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When Steve Heller asked me to do this column, I demurred. “Online? I don’t know what I’d write about,” I said.
“Has that ever been a problem in writing for the Journal?”
“It’s never been a problem in writing for anything until now,” I admitted. “But this feels different.”
“Then write about the difference,” he said.
Easy for him to say. I don’t know what the difference is, or even that
there really is one. I have dictated an entire book by phoning it into a
tape recorder at a corporate word processing station. But since it
came out in print, readers had no way of knowing (and perhaps no reason
for caring) that it hadn’t been done with a quill. Is producing junk
mail any different from producing spam? I don’t know, I’m a stranger
But not as much a stranger as I once was. Years ago Ivan Chermayeff and I
agreed to investigate the prospect of developing a website for the
International Design Conference in Aspen. As we left the room Ivan
turned to me and said, “Ralph, do we know what a website is?”
Now I do. The online design magazine Core77 has been interrogating me by email for a piece they’re doing on the new edition of By Design,
a book I wrote more than 20 years ago. The writer, Allan Chochinov,
asks such probing and, frankly, flattering questions that I find myself
wishing the article were going to be published. Of course it is
going to be published, I understand that. But I still equate publishing
with printing, just as I equate writing with preparing a manuscript,
and reading with holding a book in your lap. One of the last-ditch
arguments against seeing the computer as a vehicle for the written word
was that you could not sit lazily under a tree with an apple and an
Apple. Now you can. (If you can’t find a tree, there’s a wi-fi-equipped
Starbucks, which are more abundant than oaks and in no danger of
extinction, although in certain venues that has been proposed.) And so
can everyone else. Maybe that’s the difference.
Well, we’ve all been warned about the danger of getting what you wish
for. In the days when all the hip salons were promoting razorcuts, I
went to an Albanian barber who scorned the trend. “Marika,” I asked her,
“Why don’t you use a razor like everyone else?”
“I can’t use an instrument that cuts only one way,” she said disdainfully.
I didn’t know quite what that meant, but it resonated, a term that came
into vogue at the same time razorcuts did, but, unlike them, has not had
the decency to go away. Print is an instrument that cuts only
one way. Ignoring this constraint, editors used to claim they wanted a
dialogue with the reader. Maybe they did, but a monologue was all they
achieved. Readers could, in a sense, talk back with letters to the
editor, but from such a broad divide in time and space that the feedback
never got fed back. The decision to print what they wrote or to respond
privately instead of printing it, or to just ignore it, was the
editor’s alone. The invention of the Op Ed page has changed none of
this, although the invention of email has quickened and multiplied the
Today, however, we have at last a medium that cuts both ways, and it
turns out to be in some ways a pain in the ass. Once they have access to
communications technology, anyone can say anything to everyone.
Blogging becomes clogging. Witness the attack on Amazon’s practice of
providing anonymous book reviews that give prospective buyers no way of
knowing whether a hostile review is coming from the author’s spurned
lover or a laudatory one is coming from the author himself.
Whoever it comes from, what appears online tends to stay around. So does
print, but not as efficiently. Electronic storage saves space and
electronic retrieval saves time. When rummaging through my mind won’t
yield the information I need, I used to look in books. But even if I
have the right book, it is easier to ask Google than to find it on the
shelf. Easier, but faintly troubling. With print, the words are intact,
even if I can’t find them. But where are these words when I’m
not looking at them? They are in the computer’s memory, which is in
every respect superior to my own, and getting suspiciously bigger and
better all the time.
In a radio broadcast Andrei Codrescu speculated on where all the
additional memory is coming from. I’m not sure he named the suspects,
but I will. From the fact that computer memory is increasing in direct
proportion to the rate at which human memory is decreasing, Codrescu
deduced a conspiracy between IBM and Greyhound to rob unwitting
passengers of 16 megabytes of RAM with each revolution of a bus’s
I have avoided buses ever since I heard that, but my own memory is still
being ripped off daily. Maybe there is a similar cabal made up of Intel
and Honda dealers.
The web accelerates the production of ephemera, then uses its prodigious
memory to archive it; so the name of this column is not a wholly
gratuitous pun. While I was writing it, my grandson was born. His name
is Noah. However skillful he may become in carpentry and navigation, I
doubt that Anyone will ever command him to build an ark. Still, in the
world he will grow up in, online and off, could an archive be as
Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design
and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of
I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt
and is the recipient of the
2011 AIGA Medal.
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