The New Value of Text

There is an increasingly pervasive notion that other forms of media are additive to literature, that they somehow improve it. Because, you know, books are just telling stories, right?

We are witnessing a profound assault on book publishing and literature, on the text itself—not from ebooks, which publishers are slowly, painfully coming around to after a long resistance, or the internet, which is after all entirely made of text—but from applications, “enhanced” books and reductive notions of literary experience. As I’ve written about before, in the context of advertising, publishers’ reactions to new technologies betray a profound lack of confidence in the text itself. We are being distracted by shiny things.

Text lasts. It’s not platform-dependant, you don’t just get it from one source, read it in one place, understand it in one way. It is not dependent on technology: it is what we make technology out of. Code is text, it is the fundamental nature of technology. We’ve been trying for decades, since the advent of hypertext fiction, of media-rich CD-ROMs, to enhance the experience of literature with multimedia. And it has failed, every time.

Yet we are terrified that in the digital age, people are constantly distracted. That they’re shallower, lazier, more dazzled. If they are, then the text is not speaking clearly enough. We are not speaking clearly enough. Like over-stuffed attendees at a dull banquet, the mind wanders. We are terrified that people are dumbing down, and so we provide them with ever dumber entertainment. We sell them ever greater distractions, hoping to dazzle them further.

Literature is an active process: the communication between writer—who wishes to tell the reader something, and imagines that reader in their mind in order to best adapt their writing for their understanding—and reader, who reconstructs and reanimates the text in their own mind. Any other input, audio or video, however pleasurable in certain contexts, diminishes the reader’s capacity for imagination and understanding. All else is distraction. Other—particularly visual—media reduce the bandwidth of the imagination.

“Storytelling” is what we do for children. It is the infantilisation of literature. And while there is much of interest in children’s literature and children’s publishing, to emulate it is to debase literature, and ourselves. (It’s dangerous in science, technology and other non-fiction too: no application or television programme is equal to a well-written, long form text.)

And these reductive notions of literature infect the rest of the body. Contrary to popular thought, everyone is not a publisher. When you hear a publisher say it, it’s even sadder. Publishing is a complex and well established collection of knowledge, competencies and processes, refined over time, practiced under forever difficult circumstances in a frankly indifferent market. Which is not to say that it’s exclusive: the bar to entry has dropped massively, obviously, in the last ten years. But it’s still hard, and hard to do well, and the rewards are still small. Writing something and putting it on the internet is not publishing. Producing an application and getting it into the app store is not publishing. If you think everyone is a publisher, go home now, and come back when you’ve thought about what you do.

In my writing on advertising, I suggested looking to Amazon and Apple as to how to market reading: it’s in the text itself. Amazon in particular are making a killing with the Kindle, they’re eating the publishing business, and they’re doing it by focussing on text. Kindle Singles and related ventures like Byliner and Random House’s Brain Shots take advantage of digital text’s primary advantage: speed. (See the opposing directions of The Guardian’s liveblogs and News International’s The Daily for fundamental understandings and misunderstandings of digital text.)

Added to the velocity of the new text is its sociability, its connectivity. Social reading, whether of the Kindle highlights, Kobo Dashboard, Instapaper, Findings or Readmill flavour, adds depth to the text without diminishing it. When I write about the reading experience, I’m talking about a deep engagement with text, an active, intelligent, two-way conversation between reader and writer.* I am not talking about pretty pictures, sound effects, film clips, or point-and-click “interaction”. 1001 words trump a picture, and books have always been interactive. (There is so much of value in comics, films and games but it is not what book publishers do.)

Finally, the text still requires context. As publishers spin up their digital and print-on-demand backlists, more and more is published with less and less context. These efforts amount to land-grabs and rights-squatting, without adding value. Works without TOCs, indexes, author bios, footnotes. Placing work in context is one of publishers’ primary tasks, stretching out to commissioning introductions, assembling background material, supporting biographies and critical studies. Design belongs here too: good book design, appropriate book design, as important now as it has ever been.

Velocity, depth, breadth. These are the dimensions we can add to books, that are the gifts of a digital age, not gimmicks, glossy presentation and media-catching stunts.

The text works. It stands and speaks for itself. It is not what we need to change.

* Apparently this requires clarification. See below.

I couldn’t agree more. I have started to do most of my writing in plain text (along with Multimarkdown) to future-proof my work. I also think that all this talk of ebooks that incorporate multimedia are fine for some textbooks, but they will never replace the transfer of ideas, stories etc., that is done simply and efficiently via plain old text.

Which is least unethical—buying a Mac, or buying a PC? | Practical Ethics

Recent news stories have brought to public attention the fact that many Apple products, including iPhones, iPads, and Macs, are produced in part in factories with a record of using child labour, failing to provide safe work conditions, and requiring employees to work long shifts for low wages (see, for example, here, here, here and here). This raises the question: should we all stop buying these products?

Suppose you need a new laptop, or at least, are going to buy one. Leaving aside ethical considerations, you are indifferent between getting a Mac and buying a PC laptop from one of Apple’s competitors. Which should you buy?

To answer this, we need to say something more about the situation at factories run by Apple’s Chinese suppliers. Much of the attention has focused on Foxconn, which assembles the iPad and iPhone. It’s alleged that Foxconn negligence was responsible for a blast which killed two people and injured more than a dozen; that it exposes workers to toxic chemicals without adequate protection; that it requires illegal levels of overtime (often more than double the legal limit of 36 hours per month) for which it frequently does not pay in full; that it deceives potential recruits regarding pay rates; that workers are humiliated by supervisors; that workers often have to stand almost uninterrupted for a 12 hour shift; and that poor work conditions contributed to a spate of suicides at the company’s Shenzen plant in 2010. In addition, Mike Daisey, a New York performer who visited the Foxconn plant in Shenzen, reports that he met children in the age range 12-14 who were working in the plant. They told him that it was not difficult for children of their age to find employment there.

There have also been problems at other Apple suppliers. For example, Catcher Technology, which makes the aluminium casings for many Apple products, was recently instructed to shut down one of its factories by the Chinese government after neighbouring residents complaint of unbearable fumes from the factory.

Apple has taken some steps to improve the situation in response to recent public pressure. For example, it stepped up its own supplier-audit programme, commissioned the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to conduct an outside audit, and apparently induced Foxconn to raise the wages of its workers. However, questions have already been raised about the objectivity of the FLA, the scope of the wage increases, and the willingness of Apple to rectify the problems that its own audits have uncovered (see this, which is a response to this). The steps being taken by Apple may be little more than cosmetic.

I take it to be obvious that Apple suppliers are behaving unethically, and that the suppliers, and Apple itself, should do much more to improve the situation. But how does this bear on consumers? Does it follow that no-one should buy an iPhone, iPad or Mac?

There are two main reasons why it might be unethical to buy from a company like Apple. First, in purchasing Apple products, one encourages Apple to sustain its current practices. The greater the ‘reward’ that Apple receives, in terms of profits, the more likely it is to continue doing what it is doing. Of course, an individual consumer may not significantly affect the sizes of Apple’s profits and thus may not alone influence the perpetuation of current practices. But when one buys a Mac or an iPad, one is part of a collective that, as a whole helps to sustain these practices, and arguably that gives one reason not to make the purchase.

Second, it might be thought that, even leaving aside the effects on our choices on future practices, buying from a company like Apple is problematic. If I buy an Apple product, I benefit from the mistreatment of Chinese workers. Perhaps I also implicitly endorse what they are doing. Arguably these connections are enough to make me complicit in Apple’s wrongdoing. If I buy from them, perhaps I become an accomplice to their mistreatment of workers.

The problem is that Apple’s competitors may have similar problems in their supply chains. Indeed, many of Apple’s major competitors use precisely the same suppliers. Foxconn supplies Samsung, Hewlett-Packard and Dell, as well as Apple. Most of the recent attention on unethical practices in the Chinese electronics industry has focused on Apple, rather than its competitors. But Apple may be the main target largely because, given its size and high profit margins, it’s perceived to be in the best position to improve labour standards, not because it’s own standards are the worst. Ethical Consumer Magazine ranks Apple to be mid-table in terms of the ethics of its laptop and phone manufacturing processes, and above some of its biggest competitors, such as Samsung, Sony, HP and Toshiba. Moreover, though Apple is not doing enough to improve the situation, it arguably is doing more than most of its competitors. For example, it arguably does conduct more rigorous audits of its suppliers.

Perhaps, then, buying from Apple is less problematic than buying from many other electronics companies. The practices that one helps to sustain, or becomes complicit in, when one buys from Apple may be less objectionable than the practices one sustains, or becomes complicit in, when one buys from, say, Sony. Moreover, in buying from Apple one may help to encourage other firms to move to some less bad Apple-like model.

On the other hand, Apple probably is in a much stronger position than other electronics companies to improve the situation, given its market power and profit margins. Moreover, it is currently under public pressure to improve the situation and is clearly feeling this pressure. And its emphasis on producing ‘feel-good’ products and claims to ‘do things differently’ only intensifies this pressure. These factors suggest that—at least at the moment—Apple may be more sensitive than others to ethically-motivated consumer decisions. If sales of iPhones, iPads and Macs were to fall dramatically due to consumer concerns about factory conditions, Apple surely could and would improve the situation. Of course, no individual consumer can bring about this change alone, but she can contribute in a small way by taking her business elsewhere.

Thus, two factors seem to militate in opposing directions. A concern to buy from the least unethical manufacturers might in fact slightly count somewhat in favour of buying from Apple rather than from some of its main competitors. On the other hand, a concern to send a message where it is most likely to be heard (and to make a difference) seems to count in favour of not buying from Apple.

I am not sure how these factors balance out in this particular case. I suppose I’m inclined to think that, other things being equal, not buying from Apple is the better thing to do, right now. (This assumes that one is going to buy from someone. Of course, not buying from anyone, might be better still.)

But I do want to end with a concrete and pos
itive suggestion. If one buys any Chinese-manufactured electronics product in current circumstances, one is likely to be encouraging some unethical labour practices. I suggest that if one does this, one at least has reason to try to mitigate that effect. How might one do this? One option might be to donate to one of the Chinese charities currently pressuring Apple and others to improve condition in their suppliers’ factories (for example, China Labor Watch or China Labour Bulletin).

Many of those who have commented on blogs discussing Apple’s worker abuses have noted that they would be prepared to pay significantly more for electronics products if they were made ethically. At the moment, paying more for an ethical product is not an option. But what is an option is paying more to help mitigate one’s contribution to the perpetuation of unethical practices. Those who say they are willing to pay for ethical manufacturing should, I suggest, put their money where their mouth is.

Interesting take on the morality of buying Apple products. Planning a post of my own on this.

Most of Obama’s “Controversial” Birth Control Rule Was Law During Bush Years | Mother Jones

obama facepalm Pete Souza/The White House

President Barack Obama’s decision to require most employers to cover birth control and insurers to offer it at no cost has created a firestorm of controversy. But the central mandate—that most employers have to cover preventative care for women—has been law for over a decade. This point has been completely lost in the current controversy, as Republican presidential candidates and social conservatives claim that Obama has launched a war on religious liberty and the Catholic Church.

Despite the longstanding precedent, “no one screamed” until now, said Sara Rosenbaum, a health law expert at George Washington University.

In December 2000, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that companies that provided prescription drugs to their employees but didn’t provide birth control were in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prevents discrimination on the basis of sex. That opinion, which the George W. Bush administration did nothing to alter or withdraw when it took office the next month, is still in effect today—and because it relies on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, it applies to all employers with 15 or more employees. Employers that don’t offer prescription coverage or don’t offer insurance at all are exempt, because they treat men and women equally—but under the EEOC’s interpretation of the law, you can’t offer other preventative care coverage without offering birth control coverage, too.

“It was, we thought at the time, a fairly straightforward application of Title VII principles,” a top former EEOC official who was involved in the decision told Mother Jones. “All of these plans covered Viagra immediately, without thinking, and they were still declining to cover prescription contraceptives. It’s a little bit jaw-dropping to see what is going on now…There was some press at the time but we issued guidances that were far, far more controversial.”

As it turns out, the “new” policy isn’t actually new, and universities such as DePaul have actually added birth control coverage to its health plan.

News Releases – University of Strathclyde

School pupils learn about practical philosophy

Children could learn valuable lessons in moral citizenship, such as making moral judgements and informed choices, through taking part in philosophical dialogue, according to researchers at Strathclyde. 


A study of more than 130 primary and secondary pupils found that taking part in practical philosophy sessions improved the children’s listening skills, gave them greater respect for other people, encouraged them to consider other perspectives and ideas they may not otherwise have thought about and helped them analyse problems so that they are thought through before making decisions.

The sessions, following an approach known as Community of Philosophical Inquiry (CoPI), involved pupils being given a stimulus such as a picture, a piece of writing or a piece of music and being asked to come up with questions prompted by it.  A question was chosen and a structured dialogue followed, facilitated by a teacher trained in CoPI.   

Dr Claire Cassidy, a Lecturer in Education at Strathclyde, led the research. She said: “Doing practical philosophy in this way provides children with tools to enable them to participate as active citizens.

Dr Claire Cassidy

“Teachers in Scotland are being encouraged, through Curriculum for Excellence, to foster responsible citizenship in pupils, although discussions are continuing on what citizenship actually means. We wanted to assess how effective the Community of Philosophical Inquiry approach can be in supporting children towards achieving the aims of the curriculum.  While doing philosophy doesn’t necessarily guarantee citizenship, it goes some way towards providing the necessary tools that a citizen requires.

“When pupils taking part in the study were asked what they thought citizenship meant, they  emphasised that it related to representing the views of others, being environmentally aware, being law-abiding and sitting on committees, as well as having good manners and being respectful to others and their views.

“They found they were able to debate and discuss reasoned argument without conflict and often continued their discussions after their sessions had finished. They felt CoPI got them thinking deeply- as one pupil put it, thinking like they had never thought before.”

The study involved more than 130 primary and secondary pupils around Scotland being presented with a series of scenarios in which people faced moral choices, including what to do with money they have found and choosing which charity to give funds they have raised.

They were asked what course of action the people might take, what they would have done themselves and their reasons for their decisions.

After taking part in a series of CoPI sessions over eight to 10 weeks, the pupils were presented with similar scenarios. Their answers this time tended to be considerably more detailed and offered far more justification for their responses.

The research was presented at the recent EARLI (European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction) conference 2011, held at the University of Exeter.

5 January 2012

Further Information


Philosophy benefits primary and secondary school children. I like the idea of teaching young people philosophy, but then again I may be a bit biased.

John Haldane: Philosopher’s death is great loss to UK culture – Arts blog

Published on Saturday 31 December 2011 04:20

In an age marked by ‘dumbing down’ and ‘bigging up’, Sir Michael Dummett was a rare intellect

Between Christmas and New Year, Britain lost its greatest living philosopher. Sir Michael Dummett was 86 and he died at the home in Oxford which he had shared with his wife Ann for the last half century. His death was neither untimely, troubled, nor lonely; he had been ailing for some while and his family was gathered around him.

It was neither tragic nor traumatic, yet in contemplating his passing I am troubled by the thought that it marks a great loss to British philosophy and to our higher culture more generally. Dummett was an outstanding example of a type once familiar among teachers, academics, librarians, and writers, but which is increasingly rare: the highly educated, culturally rounded, morally serious, socially aware and publicly spirited intellectual.

The decline in prominence of such figures, even within their own professions, is due to several factors which suggest that it may mark an irreversible trend, but before explaining that, let me indicate just how exceptional Dummett was and why he led British philosophy for decades.

Dummett was the leading scholar at Winchester and won a history scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, but before proceeding to university he began military service. This would lead him into the Intelligence Corps, but it began in the Royal Artillery for which he was trained in Scotland. During this period he sought religious instruction from the Dominican Ivo Thomas, then chaplain to the Catholic Student Union at Edinburgh University. Thomas was himself a philosophically trained Catholic convert and Dummett followed him into the Church in 1944, much to the displeasure of his parents. The following year, Dummett was transferred to Military Intelligence and posted to Malaya, where he encountered the easy mixing of different ethnic groups but also the racism of the colonial administration.

Thus, even before his delayed arrival at Oxford at the age of 22, Dummett had acquired religious and political convictions rooted in experience and reflection. Thereafter he excelled in PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics), was elected a Prize Fellow of All Souls College, and began to develop his own highly distinctive, and initially seemingly eccentric philosophical theories about truth and reality. These involved the idea that truth must be knowable, at least in principle.

Arguing for this idea involved elaborate, often technical work in logic and mathematics, but it also led to a notion that he occasionally hinted at but left undeveloped. In 1996, however, having retired as Wykeham Professor of Logic from Oxford, he returned to Scotland to deliver the Gifford Lectures at St Andrews. Published a decade later as Thought and Reality, they argue that since the “world” or “reality” is ultimately what is knowable and known, it follows that there must be an ultimate Knower: God.

Dummett was immensely productive of logical, mathematical and philosophical writings that will continue to be studied a century hence, but from the mid-1960s he also devoted himself to the cause of social justice, particularly in relation to migrants and ethnic minorities. He would frequently drive to Heathrow, day or night, to plead on behalf of immigrants refused entry without examination of their case. This commitment led him to co-found the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants in 1967, and later to be invited to chair the National Council for Civil Liberties’ unofficial inquiry into the death in 1979 of Blair Peach, in an anti-racism protest. A death later acknowledged to be due to police violence.

From the early 1960s, Dummett had also begun to study the theory and practice of voting, exposing ways in which standard forms actually defeat democratic ends. His 1984 book Voting Procedures is widely regarded as a classic text, as are his several studies of the history and art of Tarot and other playing cards. Along the way, he also wrote expertly and passionately on the teaching of grammar, on the translation of Latin Catholic liturgies, and on the interpretation of the New Testament.

I said that Dummett was outstanding but also that he was an example of a type that was once familiar but has become rare, and may even be disappearing. This “type”, believe in knowledge and learning, in reading, writing and understanding; in excellence in art, in scholarship, and in science; in the importance of breadth and depth of achievement across more than one field of endeavour; in the value of experience under testing conditions; in holding oneself and others to high standards; in aiming for decency, integrity and justice in public life, and making a direct contribution to achieving these.

I have written of the “type”, but John Buchan who was another such – a brilliant scholar, gifted essayist, storyteller and biographer, colonial administrator, lawyer, MP, leading churchman, and Governor General of Canada – might have spoken, more imaginatively, now provocatively, of the “caste”. Today, such talk is liable to be rejected as “classist” and “elitist”, or “inegalitarian” and “undemocratic”, but that very rejection deserves to be challenged. It is evident that there is merit in excellence; obvious that relatively few have the aptitude and commitment to pursue it; and apparent that the current state of things is unsatisfactory.

Bankers, clergy, journalists, lawyers, politicians and teachers have all declined in public esteem – and other professional groups can hardly presume a higher reputation. Standards of attainment are in doubt, but triviality and mere celebrity are daily announced and applauded. In dealing with ideas or substantial facts, press and media generally work on the assumption of ignorance rather than knowledge.

Can one assume that the average person has read with attention or interest (or even read) any part of Austen or the Bible, or Dickens, or Conan Doyle, or Shakespeare? No. Can one assume, that the same person has seen an original art-work from Roman, Byzantine, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococco, Neo-classical, Romantic, Realist, or Impressionist periods? No. May one suppose that such a person can name the ten commandments, or a Jewish patriarch or prophet, or the members of the trinity, or the founders of the reformation, or the tenets of Islam? No. What about the central ideas of socialism, or the notion of the soul, or the tenets of Magna Carta or of the US Declaration of Independence? No.

If blame is to be assigned, most of it should be laid at the doors of the educators not of the uneducated. “Dumbing down” is certainly part of the problem, but so is “Bigging up” by which I mean making a lot of not very much. Michael Dummett was an outstanding intellectual. The response of fellow academics to such figures should be admiration, emulation where possible, and modesty where required – as it is for almost all of us.

Instead, however, we plough ever narrower, and often shallower, furrows. Elitism is not a bad thing, so long as it is conjoined with excellence. But excellence is an attribute of the few, and in contemplation of the genius of Michael Dummett, I would be ashamed to claim it for my own philosophical efforts. Academics no less than other professional groups might recall the wise words of one of Dummett’s Oxford near-contemporaries, Denis Healey: “The first law on holes – when you’re in one, stop digging!” We, too, need to step out of our shallow pits and make some real contribution to the society that sustains us.

• John Haldane is professor of philosophy at the University of St Andrews and chairman of the Royal Institute of Philosophy

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A very interesting take on Dummet. It is also another article lamenting the lack of academic engagement outside academia.

Don’t Smoke ’em Redux

Response to my previous post “Don’t smoke ’em if you got kids” from a comment on FaceBook: “If you can go to a doctor and get an abortion to kill your unborn child, why not be allowed to smoke and expose your child to a little life endangering chemicals. In fact it is legal to go buy a gun and leave it laying around where your child can get to it and shoot itself, so this must be perfectly natural. Power to the parents to be completely irresponsible.”

It is possible that this is an attempt at playing devil’s advocate. But just in case it belies a real objection to my contention that smoking around children minimally amounts to child endangerment, here is my response:

  1. It is a non-sequitur to argue that because abortion is legal that infanticide is or should be allowed as well. I assume that this is an argument by analogy, but I think there are significant difference between the moral status of the zygote, embryo, fetus etc., and the moral status of a child. Regardless of your view on abortion, the analogy is at best weak. Many people, even those generally opposied to abortion, often allow a harm to be done to the unborn in cases were continuing a pregnancy threatens a mother’s life, or where a life-saving cancer treatment will result in the termination of a pregnancy. In these types of cases, we may foresee the harm without intending to harm. In the case of parents exposing his or her child to secondhand smoke, the harm is gratuitous. The parent is harming the child for no other reason than they don’t want to be troubled to smoke elsewhere.
  2. The fact that something is the case (e.g., suppose parents aren’t barred by law from leaving loaded guns lying around) does not mean it ought to be the case. So the fact that we don’t prohibit parents from smoking around their children no way implies that it ought to be the case that we don’t prohibit it.
  3. Some states—such as Connecticut—do have laws against the irresponsible storage of firearms around children.
  4. Assuming children are persons deserving of moral respect, then I don’t see how harming them (by exposing them to life endangering chemicals) is any different than harming any other (adult) person.
  5. You admit that smoking is a form of child endangerment, so this would lead me to assume you are ok with child endangerment, or at least believe society shouldn’t try and protect children from the harm perpetrated by parents. Is this really the position one wants to hold? Do we want to say that we should never protect the vulnerable from incompetent individuals? So, for example, should be get rid of the licensing of physicians? Power to the doctors to be incompetent?
  6. “Power to the parents” is an apt description, since we can construe the actions taken by irresponsible parents as a power, but not a right or a privilege. I would argue that what parents do when they smoke is exercise a power, and an illegitimate one at that. The regulation of power is one of the things laws do, and ought to do in the case of parents and smoking.

[Update 2011-12-31]: The quoted Facebook comment was intended by its author to be sarcastic (something I thought might be the case). Unfortunately, I have encountered views in the children’s rights literature that hold very similar views —e.g., Jan Narvson’s view of the moral status of children. Apologies to the properly quoted but improperly interpreted Facebook commentor.