Adult Swim & "The Future of the Book"

Last night I attended Johanna Drucker’s talk entitled “The Future of the Book.” Looking for the new Visual Arts Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, I followed a line of people through a set of doors and thought I was there. As I held the door for an older gentleman who seemed to be following his grandson, I asked him if he was going to hear The Future of the Book lecture. He giggled and replied, “We’re going to young scholars’ night. You’re in the chemistry building, dear.” Whoops. Some zig-zagging later and I found the VAC, my academic-looking crowd, and my seat.

I had never heard Drucker talk before, and knew only generally about her work and her most recent book, SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing, but that was enough information to charm me to the presentation. Her presentation attracted a somewhat-diverse humanities crowd: I saw several of my peeps from the English department (among them a Chaucerian who also studies comics; a Renaissance scholar; a new media scholar; a postmodernist; and a poet), and detected groups also from the visual arts, history, education, media studies, and librarians and archivists. Individuals ranged from professors to grad students to elderly members of the public to sub-ten-year-old children accompanying their parent. One little girl came with a mini suitcase of organized markers and paper, and colored quietly and diligently for the entire talk.

The little girl coloring seemed to have her marker-smudged fingers on the pulse of Drucker’s talk, as did the Young Scholars’ Night crowd I accidentally joined. Though the speaker’s material presented a very serious look at the history of the book and used that information to make a prediction about its future (or rather how we humanists can shape its future), her style was playful and, in fact, provided a serious message of the importance of “play” to the evolution of authorship, readers, and texts.

Drucker folded examples of play, humor, entertainment, and recreation into her talk with a subtlety that seemed not to phase the scholarly vibe of the majority of the audience.

The first slide showed Keanu Reeves in The Matrix–in order to illustrate the fantasy of a disembodied virtual utopia. Juxtaposing the intelligent virtual and Keanu drew chuckles round the house, and Drucker was just getting started. She also showed slides of e-readers in different shapes, including the form of newspaper pages large enough to shield the privates of a guy on the john. She then addressed the history of print and dove backward in time to Gutenberg’s press and figures like Tyndale, where she made the requisite “he had a lot at stake” joke. We then saw slides of early playing cards and learned how printers were asked by the church to stop producing them, as the populace took too easily to gambling. After other examples, she ended with a vision of the way a “novel” of the future might work: Drucker describes a narrative that seems folded into news in realtime that reaches you through mobile devices and that changes as you make decisions about how to interact with the narrative. It is multimedia, multi-player, and multi-platform. It sounded a bit like the Michael Douglas movie The Game, and also a little bit like Stranger Than Fiction. Serious play, in which our concepts of fiction and real life blend and disrupt each other in new ways.

Maybe I’ve just been studying for comps for too long and neglecting proper recreation, but I couldn’t help but find the message of seriously play–or “adult swim”–in Drucker’s talk about the future of the book. Her presentation suggested to me that the meaning of play, play-ers, play media, and conversely the definition of “work” (noun and verb), have a giant impact on the way we treat reading technologies now and will treat new reading and authoring technologies in the future.