Friday, 20 April 2007

the future is now

Geoffrey Nunberg wrote in “Farewell to the Information Age” that “nothing betrays the spirit of an age so precisely as the way it represents the future.” Two mistakes futurists make, he continues, are to extend some current innovation to its logical end or to unintentionally naturalize some assumptions about culture. His example is a picture in a 1950 issue of Popular Mechanics. An apron-clad woman sprays down oddly-shaped plastic furniture with a garden hose—in her living room. Plastics, yes, Mr. McGuire’s “one word” to Benjamin in The Graduate, is undoubtedly the former of the futurist mistakes, while the unwitting naturalization of “woman’s work” in the image is the latter. Nunberg hopes to avoid these mistakes in his own futurism. Nunberg writes on the future of “information” in the era electronic. For the most part, Nunberg is masterful—and surprisingly prescient. He wrote in 1995, and many of his predictions have already come to pass.

Nunberg argues that information is dead. Information requires print, because it is through the physical and social institution of print that information came into being. The constrained, valuable column inch of the printed page helped to create the material character of information—that uniform, morselized, quantifiable entity. The social history of its development, and the institutions that grew up to support it contributed to and codified its semantic qualities: objectivity and autonomy. The example Nunberg uses to illustrate his point is, ironically, non-print. Imagine stepping into a rental car for the first time, turning on the radio and hearing that the Red Sox lost to Toronto. “You accept what you hear without interrogating it,” says Nunberg, “in virtue of the form of language that expresses it and the kind of document that presents it.”

In the age of the Internet, Nunberg is certain, these strictures will break down. Nunberg foresees words sprawling across undelimited web pages, no longer tightly constrained in expensive column-inches. He anticipates the growing concern with sources, the changing meaning of what it is to be an author, or journalist, or photographer, or professional. Strikingly, for 1995, he foresees discussion-based forms of collaboration. A linguist, Nunberg wonders at the new, twisted meanings of words when applied in this new context. Would a Derridean speak of the hyperlink as actualizing intertextuality to the point of eradicating all boundaries between texts? If so, would she realize the anachronism inherent in the very idea of intertextuality? In a realm where there can be “intertextuality without transgression,” intertextuality is emptied of its old meaning.

Perhaps because he is so worried about avoiding the two mistakes of the futurist, Nunberg falls into the trap of the presentist—he misidentifies information, that very entity he hopes to define. His example of hearing a score on a radio belies his mistake. For who among us trusts any printed source without interrogation? Perhaps we trust the sports scores and the weather (insofar as we trust any weather report). If so, then information is far more limited than Nunberg makes it out to be. Let me repeat what Nunberg says of the radio: “you accept what you hear without interrogating it... in virtue of the form of language that expresses it and the kind of document that presents it.” True enough—interpretation of sports scores and weather reports is largely about formatting, not about authorship. Besides these, though, what else do we trust?

Are we now so embedded in the interrogative electronic era that we have now altered how we read print sources? Am I simply a jaded academic, cynically picking fights over the supposed “objectivity” of the media? Or is Nunberg just plain wrong?

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