Forum Summary:What is a Book? Experiments in Idea Dissemination

What follows is a summary of the Meridian 180 forum "What is a Book? Experiments in Idea Dissemination" (May-June 2015).

By Mary Picarella,Andrew Lai,Owen Yisoo Kim, and Solene Fanny Alexia Balaguette

  • The book is a fluid format, and the next generation of books promises to transcend "linguistic and national boundaries."
  • Although the form of a book is evolving, barriers to a full, global discourse continue to exist.
  • The introduction of aBooks could be a possible solution to "[keep] the best of what is being replaced while adopting the benefit of the new."

The book, a “form for producing knowledge . . . since the European Middle Ages,” has played a crucial role in fostering scholarship and disseminating ideas.  But, as Professor Annelise Riles (Cornell Law School) noted, printed academic works—and the publishing industry that produces them—face “new ‘threats’ in the digital age.”  Modern, digitally-connected audiences expect quick and efficient access to new ideas, a demand that traditional books, still a mainstay in academia, may not be able to satisfy. 

Meridian 180 attempts to address these demands head on with its new “experimental e-book series,” which will be “quadrilingual” (published in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and English).  The series will explore the “ideas, viewpoints, and solutions” that were developed at a recent Meridian 180 conference on “Democracy in an Age of Shifting Demographics.”[1]  In opening the forum, entitled “What is a Book? Experiments in Idea Dissemination,” Riles asked members for suggestions about ways the new e-book series could overcome the traditional limitations of books, facilitating the dissemination of “knowledge across linguistic and national boundaries” and “across the boundaries that separate the university from other spaces for thinking.”  Riles also asked members to consider ways that the new e-book series could “take advantage of the new collaborative economy to produce a new economy of ideas.” 

But what is the purpose of a book, how can it be improved, and what are the challenges for achieving this new ideal?  Forum contributors grappled with these fundamental questions, with some even struggling to define what a “book” is.  Unsurprisingly, members had differing views on the future for traditional print books, and whether, as Professor Haejoang Cho (Yonsei University) suggested, a “civilization shift” is underway.  Whatever the final fate of traditional books, many participants believed that the growth of digital alternatives will offer authors, in academia and beyond, greater flexibility in the ways that they produce and share their ideas.

What is a book?

In the discussion, participants had a variety of opinions about what a book actually is.  Some participants depicted books as functional-commercial hybrids; for them, books served an important role in facilitating idea-sharing in a marketplace context.  Riles described books as “discrete artifacts that could be bought and sold at relatively cheap prices, produced in relatively portable form, borrowed and shared.” Siofra McSherry (Freie Universität) adopted a similar view, describing a book as “a product shaped by printing technologies, bookmakers’ artisanship and the demands of the market,” but also, more critically, as “a totem, a material stand-in for the idea of knowledge itself.” 

Other members highlighted the physical nature of books to distinguish them from their virtual e-book counterparts.  Bronwen Morgan (UNSW Australia) described a “physical textured material artifact that we can hold in our hands” that nevertheless may allow for considerable artistic flexibility within its form.  Similarly, Professor Leigh B. Bienen (Northwestern University School of Law) noted the “corporality” of books and publishing, but argued that that form was among the book’s chief advantages as “a very efficient way to store and disseminate knowledge and opinion” and “preserve content.” Therefore, both Morgan and Bienen suggested that the book’s usefulness is inextricably tied to its physical form.

In contrast, Professor Stephen Humphreys (London School of Economics) eschewed a fixed definition entirely, arguing instead that “[w]hat a book ‘is’ may depend on whether you are reader, author or publisher.”  To an author, Humphreys said, a book is a unique “work” that conveys thoughts or concepts.  To a publisher, though, that same book is a “product” or “commodity” that is intended to be sold.  Humphreys suggested that there is a “tension between the publisher’s need” to sell a defined product and “our own disdain . . . for pigeonhole[ing]” what a book is. Similarly, Kaida Tetsuya (KAZE Creative) argued that books can more accurately be described as fluid interactions between human actors, with books representing “an author’s emotions, which serve as ‘stones thrown’ in order to produce ‘casual ripples’ across a diverse landscape of people and their feelings.”

Ultimately, Professor Christopher M. Kelty (University of California, Los Angeles) believed that the book will live on, despite the advent of new technologies, and said that the definition of “‘book’ has changed dozens of times” over the centuries.  Unlike other participants, he believed that “we are at the end of a period of high plasticity in what [a] ‘book’ is,” and that the future of scholarship lies with incremental changes “at the margins,” such as Meridian 180’s instant translation features.

Current Innovations and Potential Problems

Despite Professor Kelty’s view that the definition of a book is stabilizing, other commentators, such as Siofra McSherry, felt “a sea change in the nature and dissemination of knowledge is underway.”  Many commentators believe this is an age of innovation in how ideas are dispelled, due largely to the advent of the internet.  In this age, content becomes available more quickly and in a wider variety of forums.  Leigh B. Bienen implied that innovation is necessary, pointing out that “[a]fter the internet, no one will tolerate a physical book taking a year to produce.”  Today, the dominance of academic publishers as disseminators of ideas is being challenged.  Though many commentators spoke positively about these challenges to academic publishing, noting the “insufficiency of current practices” (Siofra McSherry), they also expressed concern about the effects of these innovations.  Specifically, commentators worried about the preservation of content, the illegal copying of ideas, and the barriers to successful communication across cultures.

Vincent Ialenti (Cornell University) expressed concern about “digital obsolescence – knowledge-loss that occurs when platforms needed to read archived files are discarded/lost amidst innovation.”  He worried that knowledge dissemination through the internet may not be suitable “for dissemination across time over decades/centuries/millennia,” and that this may be cause for concern for scholars, “whose debates unfold intergenerationally.”  Other commentators echoed this concern that “digital content changes very quickly,” and “out of date things . . . are taken offline unceremoniously” (Amy Levine).

Commentators identified additional barriers that may exist to promoting a fuller, more global discourse.  Professor Haejoang Cho noted differences between the East, where “residents . . . are far too busy and panicked,” and the West, where “residents . . . are still somewhat leisurely.”  She posited that experiments in idea dissemination “will lag so long as this gap persists” and that intercultural dialogue will suffer in the absence of “nuanced translation,” something that is “not an easy task in any case.”  Without nuanced translation, she cautioned that when reading a text “written for domestic consumption,” “the foreign reader finds him or herself lost between the lines.”

In discussing innovation in the dissemination of knowledge, many commentators referred to Meridian 180 as an example of a new method of academic discourse.  According to Leigh B. Bienen, “Meridian 180 has already created new forms of communication” through its “instantaneous publication in four languages” and in providing for “discussion of academic and public policy questions to a mixed audience of university and nonacademic people, outside the confines of a single discipline . . . in this format.”  Yet Hirokazu Miyazaki added that in many ways, Meridian 180 is rather conventional.  He noted that participating in a dialogue through Meridian 180 requires “a certain degree of thinking and reflection” and “it takes one some time to compose a comment.” Miyazaki argues that this sets Meridian 180 apart from many other forms of internet communication.  According to Miyazaki, it is because of this “slightly different deployment of somewhat old and familiar formats for communication” that Meridian 180 has creative potential. It seemed that for many commentators, Meridian 180 achieves a balance.  It exploits the potential provided by new methods for disseminating ideas, without relinquishing the benefits of traditional methods.

The Destiny of the Book: The Future of Idea Dissemination

Any discussion of the book, especially with the emergence of Meridian 180’s innovative approach to disseminating scholarly ideas, inevitably calls for a prediction of the physical book’s future.  Although there was no consensus among commentators on what the future medium of intellectual exchange would be, many believed the introduction of the internet would not fully supplant the physical book, at least in the near term. In explaining why, Leigh Bienen compared the book to other media that were predicted to die out but nonetheless survived; for example, early predictions that technical advances in photography and live concerts would, respectively, make painting and music concerts obsolete were completely mistaken. Likewise, by “[keeping] the best of what is being replaced while adopting the benefit of the new,” Bienen noted, “physical books, off the computer, are here to stay.” Further, although the introduction of the internet has created significant change in the publishing industry and improved its productivity, various commentators pointed out that the internet is not suitable to convey complex ideas and preserve material for a long period of time. 

However, not all participants were so pessimistic about the internet’s capability to disseminate ideas. While predicting that the current book industry would eventually die out for imposing too heavy “communication costs” on the exchange of information, Ming Yu suggested that the internet might be a better solution to “explore the knowledge dissemination modes that are most appropriate to the knowledge demands of intellectuals.” Clearly, as Siofra McSherry stated, the internet has the advantage of being a “multi-portal, distributed, networked, collaborative entity, the form of which is almost entirely invisible to any one user.” Because the internet is “more in line with a new global understanding of what knowledge and its distribution are,” McSherry further noted that the global culture would inevitably shift from the book to the internet.

Combining the idea of digital obsolescence and Bienen’s idea of “keeping the best of what is being replaced while adopting the benefit of the new,” Ialenti proposed “aBooks” (“a” for “academic”). If implemented correctly, aBooks might be able to not only satisfy the problem of eBooks’ transient nature, but also overcome traditional physical books’ production and dissemination inefficiencies. Ialenti suggested that every peer-reviewed aBook could have both a “rapid eBook format” version disseminated electronically for a price and also a dozen or so "Master Copy" versions made of "more durable materials not as susceptible as paper” stored in vaults at certain universities across the world to ensure the study's “long-term continuity.". As Hirokazu Miyazaki noted, along with other commentators, the concept of aBook is especially promising because it allows us to “use tools and techniques that we already have at our disposal in a slightly different direction.” Thus, the ideal future of the book will likely combine the eBook’s very efficient method of dissemination with the physical book’s unique characteristic of preserving the content for a long period of time.


Although the emergence of the internet may not have radically changed the ways in which intellectuals disseminate their ideas, with many difficult questions still to be addressed, commentators generally agreed that the internet has enlightened the continuing evolution of the physical book.  By answering the fundamental question of what a “book” is, assessing the value and the role of Meridian 180 in the present, and carefully analyzing the final fate of traditional books, forum commentators had some fruitful discussions. Predicting the precise fate of the traditional book is definitely not an easy task, as commentators provided diverse predictions. However, the ways in which scholars produce and share their ideas will surely benefit from the efficient, productive nature of digital alternatives.



[1] “How Do We Protect Democracy as Populations Age?” Ask Meridian 180 Members at Conference in Seoul, Cornell Law School (May 7, 2015),