When assessing scholarly books, pleasure is not normally a factor, any more than flavor is in judging medicines. Calling a monograph enjoyable is, after all, at best an expression of personal judgment. At worst, it’s a breach of the “professional professorial asceticism” that Pierre Bourdieu identified as definitive for Homo academicus.
But what the hell. A columnist has no other protocol to meet than deadline, so let the enthusiasm roll: Lothar Müller’s White Magic: The Age of Paper (Polity) is the most enjoyable scholarly book I’ve read in a while, despite my initial suspicion that it would be just one more example of the the rather hackneyed genre of middlebrow cultural histories with titles like Salsa: The Condiment That Changed Everything.
White Magic is, just to be clear, a serious work in the field of media studies. Müller, a professor of general and comparative literature at the Free University of Berlin, follows through on the implications of the Canadian historian Harold Innis’s work in a more cogent and coherent way than Innis’s best-known follower, Marshall McLuhan, ever did. The bibliography is broad and dense, and the text moves between economic and technological history and literary works in ways that shed light in all directions.
That said: what a great read! It is a book to warm up the brain on a day of mental fog. It’s possible to open up White Magic at random and find a piece of historical information or analysis that is interesting and suggestive in its own right, elaborated in prose that develops its points clearly, with none of the anxious tics (“unfortunately there is not space here to examine...”) that come from straining to establish authority without having the confidence to exercise it.
First published in Germany three years ago, and now published for the first time in English, White Magic continues the drawn-out effort to understand the changes in publishing, and in society at large, wrought by digital communication. Besides his academic position, Müller is editor of the features section of the Suddeutsche Zeitung, a newspaper. That’s certainly one way to experience the ongoing epochal shift of recent years up close and personally.
But White Magic isn’t a defense of print media, or even a eulogy. It challenges the perspectives embedded in the familiar grand narrative of an age of print, dawning with the invention of movable type, that has entered its twilight with the advent of the digital age. Perhaps the best way to introduce Müller’s point is to consider our presuppositions about Gutenberg’s innovation.
The familiar story is that his press made it possible to produce, at much greater speed and in far larger quantity, texts that in earlier centuries would have been copied by hand onto papyrus, parchment or vellum. From scroll to codex to bound volume, there was a continuity in the history of the book -- changes in format tending to make books more durable, with Gutenberg introducing the catalytic factor of mass production.
And very often the story then continues by recounting the intense, even convulsive impact of all that speedy production of writing in bulk: journalism, pamphleteering, the Protestant reformation, etc.
But imprinting ink on a surface with movable type required that the material it was printed on possess certain qualities (especially standard dimensions and consistent smoothness, but also resilience under pressure from metal type) and that it be available reliably and in great bulk. To put it another way, Gutenberg’s invention depended on a still earlier invention, paper, which was itself a mass-produced commodity, turned out in protofactories that represented sizable investments as well as wide distribution networks.
How paper manufacture was invented in China, perfected by the Arabs and eventually adopted throughout Europe is an exemplary piece of transnational history -- and given Inside Higher Ed’s audience, it’s worth noting the huge impact on university budgets, almost from the moment there was such a thing. “To free itself from dependence on paper dealers from Lombardy,” Müller writes, the University of Paris “successfully petitioned the king in 1354 for the right to run paper mills” of its own, operated by craftsmen “who had the status of university employees.”
That was well after Italian universities found a way around the costly reproduction of textbooks, circa 1200, by authorizing the transcription of costly parchment books as paper editions that “would be split into smaller pieces by book dealers or stationers, who would rent out the pieces to students.” Then the students would make their own copies or hire a scribe to do it for them.
Paper was a dynamic commodity. The supply created its own demands, accelerating if not creating bureaucracy and postal networks even before the printing press came on the scene. Müller’s chronicle of these developments and their cumulative impact is rich in detail but surprisingly brisk in the telling.
The significance of this history, the author explains, comes from the fact that “paper was never on its own; it always sought a symbiosis with other media.” We often talk about communication technologies in ways that stress conflict, forced obsolescence, the replacement of one medium by another.
“But media history also encompasses effects of resonance amplification and the symbiosis and feedback between media which have not become technologically integrated but instead react to and cooperate with one another as distinct, separate spheres.”
In Müller’s interpretation, paper stands as “a virtuoso of substitution... insinuating itself into existing patterns and routines” -- very much like digital communication itself, so often taken to be paper’s antithesis.
The translator, Jessica Spengler, has made the unusual choice to leave the Teutonic sprawl of Müller’s paragraphs intact, rather than breaking them up into pieces of less formidable size. A few run for three pages or more, and even the shorter ones sometimes read like miniature essays. While expansive, though, the paragraphs are lean. (Müller seems to have ignored Walter Benjamin’s tongue-in-cheek advice to academic authors: “Everything that is known a priori about an object is to be consolidated by an abundance of examples.... A number of opponents all sharing the same argument should each be refuted individually.”) White Magic is a remarkably concentrated book; that, I think, is why it will likely prove a re-readable one.
In 2012, Jessica L. Beyer received the Association of Internet Researchers award for her dissertation, “Youth and the Generation of Political Consciousness Online,” now been published as Expect Us: Online Communities and Political Mobilization (Oxford University Press).
The author, now a research scientist at the Information School at the University of Washington, spent several years monitoring and in some cases participating in a number of online communities which, though non-political, sometimes engaged in political discussion. Her analysis focuses on four sites. In two cases, the political concern led to offline activity, including the creation of parties that have won elections. At the other two sites, the conversation never made the leap to mobilization. Beyer’s study is series of ethnographies of the miniature social orders emerging at the sites, in search of the factors that generated or inhibited activism.
“Once I had chosen to study social sites,” Beyer explains in a long postscript on research methodology, “I had also chosen to study young people.” There’s an implicit “of course!” hovering over the remark – and fair enough, given that she did her digital fieldwork in the late ‘00s. But social sites have greyed somewhat in the meantime. Beyer’s perspective on “the generation of political consciousness online” may well apply to a broader demographic by now.
One of the sites in question enabled file-sharing, primarily of music and video, while two others were devoted to online gaming. The driving interest of a fourth cohort, the group known as Anonymous, seems harder to identify, though Beyer pins it down as well as seems possible by calling it “the nihilistic pursuit of entertainment, referred to as ‘lulz.’” Major sources of lulz (an idiom derived from an acronym: it’s the plural of LOL) include trolling, hoaxing, hacking, and “breaking s[tuff]."
The readerly appeal of ethnography usually comes from its attention to the details of everyday behavior and interaction taken for granted within a subculture. And that’s certainly true in the case of Anonymous, which -- like the Droogs in A Clockwork Orange -- has its own tightly self-encapsulating argot and code of conduct. The file-sharing and online-gaming communities also have specialized lingos and accepted norms, just as a stamp-collecting club might develop. But with Anonymous the markers of in-group status are much more sharply defined. Beyer understands this peculiarity to be a function, in part, of the design of the discussion forums that gave rise to Anonymous. Participants are never identified, even by a pseudonym, and venues do not have archives.
Because distinct identity is obliterated, “users assert their membership status in different ways,” writes Beyer. “To signal they are community members, users must use an extremely dense lexicon; show familiarity with community jokes and stories (signaling knowledge in a very particular way); articulate community values both directly and in the ways in which they frame conversations; and adhere to community norms of anonymity in all interactions, even when telling personal stories (e.g. ‘my math teacher is so stupid….’). Because of these norms of behavior, although the space is technically ‘anonymous,’ outsiders are easily spotted.”
While providing optimal conditions for digital hooliganism, these conditions would also seem to make political mobilization impossible – or, for that matter, completely irrelevant. (Misanthropic individualism tends to preclude any idea of the common good.)
But in 2008, the Church of Scientology forced a number of websites to take down the leaked video of a giddy Tom Cruise discussing his super-powers, and Anonymous responded with a campaign of attacks on its sites, accompanied by a memorable video of its own declaring war on Scientology. Faced with an angry swarm of unidentified and unidentifiable hackers, Scientology’s longtime strategy of litigation against its opponents was of no use. Members of Anonymous then joined forces with longtime critics of Scientology, many of them ex-members, to launch a worldwide series of protests outside its buildings which have continued, on and off, ever since.
Likewise, Pirate Bay, the file-sharing entity originally based in Sweden, took on the motion-picture and recording industries through street protests as well as its online activity. In 2006, it spawned a Pirate Party calling for the abolition of copyrights and patents and respect for privacy. By the end of the decade it was the fourth largest party in Sweden (with, Beyer notes, “the largest youth membership as well as the largest youth organization in Sweden”) and held two seats in the European Parliament. There are now Pirate Parties in at least 40 countries, with candidates elected to hundreds of offices at various levels of government, riding waves of discontent with intellectual property laws and surveillance.
Pirate Bay and the Pirate Parties share an ethos while remaining distinct. File-sharers can be anonymous, but not electoral candidates. While the original site administrators gave the political movement some direction, legal actions attempting to shut down Pirate Bay forced it to build anonymity into its very structure: it operates through a network of servers dispersed over an unknown range of countries, with no individual or group knowing more than a little of the system.
So anonymity, however counterintuitive this may seem, was a major factor in enabling the communities around two sites to move towards real-world activism. By contrast, the other two formations Beyer studied -- the game World of Warcraft and an online discussion-board system called the Imagine Gaming Network – required users to register and regulated their speech and behavior in ways that, she says, “undermine[d] collective group mobilization.”
Her account of how the layout of the different sites and the way they conditioned the degree of participants’ visible identity reveals a number of interesting contrasts – particularly between World of Warcraft, in which creation of an identity is part of the game, and the milieu of Anonymous, in which doing so is effectively impossible. On the gaming sites, in Beyer’s analysis, people are able to form smaller groups defined by shared interests or beliefs; they never reach the critical mass needed for mobilization in the offline world.
Perhaps, but other differences bear mentioning. Both WoW and IGN.com are commercial enterprises which exist strictly for entertainment. Individuals drawn to Anonymous or file-sharing through Pirate Bay are looking for entertainment too, of course. But they do so in ways that violate – or at best skirt – legal norms.
A gathering of stamp collectors might well include members also interested in international affairs. But no matter how passionate their discussion may become, they aren’t likely to be able to mobilize them on non-philatelic matters. I suspect gamers sites resemble the stamp collectors. They aren’t engaged in something that challenges any powers-that-be -- while Anonymous and the Pirates are, and wave a flag while doing it. Beyer's case studies are interesting, but her findings not entirely unexpected.