Artfully Suspended Judgment and the Electric Information Age Book

“The technique of the suspended judgment is the discovery of the twentieth century,” wrote Marshall McLuhan, “as the technique of invention is the discovery of the nineteenth.” Few books have asked their audiences to suspend judgment to the extent required by McLuhan’s own 1967 book The Medium is the Massage. Although it took Mcluhan as it putative author, this jarring experiment in bibliographic possibility—a collage of image, text, and percolating, musical typographic effects—was the combined effort of McLuhan, graphic designer Quentin Fiore, and the work’s “co-ordinator,” Jerome Agel.

The inexpensive paperback was an experiment in putting the mass in mass communication, bringing cutting-edge thinking to the widest possible public, as metaLAB founder and Faculty Director Jeffrey Schnapp shows in The Electric Information Age Book, his new collaboration with designer and Project Projects founder Adam Michaels. One in a series of inventive “kinetic paperbacks” Fiore and Agel produced to engage a young, media-savvy readership, Massage transformed typography, layout, and image from mere decoration to integral parts of the text. Schnapp and Michaels’ book explores the manifold innovations advanced by these works, which struck new stances not only in their design but in publishing and authorship as well, bringing together designers, artists, and intellectuals to produce fresh ways of making books and expressing ideas.

The Electric Information Age Book doesn’t merely inventory these idiosyncratic literary effects; it explores them, too, riffing on and extending the format of the multi-sensory paperback in a way that renovates the term “essay.” It’s the third in the Inventory Books series, the name of which invokes the genre of the “inventory of effects” Massage proclaimed. Produced by Michaels in conjunction with Princeton Architectural Press, the series provides “a platform for the synthesis of textual and visual research on transformations in urban spaces and culture.” In the bargain, the series proposes that the books of McLuhan and his electric-age fellow-travelers hold lessons for a networked era. “For those of us who refuse to accept the extinction of ink-on-paper books,” writes Steven Heller at The Atlantic, “yet embrace the potential of digital media, Michaels and Schnapp’s homage proves the past can guide the future—and just as the vinyl record is enjoying a comeback, the kinetic paperback book may have a future too.”