Edited by Marie-Laure Ryan, Lori Emerson, and Benjamin J. Robertson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
It is appropriate to begin our book review section with The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media for a couple of reasons. First, in light of our recent blog post about digital pedagogy, the book provides an excellent starting point for students and teachers wishing to learn more about what is loosely called ‘New Media’. Second, the very form of the book, an encyclopaedic A-Z of key terms from the field (it begins with ‘Algorithm’ and ends with ‘Writing under Constraint’) is analogous to that of the web itself. Written in fragments and concluding with a further reading section, each entry reminds us that such reference guides are hypertextual by their very nature.
Such a text would be valuable in its own right – a work similar to Raymond Williams Keywords but for the digital age – but what distinguishes and sets apart The Johns Hopkins Guide… is the quality of the entries which have been written by experts and practitioners in their field. The entry ‘Holopoetry’, for example, was written by Eduardo Kac who invented the form back in 1983 (apparently it is a ‘spatiotemporal event: it evokes thought processes, and not their result’.) Jay David Bolter, meanwhile, has written the entry for ‘Remediation’, the term he and Richard Grusin use to describe the ways that old media become refashioned by the new.
Each of the 150 entries varies in length, but each one goes into far more depth than a simple dictionary definition. Some entries could even be considered short scholarly articles in their own right. Maria Engberg’s entry, ‘Word-Image’, is characteristic of the scholarship and effort that has gone into the Guide: it historicises the topic and references central ideas and thinkers in the field, providing the reader with not just an overview, but also with the challenges facing theorists and practioners. She writes, ‘word-and-image relations in contemporary digital culture can be said to coexist beside each other in various disciplines rather than in extended dialogue.’ Such articulation allows us to then think about how we can begin to make changes to our own work in the future.
For a book that discusses the potential of the digital and new technologies in a way that is both rich and intellectually rewarding, it is a shame that the cover of the book is so bland and unappealing – whilst it is clear and simple, it also bears the hallmarks of a textbook from the 1970s. Nevertheless, The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media shall be by my side for many years to come, and, hopefully my students’ sides too.