In the opening days of 2010, I am reading a collection of essays proclaiming itself to be The Best Technology Writing 2009, every single one of which was written and published in 2008.

It’s a curious book, for several reasons.

The first and most obvious is how very strange it now seems to be reading some of this material with a twelve to eighteen month time lag.  If there is anything distinctive about writing in the age of the best technology of 1999 let alone 2009, it is surely its immediacy.  If yesterday’s newspaper is famously today’s fish wrapper, what does that make a blog post from the year before last?

The frozen format of the book comes out in other ways too.  danah boyd’s essay on the Lori Drew affair, for example, sits unmoving on the page of the book.  In its original form on her blog, it has another layer of vitality, with comments challenging and amplifying her argument as well as allowing me to point to it directly.  As Clay Shirky observes in another blog post frozen into the book:

Here’s something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here’s something four-year-olds know: Media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for. Those are things that make me believe that this is a one-way change. Because four year olds, the people who are soaking most deeply in the current environment, who won’t have to go through the trauma that I have to go through of trying to unlearn a childhood spent watching Gilligan’s Island, they just assume that media includes consuming, producing and sharing.

Both those essays illustrate how little the book is actually about technology at all.  It is instead a book about the social application and consequences of technology. That’s fine but makes the title seem odder still and to disguise the fact that there is some good stuff here, including the two esays I have mentioned and a good piece by Andrew Sullivan on Why I blog – though with the tendency to assume that his form of blogging is the only one there is: “We blog now – as news reaches us, as facts emerge… A blog is not so much daily writing as hourly writing” is an assertion that sounds very odd to me (Dave Briggs’ recent account of how his blog posts gestate is much closer to the approach I recognise, though he is clearly rather more systematic than I am).

I am not against books. Quite the contrary, there are piles of them stacked on every surface I can see as a I write this.  Nor do I have anything against books about the internet and its effects or which are trying to make sense of rapidly-changing reality:  they make up more than one of the piles.  But taking a handful of blog posts and magazine articles (themselves often available online) and going to the trouble of converting them to a more expensive and less efficient format has a slightly strange feel to it.

As so often, The Onion provides a pithy summary. This piece about the oddity of reading books, in a book which is very odd to read, beautifully sums up the strange world of a book about the world beyond books:

Area Eccentric Reads Entire Book

Sitting in a quiet downtown diner, local hospital administrator Philip Meyer looks as normal and well-adjusted as can be. Yet, there’s more to this 27-year-old than first meets the eye: Meyer has recently finished reading a book.

Comments

  1. I agree on the oddness of converting online content into hardcopy books. I suspect though that by doing so you manage to get content in front of eyes that just aren’t used to reading stuff on a screen.

    1. I am sure that’s right, and I think it’s still the case that the ideal form factor for a book is a book. But what really struck me is just how slow conventional book publishing (and probably academic publishing in particular) now feels. Even if we want to end up with books, there seems to be something enormously inefficient about the production process – something analogous here to Ben Hammersley’s posts about how the entire production model for magazines needs to change in an online world.

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