. 2
( 2)

"To return to Michael Crichton - I think I wrote this in those questions in those papers I gave you - was talking of this idea of the mediasaurus, the big publishing houses. Do you think the media giants are at risk because people will be able to go directly to the sources of information? I mean, do you think that will reduce the pressure on the kind of icon figure, the expert, or do you think that whole thing is a myth, a total myth?"
My first reaction was: OK, finally we have an acephalous system. Acephalous: without a head.
"Without a head, headless. Yes, I liked that rhizome idea of yours."
A kind of a modern Quillian network, a sort of neural net...
"An organic system...?"
Yes, without archetypes, and without - well, you know all that - and this will probably change enormously the filtering of information. Now, on second thoughts, I have two problems: How much can this system remain acephalous? The overloading of the network at some point will impose some filtering and discipline, and at this point we don't know what will happen. The Internet is the greatest possibility of abolishing any or every Great Brother...
"Big Brother...?"
Big Brother. But it can in a second step open up the possibility for some Big Brothers to occupy the main lines and the main network. At this point, I do not know. Secondly: if it remains acephalous, then the abundance of information will be such that either you have reached such a level of maturity that you are able to be your own filter, or you will desperately need a filter...
"Some professional filter?"
...some professional filter. So once again you will ask somebody...an information consultant...to be your gatekeeper!
Take the example of a book shop. In the thirties a book shop was a small place in which every week there were one or two new books. If you went there often you knew pretty well how to isolate the interesting new items and so on. Now, a book shop like the FNAC in Paris, or the Feltrinelli here in Bologna, is an Internet in itself: you have everything. Now - an this concerns not only the young student, but also myself - if I don't read the cultural pages of the newspapers to know what is happening, then I am lost. There's this excess of information. Once again it makes you need a gatekeeper...
"A filter."
...a filter. So this filtration function of certain centres of orientation will remain. Take another example: once upon a time there was the upper class who had the great tailors that were telling men, and ladies too, how to dress properly. The lower class could only buy ready-made, off the hook stuff, so it was very easy to distinguish them from one another. Then improved distribution made it very easy for everybody to begin composing his or her own dress, we have personalised denims, blue jeans etc.
"Composing personal styles, yes."
And in principle the wife of Mr. Agnelli Rockefeller and the young maid from Puerto Rica can go to the same store - for instance Bloomingdales - buy the same elements and concoct their own style. Now, has this eliminated, in the language of fashions, the class-difference? No. The rich lady has some rules for composition...
"A code?"
Yes, a code. And the young Puerto-Rican has not. Maybe they can buy the same blue jeans. In the end the composition will still underline the difference. Where does the difference lie? In the great filtering of opinion leaders like Armani or Krizia: they tell how to compose, and the informed, cultivated person uses them as advisors, while the uncultivated person invents styles by him- or herself. So, once again, you have a sort of total Internet of fashions - up to a certain level: Timberland for both. Everybody can buy a pair of Timberlands. Blue jeans for both, but one has a small, private network of advisors.
"Advisors, yes. So what you are basically saying then is that culture will pervade, even though..."
Culture or UNculture. Because the filters also can be negative filters. But there will be filters in any case. At most there will be an exaggeration, an overabundance of negative filters. One of the TV talk-show directors, or anchor-men here in Italy at the moment -Funari - is providing a model for behaviour for a lot of lower-class young people. It is a filter: a negative filter, but it is there.
"We have this dream and the vision of the Internet as something which is very open, and is going to create a society without a centre, or is going to take part in the development of societies without centres;a general global democratisation: you don't really think that that is possible?"
Eco leans forward in his chair:
Yes, but once again we are back at the problem of decimation. A student of mine who is a devotee of the Internet, and he is interested also, not only, but also in Peirce, he discovered a Peircean network. So he sent messages, he got answers. He started to argue with somebody. And he said to me: "Oh last night after my last message I got an answer from a fellow - let's call him Smith - which seems to me stupid and strange. So I said: "No, Smith is one of the greatest scholars on Peirce. Probably you don't know him because he has published very little. He is a modest person who works hard at this university, but he is a great, great mind." So he was ready to disregard Smith's message, probably because he did not like the first ten lines, or possibly because Smith was wrong on this particular point. I don't know. While he ought to have taken him very seriously, but he couldn't know that. Smith was just one among the hundreds that were discussing Peirce at this moment on the Net. Once again: which are the criteria by which you are able to select a Smith? They cannot come from Internet.
"The criteria cannot come from Internet?"
No. You have to find something, for instance in the journal Versus, in which someone says that the opinions of Smith are very important. So, once again, if you don't have a filter, you are unable on the basis of a single message to understand that Smith has to be taken seriously. That's the risk.
"But on the other hand, if you are a participant in one of these virtual communities - Let's call them communities - like these discussion groups and if you have got a kind of critical sense yourself, and if you know a bit about the field...?"
Certainly, and you can discover that Brown, who is absolutely unknown is in any case so smart that it is worthwhile to keep in touch with this person. Well, OK, there are also these positive aspects. OK, OK. But there is still a risk that if there are at anyone time one hundred persons discussing Peirce, your discovery of Brown, as well as your disregarding of Smith will be purely random.
"You think so?"
You cannot read one hundred messages in one night and look at them critically to decide that Brown is the best. Brown is the one you met. So if you don't have a background code, at least as a first filter, the fact of knowing that Smith is famous should not stop you from reading Brown. OK, this happens every day: you open a journal. There is an article by somebody there you don't know. You start reading and say OK, that's good. I have made interesting discoveries in my own life by reading articles by unknown scholars, and I discovered that they were great. And maybe I discovered later that they were famous: it was only due to my own ignorance that I did not know their name. So it is always possible to make random discoveries, but a filter is in some way important.
"Well, again, it's this community thing...?
There can also be internal filters. You can look at one hundred messages on Peirce and see that each of them is quoting Smith. At a certain point you feel that Smith probably has a certain...importance, or something to say, considering that everybody is quoting him. But OK, it is once again this art of filtering and choosing that becomes a very complex art.
"But it has to do with two things, doesn't it? A sense of community: a specialised community, people with common values and specific goals. And it has to do with a sense of trust: that the people in that "space" are talking sense, and that there will be mechanisms operating there which will get rid of extraneous stuff. I think that is one of the most fascinating things, but also one of the most difficult things is: just how do you find the right community? On UseNet, alone, there are over 3000 News groups ..."
Listen, I am not saying that Internet is, or will be a negative experience. I am saying on the contrary that it is a great chance. Once we have asserted this, I am trying to isolate the possible traps; the possible negative aspects. I am trying to focus on the critical aspects of a positive experience. I think it is also my role as a critic of media to do that. I believe that once completely developed and implemented, Virtual Reality will be enormously important for a lot of scientific experiences, but I have also to remark that if Virtual Reality becomes only entertainment for solitary persons, it can become a new kind of technological masturbation. So we have to consider both.
"Yes, yes. I think that is a very real problem, but again this is a question of solitude versus community, isn't it?"
The problem of solitude is enormous...
Eco pauses for a moment, and leans back in his chair.
It is a community but it is only a virtual community. Now, it is true that great artists spend their lives living in remote villages and writing letters all over the world and they establish these kinds of virtual communities.
"Kant did that as well - he was a great letter writer...?"
Yes, there was Kant. But I think of a great poet like Leopardi. He was sick, a hunchback. Repressed. Lived in a village. Went once or twice to Rome. I don't remember how often, though he travelled a little more. He was well known, and in touch with all the intelligentsia of his time. OK, it's always possible. But for every Leopardi, you have a lot of other people that are living in isolation, with elaborate forms of mental illness. One great problem of our time is the decrease, or absolute lack, of face-to-face communities.
I always like to tell the story of Bosco - San Giovanni Bosco. This Salesian priest in the middle of the 19th century who got the idea that was a whole new generation of young people who were working from a very young age in factories, and so were dispersed and separated from the family. He invented the oratorium, which was a community, to which those who worked could go to play and discuss. And for those who couldn't work, he established typographies, activities in which they could take part. So, he was matching the problem of despair and isolation in the industrial society with the possibility of people meeting each other, and obviously also having a religious purpose. It was a great social invention.
What I reproach today; with both Catholics, as well as former Communists or Progressives, is that they lacked the new don Bosco. There was no new San Giovanni Bosco of our age able to invent a new possibility of establishing communities. And so you have young disaffected males with guns killing people in Central Park. You have all the problems of young people...
"The pathologies, yes..."
Also of mature and aged persons who feel isolated. Was, is, television a way to overcome this solitude? No, it was a way to increase it. With your can of beer you sit down on the couch...Television was not the solution.
Obviously for certain people - I had an old aunt who was obliged to live all the day at home, and was unable to walk, and for her the television was a gift of heaven. For her, it was really the only possibility to be in some way in touch with the world. But for a normal person it is not. Can the new virtual communities like we have on Internet do the same job? Certainly! They give to a person living in the Mid-West the possibility to contact others from there. Is that a substitute for face-to-face contact and community? No, it isn't! So the real social function of, let's say, Internet, should be to be a starting point for establishing contacts, and then to establish local...
"Places to meet face-to-face..."
Yes, local communities. When Internet really becomes a way of implementing - through virtual communities - face-to-face communities, then that will be an important social change. I was talking with Professor Prodi [note: Romano Prodi is professor of economics at the University of Bologna, and prospective prime- ministerial candidate for a coalition of centre-left moderates in the next Italian general election] and I told him that the only possibility that you have to make a real campaign, is to realise in every city a group, a club, a circle. One of the real forces in the inventions of Berlusconi was not only to use television for political propaganda. He, having a big industrial organisation, established clubs everywhere. This was people that were proud to wear the badge and to identify themselves as belonging to a particular group. I saw them in the village where I have my country house. It was artificial. It was all set up in two months, so it wasn't enough to establish a really profound sense of belonging to a community. But it was an idea.
So I told Prodi that he should do the same. And one way to do that is to use Internet. Because through Internet you can reach, say, two persons in every city, giving them materials, documents. People will be encouraged to xerox all these materials and to establish local groups, networks. So it is a sort of collaboration between virtual and...
"Real communities?..."
...and real communities. If we succeed in doing that then Internet will be an enormous element or factor of social change. If it remains only virtual it could lead some people to pure onanistic solitude. In this sense, most of the hackers are sick persons, because they sit passive. They play and intrude into the computers of the banks or the Pentagon, because it is the only way to feel alive.
"You have just released a new hypertext encyclopaedia. In an article you published recently in the local paper in Bologna, La Republicca, you write that this work will contain more information than the Encyclopaedia Britannica. There you also wrote that the main advantage of your Encyclomedia is its non-linear retrieval and cross-referencing system. I always wonder about the effectiveness of hypertext systems in general, because someone has to make the links. So even though you call it non-linear retrieval, or whatever, it is all decided by somebody in advance?"
Well, first of all: if you are able tomorrow to invent a hypertext in which every idea and every word, every adjective, every article can be linked with everything. OK, at this point it is obvious that even there, there is a filter which establishes the links. In this sense it will be very difficult to make a philosophical hypertext, because you will have to decide if you will link the notion of passion in Descartes with the notion of passion in Aristotle, which are two different notions...
"Yes, completely different."
For Aristotle it is simply a cognitive event, and for Descartes, and for the 17th century passion has to do with feeling, sentiment etcetera. But in the case of our Encyclomedia, which was based on historical data, you have a certain guarantee. The name of a city is linked to other cities. The name of a given person links with persons which had connections with them. And you also can establish unforeseen links...
"The users can make their own links?"
Yes, because you have, let's say, so-called books and files. There's for instance a book on Descartes, and obviously in the book on Descartes you will certainly mention, let's say Pascal, or Gallileo. There are some immediate links, because Gallileo and Pascal are highlighted, and so you can immediately identify the possibility of there being links there. There is no pre-established link between Descartes and Caravaggio. Why? Because they had nothing in common except he fact that they lived in the same century. But I wanted to solve, or to answer this question: "Was it possible that Descartes met Caravaggio?" Descartes travelled pretty much. So, I have a function that allows me to ask about Descartes AND/OR Caravaggio, and I found I had the possibility of detecting that that meeting was impossible, because Caravaggio died when Descartes was 14. So, I established my own links
"OK, I see. You are able to check that kind of thing then. I saw a CD-ROM recently published by Multimedia World that was quite interesting. It was a kind of CD-ROM hypertext version of the magazine. But it also had - you know the World Wide Web - where you make a server and you put pages on it and create links to other places from these pages?"
Eco nods
"Well they had put a World Wide Web page on the CD-ROM, so that you could not only look at what was on the CD-ROM - the kind of enclosed world of that - but you also had access out onto the World Wide Web. And of course, once you can get onto World Wide Web, then you can go anywhere...
I don't know about the present state of the Net. I guess I am able to have on my screen every article published by every newspaper in Rwanda and Burundi, or at least, if that is not the case now, then it will be possible..."
"...at some time, yes, I'm sure."
Tomorrow. At this point, OK, there will be other negative aspects. You will get too much about Rwanda-Burundi..."
"Yes, and it is time to go through it all that's the problem...?"
And I don't know if the best article is in the Boston Globe, or the Los Angeles Times. I have no time to read it all. That is the problem that we are facing. It exists."
"But again, you can't get away from this idea of trust and community. Because, obviously, if you want to find out things, then normally, in everyday life, you go to people that you trust, who you think have a fairly good overview, and you ask them, "Well listen, there's too much here, can't you give me a pointer."
Yes, that is a possibility. But you know one of the first great events on the early nets was the story of George Lakoff, who wrote this beautiful article on the Gulf War. He understood that it was too late to have it published before the war. He didn't know anything at the time about the Net, but he gave the article to a friend who had "connections". The day after, people were xeroxing this article in Bologna, in Amsterdam, in Sidney, all over the world! The article propagated because of a network, but more than that. It was because the opinion of a man called George Lakoff was..."
"...worth reading, yes exactly!"
"But then you have this other problem that publishing happens very quickly. You can publish instantly on the Net. And with speed, follows brevity. I have noticed that newer generations of computer users are learning to communicate in very abbreviated codes."
I discovered recently a new formula they use...
Eco takes out a notebook from the desk, and begins to write.
...which in Italian sounds very obscene: CUL8R, "See you later". Yes, you can write a love-letter in this way with the same intensity of heart...
"This is a kind of phenomenon of virtual communities, because it is so instantaneous a form of communication, and we also see a merging of oral and written language in a lot of these discussion groups. There's very much a merging of these kinds of things. Do you think this will have an effect on publishing per se; on the literary norms, on literacy?"
In the longer term I think so, yes, probably.
Eco continues writing.
You know that under the Mona Lisa of Duchamp there is this acronym -pseudo acronym, which read "L.H.O.D.O.Q." - in French this is elle a chaud au cul: "Her ass is burning". Obviously this was made by Duchamp in his Dadaist period, it remained a shibboleth for the happy few, but I think CUL8R can also become a form.
"So you expect written norms to change?"
Why not? Once I have discovered it, and once I have told it to some friends, I will use it in my letters. Why not? This can also change the epistolary style of many people. But to me this is a minor problem, because there are a lot of technological innovations that have changed things. For example in 16th century books they tried to develop the first rights of protection. They called it: privilege du roi. It was one page saying that the king has decided that nobody could use what was in the book without permission. Today we have this:
Eco scribbles a sign on the paper, and shows it to me.
"Yes, copyright ((c)), sure."
Now today, that is enough. OK, we have observed that it was useless to have a page of privilege du roi when we have this one which means exactly the same thing. So it is not something absolutely new. Every new technology introduces new idioms...
"Or even norms?"
...norms that at the beginning can terrorise the old academic who says things like: "Oh our language is being corrupted!" They become...
"Accepted and functional in a new way...?"
... and independent. In the sixties all the letters I got from the States ended with "love", which had lost its erotic, sexual connotations. I could write, you know, "love", why not?
"Peace and love?"
Yes. Once you have accepted the new custom it becomes normalised. Now I see it has disappeared. The first time I received it from a friend I said: "Oh, did he become homosexual?" No, he did not of course.
"In your article from that seminar at San Marino on the future of the book, you mentioned Rube Goldberg."
Well, I mentioned Rube Goldberg because somebody there mentioned him, so it was not an idea of mine but taking up the suggestion of somebody else.
"But you said a Rube Goldberg model seems to you the only metaphysical template for our electronic future, and that sounds rather interesting. Metaphysical template, is that some kind of...?"
As far as I remember he quoted Goldberg as a masterpiece of bricolage. Taking it in isolation in my paper without reference to the previous token it is rather ununderstandable. No, what I want to stress, and what is perhaps important for a kind of magazine like this is that there is one kind of discussion item I consider absolutely irrelevant, and one other kind of item I consider mischievous. The irrelevant one is the discussion on whether the CD-ROM will abolish the book. Now, that's stupid, that's silly.
"This was tied in with this idea of ceci tuera cela - "this will kill that?""
Yes. Because as I have repeatedly said, on a camel in the desert you can bring a book not a computer.
"Well, today you can bring a computer."
Sure, today you can, but it is always easier when you are lying down in a tent with a book, you can do this and that.
Eco takes a newspaper from his desk. He leans back in his chair, draping the open paper over his face.
You don't need a plug, and you don't need an everlasting battery either. Second, because there are kinds of reading experiences that can only be done with a book. I don't think it's possible to read Homer on the computer. But books split into two categories: books to be read, and books to be consulted. All books made to be consulted can be substituted by the CD-ROM. The future writing desk of tomorrow should absolutely be made up of two computers. A small clone for writing, and the 486, the great high memory computer to store dictionaries and encyclopaedias and books that you need to consult. You can't do it all with a single computer. If you are writing you cannot stop all the time to open the database, to look for the dictionary. Every operation requires a lot of movements and time. Two computers, and all those shelves
He points demonstratively at all the bookshelves lining the walls:
could disappear.
"All the reference works?"
All the reference works, yes. It's less costly. I have calculated the price of a wall space, considering the price of floor space -not in the centre of Milan, not even at the periphery - the price of these shelves in humble materials, not in precious wood. I discovered that every stupid book that I receive costs me $100.
"In space?"
In space.
"Not to mention the environmental aspect of course - the forests etc.
Yes, also the forests... I receive an average of 10 free books per day. It is costing me much too much. At the moment I have an apartment of 500 square metres, and I cannot go on moving my home every five years in order to store all the books I get. If I could eliminate all the encyclopaedias and dictionaries etcetera, then that would be fine. And if it would be an advantage for me, then it would be an enormous advantage for a person living in a small flat. So all the reference books can be eliminated. All the rest must remain.
The function of the computerised reference book would be one of encouraging me to find paper books, and to use them as paper books, that's all. I am very optimistic on this point. I don't believe that you will buy the new diskette of new poems, if not for reasons of information, because you need to have them quickly. The book, even with the worst paper in the world, lasts longer than magnetic support systems, at least up until now.
The second problem is this utopia of the hypertext, and I explained in my San Marino article the confusion between hyper-systems and hypertext. Hyper-systems are a great innovation. My CD-ROM is a hyper-system. But regarding hypertext: I don't need magnetic support to recompose Ulysses just as I want. I do it with a book. I do nothing but that when I read Joyce: changing and moving and going back. So the idea of a hypertext that I can use to recompose 10 different novels is stupid; as stupid as Dungeons and Dragons or this kind of stuff. It can be a game.
Once a man called Saporta invented in France, at the end of the fifties, a moveable book. The idea was already present in Mallarme. The idea of the moveable book was a sort of great metaphor for the infinity of reading. If you want, it was a metaphor for deconstruction. OK. Saporta, on the contrary, made a book in which you could mix...
"You mean you could put things into it?"
...mix up the pages, and the story would change.
"A kind of loose-leaf book?"
Yes. OK. If you suspect that even in a CD-ROM the links are pre-established by the author, well, even Saporta pre-established the possibilities of the story.
"It's all a limited universe, yes."
Is it not better to read Shakespeare and then to daydream, dreaming of Hamlet marrying Juliet, and so the hypertext as a text can only be a game. The hyper-system, that is the future. The hypertext can have educational purposes: try to mix up things, to find new possibilities. OK, but it is not a revolution in literature or in poetry.
"You don't think so?"
No, I don't think so. When you have had what we had the paper books, and with Joyce or Mallarme, you don't need the hypertext in order to have an open-ended reading of literature.
"You mentioned Dungeons and Dragons. These multi-user virtual spaces where people can engage simultaneously in dialogue by writing. They can create rooms, they can assume character roles, they can interact with each other in ways that physical space cannot allow. A colleague of mine, Finn Bostad, told me that some of his students spend many hours in this environment. For some, it is like enacting a novel at the same time as you are writing it."
OK, it's a nice game.
"Do you think this might lead to new forms of literature?"
I have been using a fantastic hypertext for the last 30 years. It is called Scrabble. Isn't it true that with Scrabble you can compose every possible cross link, every combination of sentences. It's a nice game, it can have educational purposes. Sometimes my wife who is German learned part of her English lexicon by playing Scrabble. Sometimes we play Scrabble in English, or in French. OK, but if you are a poet you have your mental Scrabble. You don't need the board to do it. It is the same I think for all those kinds of games. They can be very nice to play. So, I repeat: they can be used for training people in inventing and composing, but they have nothing to do, according to me, with the future of literature.
But maybe I am a dinosaur: I am still living very well by selling old-fashioned books, and probably I'll die before the landscape has changed completely. So I remain open to possible developments of all these perspectives. At the present state of the art, if I had to bet all the money I have in my pocket, I would bet more on hyper-systems more than on hypertext. That's a personal bet.
"Have you looked at any of these hyper-books, like those of Jay Bolter and Michael Joyce? They have made some of these things which are just basically a hypertext system, where you can go in, and there's a lot of text which you can explore by means of different links."
Yes, I have read about them... I have not tried them, and I know that my position can be the same as of Cremonini, who was a great professor of logic, metaphysics and astronomy at the time of Gallileo. When they brought to him Gallileo's binocular, he said "I do not want to look inside it, because it could mix up my ideas." So the poor Cremonini remained as the symbol of academic bigot that refuses to try a new experience. Then, when you read a serious book on Cremonini, first you discover that Cremonini was a great mind of this time, even though he was not an innovator like Gallileo, and that it isn't true that he refused to look into the binocular. He just said: "At the present state of technology, those lenses are very rudimentary, so I don't think that they can really help me to see something more."
It was an objection to the present primitive state of the art. So what I am making now is probably a statement that we are still at a primitive state of the art. I have not been interested up to now to try virtual reality. Because until it is possible to make love to Marilyn Monroe; until the moment that her clothes start floating away - well, then at that moment I will try! But as long as it is just a sketch of Marilyn Monroe, and I can have the real sensation elsewhere, then the state of the art is so primitive that I prefer to wait, that's all! If you offer me this possibility soon, or better still, if you offer me this possibility when I am 80, I will be enthusiastic about the innovation, and I will become a fanatic supporter!
"Well, I think I tend to agree with you there. There's still this very basic problem which is one of quality. The quality of the experience is still very limited, and it is the technology that limits it...?"
It doesn't matter though; I say go with it! But that's why I say that at this point I have the impression that it is most interesting for educational and training purposes, rather than for providing real new aesthetic experiences. Even though my friend Nanni Balestrini, one of the poets and novelists, of the new avant-garde of the sixties made a poem with the computer - mixing it up.
"A kind of art form - computer art?"
Yes, something like milliard de poeme of Queneau. So those experiences already exist. I have the first edition of Chinosura Lucensis by a 17th century monk who invented a sort of Lullian multiple wheel, by means of which he was able to compose several million poems for the Virgin. It's an old idea, an old utopia. And sometimes this provided real help for invention. So there is nothing wrong with it, but probably the final effect should be an object that I can move with my mind and not with my fingers, otherwise I will lose something.
"Exactly. So this brings us back again to the kind of question of the interface and how do you interact with it? It's a problem I think with computers today that they offer another type of experience. Take writing for example. You write with a pen, you move your hand in a certain way, have a certain kind of feedback all the time while you are writing. On a computer you are doing it all by means of keys."
As a writer I have discovered there are certain kinds of things for which I still need the pen, there are certain things for which I need the computer, certain things for which I need a felt-tipped pen. And the kind of instrument I am using is influencing my writing enormously.
"The material substance that you operate with".
Yes, when I come to think about it, this kind of action...
Eco picks up his notepad and scribbles on it,
...is very important. And this is so new that people have not really understood those differences. I don't know...
"We have these new pen-based systems now?"
You have seen my Foucault's Pendulum. In one of the first files, Bellbo says how spiritual it is to invent. So, there was a Metropolitan legend that said that my novels have been written at the computer, and they don't consider that The Name of the Rose was published in 1980, and that the first really good word-processors started to come in 1982-83. So it could not have been computer-written.
"So it was written on a typewriter, or...?"
Type-written or hand-written. But for the Pendulum, since the Pendulum speaks about the computer, the silly journalists argue that, well, "Your book was concocted by the computer." And they still believe that you put some words there, and zzzaapp: the machine gives you the book. One of them said: "Well, it is clear that this is computer-written, except one chapter. That one where the boy plays the trumpet in the cemetery (the final chapter). It's clear that that one is hand-written." It was the only chapter of my book that I wrote immediately, and without correction at the computer! All the others were hand-written!
"Put together, yes?"
Put together in multiple ways. Why? Because I had in mind this final chapter right from the beginning. And I thought about it for eight years so intensely that when I arrived at this point - I remember very well, it was in my apartment in Bologna at 6 o'clock - it was like playing the piano, like a jazz-musician: I put it all down very easily with the computer, following my mind and only making the corrections underway. It was totally written at the computer...it was just because there was more inspiration, so to speak.
People have still these kinds of mythological visions about the machine. And then there is a purposefully faked production of mythology. Those who ask you the most naive questions about the computer; just seeing it as some kind of mysterious machine that invents for you, are journalists who are using them every day. So they know that it is not true. But when the ask questions, they try to make them the ones that the most naive reader would make. So there is a kind of play of bad faith, mauvaise fois. So the journalist, who knows exactly that it is not the computer which invents for him or her, is the one who co-operates in the spreading of the Metropolitan legend, the false rumour about the extraordinary intelligence of the computer.
"I was thinking about that book that you published just recently: Six walks in the Fictional Woods. It was rather nice the last essay you had there. The final bit where you were taken into this kind of planetarium..."
Ah, yes, the planetarium
"...where you experienced the moment of your birth. Yes, now that's a kind of virtual reality experience, isn't it?"
Yes, certainly, and it really was computer prepared, because only the computer could remake they sky of that evening.
"But it really was a profound experience you thought, for yourself?"
Yes, for me, it was really touching, perhaps a little narcissistic.
"And perhaps especially since it was a sort of expression of love, as well, on the part of the people, in that they had gone to all the trouble?"
Yes, it was an expression of love on their part, but there was also an atmosphere, because my wife, who was with me - and it was not her night - but she was equally impressed and touched by the magic of the experience. So for me, it could have been narcissism, but for her it was really the emotion, of having the impression of something that happened 60 years ago.
"A kind of being in the past?"
Yes, it was really beautiful.
"So it is in fact possible to do a simulation which is so real that it has a profound effect upon the person, by means of technology?"
Certainly, you can enjoy Beethoven on a compact disc better than with the 78 disc...and sometimes better than in a small theatre with a "medium rare" orchestra. So I am absolutely... Well, I am a recorder player, and now the Japanese production of plastic recorders has reached such a level of sophistication that - then you can of course still have a top recorder of superior quality costing $5.000, made by a top craftsman - but if you compare a good plastic recorder and a normal, old wooden one, the plastic ones keep their sound quality; and they don't suffer from temperature and humidity. And though perhaps not for a soloist, but certainly for a group or orchestra they can work very well. No objections.
Traveling Through Hyperreality With Umberto Eco
An early description of the way contemporary culture is now full of re-creations and themed environments was provided by Umberto Eco. In a brilliant essay, Eco saw that we create these realistic fabrications in an effort to come up with something that is better than real -- a description that is true of virtually all fiction and culture, which gives us things that are more exciting, more beautiful, more inspiring, more terrifying, and generally more interesting than what we encounter in everyday life. In his description of Disney, Eco also saw that behind the facades lurks a sales pitch. Put these ideas together and you have a succinct characterization of the age, which is forever offering us something that seems better than real in order to sell us something. That makes Umberto Eco one of the forerunners of contemporary thinking on this subject.

(One) of the early theorists of simulation was the Italian writer and literary critic Umberto Eco, who went on a tour of America to get a firsthand look at the imitations and replicas that were on display in the nation's museums and tourist attractions. The essay that he subsequently wrote describing his trip, bore the odd title "Travels in Hyperreality," which made it sound more like science fiction than the brilliant work of culture criticism it turned out to be. The essay, which is dated 1975, also had an anomalous quality to it. Looking at it, today, it reads like a strange combination of Postmodern philosophy and something out of the Sunday travel section, full of sardonic descriptions and exaggerated denunciations that focus on the cultural shortcomings of America.
In the essay, Eco plays the role of both social critic and tour guide, taking the reader across an American landscape that he says is being re-created in the image of fake history, fake art, fake nature and fake cities. Along the way, he examines a reproduction of former President Lyndon Johnson's Oval Office, and goes through a reconstruction of a Medieval witch's laboratory, in which the recorded screams of what sound like witches at the stake can be heard in the background. He travels to wax museums, where artistic masterpieces are re-created and, often, reinvented in unexpected ways, resulting in such cultural mutations as a wax statue of the Mona Lisa and a "restored" copy of the Venus de Milo, with arms. He also enters what he refers to as "toy cities," including Western theme towns, where the buildings are stage sets, and actors in costume, engage in mock gunfights, for the benefit of visitors.
As Eco explains it, his trip is a pilgrimage in search of "hyperreality," or the world of "the Absolute Fake," in which imitations don't merely reproduce reality, but try improve on it.
Not unexpectedly, it leads him to the "absolutely fake cities," Disneyland and Disney World, with their re-created main streets, imitation castles and lifelike, animatronic robots. Here, he takes a boat ride through artificial caves, where he sees scenes of pirates sacking a city, in the attraction, Pirates of the Caribbean, and he travels through a ghost story that appears to have come to life, with transparent, dancing spirits, and skeletal hands lifting gravestones, in the attraction, the Haunted Mansion.
It is in the two Disneys, where he finds the ultimate expression of hyperreality, in which everything is brighter, larger and more entertaining than in everyday life. In comparison to Disney, he implies, reality can be disappointing. When he travels the artificial river in Disneyland, for example, he sees animatronic imitations of animals. But, on a trip down the real Mississippi, the river fails to reveal its alligators. "...You risk feeling homesick for Disneyland," he concludes, "where the wild animals don't have to be coaxed. Disneyland tells us that technology can give us more reality than nature can."
He also discovers something else in Disney: a place that no longer even pretends it is imitating reality, but is straightforward about the fact that "within its magic enclosure it is fantasy that is absolutely reproduced."
But, perhaps his most interesting perception occurs when he discovers, behind all the spectacle in Disneyland, the same old tricks of capitalism, with a new twist: "The Main Street facades are presented to us as toy houses and invite us to enter them, but their interior is always a disguised supermarket, where you buy obsessively, believing that you are still playing," he writes. He similarly finds in Disney, "An allegory of the consumer society, a place of absolute iconism, Disneyland is also as place of total passivity. Its visitors must agree to behave like robots."
But what is most remarkable about Umberto Eco's essay is that, in the two decades since it was published, many of its more extreme observations, if not all its attacks on America, have been confirmed, and, in some instances, surpassed. America, today, is in the midst of a building boom in fantasy environments far more elaborate than anything Eco described, which are giving us a fictionalized landscape and a culture, that has many of the qualities of theme parks.
It seems that wherever one looks in this new landscape, one sees exaggerated variations on Eco's fake nature, fake art, fake history and fake cities. There are now replicas of rain forests, for example, which have been re-created on a massive scale, throughout the nation, along with future cities, and Jurassic parks, with animatronic dinosaurs. Los Angeles, the city, now includes Los Angeles, the themed mall, with facades that re-create the city's famous neighborhoods. Even the movies, where America's love affair with illusion started, are beginning to surround audiences with electronic images and stage sets, in a new generation of special effects theaters, creating another kind of fantasy environment that is starting to look a lot like fake reality.
The two capitals of this new culture of illusion are Las Vegas and a vastly enlarged Disney World. In just the last few years, Las Vegas, with its Egyptian pyramid-hotel, reproduction of the Empire State building, and fantasy version of the Grand Canyon, has become the city of imitations, that is turning itself into the world's first urban theme park. Meanwhile, Disney World has expanded, in typically orderly fashion, one module of imaginary worlds, at a time, becoming not a city that is a theme park, but a theme park that has become a city. Disney World has even developed its own suburbs of fantasy, that are filling central Florida with theme park sprawl, as miniature and not-so-miniature attractions, featuring Medieval knights, re-created Chinese buildings, and an animatronic King Kong, spring up around its outskirts.

The Age of Simulation
From Internet to Gutenberg
A lecture presented by Umberto Eco
The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America

November 12, 1996
According to Plato (in Phaedrus) when Hermes, the alleged inventor of writing, presented his invention to the Pharaoh Thamus, he praised his new technique that was supposed to allow human beings to remember what they would otherwise forget. But the Pharaoh was not so satisfied. "My skillful Theut, he said, memory is a great gift that ought to be kept alive by training it continuously. With your invention people will not be obliged any longer to train memory. They will remember things not because of an internal effort, but by mere virtue of an external device."
We can understand the preoccupation of the Pharaoh. Writing, as any other new technological device, would have made torpid the human power which it substituted and reinforced - just as cars made us less able to walk. Writing was dangerous because it decreased the powers of mind by offering human beings a petrified soul, a caricature of mind, a mineral memory.
Plato's text is ironical, naturally. Plato was writing his argument against writing. But he was pretending that his discourse was told by Socrates, who did not write (since he did not publish, he perished in the course of his academic fight.)
Nowadays, nobody shares these preoccupations, for two very simple reasons. First of all, we know that books are not ways of making somebody else think in our place; on the contrary they are machines that provoke further thoughts. Only after the invention of writing was it possible to write such a masterpiece on spontaneous memory as Proust's La Recherche du Temps Perdu.
Secondly, if once upon a time people needed to train their memory in order to remember things, after the invention of writing they had also to train their memory in order to remember books. Books challenge and improve memory; they do not narcotize it.
However, the Pharaoh was instantiating an eternal fear: the fear that a new technological achievement could abolish or destroy something that we consider precious, fruitful, something that represents for us a value in itself, and a deeply spiritual one.
It was as if the Pharaoh pointed first to the written surface and then to an ideal image of human memory, saying: "This will kill that."
More than one thousand years later Victor Hugo in his Notre Dame de Paris, shows us a priest, Claude Frollo, pointing his finger first to a book, then to the towers and to the images of his beloved cathedral, and saying "ceci tuera cela", this will kill that. (The book will kill the cathedral, alphabet will kill images).
The story of Notre Dame de Paris takes place in the XVth century, a little later than the invention of printing. Before that, manuscripts were reserved to a restricted elite of literate persons, but the only means to teach the masses about the stories of the Bible, the life of Christ and of the Saints, the moral principles, even the deeds of the national history or the most elementary notions of geography and natural sciences (the nature of unknown peoples and the virtues of herbs or stones), was provided by the images of the cathedral. A medieval cathedral was a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV program that was supposed to tell people everything indispensable for their everyday lives as well as for their eternal salvation. The book would have distracted people from their most important values, encouraging unnecessary information, free interpretation of the Scriptures, insane curiosity.
Part II

A lecture presented by Umberto Eco
The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America

November 12, 1996
During the sixties, Marshall McLuhan wrote his The Gutenberg Galaxy, where he announced that the linear way of thinking instaured by the invention of the press, was on the verge of being substituted by a more global way of perceiving and understanding through the TV images or other kinds of electronic devices. If not Mc Luhan, certainly many of his readers pointed their finger first to a Manhattan Discotheque and then to a printed book by saying "this will kill that."
The media needed a certain time to accept the idea that our civilization was on the verge of becoming an image oriented one - which would have involved a decline of literacy. Nowadays this is a common shibboleth for every weekly magazine. What is curious is that the media started to celebrate the decline of literacy and the overwhelming power of images just at the moment in which, in the world scene, appeared the Computer.
Certainly a computer is an instrument by means of which one can produce and edit images, certainly instructions are provided by means of icons; but it is equally certain that the computer has become, first of all, an alphabetic instrument. On its screen there run words, lines, and in order to use a computer you must be able to write and to read. The new computer generation is trained to read at an incredible speed. An old-fashioned university professor is today incapable of reading a computer screen at the same speed as a teen-ager. These same teen-agers, if by chance they want to program their own home computer, must know, or learn, logical procedures and algorithms, and must type words and numbers on a keyboard, at a great speed.
In this sense one can say that the computer made us to return to a Gutenberg Galaxy.
People who spend their night implementing an unending Internet conversation are principally dealing with words. If the TV screen can be considered a sort of ideal window through which one watches the whole world under the form of images, the computer screen is an ideal book on which one reads about the world in form of words and pages.
The classical computer provided a linear sort of written communication. The screen was displaying written lines. It was like a fast-reading book.
But now there are hypertexts. In a book one had to read from left to right (or right to left, or up to down, according to different cultures) in a linear way. One could obviously skip through the pages, one - once arrived at page 300 - could go back to check or re-read something at page 10 - but this implied a labor, I mean, a physical labor. On the contrary a hypertext is a multidimensional network in which every point or node can be potentially connected with any other node.
Thus we have arrived at the final chapter of our this-will-kill-that story. It is more and more stated that in the near future hypertextual Cd-roms will replace books.
Part III
A lecture presented by Umberto Eco
The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America

November 12, 1996
With a hypertextual diskette books are supposed to become obsolete. If you even consider that a hypertext is usually also multimedial, the complete hypertextual diskette will in the next future replace not only books but also videocassettes and many other supports.
Now we must ask ourselves if such a perspective is a realistic one or is mere science-fiction - as well as if the distinction we have just outlined between visual and alphabetic communication, books and hypertexts is really that simple. Let me list a series of problems and possible perspectives for our future.
Even after the invention of printing books have never been the only instrument for acquiring information. There were paintings, popular printed images, oral teaching, and so on. One can say that books were in any case the most important instrument for transmitting scientifical information, including news about historical events. In this sense they were the paramount instrument used in schools.
With the diffusion of the various mass media, from cinema to television, something has changed. Years ago the only way to learn a foreign language (outside of traveling abroad) was to study a language from a book. Now our kids frequently know other languages by listening to records, by watching movies in the original edition, by deciphering the instructions printed on a beverage can. The same happens with geographical information. In my childhood I got the best of my information about exotic countries not from textbooks but by reading adventure novels (Jules Verne, for instance). My kids very early knew more than me on the same subjects from watching TV and movies. One could learn very well the story of the Roman Empire through movies, provided that movies were historically correct. The fault of Hollywood is not to have opposed its movies to the books of Tacitus or of Gibbon, but rather to have imposed a pulp- and romance-like version on both Tacitus and Gibbon.
A good educational tv program (not to speak of a CD-ROM) can explain genetics better than a book.
Today the concept of literacy comprises many media. An enlightened policy of literacy must take into account the possibilities of all of these media. Educational preoccupation must be extended to the whole of media. Responsibilities and tasks must be carefully balanced. If for learning languages, tapes are better than books, take care of cassettes. If a presentation of Chopin, with commentary on compact disks, helps people to understand Chopin, don't worry if people do not buy five volumes of the history of music.
Even if it were true that today visual communication overwhelms written communication, the problem is not to oppose written to visual communication. The problem is how to improve both. In the Middle Ages visual communication was, for the masses, more important than writing. But Chartres Cathedral was not culturally inferior to the Imago Mundi of Honorius of Autun. Cathedrals were the TV of those times, and the difference from our TV was that the directors of the medieval TV --read: good books-- had a lot of imagination, and worked for the public profit (or, at least, for what they believed to be public profit).
The real problems lay elsewhere. Visual communication has to be balanced with the verbal one, and mainly with the written one for a precise reason. Once, a semiotician, Sol Worth, wrote a paper, "Images cannot say Ain't". I can verbally say "Unicorns do not exist" but if I show the image of a unicorn the unicorn is there. Moreover, is the unicorn I see a unicorn or the unicorn, that is, does it stand for a given unicorn or for the unicorns in general?
This problem is not as immaterial as it can seem, and many many pages have been written by logicians and semioticians on the difference between such expressions as a child, the child, this child, all children, childhood as a general idea. Such distinctions are not so easy to display through images. Nelson Goodman in his Languages of Art wondered if a picture representing a woman
is the representation of Women in general, the portrait of a given woman, the example of the general characteristics of a woman, the equivalent of the statement there is a woman looking at me.
One can say that in a poster or on an illustrated book, the caption or other forms of written material can help to understand what the image means. But I want to remind you about a rhetorical device called example, on which Aristotle spent some interesting pages. In order to convince somebody about a given matter, the most convincing is a proof by induction. In induction I provide many cases and then I infer that probably they instantiate a general law. Suppose I want to demonstrate that dogs are friendly and love their masters: I provided many cases in which a dog has proved to be friendly and helpful and I suggest that there must be a general law by which every animal belonging to the species of dogs is friendly.
Suppose now I want to persuade you that dogs are dangerous. I can do this by providing you with an example: "Once, a dog killed its master...." As you easily understand, a single case does not prove anything, but if the example is shocking I can surreptitiously suggest that dogs can even be unfriendly, and once you are convinced that it can be so, I can unduly extrapolate a law from a single case and conclude: "this means that dogs cannot be trusted." With the rhetorical use of the example I shift from a dog to all dogs.
If you have a critical mind you can realize that I have manipulated a verbal expression (a dog was bad) so to transform it into another one (all dogs are bad) which does not mean the same thing. But if the example is a visual rather than a verbal one, the critical reaction is made more difficult. If I show you the poignant image of a given dog biting its master it is very difficult to discriminate between a particular and a general statement. It is easy to take that dog as the representative of its species. Images have, so to speak, a sort of Platonic power: they transform individuals into general ideas.
Thus by a purely visual communication and education it is easier to implement persuasive strategies that reduce our critical power. If I read on a newspaper that a given man said "we want mister X as president" I am aware that I was given the opinion of a given man. But if I watch on the TV screen a man saying enthusiastically "we want mister X as president" it is easier to take the will of that individual as the example of the general will.
Part IV
A lecture presented by Umberto Eco
The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America

November 12, 1996
Frequently I think that our societies will be split in a short time (or they are already split) into two classes of citizens: those who only watch TV, who will receive pre-fabricated images and therefore prefabricated definitions of the world, without any power to critically choose the kind of information they receive, and those who know how to deal with the computer, who will be able to select and to elaborate information. This will re-establish the cultural division which existed at the time of Claude Frollo, between those who were able to read manuscripts, and therefore to critically deal with religious, scientifical or philosophical matters, and those who were only educated by the images of the cathedral, selected and produced by their masters, the literate few.
A science fiction writer could elaborate a lot on a future world where a majority of proletarians will receive only visual communication planned by an elite of computer-literate people.
There are two sorts of books: these to be read and these to be consulted.
As far as books-to-read are concerned (they can be a novel, or a philosophical treatise, or a sociological analysis, and so on) the normal way of reading them is the one that I would call the detective-like story. You start from page 1, where the author tells you that a crime has been committed, you follow every path of the detection until the end, and finally you discover that the guilty one was the butler. End of the book and end of your reading experience. Remark that the same happens even if you read, let us say, Descartes' Discourse de la methode. The author wanted you to open the book at its first page, to follow the series of questions he proposed, to see how he reaches certain final conclusions. Certainly, a scholar, who already knows that book, can re-read it by jumping from one page to another, trying to isolate a possible link between a statement of the first chapter and one of the last one... A scholar can also decide to isolate, let us say, every occurrence of the word Jerusalem in the immense opus of Thomas Aquinas, thus skipping thousands of pages in order to focus his or her own attention on the only passages dealing with Jerusalem... But these are ways of reading that the layman would consider as unnatural.
Then there are the books to be consulted, like handbooks and encyclopedias. Sometimes handbooks must be read from the beginning to the end; but when one knows the matter enough, one can consult them, so selecting also certain chapters or passages. When I was in high-school I had to read entirely, in a linear way, my handbook on mathematics; today, if I need a precise definition of logarithm, I only consult it. I keep it on my shelves not to read and re-read it every day, but in order to keep it up once in ten years, to find the item I need to consult it about.
Encyclopedias are conceived in order to be always consulted and never read from the first to the last page. Usually one pick up a given volume of one's encyclopedia to know or to remember when Napoleon died or what is the formula of sulfuric acid. Scholars use encyclopedias in a more sophisticated way. For instance, if I want to know whether it was possible or not that Napoleon met Kant, I have to pick up the volume K and the wolume N of my encyclopedia: I discover that Napolen was born in 1769 and died in 1821, Kant was born in 1724 and died in 1804, when Napoleon was already emperor. It is not impossible that the two met. I have probably to consult a biography of Kant, or of Napoleon - but in a short biography of Napoleon, who met so many persons in his life, this possible meeting with Kant can be disregarded, while a in a biography of Kant a meeting with Napoleon should be recorded. In brief, I must leaf through many books in many shelves of my library, I must take notes in order to compare later all the data I collected, and so on. In short, all this will cost to me a painful physical labor.
With a hypertext, instead, I can navigate through the whole encyclopedia. I can connect an event registered at the beginning with a series of similar events disseminated all along the text, I can compare the beginning with the end, I can ask for the list of all the words beginning by A, I can ask for all the cases in which the name of Napoleon is linked with the one of Kant, I can compare the dates of their birth and death - in short, I can do my job in few seconds or few minutes.
Hypertexts will certainly render obsolete encyclopedias and handbooks. In few Cd-roms (probably soon in a single one) it is possible to store more information than in the whole Encyclopedia Britannica, with the advantage that it permits crossed references and non-linear retrieval of information. The whole of the compact disks , plus the computer, will occupy one fifth of the space occupied by an encyclopedia. The encyclopedia cannot be transported as the CD-ROM can, the encyclopedia cannot be easily updated. The shelves today occupied, at my home as well as in public libraries, by meters and meters of encyclopedia could be eliminated in the next future, and there will be no reasons to complain for their disappearance.
Can a hypertextual disk replace the books to be read? This question conceals in fact two different problems and could be rephrased as two different questions.
(I) First, a practical one: Can some electronic support replace the books-to-read?
(II) Second an theoretical and an esthetical one: Can a hypertextual and multimedial CD-ROM transform the very nature of a book-to-read, such as a novel or a collection of poems?
Let me first answer the first question.
Books will remain indispensable not only for literature, but for any circumstance in which one needs to read carefully, not only to receive information but also to speculate and to reflect about it. To read a computer screen is not the same as to read a book. Think to the process of learning a new computer program. Usually the program is able to display on the screen all the instructions you need. But usually the users who want to learn the program either print the instructions and read them as if they were in book form, or they buy a printed manual (let me underevaluate the fact that presently all the computer's Helps are clearly written by irresponsible and tautological idiots, while commercial handbooks are written by smart people). It is possible to conceive of a visual program that explains very well how to print and bind a book, but in order to get instructions on how to write (or how to use) a computer program, we need a printed handbook.
After having spent no more than 12 hours at a computer console, my eyes are like two tennis balls, and I feel the need of sitting comfortably down in an armchair and reading a newspaper, and maybe a good poem. I think that computers are diffusing a new form of literacy but are incapable of satisfying all the intellectual needs they are stimulating.
In my hours of optimism I dream of a computer generation which, compelled to read a computer screen, gets acquainted with reading, but at a certain moment feels unsatisfied and looks for a different, more relaxed and differently-committing form of reading.
Part V
A lecture presented by Umberto Eco
The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America

November 12, 1996
During a symposium on the future of books held at the university of San Marino (the proceedings are now published by Brepols), Regis Debray has observed that the fact that Hebrew civilization was a civilization based upon a Book is not independent on the fact that it was a nomadic civilization. I think that this remark is very important. Egyptians could carve their records on stone obelisks, Moses could not. If you want to cross the Red Sea, a scroll is a more practical instrument for recording wisdom. By the way, another nomadic civilization, the Arabic one, was based upon a book, and privileged writing over images.
But books also have an advantage in respect to computers. Even if printed in modern acid paper, which lasts only 70 years or so, they are more durable than magnetic supports. Moreover, they do not suffer of power shortage and black outs, and are more resistant to shocks. Up to now, books still represent the more economical, flexible, wash-and-wear way to transport information at a very low cost.
Computers communication travels ahead of you, books travel with you and at your speed, but if you shipwreck in a desert island, a book can serve you, while you don't have any chance to plug a computer anywhere. And even though your computer has solar batteries you cannot easily read it while laying on a hammock. Books are still the best companions for a shipwreck, or for the Day After.
For scholarly purposes a book-to-read can be transformed into a hypertextual CD-ROM. A scholar may need to know, let us say, how many times the word good appears in the Paradise Lost.
However there are today new hypertextual poetics according to which even a book-to-read, even a poem can be transformed into a hypertext. At this point we are shifting to question two, since the problem is no more a practical one: it concern the very nature of the reading process.
Conceived in a hypertextual way even a detective story can be structured in a open way, so that its readers can even select a given reading-path, that is, to build up their own personal story - even to decide that the guilty one can and must be the detective instead of the butler.
Such an idea is not a new one. Before the invention of the computer, poets and narrators have dreamt of a totally open text that the readers could infinitely re-write in different ways. Such was the idea of Le Livre, as extolled by Mallarme; Joyce thought of his Finnegans Wake as a text that could be read by an ideal reader affected by an ideal insomnia. In the sixties Max Saporta wrote and published a novel whose pages could be displaced so as to compose different stories. Nanni Balestrini gave one of the early computers a disconnected list of verses that the machine put together in different ways so to compose different poems; Raymond Queneau invented a combinatorial algorithm by virtue of which it was possible to compose, from a finite set of lines, billions of poems. Many contemporary musicians have produced musical movable scores, and by manipulating them one can compose different musical performances.
As you have probably realized, even here one is dealing with two different problems. (I) The first is the idea of a text which is physically movable. Such a text should give the impression of the absolute freedom on the part of the reader; but this is only an impression, an illusion of freedom. The only machinery that allows one to produce infinite texts already existed from millennia, and it is the alphabet. With a reduced number of letters one can produce, really, billions of texts, and this is exactly what has been done from Homer to the present days. A stimulus-text which provides us not with letters, or words, but with pre-established sequences of words, or of pages, does not set us free to invent anything we want. We are only free to move in a finite number of ways pre-established textual chunks.
But I, as a reader, do have this freedom even when I read a traditional detective novel. Nobody forbids me from imagining a different end. Given a novel where two lovers die I, as a reader, can either cry on their fate, or to try to imagine a different end in which they survive and live happy forever. In a way I, as a reader, feel more free with a physically finite text, on which I can muse for years, than with a movable one where only some manipulations are permitted.
(ii) This possibility leads us to the second problem which concerns a text which is physically finite and limited but that can be interpreted in infinite, or at least in many ways. This has been in fact the aim of every poet or narrator. But a text which can support many interpretations is not a text which can support every interpretation.
I think that we are confronted with three different ideas of hypertext. First of all, we should make a careful distinction between systems and texts. A system (for instance a linguistic system) is the whole of the possibilities displayed by a given natural language. Every linguistic item can be interpreted in terms of other linguistic or other semiotic items, a word by a definition, an event by an example, a natural kind by an image, and so on and so forth. The system is perhaps finite but unlimited. You go in a spiral-like movement ad infinitum. In this sense certainly all the conceivable books are comprised by and within a good dictionary and a good grammar. If you are able to use the Webster you can write both the Paradise Lost and Ulysses.
Certainly, if conceived in such a way, a hypertext can transform every reader into an author. Give the same hypertextual system to Shakespeare and a schoolboy, and they have the same odds of producing Romeo and Juliet.
However a text is not a linguistic or an encyclopedic system. A given text reduces the infinite or indefinite possibilities of a system to make up a closed universe. Finnegans Wake is certainly open to many interpretations, but it is sure that it will never provide you the demonstration of Fermat's theorem, or the complete bibliography of Woody Allen. This seems trivial, but the radical mistake of irresponsible deconstructionists was to believe that you can do everything you want with a text. This is blatantly false. A textual hypertext is finite and limited, even though open to innumerable and original inquiries. FIG.6
Hypertext can work very well with systems, they cannot work with texts. Systems are limited but infinite. Texts are limited and finite, even they can allow for a high number of possible interpretations (but they do not justify every possible interpretation).
There is however a third possibility. We may conceive of hypertexts which are unlimited and infinite. Every user can add something, and you can implement a sort of jazz-like unending story. At this point the classical notion of authorship certainly disappears, and we have a new way to implement free creativity. Being the author of the Open Work I cannot but hail such a possibility. However there is a difference between implementing the activity of producing texts and the existence of produced texts. We shall have a new culture in which there will be a difference between producing infinite texts and interpreting precise and finite texts. That is what happens in our present culture, in which we evaluate differently a recorded performance of Beethoven's Fifth and a new instance of a New Orleans Jam Session.
Part VI
A lecture presented by Umberto Eco
The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America

November 12, 1996
We are marching towards a more liberated society in which free creativity will co-exist with textual interpretation. I like this. But we must not say that we have substituted a old thing with another one. We have both, thanks God. TV zapping is a kind of activity which has nothing to do with watching a movie. A hypertextual device that allows us to invent new texts has nothing to do with our ability to interpret pre-existing texts.
There is still another confusion between and about two different questions: (a) will computers made books obsolete? and (b) will computers make written and printed material obsolete?
Let us suppose that computers will make books to disappear. This would not mean the disappearance of printed material.
The computer creates new modes of production and diffusion of printed documents. In order to re-read a text, and to correct it properly, if it is not simply a short letter, one needs to print it, then to re-read it, then to correct it at the computer and to reprint it again. I do not think that one is able to write a text of hundreds of pages and to correct it without printing it at least once.
We have seen that - if by chance one hoped that computers, and specially word processors, would have contributed to save trees - that was a wishful thinking. Computers encourage the production of printed material. We can think of a culture in which there will be no books, and people will go around with tons and tons of unbound sheets of paper. This will be pretty difficult, and will pose a new problem for libraries.
People desire to communicate with each other. In ancient communities they did it orally; in a more complex society they tried to do it by printing. Most of the books which are displayed in a bookstore should be defined as products of Vanity Presses, even if they are published by a university press. But with computer technology we are entering a new Samisdazt Era. People can communicate directly without the mediation of publishing houses. Lot of people do not want to publish, they simply want to communicate each other. Today they do it by E-mail or Internet, will result in being a great advantage for books, books' civilization and books' market. Look at a bookstore. There are too many books. I receive too many books every week. If the computer network will succeed in reducing the quantity of published books, it would be a paramount cultural improvement.
One of the most common objections against the pseudo-literacy of computers is that young people get more and more accustomed to speak through cryptic short formulas: dir, help, diskcopy, error 67, and so on. One of the closing formulas used in the networks is cul8r. Is that still literacy? FIG 7
I am a rare-books collector, and I feel delighted when I read the seventeenth-century titles that took one page and sometimes more. They look like the titles of Lina Wertmuller's movies. The introductions were several pages long. They started with elaborate courtesy formulas praising the ideal Addressee, usually an Emperor or a Pope, and lasted for pages and pages explaining in a very baroque style the purposes and the virtues of the text to follow.
If Baroque writers read our contemporary scholarly books they would be horrified. Introductions are one page long, briefly outline the subject matter of the book, thank some National or International Endowment for a generous grant, shortly explain that the book has been made possible by the love and understanding of a wife or husband and of some children, and credit a secretary for having patiently typed the manuscript. We understand perfectly the whole of human and academic ordeals revealed by those few lines, the hundreds of nights spent underlining photocopies, the innumerable frozen hamburgers eaten in a hurry...
But let me guess that in the near future we will have three lines saying: "W/c, Smith, Rockefeller," (to be read as: I thank my wife and my children; this book was patiently revised by Professor Smith, and was made possible by the Rockefeller Foundation.") FIGURE 8
That would be as eloquent as a Baroque introduction. It is a problem of rhetoric and of acquaintance with a given rhetoric. I think that in the coming years passionate love messages will be sent in the form of a short instruction in Basic language, under the form "if... then", so to obtain, as an input, messages like "I love you, therefore I cannot live with you," (beautiful verse from Emily Dickinson).
Besides, the best of English mannerist literature was listed --as far as I remember-- in some program language: 2B OR/NOT 2B " FIGURE 9
There is a curious idea according to which the more you say in verbal language, the more you are profound and perceptive. Mallarme told us that it is sufficient to spell out "une fleur" to evoke a universe of perfumes, shapes, and thoughts. Frequently for poetry, the fewer the words, the more the things. Three lines of Pascal say more than 300 pages of a long and boring treatise on morals and metaphysics. The quest for a new and surviving literacy ought not to be the quest for a pre-informatic quantity. The enemies of literacy are hiding elsewhere.
Until now I have tried to show that the arrival of new technological devices does not necessarily made previous device obsolete. The car is goes faster than the bicycle, but cars have not rendered bicycles obsolete and no new technological improvement can make a bicycle better than it was before. The idea that a new technology abolishes a previous role is too much simplistic. After the invention of Daguerre painters did not feel obliged to serve any longer as craftsmen obliged to reproduce reality such as we believe to see it. But it does not mean that Daguerre's invention only encouraged abstract painting. There is a whole tradition in modern painting that could not exist without the photographic model, think for instance of hyper-realism. Reality is seen by the painter's eye through the photographic eye.
Certainly the advent of cinema or of comic strips has made literature free from certain narrative tasks it traditionally had to perform. But if there is something like post-modern literature, it exists just because it has been largely influenced by comic strips or cinema. For the same reason today I do not need any longer a heavy portrait painted by a modest artist and I can send my sweetheart a glossy and faithful photograph, but such a change in the social functions of painting has not made painting obsolete, except that today painted portraits do not fulfill the same practical function of portraying a person (which can be done better and less expensively by a photograph), but of celebrating important personalities, so that the command, the purchasing and the exhibition of such portraits acquire aristocratic connotations.
This means that in the history if culture it has never happened that something has simply killed something else. Something has profoundly changed something else.
I have quoted McLuhan, according to which the Visual Galaxy had substituted the Gutenberg Galaxy. We have seen that few decades later this was no longer true. McLuhan stated that we are living in a new electronic Global Village. We are certainly living in a new electronic community, which is global enough, but this is not a Village - if by village one means a human settlement where people are directly interacting each other.
The real problems of an electronic community are the following: (1) Solitude. The new citizen of this new community is free to invent new texts, to cancel the traditional notion of authorship, to delete the traditional divisions between author and reader, but the risk is that - being in touch with the entire world by means of a galactic network - one feels alone.... (2) Excess of information and inability to choose and to discriminate. I am used to saying that certainly the Sunday NYT is the kind of newspaper where you can find everything fit to print. Its 500 hundred pages tell you everything you need to know about the events of the past week and the ideas for the new one. However, a single week is not enough to read the whole Sunday NYT. Is there a difference between a newspaper which says everything you cannot read, and a newspaper which says nothing, is there a difference between NYT and Pravda?
Notwithstanding this, the NYT reader can still distinguish between the book review, the pages devoted to the tv programs, the Real Estate supplement, and so on. The user of Internet has not the same skill. We are today unable to discriminate, at least at first glance, between a reliable source and a mad one. We need a new form of critical competence, an as yet unknown art of selection and decimation of information, in short, a new wisdom. We need a new kind of educational training.
Let me say that in this perspective books will still have a paramount function. As well as you need a printed handbook in order to surf on Internet, so we will need new printed manuals in order to cope critically with the World Wide Web.
Let me conclude with a praise of the finite and limited world that books provide us. Suppose you are reading Tolstoj's War and Peace: you are desperately wishing that Natasha will not accept the courtship of that miserable scoundrel who is Anatolij; you desperately wish that that marvellous person who is prince Andrej will not die, and that he and Natasha could live together happy forever. If you had War and Peace in a hypertextual and interactive CD-rom you could rewrite your own story, according to your desires, you could invent innumerable War and Peaces, where Pierre Besuchov succeeds in killing Napoleon or, according to your penchants, Napoleon definitely defeats General Kutusov.
Alas, with a book you cannot. You are obliged to accept the laws of Fate, and to realise that you cannot change Destiny. A hypertextual and interactive novel allows us to practice freedom and creativity, and I hope that such a kind of inventive activity will be practised in the schools of the future. But the written War and Peace does not confront us with the unlimited possibilities of Freedom, but with the severe law of Necessity. In order to be free persons we also need to learn this lesson about Life and Death, and only books can still provide us with such a wisdom.

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update 26.09.01


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