A Book is Technology: An Interview with Tan Lin — “Reading is a kind of integrated software”
“People forget that a book or codex is a technology. My interest with HEATH and 7CV was to treat the book as a distinct medial platform through which a lot of ancillary information passes, much like a broadcast medium like TV or a narrow-cast medium like Twitter or Tumblr. Reading is information control, just as a metadata tag is a bibliographic control. So I wanted to highlight the book’s medial and time-based underpinnings. (…)
A book in Google Books, like someone’s search history, isn’t really a book; it’s data connected to other data, and it’s searchable. Reading, like autobiography, is a subset of a search function. (…)
“Reading is a kind of integrated software.”
Integrated software is a genre of software that combines word processing, database management, and spreadsheet applications, and communications platforms. This genre has been superseded by various full-function office suites, but I was interested in reading modelled in that way, i.e., different kinds of reading, each with specific functions. I mean, you read Harlequin romances differently than recipes, and you read Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets differently than you read Excel, and you read experimental Japanese novels differently than you read text messages, and in terms of documents processed by software, you have distinctions between, say, end-user manuals, bills of sales, Unified Modeling Language models, and legal contracts. These are genres of reading, and they’re housed or processed in the same generic platform that I call “reading.” So reading is an application that processes or assembles varied kinds of material. I was interested in creating works of literature that could be read like recipes or spreadsheets or PowerPoint presentations. (…)
I think it’s a way to talk about new modalities of reading. In software engineering, the authoring is sometimes implemented with what are called frames, where kinds of (reading or processing) functionality are packed into frames, and where a frame is “a generic component in a hierarchy of nested subassemblies” (Wikipedia). You’ll have word processing frames and graphics frames, etc., and these individual frames can be linked in a unified programming system. This enables you to embed graphics and spreadsheet functions into a text document, or you can have shared graphical contexts, where material pops up in multiple frames at the same time—this, I think, is what is happening in 7CV with its graphical elements, text elements, processing text instructions in the form of prefaces (so-called “source” material) and meta data tags. I also inserted other languages: Chinese and machine codes. 7CV has various things in it that look like captions or interfaces or even bits of source code, and I was interested in the difference between a caption and bit of machine code in a book. If you look at the handwritten Chinese text in 7CV (it was written by my mother) you’ll notice that it was put in upside down by the typesetter! This is not true of the machine-generated Chinese, provided by Google Translate. But at any rate you have a complex ecosystem of different languages in single publishing/reading platform.
I assembled both PowerPoint works similarly. Bibliographic Sound Track was compiled from SMS, IM chats, video game walk-throughs, Tweets, Tumblr entries, PowerPoint bullet points, photographic slides, the overhead transparency, the text box, the couplet, the book page, the fading film titling sequence, etc. PowerPoint is a multimedia ecosystem that encompasses a wide variety of reading practices, and where each slide or page is a frame: modular, linked to other frames, and encompassing various platform specific reading or communications functions. So here was a generic poem, where a poem is the most varied collection of different material that could be read continuously in a time-based manner with a definite run time. Reading can be looped. That, I think, is the definition of a poem today!
Q: What are the differences between your PowerPoint works and your print books?
The most obvious difference is that when you read a book or codex, the only thing moving is your eye; with the PowerPoint works, both text and eye are moving. In this sense, PowerPoint makes reading autonomous and it sets it in motion, literally: Individual slides are animated, slide transitions are animated, and the piece overall is software that is processing information. That’s why we turned out the lights during the screening and projected large: No one expects to go to the cinema and read a book on the screen, one word at a time, but that’s kind of what I wanted to do. The most beautiful thing is a book that could read itself! So reading is a kind of integrated software or the frame technology that manufactures software, and a book is the software application that is manufactured.
But I think there are a lot of similarities between digital and print-based reading experiences. The PowerPoint pieces, like my books, all bracket reading in a larger perceptual (and social) field that includes smells and sounds, i.e., they situate reading in a larger geography or reading environment. People tend to forget that reading is a kind of all-over experience, and it takes place in a particular room or in a particular moment of childhood. So the idea was to not confine reading to a particular object (book) or platform (PowerPoint) but allow it to expand outwards into the social space around it. I was more interested in what might be called the general mood of reading: the overall atmosphere or medium in which we experience our daily thoughts and perform actions—what Heidegger termed Stimmung and the psychologist Daniel Stern calls affective or amodal attunements. Bibliographic Sound Track is a mood-based system, but so is HEATH. And these mood-based systems, which are common to Zen meditative states, are bottom-up, non-directed, allotropic modes of general receptiveness rather than top-down, attention-based focus on specific objects or things. A book, at bottom, is a very general and very generic thing (that we happen to be reading). (…)
I’m not so interested in knowledge in that teleological sense; I’m more interested in the dissipation of knowledge, unfocused attention, and generic receptiveness. It would be nice if a book could reduce the amount of knowledge in the air. I’m equally interested in the public and communal architecture of reading practices as they intersect with individuals and park benches, the subway and the seminar room. Why can’t a book be more like a perfume? Or a door? Or the year after we graduated from college? A perfume is a communications medium just as literature is. Moods, furniture, restaurants, and books are communications mediums. What is it that Warhol said? “I think the right hormones can make Chanel No. 5 smell very butch.” (…)
For me, I think of reading as data management rather than passive absorption on a couch, though these dichotomies are ultimately false. Reading is and probably always will be a bit of both. At any rate, ideas about information processing are altering the contours of printed and digital works. Suddenly the book is just one element in a larger system of textual controls, distribution models, and controlled vocabulary systems. This is certainly true of the two PowerPoint works. I mean what are they? Are they poems or are they more like Twitter feeds? They don’t seem like PowerPoint presentations because they’re weak didactically and they don’t make a point. They are inflected by communications devices, but they do have a rhythm, which poems tend to have! And likewise with Twitter. Is it a broadcast medium using a pull system much like an RSS feed? Or is it more of a storage device, like a scroll or a poem? The idea of a network as a platform for collaborative work (rather than software housed on an individual’s desktop) might be applied to a book, no longer regarded as discrete, stand-alone object but as something that gets updated on a periodic basis in a social network. But this may not be that new an idea. After all, David Hume praised the printing press because it made it possible to issue countless emendations, revisions, and new editions.
Q: Can you state briefly what you see as the future of the book?
Let’s return for a moment to the bootleg by Westphalie Verlag in Vienna. Did the publisher David Jourdan in this case create what, under U.S. copyright law, would be termed “strong” copyleft where the derivative work is “based on the program” and has a “clear will to extend it to “dynamic linkage”? At this point, we are talking about software development licensing, shared libraries, primary access to source code, site linkages, share and share alike provisions, and software pools. My question is: Can a book be made to look like the authoring of such software, caught in a complicated licensing and development system? I think so! Maybe that’s the future of the book: to look like a licensing agreement regarding the future dissemination of its own information.”