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Book Reviews

The Cyberspace Lexicon: An Illustrated Dictionary of Terms from Multimedia to Virtual Reality

by Bob Cotton and Richard Oliver

Mind Grenades: Manifestos from the Future

by John Plunkett, Louis Rossetto, eds.

Forward Through the Rearview Mirror: Reflections on and by Marshall Mcluhan

by Paul Benedetti and Nancy DeHart, eds.

BOOK DESIGN TODAY is driven by magazine design. Magazines, with their quick cycles and relatively low production costs, are highly responsive to design trends and consumer caprice. And they’re ephemeral – you can correct your mistakes in the next issue.
Magazine design, meanwhile, is driven by multimedia design (especially web page design) because we’re all working on the same desktop, often with the same tools. You can almost feel the frustration of magazine designers with the stasis of the page: text that doesn’t hyperlink, and images that can’t move, dissolve, spin, or make noise like they can on a computer screen. So, magazines like Raygun, Wired, and Shift try to achieve kinesis with optical effects. These effects are possible with the current generation of imaging software and radical new typography. Whether this is leading us to better books is open for debate; perhaps not better, but different, and certainly transitional.
Transitional because we now have genuinely revolutionary production tools for reworking a five-millennia-old medium. The book was pretty much perfected as a user interface and an information delivery system by the 17th century, and nobody is going to improve upon the fonts of Claude Garamond. So what we’re really waiting for with new technology is a genuinely new medium, one combining high resolution with colour fidelity, the ease of the printed page with the protean flexibility of the pixelated screen. This would, of course, include sound and, who knows, maybe neuro-stimulators to add other sensory input to the mix. But don’t hold your breath.
While we wait for the new Gutenberg, transitional books that use new technologies to strain the capacities of print may be laying the groundwork. Three recent offerings, Mind Grenades: Manifestos from the Future; Forward Through the Rearview Mirror: Reflections On and By Marshall McLuhan; and The Cyberspace Lexicon, might be thought of as the last word in illuminated manuscripts.
I can’t help but read Wired magazine; I’ve been socially programmed to read it. But it still gets under my skin that Wired plays at being the magazine of screenagers and nihilist boy hackers when from Day One it’s been a boomer project to the core. And if there is a defining characteristic of boomers, especially the particularly virulent California variety, it is their peculiar belief that they invented everything, discovered everything, and do everything of any value. This manifests itself in the media as the view that the contents of their demographic navels are unbelievably fascinating to the rest of us, which is about the only way to situate the vapid, solipsistic, and just plain silly content of Wired’s new book, Mind Grenades: Manifestos from the Future.
The “manifestos” are a selection of the Intro Quotes™ that open each issue of the magazine. Intro Quotes, explains editor Louis Rossetto, are picked by “looking at all the stories going into an issue and trying to find the one quote that feels like … something that could be carved into the side of a public building.” Unfortunately, ideas like, “The only stability is in accepting uncertainty. Organizations have to be systematically open to heresy,” snap under their own gravitas, no matter how cool the layout. Often the sages quoted sound like they’ve just spent too much time in the cyber-cocoon. Anyone who can take seriously the statement, “The Net, the very network itself, you see, is merely a means to an end … the end is to reverse-engineer government, to hack politics down to its component parts and fix it,” simply can no longer distinguish between virtual reality and political reality.
Or how about this: “Today, people who retire are supported via wealth that is ultimately created by industry. As industry becomes more efficient, there will be more wealth, allowing people to retire earlier. When industry is totally automated and hyper-efficient, it will create so much wealth that retirement will begin at birth.” Yep, the trajectory of history since the Industrial Revolution sure supports that thesis. What we have here is a rare case of content actually undermining form.
I could go on, but I’m just cavilling about the text, and we all know that text is a dead medium and not the point anyway. The real point of Mind Grenades is to show us what you can do when you throw all the bleeding-edge imaging technology going and an unlimited budget for spot colours at a top-end Heidelberg printing press. For that we should be grateful. The graphics are often noisy, or banal, or at odds with the subject, or just excuses to show off neat software. But the printing is genuinely spectacular. Nobody is going to miss the cover with its three fluorescent inks and a die-cut step-back. Inside it’s full of great (production) ideas that suddenly look obvious. Using spot varnish on the interior of a book, for instance. But you have to be really attracted to shiny objects to fork over the asking price of $46.25.
Such an incursion into the groovy, self-enclosed world of Wired might make one wary of Marshall McLuhan, who is listed on the magazine’s masthead as Patron Saint, and who lobs the first Mind Grenade. McLuhan’s aphoristic, lateral style is exactly what these other two books aim at, but neither approaches McLuhan’s grasp of history or keen sense of context, both of which can be glimpsed in the audacious Forward Through the Rearview Mirror: Reflections On and By Marshall McLuhan. As Toronto writer Robert Fulford points out in the book, the problem with McLuhan is that he didn’t write a “big book,” the one to distill his thinking and stand as the basic McLuhan scripture. Rather, his influence is spread over his teaching, his interviews, and other ephemeral modes, like television. He is well known, but not much read.
In Rearview Mirror, editors Paul Benedetti and Nancy DeHart, along with their designers, have attempted to pull together these disparate fragments and, as well, create a book that puts the figure (McLuhan) in the ground (our world). Taking their cue from McLuhan’s own sound-bite style, they intermix his key texts (in blue type) with commentary from acolytes and critics like Neil Postman, Camille Paglia, and Patrick Watson. A running sidebar provides biographical information and a chronology of his career. Most striking, though, are the colour and black-and-white images throughout with television screen grabs from Jerry Springer to the Gulf War. Clearly, the editors were drawing on the ground-breaking interaction of text and imagery in McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage; but unlike Mind Grenades, which claims a similar influence, the images chosen illustrate and illuminate the text, rather than just decorate it.
I must admit a prior ignorance of McLuhan, so I am not in a position to assess the editors’ choice of material. But what they have included here feels like a fair and three-dimensional selection: challenging, frustrating, revelatory, sometimes amazingly prescient. And oddly familiar, as though McLuhan is just showing you something you already knew but hadn’t yet realized. In all, a very neat package, and one I suspect would have pleased McLuhan himself.
The Cyberspace Lexicon is as concrete as Rearview Mirror is abstract, though they share similar design influences. Both have a “hypertextual” feel – they can be opened anywhere and you can go in any direction. Forward Through the Rearview Mirror grew out of a CD-ROM called Understanding McLuhan. Cyberspace Lexicon authors Bob Cotton and Richard Oliver are interactive media consultants, and their designer, Malcolm Garrett, also works in interactive design and electronic publishing. As a result, their book has the feel of a database, but makes full and respectful use of the print medium.
The content is both broad and thorough, the writing lucid and often witty. Definitions of more than 800 buzzwords, technical terms, and key concepts range from single sentences to short essays, and often include “links” to related topics or suggestions for further reading. The typography is transparent, consistent, and purposeful; the graphics boldly and intelligently used to illuminate the subject matter. Production is sublime, as is the norm for Phaidon. The final result is a book that is a remarkably pleasurable reading experience, either for reference or for serendipitous grazing. Maybe there’s life in the old medium yet.