Monday, November 08, 2010


By now it’s firmly established in the minds of most of those paying attention that we are going through a paradigm shift, one that was predicted twenty years ago. But we never really thought about the specifics, which are now coming down on our heads daily. So much has changed without our even realizing it.

The one that slaps me upside the head all the time is the change in publishing. It’s FAR beyond the idea of print being presented electronically instead of ink on paper. It’s FAR beyond print of any kind. Now we are out of the books-as-objects biz, a paradigm that treated books like gizmos, making as many as anyone could accurately estimate would sell (after some market research), tarting them up as nicely as possible (design, cover, blurbs), advertising far and wide, then -- in time -- discounting and finally destroying the leftovers to free up warehouse space. With a little luck, reviewers in newspapers, mags and on the air would say nice things. There was a thing called “hand selling,” when clerks in bookstores recommended their favs to customers. Accounting was just a matter of figuring out what was spent for all this and deducting that from the amount made from sales. You prevented the books from shipping across national boundaries and had to pay someone to create a foreign language version. This is still the model in most minds.

But now a book is NOT an object. It might not even be a “book” in the sense we are used to. It might be videos (with music, print text and voice-over). It might be only spoken, with the speaker as much a selling point as the actual prose. (What would “Outlander” be without the elegant Scots accent of Davina Porter?) And then there are the graphic versions, which are drawn in frames: “comic books.” And eventually the movie or even a series on television. How strong must a narrative be to withstand so many morphs? Or will a narrative line even work now?

Many people have finally realized that all these incarnations of "literature" exist, but may have nothing at all to do with fleshly bodies. Not many people have thought about what sort of “literacy” is required to make sense of them, how to create them, or how to read/watch/hear/interpret them. With mags, newspapers, TV reviewers popping like soap bubbles, how do we even know what is out there?

The REAL action is in the chaos of marketing. The internet has no national boundaries, which means that copyright must be totally rethought. No one knows how to do world-wide market research. We have to make up words like “vook” for a video book or “vlog” for a video blog, and what is a series-written tale in blog form anyway? A “blovel”? Anyone could download it and forward it anywhere in any order. What about mash-ups now that everything is code and can throw images, sounds, scenes from movies into one big suggestive stew. What about parody? The kids who act out Jane Austen or Diana Gabaldon, half-mockery and half-fandom? What sort of genre is it when video clips from old movies and BBC series can be cut together to create a rather convincing facsimile of Outlander -- all in the name of encouraging favorite actors to take favorite parts. Most of this is way beneath the radar of formal publishers, who don’t even have the time and resources to look for examples of illegal variants -- much less do anything about them through the cumbersome means of lawsuits.

I watch all this. It's remarkable that I can, sitting here on the prairie. Yesterday I watched “The Edge,” two interviews of Daniel Hillis who is an engineer working in oncology research. (Cross-disciplinary is where it’s at.) He explained that cancer is not a “thing” but a process that ought to be called “cancering.” (That Hopi idea is now mainstream, whether or not it’s accurate in Hopi terms.) Cells with corrupt genetic code are cancer and the body normally pops them. Though this is the same process in every case, we persist in thinking there are as many kinds of cancer as there are different cells in the body. Lung cancer, skin cancer, toe cancer. But the digitalization of the genome has been a revelation, and one of the first things it has revealed is the proteome. (Well, it has revealed the EXISTENCE of the proteome -- there are millions of proteins.) The genome is the template and the parts list: the proteome is the actual molecules made in the body, molecules that “talk” to each other by constantly changed in amount and kind.

Hillis is not even a doctor. He is an engineer. His work is learning to sort and recognize the conversation among the proteomic molecules by designing the “machinery” that will read what’s in the blood at any given time. He displayed a tablet (maybe an iPad) with the “read-outs” of two sets of blood samples on top of each other but color coded so there were three colors: the molecules present in only one sample, the molecules present only in the other, and the molecules present in both samples. This “reading” is so specific that one isotope of carbon can be distinguished from another, along with the changes they cause in the molecule, assuming they do. He says that the most recent research is able to “hear” the conversation inside a single cell, what each molecule is saying to the others. All this is at the outer limits of human perception and conception, made possible only because of computers. Eventually, we will be able to “see” not just cancer cells, but "who" is “saying” the dysfunctional molecules that create them.

Once that paradigm shift is in place and we see all these old familiar things in a new way, it can profoundly change the way we do things. For instance, Danny Hillis repeats again and again that the only way we know to treat cancer now is to administer poison to the patient and try to calibrate it so it kills the aberrant cells but not the healthy ones -- at least not enough of them to kill the patient. Or we can cut or burn the bad cells. But this is wasteful, clumsy, has terrible side-effects and benefits only the pharma people who want to sell a lot of pills, hopefully in a constant regime rather than as a one-time event.

More futuristic is the practice of killing all the cells in bone marrow that are manufacturing rogue cells, and then infusing new bone marrow cells from someone else. Even MORE futuristic is infecting someone with a harmless virus that carries along healthy code and “infects” the molecular assembly line. A proteomic “patch,” to use computer jargon. This will totally upend the pharma industry assembly lines who are dependent on mass-producing pills in a Third-World low-pay environment. They are Exxon in a world going to wind power. The new way is one-on-one-once.

The difficulty is not just in terms of profits and marketing strategy. In my age group, which is seventy and over, I find many many people who simply cannot start DIS-believing what they have learned about the world in the past decades, what their teachers told them long ago. The ones who can accept a new paradigm are the ones who were anthropologists anyway, or who got bumped out of one context into another -- maybe more than once. It’s hard to STOP believing that writing a famous book will make your life worth living. Or even stop believing that there is any such thing as a famous book worthy of being famous, since the marketing is what controls fame -- not the quality. The same problem as political leaders.
There are two hour-long talks, but Hillis is very clear and easy to listen to.

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