Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Embodying information artifacts and information labor

There's an interesting little essay over at Inside Higher Ed today by anthropologist Alex Golub on a topic that my class on US library history has been debating recently: the benefits and drawbacks of paper-based information artifacts (like books) versus digital information artifacts (like online journals). Golub nicely points out that one might reasonably appreciate both physical and virtual modes of information production, distribution, and consumption, for differing reasons:

I am a digitally-enabled, network-ready scholar. I check e-mail and browse the Web. I read RSS feeds. I leverage Web 2.0’s ambient findability to implement AJAX-based tagsonomy-focused long-tail wiki content alerting via preprint open-access e-archives with social networking services. I am so enthusiastic about digital scholarship that about a year ago I published a piece in my scholarly association’s newsletter advocating that we incorporate it into our publications program. The piece was pretty widely read. At annual meetings I had colleagues tell me that they really like it and are interested in digital scholarship but they still (and presumably unlike me) enjoy reading actually physical books. This always surprised me because I love books too, and it never occurred to me that an interest in digital scholarship meant turning your back on paper. So just to set the record straight, I would like to state in this (admittedly Web-only) public forum that I have a deep and abiding passion for paper: I love it. Love it.

But the thing that interests me about Golub's essay is that he speaks not only of information artifacts, but of information labor with and through those artifacts -- how labor itself has qualities both virtual and embodied, which we often take for granted:

Paper has a corporeality that digital texts do not. For instance, have you ever tried to find a quote in a book and been unable to remember whether it was on the left or right hand side of the page? This just a trivial example of way in which paper’s physicality is the origin of its utility.

And of course professors have bodies too. This is another way that scholarship is embodied — we often do it while in libraries. Here our bodies are literally in a vast assemblage of paper with its own unique form of usability. And as scholars achieve total communion with the stacks, they find books based not just on catalog number, but on all of their senses. The fourth floor of the library I wrote my Ph.D. in sounded and smelled differently than the second did. How many of us — even the lab scientists — with Ph.D.’s will ever be able to forget the physical layout of the libraries where we wrote our dissertations?

Golub goes on to point out that information artifacts -- especially physical, print artifacts -- help us structure and define the very space and time of our work and leisure environments, and become wrapped up with our identities as information consumers and information producers:

Our collections of physical, paper texts do not only help explain who we are to ourselves, they signal this to our visitors. When my guests first enter my apartment and make a beeline to my shelves they are actually learning more about me. When they admire my copy of Roscher and Knies I am learning something about them. When they spot my first edition of Ricky Jay’s Cards as Weapons or Scatological Rites Of All Nations I know that I have found a true soul mate. I am convinced that this is somehow more important than finding out that the professor in the office next to me reads the same cat blogs that I do.

It seems to me that considering issues like these of labor, space, and even identity constitute a much more productive way of thinking about the dialectic between print and virtual information than the "either-or" arguments that are so easy to engage in (and which, admittedly, sometimes I foster in my own classes on the subject).

For example, Nicholson Baker's popular and controversial (at least within library, information studies, and archival fields) book _Double Fold_ seems to be in a sense entirely about the same print-based versus screen-based personal identity construction that Neil Postman talked about in his book _Amusing ourselves to death_. Baker talks mainly about the battle for space and funding in libraries and the rationalization for microfilming and then destroying printed texts in order to secure that space and funding. And Postman is mostly interested in the effects of consuming screen-based information rather than print-based information, especially the effects on the public's ability to engage in rational debate. (Much of this debate could probably be traced back to McLuhan, in fact.)

But both of these texts raise questions about information production as well -- the way moving among printed materials itself becomes part of our conception of ourselves as knowledge producers, knowledge "miners," knowledge organizers. That's not to say one can't produce, "mine," or organize knowledge in a virtual environment as well. But we are bodies in space and time, like it or not, and I have to believe that over the long term the way we work, and the way we build individual and collective meaning from that work, must change in relation to the spatiality, temporality, and materiality of that work.

P.S. As I'm writing this I'm also proctoring a final exam in a basement classroom which has become a temporary holding pen for books being moved out of a small department library which is itself being transformed into more of a "wired workspace" than a set of print stacks. I am not at all against this transition, which is being performed carefully and professionally. But ironically, the colleagues who teach regularly in this classroom tell me they want the rejected books to stay here -- not only for their sound-deadening properties, but because they give the room a different "feel." I guess it takes a trained anthropologist to recognize that the "feel" of such spaces might really matter in substantive ways to the value that is produced in and through those spaces.

1 comment:

Aaron said...

I think it's worth thinking about what we mean, both technically and culturally, by "the screen." If it's being used in the Postmanian sense, we're basically talking about television. But the technical limitations of TV (of non-HD TV, at least) have a lot to do with how text is used on that screen. Our computer screens (or microfilm readers, for that matter) are much more adept as text media, and I think that's a big part of why the Web has become a functioning mass medium based largely on text content.

And as a counterweight to Golub, I find that the mass nature of print diminishes somewhat the comeraderie I might feel for somebody with the same reading tastes as me -- although maybe that says more about my reading tastes than about print as a medium. I can say, though, that when I found out last semester that a classmate had been part of the same now-defunct Web forum as myself several years ago, I thought that was really cool. Also, anytime I meet someone who remembers Suck for any reason other than having recently read a profile of Ana Marie Cox, that perks me up a little. Part of it is the participatory community nature of the Web (or parts of the Web), but part of it is simply the severe fragmenting of content online. If there are 80 bazillion channels out there, and you've picked the same one(s) as me, well, I know you've got to be similar to me in some important way.