How Do Books Work? A Conversation with Mom 02.28.2005, 10:15 PM
My mother, a veteran kindergarten teacher, who, over the last 30 years, has taught scores of children to read, recently engaged me in an interesting conversation regarding the ebook vs. the paper book. She was responding to something I posted a few months ago called: Children and Books: Forming a World-view. She was particularly interested in this passage:
My son is 14 months old and he loves books. That is because his grandmother sat down with him when he was six months old and patiently read to him. She is a kindergarten teacher, so she is skilled at reading to children. She can do funny voices and such. My son doesn’t know how to read, he barely has a notion of what story is, but his grandmother taught him that when you open a book and turn its pages, something magical happens—characters, voices, colors—I think this has given him a vague sense of how meaning is constructed. My son understands books as objects printed with symbols that can be translated and brought to life by a skilled reader. He likes to sit and turn the pages of his books and study the images. He has a relationship with books, but he wouldn’t have that if someone hadn’t taught him. My point is, even after you learn to read, the book is still part of a complex system of relationships. It is almost a matter of chance, in some ways, which books are introduced to you and opened to you by someone.
I was really touched by the comments about Aidan and me. I truly believe that a child’s first experiences with books (even before he/she can read) are vital to his/her enjoyment of them in later life. I would like to add to your observations about books being intertwined with experiences and how I see very young children learning to love literature.
Much research has been done on how and why children want to learn to read. We know that the single most important thing that parents can do to make an avid reader of their child, is to read to them. We also know that, for most children, it takes approximately 700 to 1000 hours of lap/read time to have them ready to read. That sounds like a great deal of time, but if you put your child in your lap from the time they are 6 months old until they are 5, that is about 3 minutes a day. If you are holding your child close to you and together you read a colorful, well-written and illustrated children's book, 3 minutes will disappear very quickly. I cannot imagine any 6 month old interested in a book written in a machine. YES, they would be interested in the machine, but the book (the story and the beautiful illustrations) would be lost to the small child. Because--the biggest part of the reading experience for a small child is being able to participate by holding the book themselves, turning the pages, pointing at the pictures, going back to the pages that they most enjoyed, in other words interacting with a handheld book. A machine will not offer this opportunity.
When children come to my preschool/kindergarten classroom the ones who have had many experiences with books have a wealth of background and knowledge that others do not have. Even if they do not read, when they are given the initial literacy exam they have learned by experience how to hold a book, which is the front versus the back, where do you start reading, what's wrong with this picture? Etc., etc., etc.
Perhaps, I am jumping too far ahead in assuming that all, even children's books will ultimately be on machines. If this is to be the case, it will DRASTICALLY change the way children are taught to read and how early experiences prepare them for this task.
Thanks mom, this is great. It brought up a few questions, I wonder if you can address them. I agree that the nurturing aspect of reading to a child is most important, but if the child is sitting in my lap while we look at a book on the computer screen, how will the experience be different? Also, I'm trying to understand why paper books are better than screen-based books, if the book progresses by clicking a mouse or touching the screen, why would those actions be less developmentally useful than page turning? Also, why wouldn't a 6 month old be interested in a screen-based book? Aidan was mesmerized by the baby einstein videos, those are screen-based. When I play dvds on my laptop machine he screams because he wants to touch the keys and I have to restrain him. He loves pushing buttons, clicking my mouse and touching the screen. It seems like these are skills that he will have to learn in this computer-driven world, why not link computers with reading/nurturing/sitting in mom's lap, etc., from an early age?
These are excellent questions and I do not know how to answer them, as no research has been done in that area. (Great place for Ph.D. research, or for another year of grant money.) You are right, a small child is mesmerized by things they see on the TV and on the computer screen. If you, the parent, is holding the child, perhaps the child would get the same nurturing experiences with the book machine as with a hand held book. I have only had experiences and read research about the hand held book, this is a whole new arena. I do agree that young children of this generation will have to have extensive technological knowledge and why not start it early. My kindergartners went to the computer lab once a week for 45 minutes and most of them were totally computer savvy and those that were not caught on quickly, as they are not afraid to experiment. As to the point that pushing a button is as developmentally appropriate as the skill of turning a page, they are very different skills, but if books are to be in ibooks, turning a page will not be a skill that young children need. Basically this is all uncharted territory and these questions are exactly what "the future of the book" should be asking. Bravo!
notes from underground 02.24.2005, 11:17 PM
It should come as no surprise to anyone that there's a thriving underground trade in ebooks on peer-to-peer filesharing networks - just as there is in movies and music. Curious about exactly what was being pirated, I paid a visit to my local BitTorrent tracking site to see what's being shared.
A quick introduction: BitTorrent isn't like the Napster or Gnutella model of filesharing in that it doesn't index media files on users' computers. Instead, users who want to share files generate & upload a small file called a torrent, listing the shared file or files. When this file is downloaded by other users, it connects them into a network; the computers thus connected pass bits and pieces of the files back and forth until everyone has everything. If nobody's connected to the torrent, it dies. But because everyone who wants to download also has to upload, it's a very efficient way to spread large files, like movies, very quickly.
Because torrents come and go very quickly, one can only present a snapshot of what's being served up at a certain time. On the day I looked in, 135 ebook torrents were active. This number, however, is deceptively low: the vast majority of the torrents contained multiple books, and were consequently quite large. One torrent, for example, contained an astonishing 210 O'Reilly computer books in PDF format; it was 750 megabytes. Also on offer: the complete Calvin & Hobbes, 150 Mb.
What was popular? To generalize: geek culture. About 20% of the torrents were comic books or manga; about 18% were computer books. Music-related books (including a lot of guitar tabs) and self-help books tied for third at about 14% each. Torrents tended to show up in clumps - books on military history and digital photography were making strong showings at the moment. But there's a little bit of everything: Hunter S. Thompson's collected works were available, as well as something entitled "The Essential Guide to Becoming a Doctor", and a 285 Mb collection of popular science texts.
Ebooks came in a variety of flavors, almost all of them ugly. There were simple text files, a smattering of Microsoft Word & PowerPoint documents, plenty of PDFs, some HTML, and some proprietary ebook formats, .lit (Microsoft Reader), and .tr (TomeReader). The most interesting was the way in which comic books were presented: zipped files of numbered JPEGs are presented in the .cbr or .cbz formats, which are designed to be viewed in programs called CDisplay (for PC) or Comical (for Mac & Linux). They let you arrow through the scanned pages.
A complete run of the comic book version of The Simpsons was on offer; I downloaded a couple of issues to see how they looked. They were easy to read on screen, but the scans were amateur jobs: they tended to be washed out. I also downloaded a huge collection of philosophy texts; in two torrents, there were about 200 texts, a smattering of everything. A sampling: in addition to Benjamin Jowett's Plato, you got most of Sophocles' plays; there was Spinoza, a lot of Hegel, Foucault's Madness and Civilization as well as The Tao of Pooh, to say nothing of a copy of Deepak Chopra's How to Know God. Texts came from a variety of sources; there was some pirated commercial material, some public domain work from Project Gutenberg or marxists.org, and as a special bonus: a 600 page dissertation on Heidegger as well as a folder labeled "Student Papers (poor quality)", of which the less said the better.
It would take years to consume the tens of thousands of pages I downloaded in less than an hour. My reading list's already far too long for this life, and I'm certainly not going to read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason in a poorly-set 360 page PDF edition. I threw it all away (save a typo-ridden text entitled "Heidegger, the Erotics of Ontology, and the Mass-Market Romance" which I've saved for later delectation). The overwhelming sense I came away with is one of overwhelming maximalism: does this appeal to anybody but those collectors who wish to boast of gigabyte libraries, not caring what's in them?
What might be a useful counterpoint: while torrenting away, I came across Smakerel's still unfinished presentation of A Biased History of Interactive Media. David Groff and Kevin Steele show how multimedia - and electronic books - worked before the Internet made everything free and easy. Constraint, in their history, encouraged creativity: note how impressive some of the Hypercard text art they talk about remains.
harnessing the collective mind: the ultimate networked book 02.23.2005, 10:10 PM
Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart, who invented the computer mouse and is also credited with pioneering online computing and e-mail, advocates networked books as tools for building what he calls a "dynamic knowledge repository. This would be a place," Engelbart said, in a recent interview with K. Oanh Ha at Mercury News, "where you can put all different thoughts together that represents the best human understanding of a situation. It would be a well-formed argument. You can see the structure of the argument, people's assertions on both sides and their proof. This would all be knit together. You could use it for any number of problems. Wikipedia is something similar to it."
How to conceptualize, organize, build, and use a “book” of that scale, is the project of Engelbart’s Bootstrap Institute. In the "Reasons for Action" section of their website, Engelbart gives his perception of why we need such a book. It reads as follows:
• Our world is a complex place with urgent problems of a global scale.
• The rate, scale, and complex nature of change is unprecedented and beyond the capability of any one person, organization, or even nation to comprehend and respond to.
• Challenges of an exponential scale require an evolutionary coping strategy of a commensurate scale at a cooperative cross-disciplinary, international, cross-cultural level.
• We need a new, co-evolutionary environment capable of handling simultaneous complex social, technical, and economic changes at an appropriate rate and scale.
• The grand challenge is to boost the collective IQ* of organizations and of society. A successful effort brings about an improved capacity for addressing any other grand challenge.
• The improvements gained and applied in their own pursuit will accelerate the improvement of collective IQ. This is a bootstrapping strategy.
• Those organizations, communities, institutions, and nations that successfully bootstrap their collective IQ will achieve the highest levels of performance and success.
"Towards High-Performance Organizations: A Strategic Role for Groupware," a paper written by Dr. Engelbart in 1992, outlines practical ideas for the architecture of this vast and comprehensive networked book.
All of this is meaty food for thought with regards to our ongoing thread "the networked book." I am wondering what blog readers think about this? Assuming it becomes possible to collect, map, and analyze the thoughts and opinions of a large community, will it really be to our advantage? Will it necessarily lead to solving the complex problems that Dr. Engelbart speaks of, or will the grand group-think lead to certain dystopian outcomes which may, perhaps, cancel out its IQ-raising value?
non, merci 02.23.2005, 7:35 PM
Jean-Noel Jeanneney, the head of France's national library (BNF), has raised a "battle cry" (Le Figaro) against the cultural and linguistic imperialism of America. But this time, it's not about Big Macs and slang coming to massacre the French langauge. It's about Google and its plans to digitize libraries, which, Jeanneney says, will put a distinctly anglo stamp on the greater part of the world's knowledge (Reuters). Encouraging Europe to take part in this massive project seems like a good idea - for the sake of diversity, but more important, to offer a possible alternative to Google's approach, which was devised in the absence of any real competition. Google Print's interface is limited to a snapshot tour of a book, with minimal search capabilities. They're essentially doing for books what A9 is doing for streets, with souped-up scanners instead of trucks with camera mounts. It's a browsing tool and not much more.
Google's stock is soaring not only because it is a great engine, but also because it has pioneered a new kind of search-based advertising. There's been a lot of high-minded conjecture (e.g.) as to what Google Print might mean for humanity - rhapsodic allusions to Borges and the library of Alexandria. But the great global library of our dreams probably won't be created by Google. You could say that we are all creating it, that the web is that library. But without getting too breathless, think of the fact that with each passing year we move further and further into a paperless world. We will need well-designed electronic books in a well-designed electronic library, or matrix of libraries. So it's heartening that a serious institution like BNF wants to get in on the game. Maybe they can do better. A good indication that they could is their recently announced project (sorry, only French link) to build a free online archive of 130 years of French newspapers and periodicals - 29 publications in total, running from 1814 to 1944. But then again, perhaps they simply want to secure a place in Google's illustrious coalition of the willing: Harvard, Oxford, U. of Michigan, Stanford, and the New York Public Library.
paperback ebook 02.23.2005, 9:51 AM
Booktopia, a Korean ebook developer, is introducing a 29-title series for mobile users based on popular movie scenarios (article), including the recent Cannes hit Old Boy (thanks, textually.org). The books act as supplements to the films, with omitted material and glimpses behind-the-scenes, sort of like special features on a DVD (though it appears that they will be text-only). They also seem to riff on that weird tie-in genre of books adapted from the screen (I've always wondered who reads those books..).
So are phones the electronic book in embryo? If you are looking for innovation in form, what's happening on cell phones and mobile devices is far more interesting than what you'll find in the area of conventional "ebooks," which generally are the kind of pdf nightmare Dan decribes in his post yesterday. But so far, these kinds of mobile books, or mbooks, are to literature what ring tones are to music. The cell phone has become a kind of cud for the distracted brain to chew - I can't count how many people I see on the subway or waiting in lines simply fiddling with their phone settings. What seems to be developing on cell phones is a new kind of ephemera descended from the pamphlet, flyer, or broadsheet, which will be tightly interwoven with advertising (these Korean movie tie-ins do leg work for the actual films, just as the new 24 spinoff offered on Verizon plugs the Fox television series). But what about actual books? Serious reading to counterbalance all the fluff. Portable devices like phones and palm pilots lend themselves to the serial model. Their diminutive size makes them better suited to smaller chunks of material, and their access to networks allows them to constantly grab new chunks. But I don't see why quality has to be sacrificed. Perhaps, with time, the tradition of serialized narrative will be reinvented in meaningful ways. Many of Dickens's novels were published and written serially, and he was able to modulate the course of his writing according to reader response and sales. Digital content delivery over cell phones and the web could employ the same fluidity, delivering the book as it is becoming, and creating whole communities of readers on the web (see earlier post elegant map hack). An interesting prospect for writers as well as readers.
These literary experiments on the tiny screen are probably not trivial, even though the content may be. They seem to be saying "hurry up" to our more sophisticated but unwieldy reading devices like laptops and tablets. We need a kind of paperback ebook, in between a laptop and a smartphone - cheap and easy to tote. If I can comfortably read on this device in a crowded subway, then we might finally have something as handy as a paper book, conducive to any kind of content, with all the affordances of computers and the web. And ideally... I can write on it with a stylus, or on a keyboard that it projects on a tabletop, and I can dock it at a more powerful workstation in my office. I can plug in headphones or speakers and explore my music library, or surf satellite radio. I can watch a film that I made, or one that I downloaded, or I can flip through my photo album. If I'm lost, I can get a map with pictures of the place I'm trying to find. And at night, I can curl up with it in bed, reading by the light of its built-in candle. I may even have glasses I can plug in and read the book without hands, or look at images in 3-D like on a stereopticon. (Kim, I think I may have my fantasy ebook) Nothing could ever truly replace paper books for me, but a pan-media tablet - an everything device - might just become my everyday companion.
the form of the (electronic) book 02.21.2005, 7:00 PM
Boing Boing points out that professor/prankster Kembrew McLeod has released an electronic version of his new book on copyright Freedom of Expression on his website. The electronic version is released with a Creative Commons license. McLeod's book has not a little to do with what we're working on at the Institute, so I quite happily downloaded the book - you can too! - and found myself with a 384-page PDF of the book. It's indeed the whole book, almost exactly as Doubleday printed it, with the addition of a Creative Commons link on the first page. If you happen to know a book printer and some extra cash, you could send them this file and get a book back in a couple weeks. If you don't have access to a print shop and extra cash but you do have 384 sheets of 8.5'' x 11'' paper & a fast laser printer, you could print it out yourself and have your own telephone-book sized stack of Freedom of Expression.
Of course you could fire up your PDF viewer and read it on the screen of your computer, which is probably what you were expecting to do. But that's where the trouble starts.
While it's certainly poor form to complain about what's being given away for free, it's a remarkably painful experience to try and read this book on your computer. In large part, this is because it's not meant to be read on a screen. This PDF is the same file that Doubleday's production staff sent to the printer - with crop marks and the QuarkXPress filename at the top of every page. Because there's padding around the text so that it can be safely printed, you need to blow up the magnification to actually be able to read the text. There's a great deal of wasted space you need to page through (click on the thumbnail at right for an example of how this looked in full-screen Adobe Acrobat on my computer). Because Doubleday's making books in Quark with no thought to reusing or repurposing content, this file doesn't have any of the niceties that a PDF could have - an interactive table of contents, for example, is useful in a three-hundred page book. Worse: while one of the great benefits of the Creative Commons license is that it allows users to quote and create derivative works from licensed material. It's not as simple as you'd like to copy text out of a PDF.
From a design perspective, this is a disaster, and one for which I'll blame the publishing company - this has absolutely nothing to do with the content of the book, merely the form. While it's a decent-looking book in print, the printed page doesn't work in the same way as the screen, and there's been no accounting for this at all. We take for granted the physical book as an object, although it really is a quietly brilliant design, a perfect synthesis of form and function. When electronic books are presented to the public devoid of both, it's little wonder they haven't taken off. Nobody's going to want to read a book on a screen unless it looks good on the screen. One might be forgiven for imagining that this is a publisher's scheme to encourage people to buy the actual book.
big plans for the tiny screen 02.21.2005, 1:33 PM
Says Random House Ventures president Richard Sarnoff: "You have a whole generation of consumers, perhaps more than a generation, who are never more than 10 feet from their cell phones, including when they shower. Increasingly, cell phones are becoming an appliance for entertainment and education."
But, despite the success of cell phone novels and serials in Japan, South Korea and Germany, Sarnoff insists that tiny screens have a potential for information, but not for narrative. "The screens are inappropriate for that kind of sustained reading. That's a `maybe, someday' discussion. We'll keep an eye on that area, and if something happens ... we'll certainly respond."
So for the time being, Random House will be testing mobile phones for language instruction, test prep, and other informational services.
In a related vein, textually.org, an invaluable resource for the microlit observer, recently posted about Radio Shack's plans to sell stand-alone virtual keyboard units the size of a "small fist." Virtual keyboards project a regular-sized typing area on a flat surface, registering keystrokes via Bluetooth onto a smartphone or personal digital assistant (PDA). VKB, the developer of the technology, recently announced its goal of making the virtual keyboard an embedded feature in mobile devices by next year. Further suggestion that cell phones and laptops are evolving into one another.
building the cathedral: collaborative authorship and the internet 02.16.2005, 5:25 PM
The World Wide Web is, quite possibly, the most collaborative multi-cultural project in the history of mankind. Millions of people have contributed personal homepages, blogs, and other sites to the growing body of human expression available online. It is, one could say, the secular equivalent of the medieval cathedral, designed by a professional, but constructed by non-professionals, regular folk who are eager to participate in the construction of a legacy. Such is the context for projects like Wikimedia and the Semantic Web, designed by elite programmers, built by the masses.
One of the most pressing questions with regard to collaborative authorship is, can the content be trusted? Does the anonymous group author have the same authority as the credentialed single author? Is our belief in the quality of information inextricably connected to our belief in the authority of the writer? Wikimedia (the non-profit organization that initiated Wikipedia, Wikibooks,, Wiktionary, Wikinews, Wikisource, and Wikiquote) addresses these concerns by offering a new model for collaborative authorship and peer review. Wikipedia's anonymously published articles undergo peer review via direct peer revision. All revisions are saved and linked; user actions are logged and reversible. “This type of constant editing,” Wikimedia co-director Angela Beesley alleges, “allows you to trust the content over time.” The ambition of Wikimedia is to create a neutral territory where, through open debate, consensus can be reached on even the most contentious topics. The Wikimedia authoring system sets up a democratic forum where contributors construct their own rulespace and policies emerge from consensus-based, rather than top-down, processes. So the authority of the Wikimedia collaborative book depends, in part, on a collective self-discipline that is defined by and enforced by the group.
The collaborative authoring environment engendered by the web will make even more ambitious and far-reaching projects possible. Projects like the Semantic Web, which aims to make all content searchable by allowing users to assign semantic meaning to their work, will organize the prodigious output of collaborative networks, and could, potentially, cast the entire web as a collaboratively authored “book.”
it's mobisodic 02.15.2005, 7:30 PM
Teaming up with Verizon V Cast, a new spinoff of the popular Fox series 24 is beginning a high profile push into the fledgeling market of serialized mobile video. The show, 24 Conspiracy, will be available to subscribers in 24 sixty-second "mobisodes." This means the entire program is 24 minutes long - not much more than an extended commercial for Fox, and a gimmick for selling more expensive phones. But perhaps this could open the floodgates for longer, more varied programming for mobile users. If HBO wants to stay on the cutting edge, they should probably open up a mobile programming division. How long before John Grisham or Dan Brown writes the first big serial blockbuster for cell phones?
Also, story in today's NY Times..
the web in the world 02.14.2005, 7:07 PM
In ten years, the world wide web has become an indispensable fact of life. Where do we take it next? At the conference's closing plenary session, Peter Lunenfeld asked a similar question: "What is the next big dream that will keep us going? Are we out of ideas?" He then offered something called "urban computing" as a possible answer.
Here is my attempt (rather long, I apologize) to jump on that dream...
I live in New York, and in the past few years I've observed a transformation. My neighborhood coffee shop looks like an advertisement for Apple. At any given time, no less than two thirds of the customers are glued to their laptops, with mugs of coffee steaming in perilous proximity. Power cords snake among the tables and plug into strips deployed around the cafe floor. Go to the counter and they'll be happy to give you a dog-eared business card bearing the password to their wireless network. Of course, people have been toting around notebook computers since they first became available in the mid-80s, and they've certainly been no stranger to coffee shops. But with the introduction of Wi-Fi people are flocking in droves. Some kind of exodus has begun.
It's a familiar sight throughout the more cosmopolitan neighborhoods of the city. Go to any Starbucks on the Upper West Side and you're competing with half a dozen other customers for a space on their too-few powerstrips. And their Wi-Fi service isn't even free. And come spring, I predict the same will occur in the city's parks, especially those downtown, which are rapidly being integrated into a massive wireless infrastructure. No single entity is responsible for this, rather a lattice of different initiatives working toward a common goal: free high speed Wi-Fi coverage across Manhattan.
Mobile web and messaging technologies have already created a new breed of roving web users. Cell phones, PDAs, text messaging, Blue Tooth, RSS, podcasting (the list goes on..) have swept into our daily life like a tidal wave. More and more, we're able to read, search, capture, edit, and send on the go, and with satellite-fed positioning technologies, we can pinpoint our location at any given time. What we have is the beginnings of a kind of "augmented reality" where information relates intimately to place, and vice versa. The world itself can now be as searchable, linkable, and informative as the web - a synthesis, or overlay, of real and virtual realities.
So the next big dream could be the evolution of the web into something more than a desktop system - into something that we can use while moving, and interact with anywhere.
Imagine an entire city redesigned as a communication platform. This has recently become a hot emerging field of research: "urban computing", or "locative media". It has also entered the choppy waters of urban planning. In his talk at the conference, New York sociologist and Silicon Alley chronicler Michael Indergaard, spoke of developers in lower Manhattan hoping to recast the hobbled financial district as a high-tech place "to work and play" - a weave of communications and public space. Given the tangle of ego, money and politics that has converged on Ground Zero, it's hard to predict how this will pan out.. (for examples of recent initiatives, Downtown Alliance, Spectropolis). Or witness the hotly debated proposal to make the entire city of Philadelphia into one giant Wi-Fi hotspot.
Ultimately, the idea is to overlay the complex of buildings, streets and public spaces - the entire fabric of urban life - with the interconnectivity of the web. The implications for culture are as enormous as they are for business. Cities have always been the most brilliant cultural dynamos. Take the simplest, most essential urban act - walking through town - and you will discover a rich attendant tradition: from the eternal stroller, the flaneur, to the urban dérive, or drift, "a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances," as expostulated by the French Situationalists of the 1960s, most notably Guy-Ernest Debord. Or take the traditions of buskering, street photography, or the countless films that employ the city as canvas (take, for example, Woody Allen, who time and again has used the geography and rhythm of Manhattan in his neurotic self-portraits). And let's not forget what is probably the greatest literary treatment of consciousness in the modern city: Joyce's Ulysses. In each case, the city is interpreted as a matrix of "psychogeographies" (to borrow again from the Situationalists) for which the amble, the stroll, the idle on the stoop, are the most effective tools of discovery (see earlier post City Chromosomes - An SMS Chronicle). The city is also the realm of chance: a kind of particle accelerator of circumstance that whips up coincidences with adrenalizing rapidity. It's not hard to see how this is similar to our movements in virtual space - surfing, browsing, chatting, searching, stumbling upon newness - and how these two ways of movement could act in concert when computers are unmoored from desks.
The beginnings of this can be found at the intersection of photography and the web. Digital cameras and camera phones have become incredibly popular. People are snapping pictures everywhere they go, then sharing them through email, image messaging, or online image banking services like Ofoto or Flickr. New technologies are in the works that will allow people to plug in photos the same way they plug in keywords on a search engine, effectively asking "what am I looking at?" or "where have I seen this before?" (see earlier post, Hyperlinking the Eye of the Beholder). Amazon's new yellow pages service allows you to see photos of the business your are looking for, and to virtually stroll, or scroll, down the block to get a sense of the surrounding environment (see earlier post, From Apsen to A9). A student project called "Grafedia" was presented recently at the Tisch ITP winter show which allows people to put "hyperlinks" in any physical environment. As described by its inventor John Geraci:
Grafedia is hyperlinked text, written by hand onto physical surfaces and linking to rich media content - images, video, sound files, and so forth. It can be written anywhere - on walls, in the streets, or in bathroom stalls. Grafedia can also be written in letters or postcards, on the body as tattoos, or anywhere you feel like putting it. Viewers "click" on these grafedia hyperlinks with their cell phones by sending a message addressed to the word + "@grafedia.net" to get the content behind the link."
I can imagine Grafedia as a fun urban diversion - a trail of crumbs, a flirtation, a new way of marking territory - or even as a kind of x-ray vision into closed spaces. A discrete little tag could alert a passerby to shady goings-on within. Though primitive, these new technologies represent the seeds for new social practices, new ways of creating and sharing meaning.
And locative media need not be restricted to cities. GPS technology presents new possibilities for tracing a meaningful path through the physical world - global hide-and-seek, or more frightening, a means of surveillance. A recreational pastime, "geocaching," has already sprung up around this technology. In the game, which resembles a kind of global scavenger hunt, participants identify "caches" on the web and track them down with their GPS device. Caches are used as a kind of exchange for anything people might like to share - books, software, recipes, jewelry, clothing, art (anything, really) - and as a stop along the trail to other caches. Clearly, the thrill of finding, of tracking, is the main attraction here.
Solitary roaming through nature could also, theoretically, be "plugged in" to the mobile web. One of the conference presenters, John Chris Jones, has for the past four years has been writing a peripatetic web journal beamed in from his Wordsworthian walks through the English countryside. I for one would find this to be a terrible intrusion into solitude, but I offer up the possibility without judgement, keeping in mind that Thoreau's "isolated" cabin on Walden Pond was less than a mile from the train tracks.
In the end, societies and cultures work through presence - through people, things, and ideas interacting in the same environment. Far from stripping individual locales of their unique qualities, the web in its infant decade has enabled people to explore and converse like never before about their particular place in the world, while simultaneously connecting every point on the map - the realization of McLuhan's "global village". The next step, it would seem, is to shed the physical restrictions of desktop computing so the village can be explored on foot.
game theory 02.11.2005, 11:49 AM
I wasn't surprised by two adverse reactions to the blog entry "The Book is Doomed"; scary news for a lot of people. Think about the jargon embedded in those pieces that deal with e-books, or the cryptic messages that pop-up on the screen when the uninitiated tries to access an actual e-book… In order to read a paper book one doesn't need to know proofreader's marks or bookbinding jargon. So, a paper book is friendly. At this point, that seems to be the approach almost anyone takes to the idea of a different kind of book. Even audio books have their detractors, those who say that listening to a book isn't the same as reading a book.
A couple of news in last week's Times made me think of issues not yet addressed by the Institute's site. One is the prevalence of videogames in the lives of children and the fact that the "future of the book" really belongs to those children. For me, finding hot and dusty Internet cafes in the oases of the Tlakamakan desert was, in a way, unexpected. Finding those places full of school-age children playing videogames was a revelation. In "Is Instructional Video Game an Oxymoron?" Matt Richtel talks about nonprofit organizations adopting the game format to advance their agenda. "For the current generation, the Net is the medium, and the message includes 'Become a Unicef World Hero,' as conveyed by a game on the unicefgames.org site. He also mentions a shooting gallery game from the American Cancer Society that "lets players flip virtual rubber bands at passing cigarettes in the Smokeout Café," or the Greenpeace site, where "players can intercept harpoons fired from a Japanese whaling ship - or, by getting three 'activists' aboard the ship, force its crew to surrender." The Bureau of Engraving and Printing lets youngsters color and design currency while learning to spot counterfeits.
"Through online games, we're teaching a whole generation to authenticate their currency," said Dawn Haley, a spokeswoman. "It was one easy way to get children involved. Gaming is huge these days."
What they are doing is updating the old didactic tradition of using games to teach, they are teaching in the digital age. That brings me to my second thought, is the future of the book the domain of brainy sophisticates or is it a democratic move? In "New Economy; At Davos, the Johnny Appleseed of the Digital Era Shares his Ambition to Propagate a $100 Laptop in Developing Countries," they mention that Nicholas Negroponte in partnership with Joseph Jacobson, a physicist at M.I.T., wants to persuade the education ministries of countries like China to use laptops to replace textbooks (see also Laptops for the Masses on this blog). At Davos, Negroponte said that he found initial backing for his laptop plan from Advanced Micro Devices and that he was in discussions with Google, Motorola, the News Corporation and Samsung for support. "You can just give laptops to kids," he said referring to an experiment in Cambodia. "In Cambodia, the first English word out of their mouths is 'Google.'" In my opinion that is/should be the future of the book.
(photograph: girls at the Elaine and Nicholas Negroponte School in Cambodia)
laptops for the masses 02.10.2005, 4:16 PM
little red book 02.09.2005, 2:41 PM
Very interesting review of McKenzie Wark's A Hacker Manifesto, recently published by Harvard University Press. In the manifesto (shorter version), Wark outlines a class struggle over "vectors" - the information channels of a society. In his words:
"With the commodification of information comes its vectoralisation. Extracting a surplus from information requires technologies capable of transporting information through space, but also through time. The archive is a vector through time just as communication is a vector that crosses space. The vectoral class comes into its own once it is in possession of powerful technologies for vectoralising information. The vectoral class may commodify information stocks, flows, or vectors themselves. A stock of information is an archive, a body of information maintained through time that has enduring value. A flow of information is the capacity to extract information of temporary value out of events and to distribute it widely and quickly. A vector is the means of achieving either the temporal distribution of a stock, or the spatial distribution of a flow of information. Vectoral power is generally sought through the ownership of all three aspects."
collecting and archiving the future book 02.08.2005, 8:02 PM
The collection and preservation of digital artworks has been a significant issue for museum curators for many years now. The digital book will likely present librarians with similar challenges, so it seems useful to look briefly at what curators have been grappling with.
At the Decade of Web Design Conference hosted by the Institute for Networked Cultures. Franziska Nori spoke about her experience as researcher and curator of digital culture for digitalcraft at the Museum for Applied Art in Frankfurt am Main. The project set out to document digital craft as a cultural trend. Digital crafts were defined as “digital objects from everyday life,” mostly websites. Collecting and preserving these ephemeral, ever-changing objects was difficult, at best. A choice had to be made between manual selection, or automatic harvesting. Nori and her associates chose manual selection. The advantage of manual selection was that critical faculties could be employed. The disadvantage was that subjective evaluations regarding an object’s relevance were not always accurate, and important work might be left out. If we begin to treat blogs, websites, and other electronic ephemera as cultural output worthy of preservation and study (i.e. as books), we will have to find solutions to similar problems.
The pace at which technology renews and outdates presents a further obstacle. There are, currently, two ways to approach durability of access to content. The first, is to collect and preserve hardware and software platforms, but this is extremely expensive and difficult to manage. The second solution, is to emulate the project in updated software. In some cases, the artist must write specs for the project, so it can be recreated at a later date. Both these solutions are clearly impractical for digital librarians who must manage hundreds of thousand of objects. One possible solution for libraries, is to encourage proliferation of objects. Open source technology might make it possible for institutions to share data/objects, thus creating “back-up” systems for fragile digital archives.
Nori ended her presentation with two observations. "Most societies create their identity through an awareness of their history." This, she argues, compells us to find ways to preserve digital communications for posterity. She notes that cultural historians, artists, and researchers "are worried about a future where these artifacts will not be accessible."
the tomorrow book 02.08.2005, 5:51 PM
"The Jan van Eyck Academie and the Charles Nypels Foundation invite designers, book critics, book theoreticians and book makers to submit project proposals in the context of the research project 'The tomorrow book. Navigating to, within and beyond the book'. 'The tomorrow book' intends to query the future of the book from a multi-disciplinary standpoint. In doing so, the following aspects will be treated: editing, typography, book design, publishing and distribution. The umbrella theme of the project is navigation towards, inside and outside of the book. Research candidates can submit project proposals for 'The tomorrow book' up to 15 April 2005."
from aspen to A9 02.07.2005, 7:04 PM
"Using trucks equipped with digital cameras, global positioning system (GPS) receivers, and proprietary software and hardware, A9.com drove tens of thousands of miles capturing images and matching them with businesses and the way they look from the street."
All in all, more than 20 million photos were captured in ten major cities across the US. Run a search in one of these zip codes and you're likely to find a picture next to some of the results. Click on the item and you're taken to a "block view" screen, allowing you to virtually stroll down the street in question (watch this video to see how it works). You're also allowed, with an Amazon login, to upload your own photos of products available at listed stores. At the moment, however, it doesn't appear that you can contribute your own streetscapes. But that may be the next step.
I can imagine online services like Mapquest getting into, or wanting to get into, this kind of image-banking. But I wouldn't expect trucks with camera mounts to become a common sight on city streets. More likely, A9 is building up a first-run image bank to demonstrate what is possible. As people catch on, it would seem only natural that they would start accepting user contributions. Cataloging every square foot of the biosphere is an impossible project, unless literally everyone plays a part (see Hyperlinking the Eye of the Beholder on this blog). They might even start paying - tiny cuts, proportional to the value of the contribution. Everyone's a stringer for A9, or Mapquest, or for their own, idiosyncratic geo-caching service.
A9's new service does have a predecessor though, and it's nearly 30 years old. In the late 70s, the Architecture Machine Group, which later morphed into the MIT Media Lab, developed some of the first prototypes of "interactive media." Among them was the Aspen Movie Map, developed in 1978-79 by Andrew Lippman - a program that allowed the user to navigate the entirety of this small Colorado city, in whatever order they chose, in winter, spring, summer or fall, and even permitting them to enter many of the buildings. The Movie Map is generally viewed as the first truly interactive computer program. Now, with the explosion of digital photography, wireless networked devices, and image-caching across social networks, we might at last be nearing its realization on a grand scale.
what's at stake 02.04.2005, 11:39 AM
High-definition TV pioneer and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban talks about what's at stake in the upcoming Supreme Court case MGM vs. Grokster in an article drawn from a recent post on his blog. Skip down to the section titled "Taking a Wrong Turn." There, Cuban describes what could be lost if entertainment industry giants are able to convince the court that peer-to-peer file sharing is first and foremost a tool for theft.
"In the MGM v. Grokster case, the fewer than 50 companies who control less than 1 percent of all digital information are trying to take control of innovation in the technology industry and pry it away from the rest of us. Everything our imagination creates and touches that can be made digital is at risk if Grokster loses.
"What innovations will be condemned by law before they have a chance to come to market, because they could have an impact on Hollywood and the music industry? We have no idea, and that is a very scary prospect."
the performing book 02.03.2005, 3:56 PM
We've been talking about reading modes, but let's imagine, for a moment, that the future book will change reading itself. Perhaps it will combine the performance aspects of television, film, animation, and theatre with the interactive aspects of the world wide web to forge a book that reads you as you read it.
Science fiction writer Neal Stephenson imagines such a book in his novel, The Diamond Age. The main character is a book—an illustrated primer that functions almost like an artificial intelligence. It bonds with its reader, notices things about her life, and uses those bits of information to create instructional narratives on the fly. These stories are performed by live "ractors" (human actors working in reactive/interactive scenarios) and broadcast on the pages of a book. The physical book is leather bound, with "smart" paper pages that support electronic text and animated images. The primer looks like an old-fashioned book, but acts (or reacts) like a book of the future. In Stephenson’s imagination, it's this element of interactivity and performance that distinguishes the future book from its predecessor.
But lest you worry that I'm basing my research on the imaginings of my favorite science fiction writer, I can assure you that the performing book is already here in its nascent incarnations. In the image of Stephenson’s primer, a company called Touchsmart is developing a book with "smart" paper that functions like a touch screen, allowing readers to find answers to their questions instantly, through a wireless connection to the internet and to other electronic devices that broadcast content.
Publisher, Peak Interactive Books, whose stated mission is to, look beyond the print book, beyond television, beyond the web page, to the interactive book of the future, is publishing interactive multimedia textbooks including: Cryosurgery for Prostate Cancer, and Using Interactive Media to Communicate.
The interactive CD Roms published by Voyager are an excellent touchstone in the history of performing books. TK3 software, which has been used to make everything from textbooks, to performing paintings, also draws on the performing book model. The institute is presently developing "Sophie," ebook authoring software that will allow most currently available media to be incorporated into an electronic book.
As for the book reading you. Ben's recent post "finally, I have a Memex!" describes how the semantic web will add a new dimension to the growing power of search engines. Their ability to collect personal information has already been incorporated into the recreational and academic reading experience. What we are waiting for is the book that builds its content out of the bits it gathers from our lives.
incredible shrinking book 02.02.2005, 6:05 PM
A couple morsels today on textually.org lending credence to our theory that cellphones/PDAs are the incubation niche for the eventual widespread adoption of ebooks. One on fashionable new casings Nokia is bringing out for mobile devices (re Kim's leather-bound fantasy ebook). Another on plans by Chinese tech giant Lenovo to embed "mobile book software technology" into phones, allowing users to read fully illustrated books, as well as watch movies, listen to audio, play video games, and browse periodicals. Mobile phones are emerging, at least in China, as the ultimate mass-consumer media processor - affordable and eminently portable. And each year, notebook computers become lighter, sleeker, and easier to tote around. Are they just shrinking into palm pilots? How much serious work can you get done on a palm pilot?
"finally, I have a Memex!" 02.01.2005, 3:40 PM
There's an essay worth reading in the ny times book review this past sunday by Steven Johnson about a powerful semantic desktop management and search tool recently released for Macs. The software (called DEVONthink) not only helps organize and briskly sift through readings, clippings, quotes, and one's own past writings, but assists in the mysterious mental processes that are at the heart of writing - associative trains, useful non sequiturs, serendipitous stumbles. In effect, we now have a tool resembling the Memex device described in the seminal 1945 essay, As We May Think by visionary engineer Vannevar Bush. Working with the cutting edge technologies of his day - microfilm, thermionic tubes, and punch, or "Hollerith," cards - Bush pondered how technology might help humanity to manage and make use of its vast systems of information. His recognition of the basic problem is no less relevant today: "Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing." Fast forward to 2005. Now, the holy grail of search is the Semantic Web - moving beyond the artificiality of crude content-based queries and bringing meaning, relevance, and associations into the mix.
"Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and to coin one at random, ``memex'' will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory." - Vannevar Bush
It's quite suggestive that DEVONthink's semantic search function can to an extent be trained, taking the obnoxious little puppy on Windows search toward its full potential - a sleek, truffle-tuned hound. When Johnson loads his body of work onto the computer, the hound picks up the distinctive scent of his writing, which in turn suggests affinities, similarities, and connections to other materials - truffles - that will find their way into later works.
Says Johnson on his latest blog post, which goes into much greater detail than the Times piece:
"I have pre-filtered the results by selecting quotes that interest me, and by archiving my own prose. The signal-to-noise ratio is so high because I've eliminated 99% of the noise on my own."
But it is significant that DEVONthink is not useful for searching entire books (the author's own manuscripts notwithstanding). Currently, the tool is ideal for locating chunks of text that fall within the "sweet spot" of 50-500 words. If your archives include entire book-length texts, then the honing power is diminished. DEVONthink is optimal as a clip searcher. File searching remains a frustrating enterprise.
Johnson makes note of this:
"So the proper unit for this kind of exploratory, semantic search is not the file, but rather something else, something I don't quite have a word for: a chunk or cluster of text, something close to those little quotes that I've assembled in DevonThink. If I have an eBook of Manual DeLanda's on my hard drive, and I search for "urban ecosystem" I don't want the software to tell me that an entire book is related to my query. I want the software to tell me that these five separate paragraphs from this book are relevant. Until the tools can break out those smaller units on their own, I'll still be assembling my research library by hand in DevonThink."
Another point (from the Times piece) worth highlighting here, which relates to our discussion of the networked book:
"If these tools do get adopted, will they affect the kinds of books and essays people write? I suspect they might, because they are not as helpful to narratives or linear arguments; they're associative tools ultimately. They don't do cause-and-effect as well as they do 'x reminds me of y.' So they're ideally suited for books organized around ideas rather than single narrative threads: more 'Lives of a Cell' and 'The Tipping Point' than 'Seabiscuit.'"
And what about other forms of information - images, video, sound etc.? These media will come to play a larger role in the writing process, given the ease of processing them in a PC/web context. Images and music trump language in their associative power (a controversial assertion, please debate it!), and present us with layers of meaning that are harder to dissect, certainly by machine. It is an inchoate hound to be sure.