Sunday, January 31, 2010

quick iPad roundup

As you are undoubtedly well aware, Steve Jobs unveiled the newest Apple money-suck toy product on Wednesday: the iPad. The most immediate response was to its tone-deaf name. I don't actually find feminine hygiene products to be disgusting, but it's hard not to laugh at jokes about iTampons or iKotex. That last joke really works best with medievalists; for everyone else, you need to spend so long explaining what a codex is, that the frog has been dissected and dead long before they know what to laugh at. But even aside from menstrual jokes, the best joke I've seen comes from a medievalist. Tom Elrod's blog post, "Introducing the iCodex," captures the breathless adoration of Steve Jobs's fans and the rediscovery of reading technology.


This image from the blog captures what's smart and funny about it, as does this excerpt:
With the iCodex, people can now store multiple items in one, easy-to-use package. A user could, for example, enjoy both cooking recipes and psalms, or mappa mundi and instructions on marital relations. Since the iCodex's pages are bound together in an easy-to-turn format, things stored at the end of an iCodex are as easy to access as the beginning.
You need to go read the whole thing in full to appreciate it. Go, I'll wait here.

After that, when you're ready for some serious responses to the iPad, check out Alex Payne's response, which focuses on the iPad not as an e-book, but as a very small and slick personal computer. As an e-book it might work well, but in a way that disturbs Payne deeply: "The iPad is an attractive, thoughtfully designed, deeply cynical thing. It is a digital consumption machine." As he goes on to discuss, turning a notebook into a tool for consumption rather than creation has implications for the future of hacking and programming and, I would argue, for the ways in which familiarity with computer languages retreats even further into the hands of a small few. Payne's argument is worth considering, especially in light of what I discussed in my last post about the ability to create mash-ups, whether in book form or in music. Consumption is great, but it's creation that makes a technology stick and a culture grow. (On the flip side of Payne's argument, Daniel Tenner praises the iPad for exactly these features: Apple is "making a slick “uncomputer” that’s tailored to those people who don’t actually need a computer.")

A couple of last notes: I found most of these posts through Twitter, thanks to @MagBaroque, @academicdave, and @briancroxall. Finally, the jokes connecting computers and medieval books have been around for a while. I've posted this before, and many of you will have already seen it, but I still love it, so I leave you with the Medieval Help Desk:

Sunday, January 17, 2010

early modern mash-ups

In my last post wondering about important book history tools developments of the last decade, I got some interesting suggestions about what else to consider. For me, they came together as part of a way of remembering how advances or shifts in technology enable different ways of studying and creating knowledge and arts. In response, I've been thinking about mash-ups. Peter Friedman commented on my post that a reconsideration of authorship has been developing in part as a response to new technological tools. I'm not sure I see the correlation quite like that, at least in the field of literary studies, as opposed to his field of law. But I do agree that the availability of powerful computing tools to shape and reshape preexisting creations does reshape notions of authorship as individual ownership. EMI's anger over Danger Mouse's Grey Album (the 2004 mash-up of the the Beatles's White Album and Jay-Z's The Black Album) certainly tells us a lot about the complications in controlling what can be done and not done in the name of owning art (it also says a lot about the fine mess the record industry is in these days).

But the growing interest in and the plethora of music and video mash-ups speaks to me more as being about how the availability of technology deeply affects (and effects) our responses to art. We can talk all we want about how something like dj erb's Hollaback Girl of Constant Sorrow reflects a post-modern (or is that post-post-modern?) notion of authorship and female sexuality and the American past, but what strikes me is how technology makes possible new expressions of creativity and their distribution. Without recording technology that separates instrumental and vocal tracks and without the availability of computers to remix those tracks with other tracks unintended by the first creators, none of this would be possible. The tools that enabled artists to create their music also enables listeners to turn into artists, modifying that music in ways that honor it, subvert it, and most of all make it our own.

Now what, exactly, does this have to do with early modern books? We have all, I think, started to at least pay lip service to the notion that all early modern plays were collaborative efforts, drawing on the talents and influences of (often) multiple playwrights, players, and company sharers. (Even Shakespeare collaborated! Shh, don't tell Harold Bloom!) We are also, I hope, increasingly aware that all printed works were also collaborations, shaped by writers, publishers, and printers. But I also believe that all printed works were also collaborations with their readers. This isn't just a belief in response response theory. It's a belief that the users of books reshaped them as they needed to, sometimes literally. As Jeffrey Todd Knight makes clear in his recent--and excellent--article in the Fall 2009 issue of Shakespeare Quarterly, early readers of Shakespeare's plays and poems combined them with other printed works to create self-shaped anthologies. Part of Knight's point is that early modern readers bound works together in ways that suggest contexts and connections that have now been lost to us, as later collectors ruthlessly prioritized Shakespeare over other writers and disbound such groupings in order to rebind Shakespeare as a solitary work. It's an important recognition for those of us interested in early printed books and in the histories they accrue in the hands of collectors and libraries. Shakespeare was not separate from his contemporaries, but part and parcel.

One thing that I take away from Knight is that such context been lost. So, too, has the sense that books are made by their users. We might want to think of these gatherings as early mash-ups: books that readers remade into their own books. The technology of printed books allows for such mash-ups. Books can be joined together because they are (particularly smaller formats) sold unbound, requiring their owners to choose whether or not to have them bound and how to have them bound. The comparatively cheap cost of printed books, as opposed to manuscripts, meant that there were enough being sold and bought that such collections proliferated.

The image at the top of this post is a manuscript listing of the contents of such a collection (catalog record; zoomable image). It identifies fifteen plays and entertainments, including works by Carew, Chapman, Heywood, Jonson, and Shakespeare. Knight discusses it in his article, along with a number of other examples. (You can read the abstract of his essay; if you have access to Project MUSE, you can read the article itself online.) If you'd like to read some other musings along these lines, Whitney Trettien has a series of posts on cut-ups at diapsalmata that think not only about early modern instances, but about modern cut-ups as well.

Since I started off with my look back at the last year, I leave you with this: DJ Earworm's mash-up of the United State of Pop 2009. Enjoy!