Publishing Dialects and Dialectics

So here's a "future of publishing" wrinkle to throw out into the sloppy pool of the Internet:

The eminent Bruce Sterling has written a foreword to a new publication of Zamyatin's We. Not the most interesting publishing event of recent memory, perhaps. But, it's a great book, a classic, one might say. I first read it for a course my first-year of college about concepts of freedom and power. I can't remember what the name of the course was, but I very much remember the book. I love how the main character has a changing relationship to the hair on his arms. I think about this all the time, especially when I'm writing about the body.

So, I'd like to see what Mssr. Sterling has to say about the book. He's been named one of the most visionary and interesting SF writers of our day by any number of visionary and interesting sources, so maybe he has something interesting to say as a prelude to the reading experience of We, a very visionary and interesting book, which in its own way is a foreword to the interestingly visionary genre of SF writing.

So it's been decided. I should definitely read this foreword.

But wait a minute: it's not on the Internet.

I know--one wonders if it is a hoax, because a critically-interesting essay by Bruce Sterling is not available on the Internet. How can we be sure the foreword actually exists? Sure, it's mentioned in an Amazon listing, but lots of fake stuff ends up on Amazon. I guess I could go down to the local book store and buy the book. But I already own a copy of the book, it just doesn't have the foreword. I suppose I could upgrade, but $10 is a lot of money to pay just for the foreword. And plus, then I'd have to carry around duplicate pages I don't need, unless I ripped out the foreword pages and glued them to my copy. I could give my old copy to a library or a friend, but it has all my class notes in the margins, which I want to keep. And plus, it's all dog-eared from use.

You know, this reminds me of a similar situation.

The similar situation is my experience with Adobe's Creative Suite, made by perhaps one of the most neurotically anal retentive Intellectual Property controllers in the world. At work, I have the original version of CS. I know, right? Well, it still works, and it cost a damn pretty penny to buy in the first place A WHOLE EPOCHAL SIX YEARS AGO so my employer is not going to upgrade my work station to the current version, which because they are now up to version 4, would mean buying the new software outright. Meanwhile, while I can work fine on my own computer, all the files that customers send me, created with CS versions 2 through 4, are as completely useless to me as if I had no top-of-the-line graphics editing software at all. I am cut out of the graphics editing community, which as anyone in this community will tell you, is tantamount to being able to work with graphics at all. Artists gotta talk to layout, who gotta talk to publishing, who gotta talk to prepress, who gotta talk to press. Me and my poor CS1 are an island on this tempestuous sea.

So what is the connection here? Besides the fact that I'm poor, and totally behind the current wave of publishing?

The connection, my Internet friends, is the nouned adjective of "Canon". Canonicalness. The state of being akin to the canon.

Zamyatin's book, in addition to being a wonderful element of the human literary record, is in the public domain. [CORRECTION: it is NOT in the public domain, because the copyright was renewed in 1954 by the translator! I can't find info for the original Russian copyright status. Translating throws a wrinkle on the wrinkle, so instead of altering my argument, I'm leaving it how it is, and will let you interpret this additional conundrum of translation yourself. The actual status of Zamyatin's book is not my argument.] The copyright is null and void, because it was written so many years ago. There are various, complicated rules for exactly how a book enters the public domain in various territories and jurisdictions, but basically, it was published so long ago that we as a society have determined that the right of the author to sell the book for cold hard cash has lapsed, and now the book belongs to all of us, or more properly, whomever decides to spend the money printing the words onto paper. The Intellectual Property aspect of the work has joined the idealized world of the literary canon, from which aetherous realm it can be channelled by any press-savvy patron of the arts, and delivered into mine hands.

So, if a work is free, and anyone could potentially download it on the Internet, why would a publisher bother reprinting a new edition, especially when another publisher could do the same thing? Well, there are several reasons. One, is because people still like reading paper books, surprisingly enough! Another is that they might remarket the book for new audiences, or for particular markets, say, on the 75th anniversary of the book. Often for anniversaries, they will remake the book as well, in a special edition with new translations, extra critical material, and really sweet new cover designs. In this particular edition we are discussing, Bruce Sterling's foreword is the new part. Oh, the cover is new too. I'm willing to bet that Creative Suite had more than a small part in the cover design.

But the part of the book that is in the public domain does not include this new material. Bruce Sterling no doubt retains the rights to his foreword, no matter what it is published afore. You cannot reprint the edition of the book precisely, because the design is owned by the publisher. Only the text is canonical, and only this text is in the public domain. We, the literary society, does not own the extra features. We only own the nebulous, ideal, (and strangely, valueless) part of the "work", not the actual book itself. The mind belongs to us, but the body is sold by the publisher.

One might say that this same mind-body philosophy dictates Adobe's view of software. We do not own the Creative Suite itself, or any claim to the power of the program that allows such wonderful graphic editing. We own a license to one particular version of the programming, to use this programming up to the limits of its purposeful publishing in this manner. We own the "printed pages", but the aethereal, ideal qualities of the software is Adobe's trade secret.

In software, as far as I know, there is no public domain. First of all, usable software is pretty much less than fifteen years old. Second, there is the thing called "source code", which drastically separates the usable features from the programming that actually makes it work. A metaphor to a book could be a text that you are not allowed to read, but only allowed to listen to someone else read aloud. Of course, back in the day, all text was read aloud, and remembered, so if you heard a story, you could read it and publish it as well. Programs used to be only "source code", too.

But the point isn't simply about establishing a metaphor. The point is about what it means to establish a philosophy of the relations between authors, publishers, and readers.

Some in the software world view Adobe and other software companies' philosophical position as draconian, and untenable. These "some" prefer to set up different philosophies, such as the GNU public license, and other metaphors, like the "free-as-in-beer" philosophy. Some of these variations are probably the closest software gets to the public domain. Not only are you allowed to use the software, and distribute it as is, you can change it, repackage it, and sell it, if you want. Certain licenses mean that the free aspects have to remain free, no matter how you package it. But in the most free varieties, you can do anything you want. It's yours, and you have no responsibility to anyone else in your use. I've heard the programming described like a spoken language--if you hear somebody say something, you can repeat that language however you like, because this is part of being a free individual. You are responsible for your own use of language, and nobody can impose proscriptions on your speech.

Now, with the caveat that I've probably crossed a bunch of categories in the world of open source software licensing with this last paragraph, let me say that a book is still different. Programming language is similar to written language, and yet different. Firstly, from a pure semiotic standpoint, programming language is a written language (mostly English and general Math-speak), with syntactical variations to allow easy logical functions, and then also codified so that it can be parsed into binary, which is the written language a computer understands. So a programming language is not a language per se (ha!), but local dialect, meant to convey a certain sort of meaning in a localized framework, i.e. the programming and parsing relationship between programmer and computer. So, source code, the "body" of a program, is not actually a proprietary language from a semiotic point of view, any more than a computer kernel is the "brain". In fact, both are textual works, written in a unique language that can be expressed by a computer and programmer alike. But without the technology, the computer, in the middle to transcribe and "read aloud" this special text, the book is unusable. When the computer and the user both read the same language at the same time from their individual perspectives, amazing things happen. This sounds a lot like magic for a reason.

But these program books only seem different, because thus far we've only considered the side of books that are written. We've discussed the programming, but not the parsing and program execution. Naturally, the author has a feeling of filial implications for his/her work. "I made this; it belongs to me." Sure, to an extent. But remember, the reader is involved as well. Without the reader, your novel just becomes a very strange, third-person fantasy diary. The technology by which the reader parses the text must be part of this relationship.

So what about the reader? Well, back in the day, the reader had to make a choice. That is, s/he had to choose to buy a book, and stick with that decision. If you wanted to have a bound copy of words all to your very own, you had to pay somebody to put them there, because books didn't grow on paper. Fair enough for free market philosophy. Of course, the publishing industry was willing to work with the consumer on this. Most people didn't have enough money to buy a new hard-back encyclopedia every year. So, we got cheap paperbacks. Dime novels--an entire genre of fiction based around a particular sandbar in the massive river delta of supply/demand curves. Serials. Pulp. There are certain ways people would buy books, and so, wouldn't you know it, people starting making these particular books. Publishers even began to support the ultimate non-consumerist, socialist revolution in literature--free, public lending libraries--because if literacy was universal, they would still sell a hell of a lot of copies, because not everyone could read the same book all the time. Besides, libraries were a good market for hard-bound copies.

You see, books are in their own way a particular local dilect(ic), (hey! who put that parenthetical there? this isn't a marxist concept!) that communicates between the author and the reader. Publishers, out of necessity, have been the mediator of this. They sell the computers, I mean, the technology, I mean, the books. You might have noticed Adobe gets along pretty well with Apple. That's because Adobe wouldn't be able to sell so much graphics editing software, if there weren't shiny new MacBookPro's just itching to run the software. The necessary technology for forming the semiotic/mechanic dialectic between two material points in a productive relationship functions as a part of the whole. The particular iteration of language used in the process is developed by and for the communicative relationship, always already part of the process. It is not so much a mind and a body developed in Cartesian dual-unity, as a Bergsonian echo of duration between phenomenologically linked network nodes. Shifting back and forth, the sand is already going to be forming a river delta...

Sorry, got carried away. Let's get back to today. In the past, books were published in these ways... etc. But what about today? Does technology require me to purchase a new copy of a book I already own, simply because my curiosity and investment in this particular node within the canon of literature pushes me to want to read Bruce Sterling's foreword to a historical proto-SF novel? Is this the current state of reading technology? Am I so obscure in my interests to be a specialist, or a collector, or some other fetishistic anomaly that would cause me to overbuy this particular literary-material language group, like someone buying a supercomputer to analyze the human genotype, or a collector desperately trying to find a working Atari to play the original Asteroids cartridge? Am I a polyglot by need, or simply because I want to be? Why would I dedicate myself towards communicating in the multiple languages of both "New Canonical Release" and "Old, Dog-Eared Text", basically to communicate the same thing?

This is the era of the iterative web app, of atemporal Internet usage, and of crowd-sourced wikis. I think we can do better than having to make a choice between A and B.

We, the expressively speaking/writing/reading culture of humanity, is very quickly getting used to a new way of communicating. Our nodes of communication are proliferating very rapidly. We are now developing new idioms and syntaxes based completely around the ability to transmit idioms and syntaxes quickly and succinctly. Our technology is engendering new technologies. Our programming languages now form carefully considered Graphical-User-Interfaces, which communicate through meta-data messaging services alive on a hyper-fast, always-on protocol networks, these Interfaces competing to write their own logical search algorithms, tracking the latest in spontaneous cultural generation of slang and communicative semiotic gestures, whether acute or obtuse, as long as they are usable enough to carry meaning within them, among as many people as we can still process a continued conversation, using all of these language tools. Yeah, I just described Twitter's Trending Topics. 140 characters never sounded quite so big, did it?

So the canon is growing, and even more so, canonicalness is growing. Comments, crowd-sourced translations, linkbacks, live search, hashtags. Some of this new communication is important, and some of it is not. But how can you tell what's important, without having some way to access it? Maybe Bruce Sterling's foreword is less than 400 words, and is just some glowing name-check to the idea of SF under totalitarianism. Maybe I don't need to read it at all. But how do I know that? I've followed the link, and come to a dead end. Maybe I click through it in under twenty seconds, but if access is denied, how will I ever know? The canon is shooting itself in the foot. Publishers could not, at one point in history, have said, "well, once universal literacy happens, then we'll start thinking about changing our publishing strategy." A growing canon is an ecosystem. It doesn't simply track a curve, or a timeline to decide the public domain. If somebody wants to join the canon, if somebody has something important to say, they must put it with the canon. And the canon, the realm of the literary, where linguistic worth is not so much a nebulous idea as it is a ever-present, living, conversation in mutated dialect, is something that is shared, and networked. It always has been, and always will. All that's changed is that it no longer needs paper. If one piece of technology changes, then the way we communicate in a language previously dependent on that piece of technology changes, even as we continue to use that technology. You can still own a landline, but you better believe you're going to be calling people on cellphones. I'm not looking for an updated ebook here. I want to read Bruce's foreword on pages, in a book, as a preface to Zamyatin's We, in the same edition I read in college, will all my notes still there. Is that an insane request? Maybe a few years ago. But I'm posting this idea on a cumulative public diary stored on a computer I have never seen, with a public network address, written in syndicated meta-language across any number of syntax parsing programs, updateable instantly from any terminal attached to the same global network. Don't you get it? Blogs ARE insane! You try to tell me what technology is insane. The mind/body distinction is not just dissolved, it's scratching it's head in Intellectual Property court, stymied by legitimately elected political parties comprised of people under thirty. The insanity of the real semiotic mechanisms of human communication are not just some wacky internet theory--they actually are the Internet.

I don't expect publishers to understand. Most of them have their only speaking language in the dialectic of profit, which has been a popular idiom for a while now. However, as ubiquitous as the capitalist language is, and however deeply in conversation it may be with our other technological languages of production, consumption, and communication, "the ability to make money off of something is the tautological reason for its existence" is a relatively new work of literature. Capitalism may be a fact, but it isn't the prime cause of our communicative culture. So, while meanwhile, publishers do such things as DELETE EVERY COPY OF 1984 OFF OF ALL KINDLES WORLDWIDE, in another one of those "I-can't-believe-it's-not-a-parable" moments, I have no doubt that I will one day hold an iterative paperback book in my hands. And even if not that precisely, something else that represents ability of the literary canon, which after all, is no more than the vast tide of cultural communicative forces circulating around a collection of particular nodes, to adapt to the speakers of its collection of dialects and idioms. I can't predict the future. Maybe in some years, nobody will even read Zamyatin anymore. Maybe I won't either. But regardless of the subject matter, language will continue to express itself between creators and consumers, finding new ways to do so, and adopting new languages of expression as they become available. Because this is what communication does. The saw "information wants to be free/expensive" is stuck in the capitalist language. What it should say, and what is the most true tautology of them all, because it DEFINES tautology, is that "communications communicate". They don't want anything, but by sheer fact of their existence, they do what they do. Regardless of through what technology you choose to express communication, it will seek to communicate, or it will fizzle, and other communication will take its place. Just try to make the human race shut up. The amazing part is, through all the noise, little by little we slowly start to make more sense.

Meanwhile, my version of CS still has Adobe's stranglehold all over it. Guess we're lucky that there's more than one slick standard for distopian, proto-SF novels out there. Adobe brings you the new cutting edge standard in SF--Jules Verne, version 2375! Now upgrade from version 2374, only $499! Limited time offer!

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