ("corporate culture").
Indeed, the power of contemporary institutions is that they enforce a seamless fit
between workaday and cultural protocols. It is all one protocol, which substitutes
for what we used to call culture. In this situation, the apparently reductive,
purely "technical" notion of "information society" is preferable to "knowledge
society." "Information workers" are peons of the knowledge-work regime who don't
always need to conform to the knowledge ideology. Some good engineers and
sysadmins I know are like that. They do their thing without needing to pretend
that they are integral parts of the whole corporate culture of knowledge. On the
one hand, they can be perceived reductively ("just a sysadmin"). But, on the other
hand, they have powers and capabilities that spread out in decentralized ways
beyond the institutional knowledge construct. The so-called "professions" used to
function in that capacity (with their own professional associations and guilds
spreading out beyond any particular company). Now that professionalism has been
increasingly subordinated to corporatism (as in the corporate attorney or
accountant), the techno-people are stepping into the role. They do biz; but, for
example, they also do open source.

??

GL: I don't know of any literary scholars that reads, let alone analyzes business
books and quotes management gurus. Should students of English read Tom Peters, in
much the same way as cultural studies professors require a discourse South Park
analysis? Business magazines were around everywhere in the 90s, but no one seemed
to know how to read them. A 'French' reading perhaps would have failed, but wasn't
even tried. The global social movements at the time focused on foreign policy, WTO
and IMF, not on the techno'libertarian ideology. We're still waiting for Marxian
critiques of the 'creative' knowledge industries. Is your literary criticism
taking the lead?

??

AL: Some of us in literature departments are beginning to "read" business books
closely--my colleague here at UCSB, for example, Christopher Newfield ("Corporate
Culture Wars," Ivy and Industry).  Chris has actually interviewed Tom Peters and
his group. In general, I think that a serious literature department today should
be able to offer a course titled "Contemporary Fiction" in which novels are read
alongside selected works from business, economics, politics, city planning, and
journalism (including medical, scientific, and technological journalism). In a
sense, the search for the "great American novel" is over. The winner is business
literature. I can't easily think of another genre of blended realism and fantasy,
gritty concreteness (case studies, character studies) and sweeping vision,
objective description and moral designs upon our soul that has such wide cultural
impact.

??

It would be facile, however, for literature professors to read business literature
as if it were exactly like a good work of fiction.  Similarly, it would be facile
for cultural studies professors to read such works as if they were just another
kind of popular or consumer media. Seriously to engage with business literature
will require rigorous attention to financial structure, accounting numbers, the
graphic design of annual reports, and--goodness--even the prose of Alan Greenspan.
We are dealing here with producer, rather, than consumer culture. Like many
humanities scholars, I myself can only scratch the surface because I do not have
the numeracy skills, for example, to understand such fictions behind contemporary
corporate maneuvers as the "derivative" and the "leveraged buyout." The dollar (or
Euro), after all, is the most powerful vehicle of imagination or speculation ever
invented. (It's amazing how many things people of even the most pedestrian
imagination can "see" in a hundred-dollar bill!) But humanities scholars tend not
to have the skills to follow the manipulations of dollars beyond the scale of
their own vanishingly small publishing royalties.

??

GL: Five years after you completed most of the manuscript (early 2001), the book
still has a freshness, density and untimely character that fascinates me. Still
you remark in a footnote that it has a definite pre'9/11 quality. The dotcom crash
unfolded when you wrapped it up.  Would you now write it in such a different way?
So many of your topics gained further importance. The 'cool' hasn't cooled off.
Creative industries are still on the rise... then what did change?

??


AL: On the one hand, even while my book is very attuned to our hyper-compressed
"now," as I put it earlier, it is relatively insensitive to what Fernand Braudel
called the short-term l'histoire ??v??nementielle, which, to adapt his metaphor,
is just white crests of waves on top of the deep seas of information history that
we "surf."  But neither do I go back to the millennia-spanninglongue dur??e.
(Albert Borgmann'sHolding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of
the Millenniumis better at that, since he imagines for us the prehistorical,
ancestral state of information.) My book instead goes back to the intervening time
frame that Braudel called "conjunctural" or "cyclical" history (in between the
scales of short-term andlongue dur??ehistory)--which, by the way, coincides with
the "long-cycle" innovation history that economists such as Joseph Schumpeter,
theorist of "creative destruction," specialized in. In that time frame, 2001 does
not make an epochal difference. It only builds on what came before. (When I was
still trying to make a publication deadline of 2000, which I failed to do, I wrote
often in the present tense. Then, when it became clear that the book could not be
finished and published until a few years later, I went back and revised what I had
written about the 2000-2001 moment in the past tense. To tell truth, the book felt
more true to me then. The present tense had imposed an artificial strain, when my
real intent was the continuity of the present with the past.) But, on the other
hand, I cannot deny that the book would have been different if it had been written
mostly after the events of 2001.  As you know, one of the larger chapters in my
book (Chap. 11, "Destructive Creativity: The Arts in the Information Age") inverts
Schumpeter's idea of "creative destruction" to focus on contemporary
"destructivity." I have already begun work on a new book tentatively
titledThinking Destruction(though it is being slowed because I am first trying to
get to the publisher myLocal Transcendence: Essays on Postmodern Historicism and
the Database, which bundles together my essays on historical critique). InThinking
Destruction, I am re-exploring the theory and history of "creativity" from the
perspective of destruction, which has its own structures, processes, and
complex/emergent agendas. So, in answer to your question, myLaws of Coolwould have
been different if written after 2001 because I would have emphasized even more
strongly the need to look at the dark side of the force. Knowledge workers today
say "cool" in the way that a Jedi might say "May the force be with you." But we
need to remember the dark side of the force. Who is Darth Vader, after all, but
the ultimate worker in a cubicle--a cubicle so tight that it is an armored suit?

??

GL: What, except for Microsoft, needs to be destroyed? Macht kaputt was euch
kaputt macht is a famous German punk slogan (destroy what destroys you). However,
the destruction that you talk about can hardly be labeled as punk. At best it's
tinkering, uncovering the dark, but it can also be the kind of adolescent troll
behavior that attracts attention, and aims at the destruction of online social
structures. Can we still make a distinction between us and them, between those
that need to be defeated and others who are the revolutionaries? Isn't the problem
of destructive creativity not also that everything (digital) can and will be
saved, stored and archived? And talking about creative destruction, what do you
see as obsolescent these days? We know what management gurus in the late nineties
want to blow up in terms of old corporate structures but what is there really to
do if want to apply destructive creativity? I often see not much more than
self-destruction or predictable critiques of mainstream media.

??


AL: "Destructivity," as I call it, is a much larger and more interesting
phenomenon than adolescents, artists, intellectuals, and hacktivists performing,
as you suggest, the now predictable acts of mischievous critique and petty kink.
It is a way of participating in a civilization of destruction. As you know, the
great theories of "civilization" in modern times have been dark ones--whether we
think of Weber's vision of bureaucratization, Freud's of repression and
sublimation, Foucault's of discipline, Habermas' of the decoupling of the
"lifeworld," or even Elias Norbert's works on the"civilizing process" and the rise
of "manners. The process of civilization is not the bright, Enlightenment vision
of ever-upward "progress" in which all the main domains of life--intellectual,
social, economic, and cultural--improve together but instead a kind of hostile
take-over of life at large by the rational-economic subsectors of life. That's
what we call corporatization today. Corporatization attempts to sell its own
vision of civilization, which it calls "globalization," on the basis of a kind of
neo-Enlightenment vision of progress, which it calls innovation.

??

It is astounding, for example, how many business books and articles there are with
such titles as "Continuous Innovation," "Radical Innovation," "The Innovative
Enterprise," "The Rise of the Creative Class," "Creativity Under the Gun," and so
on. But a dark interpretation of such civilization would ask: what needs to be
destroyed to make creation possible? Even more interesting, what logics,
structures, and technologies of destruction are embedded so deeply in the process
of creativity itself that they're not just viral; they are part of the DNA of
"creative destruction"? What I call "destructivity" is a way of asking such
questions and, on that basis, proposing ethical as well as tactical "best
practices" for participating in the civilization of creative destruction. So, to
come back to adolescents (we call them "students"), artists, intellectuals, and
hacktivists: such people are often like the old Processed Worldcollective I write
about at one point in my book, who wrote critiques and played merry, situationist
pranks against institutionalized knowledge work while simultaneously eking out a
living in office cubicles. Such people--who can easily be mocked, but can just as
easily be cherished as the carriers of our collective best hopes and dreams--stake
out their identity at the margins of the major power institutions, neither fully
in nor fully out. Under the title of "destructivity," I want to provide a more
useful rationale for how and why such people can best participate in the major
institutions of knowledge work that, in one way or another, they have to engage
with anyway. In this regard, the old post-May-1968 choice between staying true to
the revolution and "selling out" seems to me terrifically unuseful in giving
people a reason to situate themselves in the world of life and action.

??

A better rationale might be framed by the question: "If you see that corporate
life is destructive when it tries to 'civilize' the globe, can you do a better job
of managing that destruction?" That is, the corporations may advertise for
innovation managers (called "designers"), but what the civilized world really
needs are destruction managers. How can the great processes of destructive
creation driving globalization today with all its myriad social, economic,
political, religious, environmental, and cultural effects best be managed so as to
blunt its worst tendencies and, despite itself, to evolve emergent, new ways of
sustaining what the classical philosophers once called the "good life"? So my
message to the adolescents doing the whole net, hack, and porn thing in their
bedroom is: instead of staging trick acts of destruction from the outside, can you
find a way to manage destruction from the inside for a larger social good? The
role of artists, intellectuals, and educators, it seems, to me is to educate those
adolescents to the point where they can see that there are larger, and
socially-good, ways in which they can contribute to our civilization of
destruction. That's what education today means. Let's face it, educators today are
training the cadres of those destined to work inside the knowledge work machine
(this isn't the 1960's when some educators fantasized that they were training
people to "drop out" of the system). I want to place students inside the system
who can better manage our civilization of destruction.

??

GL: Much of your book is devoted to the corporatization of the university. You
must have seen a fair bit of decline, or "change" as the business rhetoric calls
it. You call scholars "middle managers".  Academy has lost its "supreme
jurisdiction over knowledge". Can it reclaim such position? What can we teach
students or then how to best do their "knowledge work". They do not need to be
told how to surf the Net.

??


AL: You touch here on the vexed issue of the role of the university in the age of
knowledge work, which, as you see, I have impatiently already started talking
about. My short answer to your question is that students do"need to be told how to
surf the Net." Otherwise they will end up serving just the particular versions of
the net that the great institutions and nations of our day have in mind. I don't
mean that students should be counter-indoctrinated in any left- or
cultural-critical understanding of information technology, knowledge-work society,
and the university's role in all that (as if that would work!). I mean that
training in critical and ethical action for networked society (what I theorized as
the "best practices" management of destruction) can only be built on top of what
students really need to learn: knowledge not just "of" the tools/skills needed to
succeed in contemporary society but also "about" those tools/skills.  They can
make up their own minds about how best to use their tools and skills if we can
only teach such tools fully enough that the technical, social, cultural,
aesthetic, ethical, and historical context surrounding their invention and
implementation (as in the recent controversies about the trustworthiness of
Wikipedia) come into view.

??

Currently, for example, I am leading a collaborative project in the University of
California system called "Transliteracies," whose goal is to "improve" online
reading practices with an awareness (historical, social, aesthetic, and
computational) of what "improvement" might mean.  This project involves
understanding what actually happens when students "surf the Net" and what kinds of
new, untapped intelligences lurk in what might otherwise be called shallow, broad,
casual, quick, or lateral browsing/searching. If we can understand better what
happens when we surf the net (specifically, when we read online text in adaptive
relation to new media and networked environments), then perhaps we can build tools
and skills that give users, including students, a better chance of surfing the net
to gain knowledge, as opposed to just doing knowledge work. Knowledge involves a
self-reflexive circuit in which what we know is mediated by what we know about
howwe know. Today, universities should not only teach such recursive knowledge at
a high, intellectual level ("no data without exposing the metadata" is my slogan)
but also intervene at the level of the tools and source code that make knowledge
possible.

??

Companies like Google, Amazon, and Adobe are innovating wonderfully in online
reading, for example; but there is also a necessary role for the fully
multi-disciplinary, historical, and social-good perspective that is only possible
(among today's major social institutions) in the university. Keep in mind that the
distance between research and end-user in the university is extremely short. The
divide between research and teaching in the university is a clich?? that is not
really true. Everyday, researchers in the university have to face that lecture
hall of uncomprehending, bored, or suspicious students--end-users, in other words,
at the most formative, vulnerable, yet (paradoxically) also shielded point in
their lives. And so, ethically and pragmatically, the researcher-teachers of the
university need to collaborate to create the tools that allow knowledge actually
to work, which is to say, to be shared. (True knowledge work = knowledge sharing).
I've been thinking about the issue of the university and society for a long time,
and you pressed the hot button.

??

GL: Do you find it justified to talk about a Web 2.0 wave? What could be the
theoretical tools, for humanity scholars, to analyse blogs and social networks
such as Orkut, Flickr and MySpace? Most net artists and activists that I know,
can't deal with the subject formation that's happening inside those networks. They
don't want to write a personal diary and don't feel going to a dating site after
work.

??


AL: Our Transliteracies project is beginning to collect for study in its Research
Clearinghouse some of the tools that people have invented to analyze online social
networking (http://transliteracies.english.ucsb.edu/category/
online'social'networks'tools'for'analyzing/). The social and collective dimension
of online reading is one of the project's main concerns. In general, though, I am
highly skeptical of the "Web 2.0" hype.  There are two reasons for this. One goes
back to the issue of history on which our interview started. "Web 2.0" is all
about a generation-change in the history of the Web, but from a perspective that
is looking at what is happening right now, as opposed to what was happening during
the previous generational change (the "1980s" we discussed earlier). It's not
clear that we can really describe a generation change of this magnitude and
complexity while we are in the midst of the change itself, except to say that
"something" is happening that a future generation may decide is qualitatively
different. After all, when people speak of Web 2.0, they are actually referring to
a swarm of many kinds of new technologies and developments that are not all
necessarily proceeding in the same direction (for example, toward
decentralization, open content creation and editing, Web-as-service, AJAX, etc.).

??

It's not at all certain, for example, that open content platforms in the style of
blogs, wikis, and content management systems align with a philosophy of
decentralized or distributed control, since many such database- or XML-driven
technologies require a priesthood of backend and middleware coders to create the
underlying systems and templates for the new "open" communications. Just how many
people in the world, for example, can make one of the current generation of
open-source content-management systems (which often start out as blog engines) do
anything that isn't on the model of "post"-and-"category" or chronological
posting? Even the more trivial exercise of re-skinning such systems (with a fresh
template) requires a level of CSS knowledge that is not natural to the user base.
So saying that we are making the change from Web 1.0 to 2.0 is like saying that a
swarm behavior is definitely moving in a single direction, when in fact it may be
moving in several contradictory directions at once. (It's not accidental, by the
way, that many of the best known statements or conferences about Web 2.0 have
relied on examples rather than generalizations. For example, Web 2.0 is "Flickr or
MySpace.")

??

My second reason for being skeptical about 'Web. 2.0"--at least the hype about
it--is more important. I think that people who make a big deal out of Web 2.0 are
trying to take a shortcut to get out of needing to understand the real generation
changes that are happening in the background and that underlie any change in the
Web. Those changes occur in social, economic, political, and cultural
institutions. Let's take the example of Facebook or MySpace, which (like other
social networking systems) are often spoken of as exemplars of Web 2.0. These
systems, of course, are deeply rooted in particular social scenes--especially at
different levels of the educational system (even if MySpace started out in the
music scene). There was recently a mini-scandal at my daughter's school (she's 13)
when it was discovered that many in her class had lied about their age to set up
MySpace pages, where they revealed unguarded details and characterizations about
themselves without full awareness of what it meant to be online. What is happening
in such social scenes as the generations change?

??

Web 2.0 is just a high-tech set of waldo gloves or remote-manipulators that tries
to tap into the underlying social and cultural changes but really requires the
complement of disciplined sociological, communicational, cognitive, visual,
textual, and other kinds of study that can get us closer to the actual phenomena.
That is, thinking that Web 2.0 is cool is just a shortcut because the real scene
of cool lies underneath; and I don't think there are many developers of Web 2.0
technologies who have done the hard social and cultural studies to help them think
about what they are developing. They make a neat system or interface that only
taps into some aspects of the social scene. Then, if there are a lot of hits or
users, their system is said to be a paradigm. But it's hit or miss. There is no
assurance that such technologies are the real, best, coolest, or even most useful
"face," "book," or "space" of people--only that they are the face, book, or space
allowed to surface through a particular lash-up of technologies.  What is
happening underneath is history, in other words, and it is stupid to think that
"Web 2.0" is any better as a formula for that than, for example, the even more
stupid formula, "Generation Y."  Ultimately, I guess, I don't believe in such
concepts as Web 2.0 because I don't believe in People 2.0. (Go to the
transhumanists for that). People live and change in relation to all that gave them
their history as people; and that history is swarming, overlapping, conflicted,
and multidimensional.

??

GL: When I first read about the Transliteracies project I was surprised to see
that was focussing on online reading. That seems so passive, as if the computer is
a mere extension, or hybrid, of the television and the book. There is this widely
shared assumption that the computer is there to produce texts, images and sounds.
A high-quality consumption of the produced content will likely happen elsewhere,
in the cinema, a magazine, the lounge, through your i-pod when you=re on the road.
And then there is the cultural factor that US-citizens spend a lot of time in
front of PCs, whereas other cultures rather do something more social, with family
and friends, out on the street. What are the preassumptions and outcomes of
Transliteracies so far in this respect?

??



AL: I disagree with you here, Geert, though usually we are--as they say--on the
same page. The recent, explosive research in the related fields of "history of the
book," "history of print culture," and "history of reading" shows that reading has
never been a passive task--if by passive we mean the rote usage of information
distributed through well-understood, regulated channels. Consider, for example,
William St Claire's recent Reading Nation in the Romantic Period(2004), which is
an astonishing work of archival recovery and methodological innovation that, for
instance, demonstrates the tremendous variety and inventiveness in the relations
between, on the one hand, publication systems and, on the other, what can only be
called reading systems (including the many kinds of collective reading societies,
book clubs, lending libraries, etc., of the time). Nor is it only the scene of
collective reading that teemed with inventive activity in the past. The individual
reader was inventive as well. Much of the recent research on the transition from
the ages of orality to that of manuscripts and then of print has been about the
way reading changed as a psychological or cognitive activity. And this is not even
to mention the tremendous ferment of "writerly" activity that readers have always
undertaken, including the medieval culture of copying and glossing, the Early
Modern culture of the "commonplace book" (the precursor of today's sampling,
aggregating, etc.), the long history of annotation practices, and so on. It's a
hoax that reading has ever been a passive activity.  And this is even more the
case now in our current moment when we are changing our collective print-reading
practices to adapt to online reading practices, and vice versa.

??

There is no "producer" today in any realm (scholarship, the film industry, the
technology industry, journalism, you name it) who is not first of all a prolific
and creative "reader." Granted that much of this reading occurs in ways that are
quick, distracted, and superficial--that is, not through "deep" or "close" reading
but through scanning, browsing, searching, aggregating, etc. And granted that an
increasing proportion of the works that are read belong to such genres as the
memo, report, spreadsheet, email, Web page, blog post, text message, podcast
audio, and so on. But the premise of Transliteracies is that there are hidden
intelligences and social agendas within such contemporary "superficial"
reading--especially in its network effects--that can be formulated and improved,
both for private and social good. I don't see any reason why corporations like
Google, Amazon, Adobe, and so on should have an oligopoly over developing the
activities (not the passivities) of online reading practices. They do what they do
well. But what are the under-researched and under-developed areas in online
reading technologies, tools, and systems that need to be explored by non-profit
and other social sectors to make the overall framework of online reading more
robust and diverse? I'd like to see universities, governments, NGOs, and others
contribute to that research before everything is graven in stone by the big
business of online reading. So, the short answer to your question is: perhaps only
the corporations want you to believe that reading is passive. Take what they give
you (their systems, their innovations, their file formats and protocols, etc.).
But it ain't so.

??

And as regards "high-quality consumption": I don't actually think it is a done
deal that high-quality consumption always means high-sensory consumption of the
sort you suggest (cinema, glossy mags, iPod, etc.).  For a significant part of the
world, including people who are producers in the knowledge-work economy, it
continues to mean low-sensory text.  We don't even need to go to the old-school
Unix folks for witnesses (all those old postings in the comp.unix.user-friendly or
comp.human-factors newsgroups, for example, about why the Unix command line is
actually more friendly because it gives control instead of illusory ease-of-use).
We just need to consult the "new media" crowd who I think is the immediate
audience of our present interview. Real high-quality consumption for this crowd
means source-code or script view, which is plain-text. And that is not even to
mention the whole new plenum of machine readers (that is, RSS, adaptive
aggregators, "Web services" of different kinds, etc.), which sip the fine wine of
XML directly. These are also paradigms of activetext-reading. Reading
practices--individual, social, and machinic--are where the action is.  Okay, so
you can tell that I am an English professor who grew up reading (to the point
where in childhood my parents had to make rules about how many hours I had to play
outdoors instead of curling up with a book). If Marshall McLuhan was an English
professor who betrayed reading (the "Gutenberg galaxy") to prophesy the new
mediaverse, then I am an English professor who sees a whole new, online textverse
within the mediaverse.




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