Alessandro Ludovico is a media critic and editor in chief of Neural magazine. For decades he has been determined to dissect the present and shape the future while many –unaware– are still anchored to the past. And his task is not an easy one: he has written several essays on digital culture, has co-edited the Mag.Net Reader publications and co-founded Mag.Net (Electronic Cultural Publishers). He also teaches, researches and carries on learning, just like a polymath of the 21st century.
We interview him on the occasion of the launch of Post-Digital Print: The Mutation of Publishing Since 1984, edited by Onomatopee, an essential book to understand the past, the present and the future (yes, future!) of publishing.
But let’s have his answers speak for him. Words, cellulose, electrons.
You have just published Post-Digital Print - The Mutation of Publishing since 1984. I think it's a fantastic book that puts some order in such a current issue. I really admire that you even venture to predict the future. What made you publish this book right now, in this very present?
Actually the book is the final outcome of a research fellowship at Academia Willem De Kooning supervised by Florian Cramer in the Communication in a Digital Age program. The book took three years to be finished with the essential help of a few persons (among them the editor Joe Monk, Ellen Zoete and Freek Lomme at Onomatopee and the graphic designer Eric de Haas). Trying to shed some light on a possible future, for example was quite risky considered the aim to keep the text as much as possible update for a while. But I took the risk in order to ground some possible scenario on research, investigating what has already happened in the past in different strictly related fields (like, for example, how artists used print as a strategy), opposing the current countless speculations based mainly on either market fears or pure marketing. And it seems that now is a timely moment to start a rich and useful debate on the role of print in digital times.
How was your residency at Onomatopee and Baltan Laboratories in Eindhoven where you presented Post-Digital Print?
It was simply fantastic. After three years dealing with the research I had the chance and great support from the whole team to develop something I was eager to: A DIY book scanner. It's an open source project where people from all over the world are building scanners based on photo cameras instead of moving lamps. These DIY scanners are especially aimed to scan books in order to then share them as well. So we were able to involve students and book lovers around this machine in effective social processes. Finally an international conference debated various aspects triggered by the book. I strongly hope that there’ll be future opportunities to replicate and update this great experience.
Do you find that in a certain way we are over the digital age, that for us humans the digital solely has never been enough?
The digital as a cultural dimension meant as interconnected digital technologies has been one of the greatest revolution in communication. Now it seems to be so integrated in daily life to be taken for granted and so more and more seamlessly embedded in other media and practices. That's why I think we are right at the beginning of the "post-digital" dimension.
At some point in the book you state that "the future of post-digital print may also involve new processes, such as remote printing, networked real-time distribution and on-demand customization of printed materials". In your opinion, which could be the social and political potential of these activities?
There are plenty of potential ones, which revolve around social communities and the interests that tie them up. All the above mentioned scenario at the moment are business or industrial options, but they'd have terrific consequences if they'd be available for cheap. One of the strongest value of publishing is to develop content that can serve a community and preserve its values, intellectual elaborations and history. These tools would break some of the most annoying limits, which are still there despite all the IT industrial-controlled "clouds" and online corporations "collaborative" online tools.
Lately, we've seen countless studies that deal with the impact of digital reading as regards learning, memory and knowledge. Any thoughts about that?
I included a few jokes about the relationship of offline (traditional) publishing and digital publishing in the book, and they are meant to express the position of an unavoidable need of both, instead of a scaring transition. So the fears connected to the end of print are exaggerated as well as the fears connected to the damage which digital publishing would carry. I strongly think that instead of continuing to debate in terms of a conflict (print vs. digital) we'd be committed to think in terms of a unique opportunity to have better products on both sides (including new "hybrids"), and how to make both the printed knowledge more accessible and the digital content more durable.
Back to Post-Digital Print, I've enjoyed very much the appendix of print versus electrons, where you show 100 differences and similarities between paper and pixel through the words that are used in each field. I couldn't help finding many more differences than similarities, at least regarding the terms employed. Do you believe that print and digital are destined to merge, to understand each other?
More than destined to merge I think they are destined to understand each other. I've really enjoyed to compile this list through the years, and in any case even the differences are meant to underline how we're in the end talking about two faces of the same coin. They progress on a similar but different technical background, in the same way they progress on a similar but different media culture.
You also write that "when we are no longer able to categorize publications as either a print publication or an e-publication then the first true hybrids will have arrived". Do we need a word revolution as well?
If I understand correctly you mean a deep modification of our language in order to express ourselves properly in these hybrids? If this is the case I think that language evolves almost naturally when it deals with a new medium or a significant evolution of an old one. So probably these "hybrids" will testify unconsciously a parallel mutation of language, with unpredictable cultural consequences.
You talk about a recent boom in the do-it-yourself book and zine scene that resembles very much Internet communities as regards their working method. How would you assess this movement?
They're extremely interesting because they do not represent a nostalgic look at the past, but a different use of an established independent medium. In fact the best new zines employ different processes derived or influenced by digital media. And even the same technological means that can be used to produce a zine are very different compared to 30 or more years ago. So digital and networks have completely changed the way of producing zines, but the more interesting part is that now it's less and less a "personal" effort to express ideas and diffuse them, but more often than not it's something embraced by an aware group of persons.
You have been the editor of Neural magazine for almost 20 years now. Aren't you amazed when you look back to 1993, especially regarding the Internet and networking culture?
Of course yes, the net has radically revolutionized a few basic notions as time and space in communication, in part establishing the network culture as a paradigm in collaboration and development in different fields of knowledge (not only in humanities). But what has also radically changed is the effort and the way of producing quality content. This change has been hard or even deadly for many but in some cases it enabled some independent publishing products to reach excellence.
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