Adapted from a talk originally given at the Computers and the Human Conversation Conference, Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon, March 16, 1991
For a period of time last year on each end of our town, like compass points, there was a mausoleum of books. On the north end of town a great remainder warehouse flapped with banners that promised 80% off publishers prices. Inside it row upon row of long tables resembled nothing less than those awful makeshift morgues which spring up around disasters. Its tables were piled with the union dead: the mistakes and enthusiasms of editors, the miscalculations of marketing types, the brightly jacketed, orphaned victims of faddish, fickle or fifteen minute shifts of opinion and/or history. There an appliance was betrayed by another (food processor by microwave); a diet guru was overthrown by a leftist in leotards (Pritikin by Fonda); and every would-be Dickens seemed poised to tumble, if not from literary history, at least from all human memory (already gangs of Owen Meanies leer and lean against faded Handmaidens of Atwood).
Upon first looking into such a warehouse—forty miles east of our spare parts, bible belt midwest town, in what we outlanders think of as wonderful Ann Arbor; we thought only a university town could sustain this. When the same outfit opened up in our town, and the tables were piled not with the leavings of Ann Arborites but with towers of the same texts, we knew this was a modern day circus. Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages! here come the books!
Meanwhile, at the opposite pole in the second mausoleum, a group termed the Friends of the Library regularly sell off tables of what shelves can no longer hold. One hundred years of Marquez is too impermanent for the permanent collection of our county library, but so too— at least for the branches which feed pulp back to this trunk—so too is the Human Comedy, so too are the actual Dickens or Emily Dickinson. The book here must literally earn its keep.
Both the remainder morgue and the friends of the library mortuary are examples of production/distribution gone radically wrong. Books—and films and television programs and software, etc.—have become what cigarettes are in prison, a currency, a token of value, a high voltage utility humming with options and futures. It is not necessary to have read them. Rather we are urged to imagine what they could mean to us; or, more accurately, to imagine what we would mean if we were the kind of people who had read them.
This is to say that the intellectual capital economy has to some extent abandoned the idea of real, material value for one of utility. This abandonment is not unlike the kind that in a depressed real estate market leaves so-called “worthless” condos as empty towers in whose shadowy colonnades the homeless camp. Ideas of all sorts have their fifteen minute warholian half-life and then dissipate, and yet their structures remain. We have long ago stopped making real buildings in favor of virtual realities and holograms. The book has lost its privilege. For those who camped in its shadows, for the culturally homeless, this is not necessarily a bad thing. No less than the sitcom or the Nintendo cartridge, the book too is merely a fleeting, momentarily marketable, physical instantiation of the network. And the network, unlike the tower,is ours to inhabit.
In the days before the remote control television channel zapper and modem port we used to think network meant the three wise men with the same middle initial: two with the same last name, NBC and ABC, and their cousin CBS. Now we increasingly know that the network is nothing less than what is put before us for use. Here in the network what makes value is, to echo the poet Charles Olson, knowing how to use yourself and on what. Networks build locally immediate value which we can plug into or not as we like. Thus the network redeems time for us...