19 January 2013

On the subtext of sheer legibility

I recently bought Philip Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect: how good people turn evil (London; Rider, 2009 978-1-84-604103-7) If the author's name is not familiar, no matter; it is a 35-years-on account of and reflection on the iconic (for once the adjective is I think appropriate) Stanford Prison Experiment.

In total, it is 551 pages. I'm not going to read it all. I may at most raid it, for quotations or anecdotes or apercus. I bought it because I ought to have a copy.

The experiment, for all its faults (see inter al. Jones and Fowles, 1984 --their critique is not listed in the references) was one of the most important events/contributions/somethings in social psychology in the 20th century, and it has been covered in scores of articles and books (and attempted TV replications) ever since.

I'm not sure that anyone will actually read the book--although it has made it to paperback (the hardback was published in 2007), and Zimbardo has popped up on serious chat shows since it came out. Most people who buy it will already know what it is about, and students who need to know what it is about will encounter it second-hand through textbooks or wikipedia. But like me, they may well buy it. And that is what matters if you are a publisher.

There is the now-common note on a spare page at the end about the typeface (Photina). What it does not say is that it is set in (at a guess) 8 point text on 10 point line spacing (leading). 10pt on 12pt is probably the standard for such a text. This type-setting amounts to an admission by the publisher that they want to print as cheaply as possible (as few pages as possible), because they know that purchasers will not (on the whole, of course) be bothered about the legibility of the text.

My respect and sympathy to Zimbardo; this has been a major effort involving--as I can see from dipping into the first half of the book which deals in detail with the experiment, and the links with other literature in the second half--years of effort. And it has been put out on a gift model*. That's insulting. It may provide another dynamic to explain "how good people turn evil"...

Jones K and Fowles A J (1984) Ideas on Institutions: analysing the literature of long-term care and custody London; Routledge and Kegan Paul **

* I'm sure that the marketers have a more sophisticated analysis, but as I see it, selling something as a "gift" means that you would not buy it for yourself, and you don't expect it to be any use to the recipient, but its  (monetary) value is probably exquisitely calibrated to match the social (or business) value you attach to the relationship.

** This reference is genuine (but then I would say that, wouldn't I?) But, within the academic game, it is not likely actually to be followed up, so it matters more as a proxy for academic respectability than for its substance.

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