The comedic future

Alex Steffen—a futurist known for authoring Worldchanging among other sustainability work—is launching a documentary series called The Heroic Future. On the one hand, I am entirely on board with any exercise to imagine different futures, especially given the current paucity of positive scenarios that climate change presents us with. On the other hand, the language here gives me a great deal of pause. I don’t think anything resembling heroism is going to solve our problems or lead us into a new, sustainable future. If anything, we need healers not heroes, people who can adapt and evolve, who can assist others in need. Heroism is far too tainted by toxic masculinity and hubris to be of use to us now. If we’re going to imagine a better future, we’re going to have to start by imagining better models than the tragic hero.

Among the books I turn to again and again is The Comedy of Survival in which Joseph Meeker presents two modes for being in the world: the tragic mode, in which our hero tries to change the world in his (and it’s always his) own image, and the comic mode, in which a motley crew of men and women adapt to their environment, never quite succeeding in getting exactly what they want, but managing to get by nonetheless. Tragedies always end with the hero’s head carted off the stage; comedies end in weddings. Let’s imagine a comedic future instead of a heroic one.

from “The comedic future, 4.3 light years, never read the comments: A working letter” (Tiny Letter)

This spoke to me  as I live in a city in which one of its leading environmentalist now is in charge of a golf course. You have to laugh if just to keep from crying.

The Comedy of Survival: Literary Ecology and a Play Ethic is OOP (out of print) and so I’m ordering it via Interlibrary Loan.

The Future of the Library: Where it’s at

Future of the Library book cover
The Future of the Library: From Electric Media to Digital Media
Robert K. Logan and Marshall McLuhan

Chapter 9 : The Compact Library and Human Scale

As an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, I (McLuhan) encountered a library in the English Department that had immense advantages. I never have seen one like it since. It consisted of no more than 1,500 or 2,000 books. These books, however, were chosen from many fields of history and aesthetics, philosophy, anthropology, mathematics, and the sciences in general. The one criterion, which determined the presence of any book in this collection, was the immediate and top relevance for twentieth-century awareness.  The shelf-browser could tell at a glance exactly which poets, novelists, critics, painters, and which of their individual writings were indispensable for knowing “where it’s at.”

Where It’s At (It = The Environment)

This remarkable phrase “where it’s at” may be the only one in any language to express the idea of both corporate consensus and sensory focus — a kind of “consensuality” of persons, places, and things in a single instant of awareness.  This phrase, invented by young rock musicians to indicate areas of relevance and aliveness in the present time, is, of course, an acoustic, resonant expression, quite alien to anything like “clock time.” Nothing could be further away from “where’s it at” than “time of day” or “time of year.” The English language has gone without even a corporate word for the French on. Now we have this phrase, which is enormously more sophisticated in its aesthetic range and sensibility.

The library of which I spoke existed in a corner of the English Faculty Library at Cambridge, but it enabled hundreds of students to share all the relevant poets, painters, critics, musicians, and scientists of that time as a basis for an ongoing dialog. Would it not be possible to have similar libraries created by other departments in the university? Could not the History Department indicate those areas of anthropology and sociology that were indispensable to the most advanced historical studies of the hour? Could not the Department of Philosophy pool its awareness of many fields in order to create a composite image of all the relevant of many fields in order to create a composite image of all the relevant speculation and discovery of our time? Only now have I begun to realize that this unique library represented the meeting of both a written and oral tradition at an ancient university. It is this figure-ground pattern of the written and the oral that completes the meaning of the book and the library.

The Future of the Library: A Figure in Many Different Grounds

Future of the Library book cover
The Future of the Library: From Electric Media to Digital Media
Robert K. Logan and Marshall McLuhan

Chapter 3 : The Library: A Figure in Many Different Grounds

The poets were the librarians of oral society. The very first things that were recorded and preserved by a culture when they acquired the ability to write were its national sags or epics…

The library of the oral society is democratic. Every member has equal access to the information, since the epic poems were recited in public for all to hear. It is only with literacy that learning became the domain of the privileged, those who had the leisure to learn the art of reading and writing.

The library of the oral society stores its information in the collective memory of the entire society. The form of poetry is conductive to memorization through devices such as plot, meter and rhyme. Writing, an extension of man’s memory, actually had a deleterious effect on memory. It created a dependency for its users…

Writing necessitates the library, since it destroys memory.

Every day we seem to piling heaps of ashes on the divine light within us. Men who read the Times every morning or it may be serious works on such different subjects as geology, philology, geography or history are systematically ruining their memories. They are under the suzerainty of books and helpless without them. (Müller, 1901)

Let us trace how the dependency on the book developed. With literacy, the role of the poet as preserver of the culture, passed on to the scribe.

The Future of the Library : User as Content

Future of the Library book cover
The Future of the Library: From Electric Media to Digital Media
Robert K. Logan and Marshall McLuhan

Chapter 1 – The Library: The Physical Extension of Man’s Memory (Mother of the Muses) — A Study in Media

User as Content (pp. 12-13)

The cognitive agent is and becomes the thing known. — Aristotle

The twelfth-century German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote ‘A book is a mirror; when a jackass looks into it he does not see St. Paul looking back.” The eminent librarian Jesse Shera expressed a similar sentiment.

A book is a “container for things contained” yet what that thing may be dependent upon him who reads. For the author the book is the physical embodiment of that he thought he put theme, but to the reader its content is a variable. (1971, p.21)

Both the physicist and the librarian are making the same point, namely, the user is the content. This insight into the nature of the book applies to all media, including the library. The content of a library, paradoxically is not its books but its users, as a recent study of the use of campus libraries by university faculty revealed. it was found that the dominant criterion for selection of a library was the geographical proximity of the library to the professor’s office. The depth of the collection in research’s field was not as important a criterion as convenience (Dougherty & Blomquist, 1971, pp. 64-65). The research was able to convert the nearest library into a research facility that met his needs. In other words, the content of this conveniently located facility was its user. Any library can be converted from the facility it was designed to be, into the facility the user wishes it to become. A library designed for research can be used for entertainment, and vice-versa. As we move into greater use of electronic media, the user of the library will change even more. As the user changes, so will the library’s content or the use to which the content of the library will be subjected. In other words, as the ground in which the library exists changes, so will the figure of the library. The nineteenth-century notion of the library storing basically twentieth-century material will have to cope with the needs of twenty-first century users.

Discover, gather, create, share

What is key about these goals, however, is that they limit themselves to the user finding an entry in the catalog (albeit FRBR goes on to having the user obtain the item represented there). A study done by the University of Minnesota Libraries in 2006 (UMN 2006) took a much broader view of their users and user needs. They asked their faculty and graduate student users questions like “Where do you work when you are conducting research?” “How do you share source materials?” Just these two questions already reveal quite a lot: the librarians are not assuming that one conducts research in the library, and acknowledge that many people work in teams or groups that share resources among themselves. They also asked about library use: how often do these users visit the physical library, and how often do they visit the library web site, and what do they do there?

The authors of the report (who modestly remain anonymous) then developed a model to describe what they had learned. They borrowed the core of their model from a humanities researcher, John Unsworth, who described the primitives of humanities research as discover, gather, create, and share. Of these, only discover is usually seen as directly related to the library, and many, perhaps even most, discoveries take place outside of the library catalog. Yet if your view is that libraries support the research function, then all of these primitives could possibly have some interaction with the library. The share primitive includes teaching, and the library may be directly connected to the course management system such that course materials are shared through library functions. The gather function includes acquiring and organizing, which might mean library support of bibliographic tools. And the create function could be supported through shared annotation tools, which could be especially important in those disciplines where research is done through collaborative work.
I was particularly struck by this passage because I keep a print out of UMN’s Model beside my desk where I work:
discover share gather create

Two Kinds of Power

If one accepts Wilson’s statement that users wish to find the text that best suits their need, it would be hard to argue that libraries should not be trying to present the best texts to users. This, however, goes counter to the stated goal of the library catalog as that of bibliographic control, and when the topic of “best” is broached, one finds an element of neutrality fundamentalism that pervades some library thinking. This is of course irreconcilable with the fact that some of these same institutions pride themselves on their “readers’ services” that help readers find exactly the right book for them. The popularity of the readers’ advisory books of Nancy Pearl and social networks like Goodreads, where users share their evaluations of texts, show that there is a great interest on the part of library users and other readers to be pointed to “good books.” How users or reference librarians are supposed to identify the right books for them in a catalog that treats all resources neutrally is not addressed by cataloging theory.

Wilson’s analysis presages the search and retrieval capabilities of Internet search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo. He also writes that power of bibliography is greatest if it extends over the entire bibliographic universe, not just a single selection (one universal library as opposed to the local collection); that the user is better served the fewer retrieved items must be reviewed before satisfying the user’s request (as in targeted ranking); and that direct access to the text is a greater power than restrictive use (open access).

Due to the philosophical nature of the book, one has to tease out these brilliant ideas; they are not laid out as headlines or clear conclusions. Yet in the text Wilson may have laid out a new direction for libraries decades before those same principles were discovered by Internet entrepreneurs using new technologies. Imagine if Internet search engines had the same goals as library catalogs and designed their products to cater to only those users who came to the search box knowing either the title or the author of the document they were seeking.

Karen Coyle, The Model, FRBR Before and After.