what the book has to say 06.02.2006, 7:26 PM
posted by ben vershbow
About a week ago, Jeff Jarvis of Buzz Machine declared the book long past its expiration date as a useful media form. In doing so, he summed up many of the intriguing possibilities of networked books:
The problems with books are many: They are frozen in time without the means of being updated and corrected. They have no link to related knowledge, debates, and sources. They create, at best, a one-way relationship with a reader. They try to teach readers but don't teach authors. They tend to be too damned long because they have to be long enough to be books.
I'm going to tell him to have a look at GAM3R 7H30RY.
Since the site launched, discussion here at the Institute keeps gravitating back to the shifting role of the author. Integrating the text with the discussion as we've done, we've orchestrated a new relationship between author and reader, merging their activities within a single organ (like the systole-diastole action of a heart). Both activities are altered. The text, previously undisturbed except by the author's hand, is suddenly clamorous with other voices. McKenzie finds himself thrust into the role of moderator, collaborating with the reader on the development of the book. The reader, in turn, is no longer a solitary explorer but a potential partner in a dialogue, with the author or with fellow readers.
Roger Sperberg elaborated upon this in a wonderful post about GAM3R 7H30RY on Teleread:
A serious text, published in a format designed to elicit comments by readers -- this is new territory, since every subsequent reader has access to the initial text and to comments, improvements, criticisms, tangents and so on contributed by the body of readers-who-came-before, all incorporated into the, um, corpus.
This is definitely not the same as "I wrote it, they published it, individuals read and reviewed it, readers purchased it and shared their comments (some of them) with others in readers' circles." Even a few days after publication, there are plenty of contributions and perhaps those of Ray Cha, Dave Parry and Ben Vershbow are inseparable now from the initial comments of author McKenzie Wark, since I read them not after the fact but co-terminously (word? not "simultaneously" but "at the same time"). My own perception of the author's ideas is shaped by the collaborating readers' ideas even before it has solidified. What the author has to say has broadened almost immediately into what the book has to say.
Right around the same time, Sol Gaitan arrived independently at basically the same conclusion:
This brings me to pay attention to both, contents and process, which I find fascinating. If I choose to take part, my reading ceases to be a solitary act. This reminds me of the old custom of reading aloud in groups, when books were still a luxury. That kind of reading allowed for pauses, reflection and exchange. The difference now is that the exchange affects the book, but it's not the author who chooses with whom he shares his manuscript, the manuscript does.
McKenzie (the author) then replied:
Not only is reading not here a solitary act, but nor is it conducted in isolation from the writer. It's still an asymmetrical process. Someone asked me in email why it wasn't a wiki. The answer to which is that this author isn't that ready to play that dead.
Eventually, if selections from the comments are integrated in a subsequent version -- either directly in the text or in some sort of appending critical section -- Ken could find himself performing the role of editor, or curator. A curator of discussion...
Or perhaps that will be our job, the Institute. The shifting role of the editor/publisher.
Gary Frost on June 5, 2006 10:25 PM:
What kind of sense does it make to evolve the network book simply by amputating the functionality of the old book? Has it ever occurred to authoring software developers that there may have been times in the past when authors and readers interacted? Everything is born digital, its just that some books grow up to be paper.
ben vershbow on June 6, 2006 12:12 AM:
Of course authors and readers have always interacted, only here the interaction is foregrounded, and becomes an integral part of the document. Not only that, the fact that the text is is a work in progress invites the reader into a different kind of conversation; there is the possibility of influencing revisions, being an active part of an intellectual history.
Actually, GAM3R 7H30RY is one of those born digital books that will grow up to be paper. But it will be different for having gone on this journey.
bowerbird on June 6, 2006 7:28 AM:
jarvis, like many other people,
has pulled a semantic trick on us,
confusing the conceptual ideal of
"the book" with its physical version.
if you change "book" to "paper-book"
in everything jarvis says, it will
make a whole lot more sense...
of course, it will also then become
nothing we haven't heard before. heck,
it's nothing we haven't _said_ before...
and if you then realize that e-books are
the solution to the problems jarvis notes --
a simple solution, so the flaws are not fatal
-- and will thus allow "the book" to become
a full-fledged citizen of cyberspace, you'll
know he _really_ hasn't said anything new...
jarvis is really smart when it comes to moving
_newspapers_ into cyberspace -- a true leader --
but in the arena of books, he's just a follower.
ironically, it will probably be _newspapers_
where the change will be seismic, since they
are more fast-breaking, more amenable to the
influence of the community, and usually much
more grounded in objectivity (or thought to be),
since their purpose is to "tell what happened".
it is this last part -- molding the writing of
"history" on a day-to-day basis -- where the
ruling elite has much at stake in the outcome,
and will resist any lessening of their power.
so jarvis should probably stick to his expertise.
McKenzie Wark on June 8, 2006 9:58 PM:
The problems with the Jeff Jarvis text are many. Mainly, it has no relation to the reality of how books are actually written, edited and published. They are updated if they warrant it. They are linked to other sources. And authors already have lots of interactions with readers. There are new editions, there are footnotes, there are author tours. And of course books circulate pre-publication to lots of readers whose feedback is incorporated into the text.
So the question is not how to overthrow this terrible thing called the book and replace it with something that is the opposite of it. It's really more a question of how new technologies might do what the book already does, and does it better.
Along the way, we might invent some new textual forms and relations, not to mention new economies. But these will grow organically out of experiments among readers, writers and pubishers.