Everything is digital

The network and the shared media environment

Paradigms gain their status because they are more successful than their competitors in solving a few problems that the group of practitioners has come to recognize as acute. To be more successful is not, however, to be either completely successful with a single problem or notably successful with any large number. The success of a paradigm—whether Aristotle’s analysis of motion, Ptolemy’s computations of planetary position, Lavoisier’s application of the balance, or Maxwell’s mathematization of the electromagnetic field—is at the start largely a promise of success discoverable in selected and still incomplete examples. (Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions)

Digital isn’t a part of the traditional print environment—it lies adjacent to print, surrounds, frames and comments on it, but it isn’t a part of it.

But, print is a part of the digital environment.

The separation between the two is entirely a construct of the print ecosystem. When you sit in the print worldview, websites look like something amorphous—form without either form or a business model. It doesn’t just look shapeless and disorganised, most of it literally just looks like noise to print people: meaningless and random.

When you sit in the networked media worldview, what you see is fluidity and meaningful change. Instead of explicit structure you have explicit connections that imply structure. It isn’t amorphous but loosely coupled and, yes, a little bit messy.

(From this perspective the print world looks stiff, unyielding, and full of meaningless busy-work so incomprehension of the other paradigm very much goes both ways.)

Because the networked worldview is all about loose coupling and adaptation to changing environments, print is a first class citizen. Print books can be made that only make sense in a networked context. Websites can be made that only make sense if you have a print book. Print books can interoperate with digital through scanning or even simple references. Print meaning can become a part of digital meaning as photographed pages or as contextual discussion. Books can be designed and created through a process that is fundamentally web-based. It is the default behaviour of objects in a network to make connections whether they are physical objects or virtual or virtual representations of physical object acting as a proxy for the material form.

The network’s trump card is the fact that its worldview offers a clearer path towards solving the problems facing modern book production, both print and digital. From the print perspective each format has to go through an expensive and involved production pipeline. It doesn’t matter if its a hardcover, paperback, or an ebook, they all have to pass through the same sort of error-prone, inflexible, and slow pipeline: Editing → Design → Typesetting → Proofing → Distribution.

(It’s error-prone because it tries to catch all errors in advance, which is impossible, but at the same time its extended production pipeline makes every error catastrophic and unfixable. The print pipeline magnifies errors.)

From the networked perspective all representation is dynamic and all content is fluid. Removing the adaptability of digital media without giving something in return is an act of violence, not just towards the piece of content itself, but towards the reader. Baking a website into a static digital file that only works on tablets is an act of violence towards readers who don’t have tablets or have needs that don’t conform to the expectations you baked into the fixed layout ebook.

Conversely, rendering a dynamic work into printed form isn’t an act of violence, provided that it was a part of the work’s design, because you get something artful in return: a crafted object.

Some dynamic works don’t lend themselves to linearity, like hypertexts, but it’s a less of an act of violence to turn them into print than into ebooks. Print is simultaneously a medium, furniture, and a souvenir. It has value beyond its content while ebooks are a barely adequate delivery system for content with little value in and of themselves. Print’s inherent value partially makes up for the violence of forcing linearity on non-linearity, especially when you consider that print enables more non-linearity than ebooks. Flipping back and forth in a book is easier in print and less confusing than in current ebooks.

The art of the book as an object becomes more important in the networked world, not less, because that’s the role it plays in the larger networked picture—the value it brings to the table. Print is the souvenir—abstract ideas turned into display and furniture. It becomes a way of turning the implicit and unreal into something concrete and, yes, decorative.

Print production in the networked worldview is an iterative and fluid process, more like sketching than the industrialised process of the print worldview. Print-ready PDFs can be rendered at every stage of writing, editing, and proofing. You can order one-off copies of your book on a whim using services like Blurb and you can order those copies whenever you want, without asking anybody permission. It’s all just between you and your credit card issuer. If you’ve self-published an ebook you can order a single hardcover copy to give to your non-digital grandmother—provided you’ve used tools built in the networked worldview where both an ebook and a print-ready PDF is only a button press away.

Or you could do what my sister and I did and create a one-off coffee table book about your grandmother’s life and give it to her for her birthday.

In the interim, however, during the period when the paradigm is successful, the profession will have solved problems that its members could scarcely have imagined and would never have undertaken without commitment to the paradigm. And at least part of that achievement always proves to be permanent. (Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions)

The print worldview dismisses the network’s intrusions into print as being of a lower quality than what the print worldview’s processes create.

But they are lying to themselves when they make that comparison because they are comparing on the one hand their process which is built on hard-earned, expensive, and rare expertise—people who can do this work well are few and their rates are high—and the digital process which is admittedly mediocre but is consistently mediocre and predictable and, as time goes by, needs less and less skill to operate. (That’s provided you are doing it right, which a lot of people aren’t.)

Expert typesetting varies because experts vary. For every master designer you have a dozen rubbish InDesign operators churning out PDFs that make PrinceXML’s output look like bloody Robert Bringhurst.

The networked worldview is already better at solving the problems print is facing than the print worldview itself. The network has much greater untapped resources for solving what so far has looked unsolvable.

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