The electric message: a lecture

Tom Davis


Note to first year students of the Texts and Contexts Course: if you're thinking of doing an essay on the subject of this lecture, you should check out the Web links on the subject, here. You should also read my essay on How to write an essay.

1. Before the computer
1.1 Access to print 1: The Hand Press

That image there is an image of a poster: a simple poster, with a picture and a short quotation. Let's say it's A4 size: a standard sheet of paper. The question I want to ask is, what do you need to have, and what do you need to know, in order to print, publish, and distribute that simple object? The answer to that question is that answer to the main question of the first half of this lecture: how do you get access to print? When I first came to Birmingham English Department, in 1974, I was hired to teach a three year course in Bibliography: the practice and history of printing. When I tried to get my head around how to do that, the first thing that occurred to me was that I, and the students, ought to learn how to print. So we did. We set up a printing shop in a dingy basement, where it still is. It turned out, believe it or not, that there were actually antique printing presses lying about in odd places that no-one knew how to use, and we found, in the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford, in a shed, a beautiful 1874 Imperial press that was in bits. We--my first year of Bibliographers and I--did a trip to Stratford in a hired long-wheelbase Landrover. We put this extremely heavy object in the back and brought it up here, we stripped it down to component bits, got the rust off, blackleaded it, and put it back together, and found out how to make it work.

There was some type here already, so eventually, in time for Christmas so that they could print some Christmas cards, we had all of the equipment of an early printing shop, and we more or less knew how to print with it.

This took a lot of effort and a lot of time, but we got it together. And, all the time, I was thinking about the implications of what we were doing, and discussing it with the students: the question of access to print.

In order to set up a printing shop that could print the equivalent of the Milton poster, in the hand press period, say any time right up to the middle of the 19th century, which is exactly what we had done, you needed the following. First, you need a press. Any carpenter could make a wooden press, but it would be expensive, and big: not the sort of thing you would have in your living room. After 1800 you could get a metal hand press, but this would be expensive, maybe very expensive. You need a lot of type. Type is made of metal, mainly lead, which is expensive, very heavy, and gets dirty easily. Remember that for every different size of type on the paper you need a whole new set of letters. For italic, too, a whole new set of letters. Also for bold type. If you want to change the style of the type--the face, we call it--again, a whole new set of letters: a new fount. All this mounts up to a lot of lead.

It's obvious that even if the government wasn't desperately trying to prevent the spread of printing presses--which it was, because this machine was dynamite: profoundly revolutionary--you'd still need a fair bit of capital to set up a printing shop. Not to mention the skill, and the labour: a minimum of two to do the printing, and one more to do the typesetting. And the labour was intensive: setting type by hand, and hand printing, are very slow processes. Top speed for composing type by hand is maybe a thousand letters an hour: letters, not words. Any touch typist can do over two thousand words an hour with no trouble. And then there's the problem of publishing and distribution: how do you get your money back for the labour you put into it? How do you spread your work around?

Well, we had a press, and we had the type, and in an amateur way we had the skill, and we still couldn't print the Milton poster. The reason for that is that if you want to print an image, a picture, you needed a block: a piece of wood or metal with a negative image of your picture, and with the bits that you want to print higher than the bits that you don't want to print. So that if you put ink on it, the high bits that you want to print take the ink, and eventually deposit it on the printed sheet. In the early hand press period you would have had to get someone to make that for you: a skilled carver, to shape the image in end-grain apple wood: a woodcut. I did think about trying to get hold of some of this stuff and having a go, but even my boundless optimism gave up on that one, thinking about the skill involved.

In the machine press period you need a big dangerous machine that uses acid to etch the image on a piece of metal, the acid taking away the bits that you don't want to print. There was no chance of getting this machine, so we would (and still do) send away to have blocks made, which is quite expensive, and sends up your costs that you need to get back by publication and distribution, before you can even think of making a profit.

But what we wanted to print was not just little posters or Christmas cards, but real print: say, a poetry magazine, or an Arts magazine. And to do that with our equipment, a few founts of type and a hundred-year old press, was completely impossible. They could have done it in the hand press period, because they were prepared to put in 12 hour days until it was done. We weren't.

1.2 Access to print 2: machine presses

In the machine press period it became possible to set type and print it very quickly. Unfortunately, this convenience came at great cost. This is the age of big dangerous machines. This is what you needed, in the machine press period, to print a small magazine. You needed a mechanical press, which is a huge dangerous object, and you needed a monotype or Linotype caster, which is a huge dangerous object: the caster is just what it says, it casts type as fast as you type it in. It casts it in molten lead. That's why it's sometimes called hot metal printing. It uses compressed air, and sounds just like a pneumatic drill: the noise is phenomenal.

1.3. The Power of Print

So it's very clear that the invention of printing, which was one of the main building blocks of democracy--Benjamin Franklin, one of the authors of the American constitution, was a printer by trade--was only democratic up to a point.

In the machine press period the power of print, and therefore access to print, was confined to those who had the money to buy the machinery.

Because, as well as bringing power to the people, print disempowered. It imposed its own authority. Instead of accepting the word of the person next above you in the hierarchy, which was roughly what you had to do before print came along, what you did was accept the authority of print. The printed word, precisely because it was so difficult and expensive to produce, because it was so hard to get your ideas into print, became authoritative: the feeling was, and still is, that if it's in print it must be true. And behind print is the semi godlike figure of the author, the authority, whose authoritative position came from the fact that, precisely, it was so hard to become one: to get printed. If you hold a printed book in your hand, it is so solid, so permanent seeming, so made by labour and money, that what it contains must, you feel, be true. It is hard to get students to disagree with critics: its printed, I know they feel, so it must be true.

2. The amazing toy

Well, as everyone knows, in the early 80's all of that changed for good.

2.1 The microchip

The key invention was of course the microchip, which gave rise to the personal computer.

I'm not going to linger on the microchip, because essentially I only know two simple things about it. And as far as I can see these are all you actually need to know about it. One is, it's what the computer uses to think with. The other is this: ever since it was invented, it has doubled in power every thirteen months. I'll just repeat that. It has doubled in power every thirteen months. This means that next year's computers will be about twice as powerful as this year's computers, and those of the year after that four times as powerful, and so on in a geometrical progression for as long as anyone can see in the future. Someone said that if the private car had developed as fast as the microchip, it would now be capable of cheap interplanetary travel.

2.2 Macintosh 1984: Orwell reversed

The most important development in the microcomputer for the purpose of this lecture took place in 1984, ironically: you could say that that was the year when Big Brother, and the top-down control of access to print, was put paid to for good.

That invention was straightforward too, in a way. Previous to 1984 if you wanted to work a microcomputer you had to learn how to think like a computer. When you switched the computer on you got the infamous DOS prompt, which wouldn't go away until you typed in lines of code: you had to speak the computer's language, or it wouldn't play. Then someone had the bright idea of using the power of the computer (which was doubling every year, remember?) so that it behaved like a bit of your environment rather than you having to behave like a bit of its environment. Nowadays, when you switch a computer on you get an image, a metaphor: usually, some form of desktop; and you communicate with the computer just as you do with the rest of the world, by manipulating apparent objects. You don't have to speak its language: it speaks yours. This is called a Graphic User Interface.

The first computer to implement the Graphic User Interface was of course the Macintosh, which first blessed the world with its presence in 1984; most modern computers with their graphic interfaces are more or less imitations of that original Macintosh design. The Mac, because it was largely designed by people who knew print, who were graphic artists, had a little sideline: you could set type on it. All you need is to know how to type on an ordinary typewriter: you type in your text, then the computer lets you change the typeface, the body size, the justification, every aspect of the text, instantly and incredibly easily. I don't need to dwell on this: it's become simple and commonplace, and I'm used to getting in essays from first year students that look exactly as if they'd been set by professional compositors. Who were, by the way, immediately put out of business: deskilled; redundant.

2.3 Access to print 3: in the home

So I got a Macintosh.

Now, on the Mac it's not just the typesetting that's become incredibly easy: it's also the image manipulation. In order to make that simple Milton poster all you need to do is to type in the text, and manipulate the type until it looks right; then you need a thing called a scanner, which is like a little photocopier; you put your picture on the glass and press the button, and the machine copies it; not on to paper, like a photocopier, but straight into the computer. These now cost about £300. Once it's in the computer you put it in your desktop publishing program, and simply move it about, resize it, smaller or larger, until it looks right, and then print it.

This is, of course, incredible, though it's now commonplace. But, but, it's not full access to print. Not yet. It's exactly half access. The Mac has replaced the compositor, and the composing machine, and the platemaker; but once you have your perfect and beautiful printout from the Macintosh, what do you do then? You have to print it, and bind it, all of which costs money, and you have to publish it, and distribute it, in order to get your money back. You can print the loose sheets on a photocopier; but the rest of it has to be sent out.

2.4 The cost of publishing

Supposing you write a book and typeset it on the Mac yourself. You then pay rather a lot of money to have say a thousand copies printed and bound; what you get back is a thousand books. Supposing you just want to get the cost of printing and binding back. Well, you have to set a price. And what you can't do is to divide the total cost so far by the number of books and call that the unit price. No chance. To begin with, you can't know you're going to sell every single copy; and even if you did, it might take forever to get it back. That's a major peculiarity of the book: the book, your investment, can sit on the shelves of a bookseller earning no money whatsoever for a very long time. The only sensible thing to do is to set a price that will mean that you get the cost back when you have sold half. This is quite a high price. That's if you can get a bookseller to take it in the first place, charging you at least 30% of the cover price for the privilege. If you do, they will probably only take it on a sale or return basis, so you might end up with some rather fingered and non-pristine books coming back. And, more important, you have to keep visiting the bookshop, all of the bookshops, to make sure that you pick up the money, and any books they want to return. The labour output is immense. It's just not worth it. Or, you can pay a professional distributor. They will charge up to 50% of the cover price.

3. The electric web

Then, only a year or two ago, everything changed again. And, maybe, just maybe, this is the most radical change of all. I'm talking of course about the internet.

3.1 Talking to the Internet

Of course the internet is more than a year or two old: but just as in the case of the microcomputer, before a couple of years ago you needed to speak a difficult computer language, known as UNIX, in order to use it. That effectively kept it out of the hands of the rest of us and in the hands of an elite. A couple of years ago someone figured out, all over again, that there was rather an amazing amount of money to be made in making the internet user-friendly by developing a graphic user interface for it.

The firm that figured this out went public, ie offered shares, and the total share price to everyone's surprise came to two billion dollars. That's just for one software product, which is less than a year old. And now it seems that everyone has heard of the internet, though surprisingly few people use it, as yet. Now is an excellent time to be interested in the internet, in fact, and to find something out about it. Early this year one of last year's third year bibliographers wrote to me saying he'd just got a job in a publishing house--not an easy thing to do--solely because he knew about electronic publishing on the internet, and they were looking for someone to develop that area of their business.

3.2 What is the Internet?

So: what is the internet? And how do you get on to it? And what can you do when you get on to it? And what does it mean?

One nice thing about the internet is that it's surprising how little you need to know about it in order to use it. This is lucky, because I use it all the time, and I know surprisingly little about it. So this is going to be a rather basic account; it is, however, all I feel I need to know.

The InterNet is a large number of big computers which can all talk to each other, down phone lines and down hard wire links. When I say a large number, I don't know how large. No-one knows how large. Maybe ten million, maybe a lot more. Now, these computers are linked not in a straight line or any kind of hierarchy, such as a pyramid, but each big computer links to an indeterminate number of others, like a web. Or, as it happens, like the way the neurons that make up the human brain are linked. This is a rather unnerving parallel.

The reason for this is that the setup was originally designed by the US military, who had a very bright idea that they're probably really regretting now. (This is just the sort of thing you might find in a Kurt Vonnegut novel, by the way.) The bright idea was that if there was a nuclear war then for things to keep functioning there would have to be communications. So they set up a system of communications in this web-like form, designing it deliberately so that if any or even most of the nodes of the web, the individual big computers that make it up, were destroyed in nuclear war, the thing would still function. That's because if big computer A wants to talk to big computer Z it will send a message along a reasonable route, say via big computer B, for a start. If B isn't working for whatever reason, either because B is in Washington and Washington has been obliterated, or because sometimes computers just don't bloody work, then this is no problem because the message will automatically find another route, and will keep trying to find a new route until it gets there. So there's nowhere it has to go between A and Z; all it has to do is to leave A, wander around, and find Z. Oh, by the way, it wanders around at the speed of light. So all this happens rather quickly.

So what the builders of the internet didn't do was to fix it so there was a hierarchy: say, that all messages had to go trough Washington or London or Paris before they could get where they wanted to go; in case of those cities being obliterated.

Big mistake. It means that, by accident, no-one is in charge of the net. Not Washington, not London, not Paris. It's completely democratic; in fact, completely anarchic. If you try and control it, say by taking over some of the big computers that compose it, then the rest of the net simply regards those computers as having been bombed, and routes round them. This is why it is impossible to censor the net.

3.3 How do you get on to it? What can you do with it?

So: what is the net like in practical terms? Well, in Birmingham University there is a big computer that is hard linked to the net. By hard linked I mean that it is more or less permanently linked by a wire to this network. And in Birmingham University Library, and in the Faculty of Arts, there are a number of little computers, free for anyone to use, which are hard linked to the Birmingham University big computer. Any of you can do this, right away (except that you will probably have to queue for the computers): it's easy. I will explain how in a minute.

Ok, so you're online: what can you do? Well, you can send email.

You sit down at the computer and type a message, of whatever length, and type in an email address. An email address is a label for a mailbox: a bit of space on a big computer that has your name on it. You can rent it, or, if you're a student here, you can get one for free. You just have to pick up a form and fill it in. So you put the address in, and press a button, and the message is gone. And whoever you send it to will have it in a very short time, wherever in the world they are; all they have to do is access the local big computer that has their mailbox space in it, and read it. All of this is free, irrespective of where in the world you send the message to. Now, you can send the same message to any number of addressees with the same ease: just type in the addresses at the head of the email, or get the computer to put them in automatically, click, and it's gone. This is very nice, and there is a strange and very pleasant quality about email, which I will leave you to explore for yourselves. It's so easy to do that it doesn't feel like writing, it feels more like talking: informal, chatty, economical.

3.3 What can you do with it?

Another thing you can do with email is to join a mailing list. What is a mailing list?

Last summer when students were starting to be worked up about exams I set up a mailing list. On it were all of my bibliographers, a couple of members of staff, and a number of former bibliographers who were scattered in various places over the country, and indeed over the planet. The workings of a mailing list are very simple: if you send an email to a mailing list, a copy goes to everyone on the list. This meant that if any of the students on the list had a problem they could post it to the list, and someone would answer it, and someone else would answer it, and someone would answer one of the answers, and the result was like a big electronic seminar. This meant that previous students could share their exam strategies with current students; it was very useful and effective.

The internet is packed with mailing lists, on every subject under the sun. Anyone can join who has an email address. No-one will know who you are: you could be male, or female, a first year student or the head of department; unless you tell them no-one will know. It's very very democratic. The summer before last I was on a mailing list that concerned with literary theory. They were having a big debate about, guess what, author's bloody intention. I took part in this somewhat, and it was all very interesting: to be in an ongoing seminar with the planet. There were in all about four thousand people on that list. Every time you make a contribution, out it goes instantly to about four thousand people. This is somewhat awesome.

Anyway, I decided to write a poem as a contribution to the debate. The poem was about how author's intention was completely unimportant, and, as the author of the poem, I felt I was creating a nice paradox about this. So the poem came together, and I was quite pleased with it, and sat and looked at it a while as it hovered on my computer screen, and then I clicked one button, and out it went, to four thousand people. Then I realised what I had done: I had published it, and distributed it, for free, instantly, to four thousand people. No charge. That access to print had been finally and utterly democratised. It's unusual for any poem to get that circulation in print, particularly international circulation. Now, you can reach out and touch the planet, no printer, no distributor, for virtually nothing. It is... staggering. Print is now, finally and completely, accessed; it is democratic.

The illustration shows one of the less polite reactions to my poem. They're a tough lot, intentionalists.

Before I talk about the implications of this, I want to mention the World Wide Web, since this is the most important and most exciting part of the internet.

The web is a graphic user interface for the net. As I said, it used to be, when you logged on to the net, you would get a Unix command line, waiting forbiddingly for you to type in the right code. No longer. The web works in metaphor. When you access the web, you find yourself looking at a virtual page.

You can get yourselves on to the Web with no forms to fill in and at no charge by going into the library. Some of the computers there, for instance the two in the English reading room, are hard wired into the net. You can access the web through them. It's easy. Just one word of warning: it can be very slow. It's best to go in early, before America wakes up.

I will show you how to work the web, and what you can do on it, by showing you how I used it to make this lecture.

Remember that Milton quotation at the beginning of the lecture...

At this point the lecture became somewhat improvisational. If you've got this far, you know how to get on the Web. If you want to know how more about how to search the Web for literary links, which is what the improvisational bit of the lecture was about, try my Useful Links for Literary Students.

4 What does the Net mean?

So: what are the implications of all this? No one knows. It is vast. It is probably impossible to guess, and it may be impossible to underestimate, how important it is. Can it be a flash in the pan, as some journalists, being journalists, have occasionally said? I think not.

The other day I read that Microsoft, the biggest software house in the world, which completely dominates the entire computer industry, is spending eighty per cent of its entire research budget on developing internet software. That is a colossal investment, and whatever else it may be Microsoft is not stupid.

4.2 Looking back at the book

One implication is this: it's possible to look back, from this time when we are on the edge of finding a successor to the book, at the end of the long period of the book's dominance of all of the ways we think, and see with new eyes what the book was like. We can begin to assess the spell that the book has laid upon us, the myth we have lived because of it.

Consider the Milton quotation:

A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit,embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.

What this says is: a god-like author, who is male, has succeeded in preserving a bit of his vital essence, intact and imperishable, for ever. All of that is a lie, every bit of it, but everyone, deep down, believes it.

4.3 Electric text and book text

Consider this. The text that is coming, electric text, is not like book text. It is like speech: fluid, impermanent, profuse, diffuse. It is also boundless, just as meaning is boundless: there is no end to the number of things that language can say, just as there is no end to the hypertext links in the World-Wide Web. Book text is the opposite of that: solid, apparently permanent, exact, precise, confined.

Think about how easy it is to create and publish electric text: I can write what I like at the speed almost of speech, and distribute it to a thousand people in a moment, with a keystroke; and each of those people can keep it for ever, or, more likely, dismiss it with a keystroke. Or change it: as it flows into their computer, they can not only change the typeface and design of it, but they can find and replace anything in it, or completely rewrite it: they can make it theirs. Or they can come back to me and criticise it, or add to it, or engage in any kind of dialogue about it, with dazzling speed, heat, and immediacy.

Contrast this with the sheer effort and investment of money required to create and distribute book text, the work of copyists and compositors and copy-editors and printers and binders and agents and distributors and booksellers--and many others. This is why book text appears to have intrinsic value: it is solid, labour made it, it has, it seems, a worth of its own. It is difficult to get into print: the access is exclusive.

All of this helps convey the illusion that fixed meaning resides in the printed word: that you can read a book and get a true single meaning out of it. You can't: all you can do is do a reading of it, your reading. But the weight of the book in your hand seems to be the weight and solidity and permanence of the true meaning in it. Whereas the dance of electrons on the computer monitor, that you can wipe, or change, or endlessly duplicate, in a moment, is not like that. The text, however, might be identical.

4.4 Electric text is more like how meaning is really conveyed

I want to suggest that it's the electric text that is a truer representation of how meaning is actually conveyed in written language. Meaning, unlike the book and like the electrons, has no weight. Meaning, too, has very little permanence: it dances in and out of existence, it is fugitive and temporary. This is obvious: how many of the actual words of this lecture, the actual words, can you remember? Those of you who have read Middlemarch: how many of its actual words can you remember? Not many.

Because Middlemarch is not, as we think it is, hundreds of pages, or thousands of words, a solid lump of meaning, a book; what Middlemarch actually is is the act of reading. That is when the text exists: that is when it means. The rest of the time, it is inert matter, when it is not being read. So you read, and what the text actually is is your temporary awareness of the few words you are looking at, plus a partial recollection, and a partial anticipation. That is Middlemarch. Or, it is your shifting, fugitive recollection of that original shifting, fugitive experience of reading. It is nothing else. Middlemarch is a lot more like the Internet than it is like the solid book that we quite wrongly think it is. Middlemarch is not a book.

4.5 The myth of immortality

Part of the power of the myth of print is that since print seems to freeze meaning, and seems to last, it can draw on the energy of strong myths of permanence. It can steal from religion the belief in life after death as a reward for greatness, or goodness. Authors, like everyone else, don't like the idea they will die. It's nice therefore to think that a piece of their mind will last for ever-- they think. Milton thinks. The book, he thought, gave his 'precious life blood', his essence, 'a life beyond life'.

There's more: to create a book, as I said in my first lecture, feels very like creating a world: a world filled with people, landscapes, emotions, catastrophes. The author is not just immortal; the author is is a kind of god. A god of the book.

Readers tend to go along with this. It is nice to think someone is in charge: someone is in control of all the enormous number of rich meanings one can derive from a work of literature. It is the author's vast, godlike intention, we tend to think, that has miraculously foreseen and intended all the possible valid richnesses that we can derive from a Shakespeare play. When James Boswell, the biographer of Samuel Johnson, was shown a wooden chest and told that it contained a large number of manuscripts in the handwriting of Shakespeare, he fell on his knees and worshipped it; he wept. He behaved exactly as if he was in the presence of holy relics. Of course he wasn't, they were all forgeries.

There is no god in the book. No immortal essence. There is only the act of reading, the pleasure of the text. The internet makes this obvious; the book disguises it.

4.6 The dangerous prevalence of nonsense?

Of course, there is a down-side to the post-book text. In Samuel Johnson's famous phrase, in the age of the electronic text it is literally raining knowledge, and all one needs to do is to hold out a hand. But to extract useful information from this immense promiscuity is not easy, without the filtering effect of the book. In the vast democracy of the internet, where anyone can publish anything to everyone, there is a huge amount of nonsense. And no-one knows where this will take us. Chaos, maybe.

It is worth pointing out, however, that although there are arguments against democracy, this century has taught us that it is unwise to listen to them.

Where does that leave us? At a cusp, I suggest. Anticipating a new way of being. Computers double their processing power every thirteen months. This simple fact will change all our lives, unforeseeably. No-one can predict what the technology of ten years' time can bring. I suppose we can say this: whatever is to come, it is unlikely that it will be dull.