Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Technology and materiality: books as a socio-technical system

Source: Demotivation

I love this image, which is going around the net at the moment. It's clearly been produced by those who value books as a medium. It speaks (to me) of the way that books can expand horizons and minds; but also of the simplicity of the technology of a book compared to an e-reader or PC screen. I think (from the caption and the way it's been discussed online) that we're supposed to draw the conclusion that paper books are simple and e-books are complex, but that books expand the mind hugely.

Well, yes and no. Books are a huge part of my life, and always have been since I was a small child. But they're not a simple object. Here's a list of some of the people involved in getting a book into the hands of that child: librarians, publishers, authors, designers, illustrators, editors, printers, distributors, etc etc. (And of course that's just a focus in terms of people - there are plenty of technologies and organisations that could appear in this list.) The technology of a book may be simple, but there's still a complex web of people involved in making a book possible - a book is a socio-technical system just as much as a Kindle.

I'm deeply grateful to their existence - perhaps especially librarians since when I was the boy in that picture, the books mostly were made available to me through libraries. Just thinking about the effect of books on my life, and the many people who've made that possible, makes me very moved.

Since I read Katherine Hayles' How we become posthuman, and Juanita Foster-Jones' excellent chapter on  information and libraries in Perspectives on Information (which I coedited with David Chapman), I keep coming back to the materiality of information. Ideas don't exist in isolation. They always have a material form - and the nature of that form fundamentally affects the experience of the ideas.