Towards a Theory
of the Digital Companion


There have been numerous recent attempts to explore digital companions to printed books, either in the form of major digitization initiatives (The Rossetti Archive, The Whitman Archive, Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, etc.), the publication of archival sources to print monographs (Robert Darnton’s upcoming monograph on the libelles), the creation of digital, communal peer-review (McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory, Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s Expressive Processing), the addition of digital blogs attached to books (N. Katherine Hayles’ Electronic Literature), and the generation of interactive textbook supplements. In what follows I try to outline the nature of these various projects in order to highlight what I see as the difference and the value of the booklog.

1.

Digitization initiatives have largely been driven by a philosophy of replacement. In replicating all print records in digital form, they are marked by a conceptual gain and loss: a gain of searchability is achieved through the loss of information that accompanies the absence of the physical object. On the other hand, archival projects and textbook supplements have been driven by a philosophy of surplus – to add value to the book by providing more information online. They depend on the widespread belief today that more is better.

2.

The book blog (not to be confused with a book “log”) is premised on the notion of creating and sustaining readerly community. A book will sell more or be cited more because the book’s blog has generated readers. In this sense it can be seen as a correlative to traditional scholarly oral formats, such as the conference paper or course lecture, that have been used to create and sustain reading communities. With the blog, the reach is greater as is the potential duration. The risk is that the blog falls outside of the normal paradigms of scholarly presentation. A blog is more conversational, which can be a way of gaining readers but also losing them.

3.

The example of digital peer-review used in the cases of Wark and Wardrip-Fruin are driven by the notion of the “wisdom of crowds,” popularized by James Surowiecki. The idea behind such projects is that the feedback of a larger community provides a greater level of expertise and input than a few select expert readers. The printed book is made more “interactive” because readers are encouraged to comment on it before it goes to print and thus have the power to change it. Once the book is in print, however, the digital platform no longer serves a function – indeed, it might contribute to fewer sales of the book because everyone who would buy it has already read it. Readers play a “prefatory” role, but the author presides over the final product in traditional print fashion.

4.

The booklog, by contrast, which draws on the popular format of “deleted scenes” from DVDs, tries to extend (rather than revise or supplant) the content of the printed book, much like other supplemental formats such as the published archive. But in this case the archive is not extra information, but alternative information. The digital platform provides a different view of the book, not an amplification of it, the way a blog might. And it provides a different way of viewing the writing in books, not as something bound and complete, but as that which has a past and thus can have a future. In portraying the “evolutionary” aspect of the book, the booklog gestures toward possible alternative futures that the book could and still might undergo, either in the hands of the author or readers.

Because it models a past of alternative futures – that it could have been different – it models a future of interactive reception. The cultural attractiveness of the DVD today and the genre of deleted scenes at its heart depends on a fascination with what I would call a “versional modernity,” a notion of knowledge and creativity predicated on a multiplicity of the same. In authorizing a potential difference inherent in the cultural object, such versional forms authorize users’ creative interaction with those objects in the future. Expressions of contingency and hypothetical difference are particularly relevant to the field of knowledge production within which the scholarly book operates.