thesis for class
“Print is dead” is a oft-heard screed that pits the medium print against technology, e-ink readers, e-books, tablets, computer screens, PDFs, and so on. Correspondingly, the usual question of the library is: ‘What is the library in the age of e-ink, after print is dead?’ Missing from this statement, however, are the base underpinnings of the question. The ‘problem’ of the ‘obsolence’ of print is really one of infrastructure -- print is not so much a material medium reaching the end of its life, but rather the base enabler of a series of dynamics, such as portability, fidelity, or durability. An ecology of systems sprouts from these dynamics, including the the school and the library. In the library, books (of which identical copies exist) are evaluated, categorized, organized, borrowed, in a system that relies entirely on the immutability, portability, and durability of text-in-print-form order to operate. Text is used to organize and categorize text -- and what is a library other than a complex system of categorization and circulation that is reified as an institution? In other words, libraries do not organize printed matter; print creates the library.
Or rather, text (in printed form) creates the library. Bruno Latour describes the portability/durability of print as 'optical consistency'; what 'digital technology' then enables is a 'semiotic consistency'. In print, the linguistic signifier is 'saved' on the page by ink-stamping a referent of the signifier. On the computer, the signifier itself is saved; text is not saved as image, but segmented into a sequence of characters, or a sequence of signifiers, encoded as numbers, encoded as a sequence of discrete, segmented bits. This enables a great flexibility -- on the computer, text (or other media) can be copied, pasted, rearranged, modified, all the while preserving this semiotic consistency. And text can still be presented exactly the same way that it was created; a PDF created halfway around the world can be seen exactly as it was created despite distance or time differences. Semiotic consistency thus contains optical consistency, and so text within computing technology is an augmentation and amplification of the dynamics of print.
'Digital content' is a shorthand for a series of underlying technologies and social agreements that become formulated into an infrastructure, the same way that the highway is a combination of asphalt roads and speed limits. This infrastructure enables a superstructural dynamic: the power grid, fiberoptic networks, and computers generate a computer network; protocols creates the Internet, participation creates the World Wide Web, software creates a website, encodings create the text. The semiotic consistency of digital text only arises out of the synthetic and rhizomatic interactions that these infrastructures generate.
The question of the library is then: if a collection of infrastructures provides the base on which the medium of digital text is enabled, and digital text is an amplification of the dynamics of print, and if print created the system of the library, then the library in the age of digital text must be created through infrastructure. In other words, if digital text (enabled by infrastructure) is a modification at the level of the dynamics of text, then the library must also be modified at the level of its dynamics, with the tool of infrastructure. And through the change of this system generated by infrastructure, the architecture of the library itself can change spatially -- not in terms of a physical structure, but change just underneath the level of structure, below-structure, or: change at the level of infra-structure.