The Book in the Digital Information Age

Michael Giesecke, Von den Mythen der Buchkultur zu den Visionen der Informationsgesellschaft, Frankfurt a.M., 2002

Review for the Digital Humanities

What happens to the book in the digital information era? If there is one to know, it is Michael Giesecke, Professor for Comparative Literary studies at the Erfurt University. The media theorist published a reference work on book printing in the Renaissance. Thereto he links his new book. He diagnoses the collapse of the “book culture” in the post-industrial society and postulates a remedy – a new orientation or direction – with the help of information-theoretical approaches. Both in this “Second Renaissance” is of interest for the Digital Humanities, of course. I will concentrate therefore on two of Giesecke’s many theses: on information as a production factor and on the new forms of collective collaboration in the information society.

There are many important objections to the “modelling of our society” as an information processing system, Giesecke says. He designs the “Vision 3D”, a “concept-network”, a “both-as-well-thinking”, that should help to clarify the terms. The three dimensions are the epistemological, ontological and topological ones. The concept includes communication as information processing, networking between communicators and mirroring of the media.

For the “modelling of history”, this leads to three types of diachronic descriptions of cultural processes: Reproduction (repetition of the past), accumulation (optimization of the present) and substitution (destruction of the existent and emergence of new things).

Remark / Interjection: To the chronotope historical time please see my post on The question of presence in the Digital Humanities to en essay of Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht.

In periods characterized by substitution, cultures lose their identity – traditions can no longer form and maintain themselves across the boundaries of generations. If, however, preserving is in the foreground, cultures may respond too little to changes in their environment. So they block their potential for innovation, a diagnosis that Giesecke makes for our own society. To define the right “therapeutic intervention” [sic!] out of his “historical anamnesis” [sic!] he goes back to an analysis of the book culture in the 15th century. Thus, Giesecke obtains a reference: “Historical consciousness” is a big opportunity for an “intelligent shaping of the future”, he says.

* * *

People had very high expectations on the letter press in the Renaissance: Distribution of knowledge, enlightenment of the people. The hierarchization of the media is a legacy of Gutenberg. But, closely looked upon, the reading culture was actually a formation of short duration. Only in the 15thcentury, writing becomes a synonym for publishing – an “ideological transfiguration” with the notion of the author in its center, Giesecke says, interpreting Michel Foucault. Previously there had been only one author: God. He used men as a medium for his messages to the world. Now, the person who enters information into the “typographical system” was considered to be “the author”. This was to reduce complexity, since the author of a book is “only” a part “in a long chain of communications”. By the author, the owner and manager of a text could legally and economically be made responsible. A concept that will not hold in the information society, Giesecke says.

* * *

In his “anamnesis” and “therapy” Giesecke builds on the analysis of critics, who, in the second half of the 20th century, found that the “cybernetic age” cannot be “regulated” according to market principles. These include Robert Jungk, Tadeo Umesao, who allegedly first used the term “information society”, Karl Deutsch, who defined it (more than half of the economic value is based on information oriented jobs), Daniel Bell, who modelled a concept of “post-industrial society” due to the acquisition and integration of information, and Neil Postman, who criticized the power of technology and the disenfranchisement of the society.

The European Union (EU), which had initially promoted the information technology unconditionally, in 1996 warned the public to be aware of the chances and risks that it brings along. EU expert groups concluded that information becomes a fourth factor of production (in addition to ground, labor and capital). New forms of networking must be sought and created. Decentralized decision-making (participation) is important, too. According to Giesecke, this socio-technological vision is remarkably defensive when compared to the Renaissance, which proclaimed the vision of the nation together with the new culture of books.

* * *

In his Network Vision 3D Giesecke sees the information society as an ecological network. He understands cultural processes both as the formation as well as the dissolution of structures.  He accuses the humanities, to give too little attention to the latter – especially in periods of transition such as ours, it is important to have a notion of the collapse of structure, to develop an idea of “creative chaos”, he says. Relationships, the structural elements of social systems, can be controlled by hierarchy, by market (one Euro = one vote within the pricing), democracy (one person, one vote) or by negotiation. Networks as moderated negotiation systems are based on rules that allow a fair exchange, reciprocity or a fair distribution of costs and benefits. In any case, each participant has to restrict his freedom to act voluntarily to make it work.

The information society is a system of interactions: it needs a currency for exchange. As the production of knowledge is immaterial, the value of information is not formed on monetary terms, in general. Writing books is an unremunerative art. Its benefit is reputation, which perhaps can be used productively elsewhere. Question: What we get in return when we put information in(to) the Net? Answer: other information. The internet is a market for exchanging information.

* * *

At the end of his book, Giesecke promotes dialogue and group discussions as a measure. He obviously wants to remove blockades to change. He apparently sees himself as “therapist” respectively as “adviser” who wants to dissolve the “myths of the book culture” and promote the “visions of the information society”. A rather unusual position for an analyst. His book leaves his reader somewhat perplexed. It seems  that there is a little too much – systems theory, cybernetics, psychology, management theory, sociology, ecology – and, compared to this, too little of the real expected thing, texts in the Digital Information Age. Too bad, because: Giesecke is an excellent expert on the history of the letterpress and the modern culture of books. The comparison of the formation and diffusion of knowledge in the information society and the Renaissance is extremely interesting. We could possibily gain insights for the formation of the Digital Humanities and the status of the (historical) Book in this (please see my separate post on Wolfgang Schmale on writing history in the digital era). Nevertheless, Giesecke points to many crucial questions as for instance: What is the currency of the interaction on the Internet? Giesecke obviously agrees with Charles Leadbeater, that it is the recognition for participation. An interesting case of reciprocity.

Post scritum: 

2014, the Swiss National Science Foundation wants research results freely available on the internet and links the promotion of scientific research closely to this requirement. Does this Open Access Strategy mean that the culture of the book is threatened? To a heated debate in Switzerland see Humanities,Books, Digital Age.


Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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