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Frank Hartmann: From Bookculture to Netculture

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Subject: From Bookculture to Netculture 
Date: Tue, 13 Jul 1999 08:21:18 +0200
From: Frank Hartmann <>

>From Bookculture to Netculture:
notes on the medial 'logic' of knowledge

Frank Hartmann

Lecture presented at the International Conference
Einstein Forum, Potsdam, 10th July 1999


Science is all about data - the production, the storage, and the transport
of it. As such, sciene depends heavily on media, which take on both an
internal and an external function. The first is to produce a certain
coherence of propositions within each scientific discipline and the second
to transfer knowledge towards its applications within the society. These
two functions serve the aim of science, that is producing knowledge for
the progress in science itself and the reproduction of knowledge in
society as a whole. This task was and still is done mainly through methods
of writing, organizing, and distributing texts - interpretations,
descriptions, propositions, explanations. To produce a scientific thesis
and to get academic gratification means to produce a unique text which can
be refered to, be it a book, a paper, or (at least) some code. Book
culture is the organizing principle of science, and only until recently,
when different media channels based on computer networks opened new ways
and facilities in the reproduction of scientific knowledge, the existence
of this specific book culture as a leading principle for reproducing
scientific knowledge never seriously was put into question. Computers and
the Internet revolution has changed this situation, although humanities in
alliance with publishers are still working on strategies to deny this
fact. However, one can no longer afford to say that this medial turn would
only touch the principles of science, such as dealing with huge quantities
of data. It also affects the humanities which are concerned with
qualitative data, or the intrinsic qualities of interpretations. The
scientific laboratory finds its way into computer simulations as well as
the humanist’s card index, and as media theorist Friedrich Kittler has
remarked recently: both cultures, technologically oriented sciences as
well as culturally oriented ones, for the first time in some three hundred
years in the history of universities and academies are working on the same
equipment. (1) The question probably is not whether there will be a third
culture, but rather, how scientific disciplines will handle a code of
higher complexity, as Vilém Flusser pointed it out: beyond the
distinctions of an alphabetic code on the one side, and a numerical code
on the other. Becoming aware of the "our typographical cultural bias",
said McLuhan in his classic Understanding Media (1964), "we return to the
inclusive form of the icon." In the following remarks, I will try to
reconstruct some of the motives in the design of a future knowledge
culture, which in my opinion does have as much of a scientific relevance
as it has a political one: it concerns the future of collective
intelligence, or social information processing. Only until recently,
theorists of culture and science began discussing "the impact on our daily
life of recent developments in biotechnologies, electronic media and
ecological politics, and how scientific theories and models have been
taken up as cultural metaphors that have material effects in transforming
‘ways of seeing’ and ‘structures of feeling’."(2) The question deriving
from here is the new cultural forms which will be produced when new
knowledges challenge and undermine traditional ways of conceiving the
‘natural’. Especially in the age of cyberspace, we have to acknowledge the
fact of a shaken ontology - we certainly agree that there is a socially
constructed nature of scientific inquiry that determines, for example,
what we consider as nature, but there is a certain hesitation to accept
media - further to language and cognition - as an epistemic category,
which would allow to de-naturalize the categories of cultural knowledge
production. But if we were to do that, then the traditional dualistic
distinction between ‘real’ reality and ‘mediated’ reality becomes
obsolete. I do not want to fathom the extent to which this dualism can be
overcome, and simply state the fact that we can afford no longer to hold
on to the illusion that we might step out of this mediated reality to
reach beyond and touch the ‘real’ reality: instead of representing it,
media in general do not only construct the real, but forces its form into
existence. Futility and speed are characteristics of our age; from the
concepts of simulation to the notions of virtuality we witness a
re-contextualisation of what is called reality through the symbolic
environment or the universe of signs. As Manuel Castells elaborated
sociologically, and further to postmodern Philosophy, a distinct
separation between reality and symbolic representation becomes obsolete:
the Medial Turn is one towards the "culture of real virtuality". The
Network Society which is organised around the electronic integration of
all communication modes thus producing immersive forms in which
appearances are not mere reflections of some experiences but become the
experience itself.(3) This is historically specific to the new media age,
while a reality, as experienced, has always been virtual in a strict sense
because it is perceived through symbols (cf. Charles S. Peirce, Ernst
Cassirer). "Thus, when critics of electronic media argue that the new
symbolic environment does not represent ‘reality’, they implicitly refer
to an absurdely primitive notion of ‘uncoded’ real experience that never
existed."(4) From here, let me proceed to discuss some functions of media
for the scientific discourse.


The number of scientific journals increased by the rate of 1:10.000
between the beginning of the nineteenth and the twentieth century, to
reach approximately one million periodicals by now.(5) The overall number
of scientific publications is estimated to double every 16 years, with a
significant tendency towards a shorter cycle. Like any communication
system, the scientific discourse is based on feedback loops which in the
most familiar form are known to us in orally defending a thesis against
the critique of peers, which in an advanced book culture took on the form
of a production and reception of texts. As the quantity of available texts
increase, so does the circulation of books and texts. The recursive loop
in writing, publishing and reading texts which leads to a new text is
constricting. The two reasons for this are obvious:

- there is a growing number of participants in the scientific discourse

- there is an easier access to the productive forces of authorship. The
latter is including new strategies of publishing, namely the Internet as
both a worldwide distribution channel for books and texts as well as a
basic medium for direct electronic publishing. According to these new
technological possibilities, one could ask why a relatively little number
of scientific publications are available online. One reason for this is
that within a framework of guild organisation principles, the academic
community shows not much of an interest to go beyond a quite restricted
knowledge transfer altogether, saving specific gatekeeping processes
against the accessibility of an open information network. With new media,
an industrialisation of sort challenges these guild principles of academic
knowledge production. We observe a higher circulation speed of texts in
general and the downgrading of the paper medium as well, especially in
those disciplines where the discussion process is focused not so much on
books but on papers and prepublished texts.

The technology actually used for the production, circulation and
consumption of scientific texts is rather primitive: and when the computer
is being used, then mostly as an elaborate typewriter. Although
practically nobody (except for distinguished eccentrics like Postman or
Baudrillard, as they themselves claim) can afford to despise the
"personal" computer as a performance enhancing device, the texts as a work
result still exists on paper mainly, the exclusive medium which enables
the circulation of thoughts in scientific discourse. The academic
community relies on the paper medium for various reasons: a profane one
still is the fear of contact with computer technology - to an extent which
even is part of the identity for the so-called "humanities" - and a next
one is the fact that career-enhancing publishing activity is really
prestigious only if the seal of quality from reviewers, editors and
publishers stays clearly visible. This is the domain of established
journals where texts get published according to a peer-review process, and
where unsolicited manuscripts from newcomers have practically no chance at
all. One should remember the fact that on the Internet, the practice of
edited publishing is not the rule. And yet, as in some cases the
subscription rates for scientrific journals have reached a level beyond
the possibilities of an individual, some specialised publishers are
already losing their subscribers which mostly are institutions and
libraries. Publishers slowly are losing interest in taking over the
exploding production costs for a shrinkíng audience. A first reaction was
observed when, with the use of electric typewriters and wordprocessors,
authors were expected to deliver ready-to-print manuscripts, and writing a
book also meant typesetting and layouting it. With the Internet now, there
is an alternative to the traditional publishing house. The development of
new software tools, like the popular HTML-editors, contributes to the
embedding of new functions within text editing: professional publishing
from ones own desktop to the World-Wide-Web is not a big thing any more.
One should not have any illusions, however, about direct or immediate
results from such achievements. While most text editors still are used for
preparing the printing process, the publishers widely benefit from their
authors taking over the (unrewarded) role of compositors, layouters, and
proof-readers. With the change of medial settings (including the
availability of hardware and data carriers such as paper) the conditions
and the role of the scientific discourse is changing. As the holdings of
the British Library are estimated to grow a 20 kilometres each year, new
ways of information retrieval and information selection react to this
situation: digital research tools, databases and data warehouses take over
the role of the established text archiving systems such as libraries. The
conservative lament over the "information flood" gets within reach here.
But there is also a chance to see this process as a differentiation of the
fields of information and communication: since this is no effect of some
unintentional technology, but the expression of different needs for a
forthcoming knowledge society. While the available quantities of
information double with high speed, the calculation potential of computers
increases by the rate of ten. In other words, the innovation rate of
computer industry could provide much more storage capacities than all the
information our culture produces.


By presenting some characteristics of a book culture which under the
influence of new media seems to be changing in the core now, I have
invoked the common distinction between linear and non-linear principles of
organising human knowledge. According to research done by distinguished
communication theorist Michael Giesecke, it is no coincidence that the
theoretical discourse as well as the economics tend towards communication
issues so much, as we observe a shift form linear ideas to nonlinear ones.
Scientific inquiry could afford to neglect the complexity of communication
issues as long as it fell short to accept the cybernetic principle of
communication, which according to Giesecke not only can be found in
traditional theories of perception and human activities, but as a general
effect of the book-culture. This book-culture simplified the communication
problem in a tayloristic way, stretching the feedback loop of the
communication process until it seemed linear, as a channel between writer
and reader, between sender and receiver.(6) We are about to leave behind
this industrial notion of communication, together with the paradigms of
typographic knowledge production (the scientist as a monomaniac
monographer). From McLuhan to Flusser, speculations on the new culture
and/of media are vast. I do not want to repeat much of this here, but just
emphasise the experience we already have, namely that parallel social
information processing as enhanced by the Gutenberg Galaxy will not be the
last step in the process of knowledge reproduction. In closing my remarks
on the transformation of book-culture into net-culture, and how this will
affect the scientific discourse, let me refer to a famous vision from not
so long ago. In July 1945, The Atlantic Monthly published an essay
entitled "As we may think" by Vannevar Bush, inventor of the ‘Differential
Analyzer’ at the MIT, and later Director of the Office of Scientific
Research and Development, where he "has coordinated the activities of some
six thousand leading American scientist in the application of science to
warfare. In this significant article he holds up an incentive for
scientists when the fighting has ceased. He urges that man of science
should then turn to the massive task of making more accessible our
bewildering store of knowledge. For years inventions have extended man’s
physical powers rather than the powers of his mind. (...) Now, says Dr.
Bush, intruments are at hand which, if properly developed, will give man
access to and command over the inherited knowledge of the ages. (...) Bush
calls for a new relationship between thinking man and the sum of our
knowledge." (7) The text refers to a liberation by rationalising certain
procedures in the human mind, its strength being to look at the problems
to which recently developed computing machines might be an answer. Bush
refers to new forms of data storage and the emergence of a ‘new
symbolism’, then makes an important distinction between creative and
repetitive thought, the latter offering an application field for the new
"machine of logic". The vote is for Intelligence Amplification (as opposed
to Artificial Intelligence) and as the problem identified here by Bush is
selection as the prime action in the use of knowledge, he calls the real
heart of the matter "our ineptitude in getting at the record (which) is
largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing." This
artificiality is an effect of libraries and the typographic principle:
"When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed
alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by
tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place,
unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will
locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover,
one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path. The human
mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in
its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the
assiciation of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails
carried by the cells of the brain." The subtext to this observation is:
the techniques of western typographic culture have violated the way the
human mind works, and only with an advanced technology we are able to
answer the challenge of selection and information retrieval as a step to
"associative indexing", where as Bush hoped that one day it would not be
necessary any more to transform these processes into mechanical ones.
Although the MEMEX machine he proposed never really came into use, he had
a vision of the computer being a medium rather than a mere tool,
connecting the disparate scientist through trails of their thoughts, and
associating knowledge with the tools of communication. As a
stand-alone-machine though, the MEMEX would not have been fit for the
purpose. After the computer industries development from mainframe to
personal computers repeated this misunderstanding, only now the global
computer networks have changed the situation - from the logic of isolation
towards the social interface. (8) The computer already was conceived as a
communication device in the sixties, initiating a transformation of the
public sphere and including the dissolution of knowledge into "an infinite
crescendo of online interactive debugging."(9) Whereas the technical
innovation of the printing press and its consecutive bookculture meant
repetitive manipulation of signs as a cultural function transfered from
man to the machine, connected computers or netculture indicate a different
organisation principle once again: an intertwined discourse beyond the
text-only version of knowledge, mediated by the machine, based on
programming and therefore partially even beyond language, and most
certainly beyond the academic arrogance of a distinctive "two cultures"
(C.P. Snow). "I dream of a new age of intellectual curiosity", philosopher
Michel Foucault said in an interview two decades ago.(10) In opposition to
the apocalyptic critics of the new media culture he clearly saw the
technical media as a means for a new knowledge culture, and the
constraints for it on an organisational level which keeps the channels
monopolised and restricted. His recommendation was to "multiply the means
of back and forth", the "simultaneousness of different nets". The changes
are in exactly this sense, and now it is time to quit idealising the
medialisation of knowledge through bookculture, and accept the
multiplicity of nets, keep the channels open, and provide access for all -
only then we will be able to bring the new culture to life.


(1) Friedrich Kittler: Universitäten im Informationszeitalter, in:
Vattimo/Welsch (Hg.): Medien-Welten Wirklichkeiten. München 1998
An apt distinction, by the way, which was made here by Kittler - since
the humanities can get very technical, and the sciences have a vast
cultural impact. I would also like to stress the fact that scientific
progress is biased towards technological innovation as opposed to social
innovation, the latter being a necessary complement to the former. It
was Vilém Flusser’s aim to establish a Communicology as to complement
the dominating dicourse of Technology.
(2) George Robertson (eds.): FutureNatural. Nature, science,
culture. London, New York 1996
(3) Media events which become socially relevant, are they real? Does it
make sense to come up with this question?
(4) Manuel Castells: The Rise of the Network Society. The Information
Age: Economy, Society and Culture Vol.1, Oxford 1996, 372f
(5) Andrew Cummings et al.: University Libraries and Scholarly
Communication - A Study prepared for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation,
1992 -
For the explosion of electronically published scholarly texts cf. ARL
Directroy of Electronic Journals, Newsletters and Academic Discussion
Lists -
(6) "Sie (die Buchkultur, FH) hat das Kommunikationsproblem
tayloristisch vereinfacht, die Rückkopplung verlangsamt und gedehnt." -
Michael Giesecke: Die Grenzen der Buchkultur und die Chancen der
Informationsgesellschaft. Nachwort (1998) in ders., Der Buchdruck in der
frühen Neuzeit, Frankfurt 1991, S.957
(7) Editorial, cf.
(8) cf. Hartmut Winkler: Docuverse. Zur Medientheorie der Computer. Boer
(9) Joseph C.R. Licklider, Robert W. Taylor: The Computer as a
Communication Device, in: Science and Technology, cf.
(10) Der maskierte Philosoph, cf. Michel Foucault: Botschaften der
Macht, Stuttgart 1999, S.19

© Frank Hartmann 1999