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Burning Digital

In the 4th century A.D., the emperor Constantine ordered the pagan philosopher Porphyry's anti-Christian writings to be destroyed. The later emperors Theodosius II and Valentinian III followed suit and commanded that his works be burned, a sentence implying symbolic finality, the ultimate suppression of an idea. Porphyry had created a work that was deemed so dangerous to the continued survival and the very essence of Christianity that it had to be obliterated. The bid to destroy Porphyry's book, if we should think of it as a book, was relatively successful - it exists now only in fragments, quoted in codices by early Patristic writers. Like many ancient sources viewed from the present day, the work is characterised by its violent absence. We know that Porphyry was a thoughtful, considered philosopher, skilled in decoding the surfaces of texts and accessing the hidden meanings underneath, yet for his anti-Christian work we have only incomplete scraps, text that is alluded to but never fully replicated, unsatisfactory copies of copies of copies. Indeed, the form of the text itself remains unclear. It is possible that Porphyry wrote a treatise in several volumes called Against the Christians, a title which is referenced only centuries later, or that the condemned text was a collection of extracts from his other works, but we don't know for sure. In searching for the text that provoked such an extreme response, we are left only warped threads to follow in the labyrinth.

Today, digital text proliferates, multiplies, reproduces endlessly. Like the ancient texts, it too is fragmented and unbound; we read the manifold tabs in our internet browsers in a disjointed, haphazard way. As Johanna Drucker, Professor of Bibliographical Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA, suggests during the AHRC debate on 'Books and the Human', the book is constrained by its form, and this form encourages a certain way of thinking. The book as a set of bound sheets is dangerous because it is both discrete and indicative of something larger than itself. It is quantifiable, it can be passed on, and it is biotic, closer to the breathing human beings with beating hearts that are able to carry out unspeakable acts in the name of a book. The traces left within a book by its author, by previous readers, by the veins of history that precede and follow a book, are felt more keenly in paper pages. The book, as, Drucker puts it, is a framed space within the much broader space of open discourse, while Tom Uglow, Creative Director at Google Creative Lab, notes that as humans we have become attached to the printed book, which is still vested with authority. It is 'the real thing'. In her discussion of the book as a social instrument, Drucker notes that 'it works mythically as well as structurally', and Uglow talks about the importance of his physical book collection, how it does not matter how often they are taken down from the shelves because they have enormous significance for him as objects in the corporeal, non- digital world.~

The manuscript, created from matter that was once alive, is therefore seen as more natural, while the digital is cold and impersonal, unkind to eyesight and bad for the posture. This kind of thinking polarises the tactile object of the book, able to pervert and bewitch the mind, against the cool, somewhat sinister digital devices - the laptop, smart phone, e-reader - that can penetrate the user's (not the reader's) privacy. In a digital format, books revert back to being texts, as in academia or ancient times. Printed books create worlds that readers willingly enter and inhabit, digital texts colonise. As such, the destruction of an amorphous digital text seems impossible. Something of the power contained within a book is, perhaps, its capacity to be martyred - the body dies, but the mind lives on. But the digital, with endlessly generative sequences of bits, is hydra-like in its very form, not just in the ideas it expresses. Perhaps one way of characterising Porphyry's text as a book is its fate, in that burning is a culturally recognisable, if reprehensible, response to a controversial book. There is something inherently odd about a book that does not burn easily.

But the digital, of course, still has physical attributes. In his opening comments as chair of the debate, writer and critic Stuart Kelly remarks: 'When books are burned, people will burn after them'. Later in the discussion, Uglow suggests a reformulation: 'The danger is not burning books, the danger is power cuts. When servers get switched off, the libraries disappear. They are no longer there.' Uglow reminds us of the physicality of the digital, the data centres and server farms scattered across the globe, and how a brief, sweeping, blunt force motion can eradicate not only a printed book, but also digital content. Moreover, any discussion of books, knowledge and humanity implies issues of access, ownership and the suppression of information, and Uglow comments that when we buy an e-book, we are buying a licence that can be revoked. The novelist Tom McCarthy references Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency, suggesting that everything has begun to be written down and documented, human bodies have become books, and that the real question is who the author might be, and who gets to read the book.

Dr Catherine Eagleton, Head of Asia and Africa Collections at the British Library, calls attention to the scale of the texts produced in the ancient world, suggesting that we may be only just regaining some of the ambition of the past. Eagleton cites the artist Michael Mandiberg's 'Print Wikipedia' project, which saw him put big data into more tangible terms by printing out 7,473 volumes of Wikipedia entries. But as Drucker comments, when we see Wikipedia printed out in volumes, we don't see the 'deep' Wikipedia or the substrate, but only the surface layer, an idea that parallels the extant fragments of Porphyry's work, embedded in other people's writing and hinting at far deeper textual strata stretching back through time.

The volume of digital data in existence, both now and in the 'books' of the future, will require the same skills, the same sorting through of sedimentary layers, accretions and palimpsests, which we use to interact with the ancient world. As Drucker observes, one medium does not really replace another with immediate effect. Books are often conceived of purely in consumer terms, with the digital age figuring as a monstrous, impervious usurper, but in reality we do not have to make a final choice between the hardback and the e-book, in the style of Betamax and VHS. Books continue to coexist in a plurality of formats, shifting, altering, sometimes returning to what they once were, but often evolving. The way we live now is undoubtedly changing, as it was in Porphyry's lifetime, on the cusp of Christianity's huge success with its own exemplary book, the Bible. Yet McCarthy suggests that the book always looks to the future, projecting its content and focusing on the next iteration - it may be bound, but a new volume can carry on the debate. The digital text is a natural place of development for the book of the future, with its potential for the continuous unspooling of the book as a bound form, and the breaking down of boundaries, one link always leading to another in the relatively open, public space of the internet. It's possible that the digital text, ever alterable, ever iterative, reflects the potential within a book better than ever before, expressing swathes of information, some of it ephemeral, some permanent, as it is formulated and reformulated, deleted and increased. In a book, ideas are formed and shaped into something that combines organised, bound text with fully worked out ideas that can swell and unfold past these boundaries.

Uglow expresses hope that the totemic nature of the book will not change, and that we will not outgrow the book, in the sense that the book will always be more than its content. It seems unlikely that we will lose the need for something akin to a book, in which ideas are presented and information is contained, while hinting at something outside itself. But an idea, by its nature, is meant to cross boundaries with ease. An idea is meant to travel. Moreover, the devices we use are in their infancy. Perhaps the definition of book will shift, and the paperback will look like a codex in a thousand years' time. If McCarthy is right, and the human body has long been a site invaded by networks and fused with technology, it may only be a matter of evolution before the digital book feels as organic as paper, and the pyres on which books are burned are on the other side of a firewall.

Essay by Jenny Messenger, University of St. Andrews

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