The Future of the Book

Duguid, Paul - Material Matters: Aspects of the past and futurology of the book

Notes - Garnet Hertz
Updated 21 April 2007

General Thoughts

Duguid proposes two futurological tropes in the development and adoption of new media forms: supersession and liberation.  He explains that these two tropes are paradoxical since they believe that freedom of technology can be achieved through technology.

This text is a useful source in the study of theories of media change, and is cited by Thoreburn & Jenkins (2003).

Material matters: The past and the futurology of the book. P. Duguid. Posted online at This paper was first published in The Future of the Book, ed. G. Nunberg, Berkeley, Ca: University of California Press, 1996.


[63] {future, futurology, end, death, birth, start} If nothing else, futurologists do have a habit of announcing both deaths and births prematurely.

[63] {prediction, predictions, forward, back, backward, past, failure} The forward thrust of predictions tends to insist we don't look back. But past predictions, particularly failed predictions like these, deserve more attention than they get. The point of reexamining them, though, is not to gloat. Rather, it's to understand where predictions go wrong.

[64] {supersession, door, hinge, future, social, technology, simplicity, complexity} The supersession of the simple hinge by automated sliding technology long ago became a visual synecdoche for the triumph of the future. Yet while the sliding door still appears on the futurological screen, the millennia-old manual hinge endures all around us (even on our laptop computers and cell phones). One reason it survives, I suggest, is that despite its technological simplicity, time has given the hinge a rich social complexity that those who foresee its imminent demise fail to appreciate.

[64] {pencil, hinge, door, typewriter, forecasting, technology, complexity, social, social-material complex, Williams} The survival of pencils and hinges (and even typewriters), long after the development of alternatives, argues that, in forecasting technological conquests and describing the march of technological complexity, we have a tendency to underestimate what Raymond Williams calls the "social-material complex" of technologies are only a part.

[65] {Benjamin, Angel of History, history, future, past, technology, technology's angel} If, as Benjamin suggests, the Angel of History goes backwards into the future, "face turned towards the past" and wreckage piling at its feet, technology's angel usually advances facing determinedly the other way, trying to sweep objects and objections from its path.

[65] {futurological tropes, future, tropes, old, new, supersession, liberation, information, technology, media} In particular, any idea that old technologies can tell us anything about new ones has been discouraged by two futurological tropes (supported in varying degrees by critical theory) that I intend to examine in some detail. The first is the notion of supersession -- the idea that each new technological type vanquishes or subsumes its predecessors: "This will kill that", in the words of Victor Hugo's archdeacon that echo through debates about the book and information technology. The second is the claim of liberation, the argument or assumption that the pursuit of new information technologies is simultaneously a righteous pursuit of liberty. Liberationists hold, as another much-quoted aphorism has it, that "information wants to be free" and new technology is going to free it.

[65-66] {supersession, postmodernism, liberation, enlightenment, technology, progress, freedom} ...cultural arguments for supersession lean heavily on the language of postmodernism, while liberationists' arguments about emancipation are laden with the ideas of postmodernism's great antipathy, "the enlightenment project". And second, technological ideas of supersession understandably expect progress through technology, while liberation looks for freedom from it.

[66] {supersession, liberation, information, technology, media} In general, both supersession and liberation assume that information stands aloof from the technology that carries it.

[66-67] {prediction, future, futurology, Toeffler, paradigm, break, shift, Negroponte, future shock, progress, culture} Of course, futurological predictions that the past is slipping into irrelevance encompass much more than just books. Following Toffler's announcement that society was crossing the greatest divide since barbarism gave way to civilization (a change driven, as he saw it, by the "great growling engine of technology"), the rhetoric of technological revolution and dismissals of the ancien régime have become quite unexceptional. Talk of breaks and disconnections, of paradigm shifts and social transformations, of waves and generations, and of disjunctions between old and new abounds. It's now merely a reflex, more obligatory than provocative, for Negroponte to tell us we're entering a "radically new culture" propelled by the technological movement from "atoms to bits". Under the cumulative weight of these proclamations, it becomes increasingly easy to believe that to fall behind in the technological race is to fall behind the human race. Technology's path, in this view, is "inevitable and unavoidable" Negroponte tells us. To demur or look back could be a symptom of "lunacy" according to Lanham, of isolation "in a quaint museum of the intellect" in the view of Feigenbaum and McCorduck, or of clinical "Future shock", those morbid symptoms of the inadequate individual in the face of progress.

[67] {Jameson, break, continuity, discontinuity, Jameson, postmodernism, supersession} in Jameson's words, postmodernism "looks for breaks" and when it finds them it usually portrays them in suitably supersessive terms.

[68] {marketing, supersession, sales, economics, obsolete, creative destruction} of supersession are, above all else, a significant marketing ploy.

[69] {history, supersession, Bate, Bloom, Williams, Toulmin} Dismissals of history always recall the history of dismissal. Claims of supersession have, in fact, a well-documented history mapped by, among others, Walter Jackson Bate, Harold Bloom, Raymond Williams, and Stephen Toulmin.

[69] {Bate, past, burden, history, new, supersession, technology, innovation, preservation, old, culture} Bate's study (1979: 4 passim) traces various strategies for dealing with the "burden of the past", and claims of supersession and new beginnings are among the most significant. Moreover, Bate notes an intriguing relation between such cultural claims and technological innovation. He suggests that whenever techniques of cultural preservation (the development of printing, libraries, and museums, for example) improve, the perceived increase in the cultural burden prompts a new generation to try to find ways to throw off the old.

[69-70] {Williams, pastoral, past, simplicity, complexity, present} If the past cannot easily be physically burned to the ground, it can at least be theoretically or ideologically reduced to ashes. Raymond Williams explores ways in which this has been done. Tracing ideas of temporal disjunction back to Heisod, Williams (1973: 1-33) shows that claims about the utter newness of the new long antedate both postmodernism and modernism.[18] (Declaration of separation may actually be one of the ties that perennial binds one generation to another. So regularly do generations insist on their utter newness that the first to be truly different may in fact be the generation that does not claim this distinction.) Within this tradition, certain ways of dismissing the past recur. In particular, as Williams argues, the past is repeatedly portrayed in a version of "pastoral" that extracts idyllic and simple aspects of an easlier age only to contrast them with the assumed complexity and sophistication of the present.[19]

[70-71] {decay, technology, technological superiority, supersession, digital, bits, atoms, obsolete, photography, printing press, materiality, paper} While our technological superiority has long been taken for granted, high acid paper and silver nitrate film are silently destroying significant regions of twentieth-century cultural production with much more success than Marinetti had with the nineteenth. Meanwhile, the rapid predatory supersession of both hardware and software is rendering recently created digital documents and archives inaccessible or unreadable. To save significant products of our digital being, we may have to move, some suggest, from bits back to atoms.

[71] {archive, paper, digital, media archaeology} Just as archivists are now resurrecting apparently otiose paper documents to help fathom unreadable digital archives, so we may need to reassess earlier communicative artefacts and forms to revive some of the newer ones.

[71] {supersession, history, seam, break, smooth, striated} Claims of supersession, for instance, often escape portraying history as seamless only by the factitious insertion of a single seam, which often falls just behind the claimant.

[72] {supersession, break, past, future, new, origin, technology, critical theory} To the extent that technological and critical-theoretical triumphalism declares a supersessive break between past and future, it implicitly makes itself the new origin.

[73] {technology, supersession, gap, } Technological supersession too easily suggests that there will be no space left empty, no gaps or breaches to worry about, and (as I argue in the following section) that all technological change is progress towards the removal of privilege.

[73] {Leo Marx, technology, dystopia, freedom, liberty, surveillance, liberation} Leo Marx has argued that, unless protected by claims for simultaneous emancipation, deterministic visions of technological development quickly turn dystopian. Information technology in particular is often painted as either the panopticon or the beacon of liberty.

[73] {supersession, liberation, Brand, information, freedom} So where statements about supersession are often muted, the cry of liberation tends to ring clear. Hence the wide currency of Stuart Brand's extravagant aphorism that "information wants to be free"...

[75] {media, book, liberation, incarceration, incarnation, materiality} The book, no longer its incarnation, has been reduced to the incarceration of the word.

[76-77] {liberation, supersession, paradox, technology, war, weapon, futurology, optimism} The argument that supersession and liberation belong together rests on the paradoxical prediction that freedom from technology can be achieved through technology... The desire for a technology to liberate information from technology is not far from the search for a weapon to end all weapons or the war to end all wars. The idea that the latest weapon is an agent of peace, that the latest putsch will be the last is seductive. But ultimately it is both corrupting and misleading. As with so much optimistic futurology, it woos us to jump by highlighting the frying pan and hiding the fire.

[78] {information, information theory, technology, materiality, media} Rather than thinking of wine in bottles, each of which has a separate identity, information and technology can be more usefully considered as mutually constitutive and ultimately indissoluble. Apt images then would be rivers and banks, Yeats's example of dancer and dance, or Newman's of light and illumination: you don't get one without the other.

[78] {information, technology, materliality, media, carrier, book, digital, analog} In the end all information technologies and the information they carry -- whether made from trees and cows or sand and petroleum -- are not independent, but interdependent.

[82] {technology, information, materiality, media, validation, Lyotard, legitimacy} The implication that technologies are just conduits for information produced elsewhere both denies the material role technologies play in producing information and... assumes that information has an inherent shape and integrity independent of the system in which it is produced and consumed. Information is taken to be self-sufficient, self-explanatory, and self-legitimating. Yet, as Lyotard notes, legitimation is always a central problem for information. Liberationists give information the burden of guaranteeing its own legitimacy, putting it in the position of Epimendes asserting (or even denying) the Cretan paradox. But information cannot so validate itself.

[83] {long tail, Toeffler, demassification} Borrowing a portmanteau word coined by Toffler and packing a little more into it, I call the first problem the paradox of demassification. Demassification refers to the increasing ease with which socially complex technologies can be made not just for broad masses of people, but for small groups and individuals.

[88] {technology, determinism, supersession, liberation, social, material, social-material, materiality, practice} own argument insists that technology alone cannot drive us into this privatised corner and that it is particularly important to look beyond the rhetoric of determinism, supersession, and liberation to the actual social-material practices that are developing.

[89] {technology, history, context, supersession, information, past, future, culture} We should, for example, look not technology in isolation, but at its social-material and historical context. Enlarging our viewpoint in this way sets aside ideas of simple supersession (the separation of the past from the future) or liberation (the separation of information from technology) and avoids quasi-Weberian dichotomies between, for instance, progressive technological logic and regressive social illogic or between technologically tractable constraints and socially useful resources. Instead, we discover that the technological and the cultural, constraint and resource are finely and inextricably interwoven.

[92] {information, freedom, Brand, wine, bottles} The aphorism "information wants to be free", often quoted, is attributed to Brand in J. Barlow, "Selling Wine Without Bottles: The Economy of Mind on the Global Net" [Available FTP (or Telnet): Directory: \Pub\Publications: John_Perry_Barlow: idea_economy.article]

[93] {supersession, liberation, technology} The combination of supersession and liberation suggest that technology must simultaneously be present and wish itself absent. This view entails that the information to be self-sustaining and the technology self-consuming.

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