the library project: a networked art experiment 10.31.2006, 11:36 AM
As he recently reflected upon here, Alex Itin has long been working at the border zones of art forms, moving in recent years to the strange intersection of paint and pixels. His blog is one of the most wildly inventive uses of that form, combining blazing low-res images of his paintings with text, photographs, short films, animated GIFs and audio mashups. All of this is done within the constraints of the blog's scroll-like form -- a constraint which Alex embraces, even relishes. I sometimes imagine the scroll endlessly emitting from Alex's head like tape from a cash register, a continuous record of his transactions with the world.
ITIN place has been on the web for nearly two years now. In his second year, Alex began to explore new avenues out of the blog, establishing a presence on social media sites like Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo (a classier YouTube) and MySpace. Through these networked rovings, Alex has found a larger audience for his work, attracting new "readers" back to the blog where the various transmitted videos and images are reassembled in the scroll. He's also established relationships with a number of other artists making interesting use of the web, particularly on Flickr and Vimeo. Recently, Alex invited a number of folks from the Flickr community to participate in a collaborative art project -- a kind of exquisite corpse game via post. Here's Alex:
The idea is that one artist takes a hardcover from a book, tears out the pages and draws in one half (or half draws in both halves) of the binder/diptyque. In a nod to Ray Johnson, the two books are mailed (swapped) and Each of these will be finished by the other. The results are posted in a Flicker group called (what else) The Library Project. From this group, hopefully a show will be curated for New York, or Paris, or Basel, or Berlin, or wherever anyone wants to show this project. It should be deliciously portable... get working...get collaborating...get reading!
As of this writing, the Library has racked up 278 members and has 205 images in its pool. A few of these are collaborations that have already made their trek across land, sea and air, others are purely digital combinations, while still others are simply book-inspired works submitted in the spirit of the project.
Alex has been documenting the process on his blog, weaving in some of the images. Styles combine, narratives emerge. In one video (excerpted here) he films himself receiving his first half-completed book from a Canadian artist known as driftwould. He unpacks the drawings and lets out a "wow," than a sort of humbled sigh. It's a nice moment of return to the physical world after several years of probing the digital ether.
And here's how that turned out:
Stay tuned for more -- the project has only just begun. Plus, we've begun designing a fantastic new interface for Alex's blog archives, which we'll talk more about soon.
a book by any other name 10.30.2006, 7:38 AM
Predicting the future is a fool's errand, but it comforts me to look back on the past and see that some questions are important enough to revisit in each new age. In the 1996 collection The Future of the Book, edited by Geoffrey Nunberg, there are several essays that treat the same questions that we are concerned with now: how will reading change in the digital environment? What will be the form of digital texts? What role for the author? The reader?
Dan's recent post provoked a range of commentary that clearly illustrates the ongoing status of the debate. Despite the fact that these questions were raised, and treated, more than a decade ago—and certainly even further back, in texts I am unaware of (please make recommendations)—their answers are still unknown, which makes their relevance undiminished. The discussion is necessary, as Gary Frost pointed out, because "we do not have a vernacular beyond synthetics such as blog or Wiki or live journal or listserv." We haven't developed a canonical term for this idea of a digital text that includes multimedia, that accretes other text and multimedia from the activity of the network. When you are working at the edges of technology, inventing new terms of art to try and explain and market your concept, the jargon production is fever pitched. But we just haven't been exploring this question long enough to see what odd word will stick that can serve to separate the idea of a physical book, in all its permutations, from the notion of a networked book, in its unexplored mystery. It's a fundamental direction of our research at the Institute, and the contributions from our community of readers continues to be instructive.
electronic literature collection - vol. 1 10.27.2006, 12:52 PM
Seven years ago, the Electronic Literature Organization was founded "to promote and facilitate the writing, publishing, and reading of electronic literature." Yesterday marked a major milestone in the pursuit of the "reading" portion of this mission as ELO released the first volume of the Electronic Literature Collection, a wide-ranging anthology of 60 digital literary texts in a variety of styles and formats, from hypertext to Flash poetry. Now, for the first time, all are made easily accessible over the web or on a free CD-ROM, both published under a Creative Commons license.
The contents -- selected by N. Katherine Hayles, Nick Montfort, Scott Rettberg and Stephanie Strickland -- range from 1994 to the present, but are stacked pretty heavily on this side of Y2K. Perhaps this is due to the difficulty of converting older formats to the web, or rights difficulties with electronic publishers like Eastgate. Regardless, this is a valuable contribution and ELO is to be commended for making such a conscious effort to reach out to educators (they'll send a free CD to anyone who wants to teach this stuff in a class). Hopefully volume two will delve deeper into the early days of hypertext.
This outreach effort in some ways implicitly acknowledges that this sort of literature never really found a wider audience, (unless you consider video games to be the new literature, in which case you might have a bone to pick with this anthology). Arguments have raged over why this is so, looking variously to the perishability of formats in a culture of constant system upgrades to more conceptual concerns about non-linear narrative. But whether e-literature fan or skeptic, this new collection should be welcomed as a gift. Bringing these texts back into the light will hopefully help to ground conversations about electronic reading and writing, and may inspire new phases of experimentation.
reading buildings 10.26.2006, 7:10 AM
On Monday, Adriene Jenik, who is Associate Professor of Computer & Media Arts at UC San Diego, stopped by for what turned into an interesting discussion on the future of libraries. Adriene is a telecommunications media artist who has experimented extensively in virtual performance with projects like Desktop Theater and SPECFLIC, an ongoing "speculative distributed cinema project."
More recently, she wrote and produced SPECFLIC 2.0, which explores the intersection of digital media, books, and reading. With the help of a large network of collaborating artists, Jenik transformed the Martin Luther King Library in San Jose into a one night only vision of the future called the InfoSphere, where a computerized reference librarian called The Infospherian provides an interface to all the bits of information what anyone might need, and is in charge of issuing and enforcing reading licenses to the public.
Before the group got to discussing how libraries where changing, Adriene and I first discussed how neighborhoods and cities develop; the way growth is encouraged and discouraged in certain areas, and of those who benefit from seeing either scenario play out.
As in the discussion we had about neighborhoods, I am ambivalent towards the way libraries are changing. People use search engines to find information quickly and are less frequently doing research in libraries. In fact, even in libraries computer labs tend to be the most populous rooms. The act of looking through physical books lends itself well to serendipitous discoveries, and while I agree that many of these kinds of experiences may be lost, it's hard to really know for sure what is gained and what is lost when you're in the midst of change.
For better or worse, as a tool, the library, as we know it today, appears to have lived out it's life. In the future, the idea of a library as a museum, as opposed to an active location like a park makes a lot more sense to me. Something will be lost with the transition, that is for sure, and as much of it as possible should be preserved, but it's hard to see today's library being able to compete with the technologies of the future in the same way.
What I find bizarre about all this is that when you walk into a Barnes & Noble all the seats are taken, so it seems that "reading buildings" of some sort have some demand. Maybe it's the social setting or maybe it's the Starbucks. Actually, that could be the future of the library: a big empty building that people bring their electronic books to so that they can read and drink their coffee in a social setting... quietly.
"No analog book allowed inside library. Please digitize your analog book at the door."
what we talk about when we talk about books 10.25.2006, 1:14 AM
I spent the past weekend at the Fourth International Conference on the Book, hosted by Emerson College in Boston this year. I was there for a conversation with Sven Birkerts (author of The Gutenberg Elegies) which happened to kick off the conference. The two of us had been invited to discuss the future of the book, which is a great deal to talk about in an hour. While Sven was cast as the old curmudgeon and I was the Young Turk, I'm not sure that our positions are that dissimilar. We both value books highly, though I think my definition of book is a good deal broader than his. Instead of a single future of the book, I suggested that we need to be talking about futures of the book.
This conciliatory note inadvertently described the conference as a whole, the schedule of which can be inspected here. The subjects discussed wandered all over the place, from people trying to carry out studies on how well students learned with an ebook device to a frankly reactionary presentation of book art. Bob Young of Lulu proclaimed the value of print on demand for authors; Jason Epstein proclaimed the value of print on demand for publishers. Publishers wondered whether the recent rash of falsified memoirs would hurt sales. Educators talked about the need for DRM to encrypt online texts. There was a talk on using animals to deliver books which I'm very sorry that I missed. A Derridean examination of the paratexts of Don Quixote suggested out that for Cervantes, the idea of publishing a book – as opposed to writing one – suggested death, perhaps what I'd been trying to argue last week.
Everyone involved was dealing with books in some way or another; a spectrum could be drawn from those who were talking about the physical form of the book and those who were talking about content of the book entirely removed from the physical. These are two wildly different things, which made this a disorienting conference. The cumulative effect was something like if you decided to convene a conference on people and had a session with theologians arguing about the soul in one room while in another room a bunch of body builders tried to decide who was the most attractive. Similarly, everyone at the Conference on the Book had something to do with books; however, many people weren't speaking the same language.
This isn't necessarily their fault. One of the most apt presentations was by Catherine Zekri of the Université de Montréal, who attempted to decipher exactly what a "book" was from usage. She noted the confusion between the object of the book and its contents, and pointed out that this confusion carried over into the electronic realm, where "ebook" can either mean a device (like the Sony Reader) or the text that's being read on the device. A thirty-minute session wasn't nearly long enough to suss out the differences being talked about, and I'll be interested to read her paper when it's finally published.
As an experiment paralleling Zekri's, here are three objects:
There are certain similarities all of these objects share: they're all made of paper and have a cover and pages. Some similarities are only shared by some of the objects: what's the best way of grouping these? Three relationships seem possible. Objects 1 & 2 were bought containing text; object 3 was blank when bought, though I've written in it since. Objects 2 & 3 are bound by staples; object 1 is bound by glue. Objects 1 & 3 were written by a single person (Maurice Blanchot in the case of 1, myself in the case of 3); object 2 was written by a number people.
If we were to classify these objects, how would we do it? Linguistically, the decision has already been made: object 1 is a book, object 2 is a magazine, and object 3 is a notebook, which is, the Oxford English Dictionary says, "a small book with blank or ruled pages for writing notes in". By the words we use to describe them, objects 1 & 3 are books. A magazine isn't a book: it's "a periodical publication containing articles by various writers" (the OED again). This is something seems intuitive: a magazine isn't a book. It's a magazine.
But why isn't a magazine a book, especially if a notebook is a book? If you look again at the relationships I suggested between the three objects above, the shared attributes of the book and the magazine seem more logical and important than the attributes shared between the book and the notebook. Why don't we think of a magazine as a book? To use the language of evolutionary biology, the word "book" seems to be a polyphyletic taxon, a group of descendants from a common ancestor that excludes other descendants from the same ancestor.
One answer might be that a single issue of a magazine isn't complete; rather, it is part of a sequence in time, a sequence which can be called a magazine just as easily as a single issue can. I can say that I've read a book, which presumably means that I've read and understood every word in it. I can say the same thing about a particular issue of The Atlantic ("I read that magazine."). I can't say the same thing about the entire run of The Atlantic, which started long before I was born and continues today. A complete edition of The Atlantic might be closer to a library than a book. Or maybe the problem is time: the date on the cover foregrounds a magazine's existence in time in a way that a book's existence in time isn't something we usually think about.
To expand this: I looked up these definitions in the online OED, where the dictionary exists as a database that can be queried. Is this a book? I have a single-volume OED at home with much the same content, though the online version has changed since the print edition: it points out that since 1983, the word "notebook" can also mean a portable computer. My copy of the OED at home is clearly a book; is the online edition, with its evolving content, also a book? (A stylistic question: we italicize the title of a book when we use it in text – do we italicize the title of a database?)
We've been calling things like Wikipedia, which goes even further than the online OED in terms of its mutability over time, a "networked book". But even with much simpler online projects, issues arise: take Gamer Theory, for example. If much the content of what appears on the Gamer Theory website appears in Harvard University Press's version of the book, most people would agree that the online version is a book, or a draft of one. But what are the boundaries of this kind of book? Are the comments in the website part of the book? Is the forum part of the book? Are the spam comments that we deleted from the forum part of the book? This also has something to do with Bob's post on Monday, where he wondered how sharply defined the authorial voice of a book needs to be to make it worthwhile as a book.
What we have here is a language problem: the forms that we can create are evolving faster than our language – and possibly our understanding – can keep up with them.
pendulums, spirals, edges and mush 10.23.2006, 7:15 AM
In friday's Christian Science Monitor article about networked books, Geoff Nunberg who along with Umberto Eco convened the seminal conference on The Future of the Book, suggested that collaboration has its limits.
Some thinkers argue that while collaboration may work for an online encyclopedia, it's anathema to original works of art or scholarship, both of which require a point of view and an authorial voice.
"Novels, biography, criticism, political philosophy ... the books that we care about, those books are going to be in print for a very long time," says Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley. "The reason they aren't more jointly offered isn't that we haven't had technology to do it, it's that books represent a singular point of view."
Take three biographies of Noah Webster and you'll have three distinct lenses on the man's life, but an amalgam of the three would say virtually nothing, Mr. Nunberg argues.
"When people are using collaborative tools, they will naturally collaborate to a more neutral, less personal point of view," he adds. That homogenization kills originality and dulls a work. "The thing you can say about Wikipedia's articles is that they're always boring."
For awhile now, I've been saying that the value of the wikipedia article is not in the last edit, but in the history; that the back and forth between individual voices theoretically brings the points of disagreement, which must by definition be the important stuff, into sharp relief. So, if one could find a way to publish a meta biography of Webster which allowed the individual voices to have an honest conversation the result, far from being mush might provide a triangulated synthesis much closer to the truth than any single voice.
Curious, I looked up the wikipedia article on Noah Webster and went directly to it's history. What struck me right away is that it hard to "read" the history. in part, this is because the interface isn't very clear, but there's a deeper reason, which no doubt contributes to the failure of the design, which is that we just don't know yet how to conduct a debate within the context of an expository text. [flashing lights and pealing of alarm bells -- great subject for a symposium and/or design competition].
On Friday I was discussing this with John Seely Brown who suggested that one of the values of print over online publication is that you get closure and that without closure you do end up with mush. He said we need edges.
Back in the late 80's i remember making a particularly impassioned critique of Bob Abel's Columbus Project, which compiled a pastiche of hundreds of film clips and images which taken together were supposed to say something about Columbus' role in history. I decried the absence of a clear authorial voice, saying that readers needed something solid to come up against, otherwise how could they form an opinion or learn anything.
So i found myself thinking that the pendulum (at least mine) has swung decisively in the other direction as we work to blur some of the distinctions beween authors and reader and to imagine the "never-ending" book. I'm not suggesting that it's time for the pendulum to swing back -- god knows, we've just started exploring the possiblilities of the networked book -- but maybe it's time to begin considering seriously how we're going to design networked books so that there is something solid for readers to react to. If we can do a good job of this, then it won't be a pendulum swing back to the authority of the single author but rather a ramp up the sprial to a new synthesis.
cs monitor on online books and collaborative writing 10.20.2006, 10:24 AM
In which GAM3R 7H3ORY is discussed at length with some really smart comments by our own Jesse Wilbur. Also covered: Google's new Docs & Spreadsheets online office suite, Wikipedia, and Larry Sanger's Wikipedia offshoot, Citizendium.
lapham's quarterly, or "history rhymes"* 10.19.2006, 9:03 AM
Lewis Lapham, journalist, public intellectual and editor emeritus of Harper's Magazine, is working on a new journal that critically filters current events through the lens of history. It's called Lapham's Quarterly, and here's how the idea works: take a current event, like the Israeli conflict in Lebanon, and a current topic, like the use of civilian homes to store weapons, and put them up against historical documents, like the letter between General Sherman and General Hood debating the placement of the city's population before the Battle of Atlanta. Through the juxtaposition, a continuous line between our forgotten past and our incomprehensible now. The journal is constituted of a section "in the present tense", a collection of relevant historical excerpts, and closing section that returns to the present. Contributing writers are asked to write not about what they think, but what they know. It's a small way to counteract the spin of our relentlessly opinionated media culture.
We've been asked to develop an online companion to the journal, which leverages the particular values of the network: participation, collaboration, and filtering. The site will feed suggestions into the print journal and serve as a gathering point for the interested community. There is an obvious tension between tight editorial focus required for print and the multi-threaded pursuits of the online community, a difference that will be obvious between the publication and the networked community. The print journal will have a high quality finish that engenders reverence and appreciation. The website will have a currency that is constantly refreshed, as topics accrete new submissions. Ultimately, the cacophony of the masses may not suit the stateliness of print, but integrating public participation into the editorial process will effect the journal. What effect? Not sure, but it's worth the exploration. A recent conversation with the editorial team again finds them as excited about as we are.
finishing things 10.17.2006, 11:24 AM
One of the most interesting things about the emerging online forms of discourse is how they manage to tear open all our old assumptions. Even if new media hasn't yet managed to definitively change the rules, it has put them into contention. Here's one, presented as a rhetorical question: why do we bother to finish things?
The importance of process is something that's come up again and again over the past two years at the Institute. Process, that is, rather than the finished work. Can Wikipedia ever be finished? Can a blog be finished? They could, of course, but that's not interesting: what's fascinating about a blog is its emulation of conversation, it's back-and-forth nature. Even the unit of conversation – a post on a blog, say – may never really be finished: the author can go back and change it, so that the post you viewed at six o'clock is not the post you viewed at four o'clock. This is deeply frustrating to new readers of blogs; but in time, it becomes normal.
* * * * *
But before talking about new media, let's look at old media. How important is finishing things historically? If we look, there's a whole tradition of things refusing to be finished. We can go back to Tristram Shandy, of course, at the very start of the English novel: while Samuel Richardson started everything off by rigorously trapping plots in fixed arcs made of letters, Laurence Sterne's novel, ostensibly the autobiography of the narrator, gets sidetracked in cock and bull stories and disasters with windows, failing to trace his life past his first year. A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, Sterne's other major work of fiction, takes the tendency even further: the narrative has barely made it into France, to say nothing of Italy, before it collapses in the middle of a sentence at a particularly ticklish point.
There's something unspoken here: in Sterne's refusal to finish his novels in any conventional way is a refusal to confront the mortality implicit in plot. An autobiography can never be finished; a biography must end with its subject's death. If Tristram never grows up, he can never die: we can imagine Sterne's Parson Yorrick forever on the point of grabbing the fille de chambre's ———.
Henry James on the problem in a famous passage from The Art of the Novel:
Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so. He is in the perpetual predicament that the continuity of things is the whole matter, for him, of comedy or tragedy; that this continuity is never, by the space of an instant or an inch, broken, or that, to do anything at all, he has at once intensely to consult and intensely to ignore it. All of which will perhaps pass but for a supersubtle way of pointing the plain moral that a young embroiderer of the canvas of life soon began to work in terror, fairly, of the vast expanse of that surface.
But James himself refused to let his novels – masterpieces of plot, it doesn't need to be said – be finished. In 1906, a decade before his death, James started work on his New York Edition, a uniform selection of his work for posterity. James couldn't resist the urge to re-edit his work from the way it was originally published; thus, there are two different editions of many of his novels, and readers and scholars continue to argue about the merits of the two, just as cinephiles argue about the merits of the regular release and the director's cut.
This isn't an uncommon issue in literature. One notices in the later volumes of Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu that there are more and more loose ends, details that aren't quite right. While Proust lived to finish his novel, he hadn't finished correcting the last volumes before his death. Nor is death necessarily always the agent of the unfinished: consider Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. David M. Levy, in Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age, points out the problems with trying to assemble a definitive online version of Whitman's collection of poetry: there were a number of differing editions of Whitman's collection of poems even during his life, a problem compounded after his death. The Whitman Archive, created after Levy wrote his book, can help to sort out the mess, but it can't quite work at the root of the problem: we say we know Leaves of Grass, but there's not so much a single book by that title as a small library.
The great unfinished novel of the twentieth century is Robert Musil's The Man without Qualities, an Austrian novel that might have rivaled Joyce and Proust had it not come crashing to a halt when Musil, in exile in Switzerland in 1942, died from too much weightlifting. It's a lovely book, one that deserves more readers than it gets; probably most are scared off by its unfinished state. Musil's novel takes place in Vienna in the early 1910s: he sets his characters tracing out intrigues over a thousand finished pages. Another eight hundred pages of notes suggest possible futures before the historical inevitability of World War I must bring their way of life to an utter and complete close. What's interesting about Musil's notes are that they reveal that he hadn't figured out how to end his novel: most of the sequences he follows for hundreds of pages are mutually exclusive. There's no real clue how it could be ended: perhaps Musil knew that he would die before he could finish his work.
* * * * *
The visual arts in the twentieth century present another way of looking at the problem of finishing things. Most people know that Marcel Duchamp gave up art for chess; not everyone realizes that when he was giving up art, he was giving up working on one specific piece, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Duchamp actually made two things by this name: the first was a large painting on glass which stands today in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Duchamp gave up working on the glass in 1923, though he kept working on the second Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, a "book" published in 1934: a green box that contained facsimiles of his working notes for his large glass.
Duchamp, despite his protestations to the contrary, hadn't actually given up art. The notes in the Green Box are, in the end, much more interesting – both to Duchamp and art historians – than the Large Glass itself, which he eventually declared "definitively unfinished". Among a great many other things, Duchamp's readymades are conceived in the notes. Duchamp's notes, which he would continue to publish until his death in 1968, function as an embodiment of the idea that the process of thinking something through can be more worthwhile than the finished product. His notes are why Duchamp is important; his notes kickstarted most of the significant artistic movements of the second half of the twentieth century.
Duchamp's ideas found fruit in the Fluxus movement in New York from the early 1960s. There's not a lot of Fluxus work in museums: a good deal of Fluxus resisted the idea of art as commodity in preference to the idea of art as process or experience. Yoko Ono's Cut Piece is perhaps the most well known Fluxus work and perhaps exemplary: a performer sits still while the audience is invited to cut pieces of cloth from her (or his) clothes. While there was an emphasis on music and performance – a number of the members studied composition with John Cage – Fluxus cut across media: there were Fluxus films, boxes, and dinners. (There's currently a Fluxus podcast, which contains just about everything.) Along the way, they also managed to set the stage for the gentrification of SoHo.
There was a particularly rigorous Fluxus publishing program; Dick Higgins helmed the Something Else Press, which published seminal volumes of concrete poetry and artists' books, while George Maciunas, the leader of Fluxus inasmuch as it had one, worked as a graphic designer, cranking out manifestos, charts of art movements, newsletters, and ideas for future projects. Particularly ideas for future projects: John Hendricks's Fluxus Codex, an attempt to catalogue the work of the movement, lists far more proposed projects than completed ones. Owen Smith, in Fluxus: The History of an Attitude, describes a particularly interesting idea, an unending book:
This concept developed out of Maciunas' discussions with George Brecht and what Maciunas refers to in several letters as a "Soviet Encyclopedia." Sometime in the fall of 1962, Brecht wrote to Maciunas about the general plans for the "complete works" series and about his own ideas for projects. In this letter Brecht mentions that he was "interested in assembling an 'endless' book, which consists mainly of a set of cards which are added to from time to time . . . [and] has extensions outside itself so that its beginning and end are indeterminate." Although the date on this letter is not certain, it was sent after Newsletter No. 4 and prior to the middle of December when Maciunas responded to it.} This idea for a expandable box is later mentioned by Maciunas as being related to "that of Soviet encyclopedia – which means not a static box or encyclopedia but a constantly renewable – dynamic box."
Maciunas and Brecht never got around to making their Soviet encyclopedia, but it's an idea that might resonate more now than in did in 1962. What they were imagining is something that's strikingly akin to a blog. Blogs do start somewhere, but most readers of blogs don't start from the beginning: they plunge it at random and keep reading as the blog grows and grows.
* * * * *
One Fluxus-related project that did see publication was An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, a book credited to Daniel Spoerri, a Romanian-born artist who might be best explained as a European Robert Rauschenberg if Rauschenberg were more interested in food than paint. The basis of the book is admirably simple: Spoerri decided to make a list of everything that was on his rather messy kitchen table one morning in 1961. He made a map of all the objects on his not-quite rectangular table, numbered them, and, with the help of his friend Robert Filliou, set about describing (or "anecdoting") them. From this simple procedure springs the magic of the book: while most of the objects are extremely mundane (burnt matches, wine stoppers, an egg cup), telling how even the most simple object came to be on the table requires bringing in most of Spoerri's friends & much of his life.
Having finished this first version of the book (in French), Spoerri's friend Emmett Williams translated into English. Williams is more intrusive than most translators: even before he began his translation, he appeared in a lot of the stories told. As is the case with any story, Williams had his own, slightly different version of many of the events described, and in his translation Williams added these notes, clarifying and otherwise, to Spoerri's text. A fourth friend, Dieter Roth, translated the book into German, kept Williams's notes and added his own, some as footnotes of footnotes, generally not very clarifying, but full of somewhat related stories and wordplay. Spoerri's book was becoming their book as well. Somewhere along the line, Spoerri added his own notes. As subsequent editions have been printed, more and more notes accrete; in the English version of 1995, some of them are now eight levels deep. A German translation has been made since then, and a new French edition is in the works, which will be the twelfth edition of the book. The text has grown bigger and bigger like a snowball rolling downhill. In addition to footnotes, the book has also gained several introductions, sketches of the objects by Roland Topor, a few explanatory appendices, and an annotated index of the hundreds of people mentioned in the book.
Part of the genius of Spoerri's book is that it's so simple. Anyone could do it: most of us have tables, and a good number of those tables are messy enough that we could anecdote them, and most of us have friends that we could cajole into anecdoting our anecdotes. The book is essentially making something out of nothing: Spoerri self-deprecatingly refers to the book as a sort of "human garbage can", collecting histories that would be discarded. But the value of of the Topography isn't rooted in the objects themselves, it's in the relations they engender: between people and objects, between objects and memory, between people and other people, and between people and themselves across time. In Emmett Williams's notes on Spoerri's eggshells, we see not just eggshells but the relationship between the two friends. A network of relationships is created through commenting.
George LeGrady seized on the hypertextual nature of the book and produced, in 1993, his own Anecdoted Archive of the Cold War. (He also reproduced a tiny piece of the book online, which gives something of a feel for its structure.) But what's most interesting to me isn't how this book is internally hypertextual: plenty of printed books are hypertextual if you look at them through the right lens. What's interesting is how its internal structure is mirrored by the external structure of its history as a book, differing editions across time and language. The notes are helpfully dated; this matters when you, the reader, approach the text with thirty-odd years of notes to sort through, notes which can't help being a very slow, public conversation. There's more than a hint of Wikipedia in the process that underlies the book, which seems to form a private encyclopedia of the lives of the authors.
And what's ultimately interesting about the Topography is that it's unfinished. My particular copy will remain an autobiography rather than a biography, trapped in a particular moment in time: though it registers the death of Robert Filliou, those of Dieter Roth and Roland Topor haven't yet happened. Publishing has frozen the text, creating something that's temporarily finished.
* * * * *
We're moving towards an era in which publishing – the inevitable finishing stroke in most of the examples above – might not be quite so inevitable. Publishing might be more of an ongoing process than an event: projects like the Topography, which exists as a succession of differing editions, might become the norm. When you're publishing a book online, like we did with Gamer Theory, the boundaries of publishing become porous: there's nothing to stop you from making changes for as long as you can.
microsoft steps up book digitization 10.17.2006, 11:20 AM
Back in June, Microsoft struck deals with the University of California and the University of Toronto to scan titles from their nearly 50 million (combined) books into its Windows Live Book Search service. Today, the Guardian reports that they've forged a new alliance with Cornell and are going to step up their scanning efforts toward a launch of the search portal sometime toward the beginning of next year. Microsoft will focus on public domain works, but is also courting publishers to submit in-copyright books.
Making these books searchable online is a great thing, but I'm worried by the implications of big coprorations building proprietary databases of public domain works. At the very least, we'll need some sort of federated book search engine that can leap the walls of these competing services, matching text queries to texts in Google, Microsoft and the Open Content Alliance (which to my understanding is mostly Microsoft anyway).
But more important, we should get to work with OCR scanners and start extracting the texts to build our own databases. Even when they make the files available, as Google is starting to do, they're giving them to us not as fully functioning digital texts (searchable, remixable), but as strings of snapshots of the scanned pages. That's because they're trying to keep control of the cultural DNA scanned from these books -- that's the value added to their search service.
But the public domain ought to be a public trust, a cultural infrastructure that is free to all. In the absence of some competing not-for-profit effort, we should at least start thinking about how we as stakeholders can demand better access to these public domain works. Microsoft and Google are free to scan them, and it's good that someone has finally kickstarted a serious digitization campaign. It's our job to hold them accountable, and to make sure that the public domain doesn't get redefined as the semi-public domain.
plato's cave 10.16.2006, 12:52 AM
Ben's post last week on the darker side of flash shone like a light bulb. I'd spent the morning manipulating a scanned image of Ditr Roth, by taking this video clip from Vimeo and downloading the source quicktime (which Vimeo allows you to do) importing that into i-movie and exporting thirteen still images as jpegs to sequence into an animated gif. Then I started pulling wav. files off cds and layering tracks and looping them and turning them into mpegs. In other words, it was a day like any other, but when I read Social Powerpoint, I considered how many little media format borders I'd just crossed and how many times I cross those borders on any given day in any given post and how much I take that freedom for granted. So, is flash like that damn wall they keep threatening to build in Texas, or built once in Germany and before that in China (and as a bird, or a bowerbird knows....walls never really work if you can fly over them, or go around)?
I don't know enough about flash coding, but I worry that these walls are all already there in the very way that people read different media. In the way that their eyeballs see them and their earballs hear them. A photograph and a drawing will both appear on a digital page as jpegs, but it still seems a little tricky to get people to look at them in relation to each other. In painting, you take two paintings and put them side by side: BANG, you have a diptych. It becomes a third thing. I thought that logic would translate very easily to a still image and a moving one, or a sound and word, but It seems that people like compartments. They like to have their still photos at flickr and their video on You tube and their music on i-tunes, and their book on tape as a podcast, etc. If things appear on a digital page together, they are meant to be surrounded by a trompe l'oeil metallic players just so that there's no aesthetic miscegenation going on. It's what we're used to.
I tend to use a bunch of media sharing services for IT IN place both as a way to host media and as a way of advertising. One of the realities I've come to deal with is that many more people are going to see my work as discrete media objects on flickr and vimeo than will ever make it to the blog to read these things together in the way that I intended. People seem to get something out of the picutres and the videos as pictures and videos, etc., but I always feel they are missing half the point. I think of it as reading sentence fragments, or stanzas and never seeing the whole poem.
At this point, each media is like a different language and trying to put them all together into a single whole is a Wasteland exercise... and the wasteland is patrolled by Minutemen and snakes.
Maybe, in some ways throwing these fragments out into the digital desert is part of the poetry. Maybe the networked landscape offers the thrill of archeology for the reader, like digging up little photo, sound, and video tiles that lead the reader on to find the mosaic. Today someone left a comment on flickr:
"your pieces are like secret boxes.. when i click the link it's like lifting a lid and inside there is always something surprisingly 'other' and beautiful.."....I could tack a hundred paintings on a hundred walls and never get a such a nice sentence in return.
But then there is the voice of my mother and also the significant other saying, "So how do you make money?"
It's important to point out that for me the nexus of meaning is in mark making (wether as writing, or drawing which I think are intimately and evolutionarily (?) cave connected). My practice always revolves around drawing... All the different media I use are like a series of mirrors that multiply all the possible ways to see and understand things, but as an art animal, my primary way of knowing where I stand in the funhouse is to make a mark and so I think my practice revolves around the drawings... they are the map, if you will. While not exactly having any sort of business model, I always figured digital media would lead people to want to see and maybe own the "original" drawings and paintings. Of course, I thought of it this way, because that's just what people traditionally have done: they sell things to people who collect things. It's what we're used to.
Maybe the past few months of deciphering fluxus history (and it's anti-art leanings) has put the zap on my head, but lately I'm a bit lost in a Labyrinth of my own creation. The blog has sort of become the work of art and none of it's discrete parts (read media) are more or less important...not when I'm successful in a post. It may be Greek and Latin and French and German and English and Japanese, but it has to be read together if you want to get the jokes. I don't know... maybe I'm speaking in tongues. I have a feeling the youtube generation will be malf blahming flah wast di blamspoontoop dang glover....
* addendum: as I wrote this, three people on flickr enquired about buying work.
books in time 10.13.2006, 12:01 PM
This morning I'm giving a talk on networked books at a libraries and technology conference up at Bentley College, just outside of Boston. The program, "Social Networking: Plugging New England Libraries into Web 2.0," has been organized by NELINET, a consortium of over 600 academic, public and special libraries across the six New England states, so librarians and info services folks from all over the northeast will be in attendance.
In many ways, our publishing projects fit quite comfortably under the broad, buzz-ridden rubrique of Web 2.0: books as social spaces, "architecture of participation," "treat your users as co-developers" (or, in our experiments, readers as co-authors). I'm going to be discussing all of these things, but I'm also planning to look at books in a slightly different way: as processes, or movements, in time.
Lately, when we're explaining our work to the unitiated, Bob picks up whatever book is lying nearby (yes, we do have books), holds it up in the air and indicates with his hands the space on either side of the object: "here's all the stuff that came before the book, and here's all the stuff that came after." That's the spectrum that networked reading and writing opens up, and what the Institute are trying to do is to explore and open up new ways of thinking about all these different stages of creative flow that go into and out of books. Of our recent projects, you could say that Without Gods focuses on the "into" end of the evolutionary span while GAM3R 7H30RY deals more with the "out of." Naturally, books have always been this way, but computers and networks make all of it manifest in a very new way that's difficult to make sense of.
That's what the picture up top is getting at, in a joshing way. Bob's depiction of books in time reminded me of the famous prism image on the cover of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" where pure white light turns to rainbow as it passes through the glass. I was joking about this with Alex Itin, our artblogger in residence, and yesterday he cobbled together this excellent image (and ripped the audio), which I'm going to work into my talk somehow. Wish me luck.
(Incidentally, "Books in Time" is the name of a wonderful essay by Carla Hesse, a Berkeley historian, which has been a big influence on what we do.)
an excursion into old media 10.12.2006, 11:00 AM
Last summer on a trip to Canada I picked up a copy of Darren Wershler-Henry's The Iron Whim: a Fragmented History of Typewriting. It's a look at our relationship with one particular piece of technology through a compound eye, investigating why so many books striving to be "literary" have typewriter keys on the cover, novelists' feelings for their typewriters, and the complicated relationship between typewriter making and gunsmithing, among a great many other things. The book ends too soon, as Wershler-Henry doesn't extend his thinking about typewriters and writing into broader conclusions about how technology affects writing (for that see Hugh Kenner's The Mechanic Muse) but it's still worth tracking down.
It did start me thinking about my use of technology. Back in junior high I was taught to type on hulking IBM Selectrics, but the last time I'd used a typewriter was to type up my college application essays. (This demonstrates my age: my baby brother's interactions with typewriters have been limited to once finding the family typewriter in the basement; though he played with it, he says that he "never really produced anything of note on it," and he found my query about whether or not he'd typed his college essays so ridiculous as not to merit reply.) Had I been missing out? A little investigation revealed a thriving typewriter market on eBay; for $20 (plus shipping & handling) I bought myself a Hermes Baby Featherweight. With a new ribbon and some oiling it works well, though it's probably from the 1930s.
Next I got myself a record player. I would like to note that this acquisition didn't immediately follow my buying a typewriter: old technology isn't that slippery a slope. This was because I happened to see a record player that was cute as a button (a Numark PT-01) and cheap. It's also because much of the music I've been listening to lately doesn't get released on CD: dance music is still mostly vinyl-based, though it's made the jump to MP3s without much trouble. There wasn't much reasoning past that: after buying my record player I started buying records, almost all things I'd previously heard as MP3s. And, of course, I'd never owned a record player and I was curious what it would be like.
So what happened when I started using this technology of an older generation? The first thing you notice about using a typewriter (and I'm specifically talking about using a non-electric typewriter) is how much sense it makes. When my typewriter arrived, it was filthy. I scrubbed the gunk off the top, then unscrewed the bottom of it to get at the gunk inside it. Inside, typewriters turn out to be simple machines. A key is a lever that triggers the hammer with the key on it. The energy from my action of pressing the key makes the hammer hit the paper. There are some other mechanisms in there to move the carriage and so on, but that's basically it.
A record player's more complicated than a typewriter, but it's still something that you can understand. Technologically, a record player isn't very complicated: you need a motor that turns the record at a certain speed, a pickup, something to turn the vibrations into sound, and an amplifier. Even without amplification, the needle in the groove makes a tiny but audible noise: this guy has made a record player out of paper. If you look at the record, you can see from the grooves where the tracks begin and end; quiet passages don't look the same as loud passages. You don't get any such information from a CD: a burned CD looks different depending on how much information it has on it, but the bottom from every CD from the store looks completely identical. Without a label, you can't tell whether a disc is an audio CD, a CD-ROM, or a DVD.
There's something admirably simple about this. On my typewriter, pressing the A key always gets you the letter A. It may be an uppercase A or a lowercase a, but it's always an A. (Caveat: if it's oiled and in good working condition and you have a good ribbon. There are a lot of things that can go wrong with a typewriter.) This is blatantly obvious. It only becomes interesting when you set it against the way we type now. If I type an A key on my laptop, sometimes an A appears on my screen. If my computer's set to use Arabic or Persian input, typing an A might get me the Arabic letter ش. But if I'm not in a text field, typing an A won't get me anything. Typing A in the Apple Finder, for example, selects a file starting with that letter. Typing an A in a web browser usually doesn't do anything at all. On a computer, the function of the A key is context-specific.
What my excursion into old technology makes me notice is how comparatively opaque our current technology is. It's not hard to figure out how a typewriter works: were a monkey to decide that she wanted to write Hamlet, she could figure out how to use a typewriter without any problem. (Though I'm sure it exists, I couldn't dig up any footage on YouTube of a monkey using a record player. This cat operating a record player bodes well for them, though.) It would be much more difficult, if not impossible, for even a monkey and a cat working together to figure out how to use a laptop to do the same thing.
Obviously, designing technologies for monkeys is a foolish idea. Computers are useful because they're abstract. I can do things with it that the makers of my Hermes Baby Featherweight couldn't begin to imagine in 1936 (although I am quite certain than my MacBook Pro won't be functional in seventy years). It does give me pause, however, to realize that I have no real idea at all what's happening between when I press the A key and when an A appears on my screen. In a certain sense, the workings of my computer are closed to me.
Let me add some nuance to a previous statement: not only are computers abstract, they have layers of abstraction in them. Somewhere deep inside my computer there is Unix, then on top of that there's my operating system, then on top of that there's Microsoft Word, and then there's the paper I'm trying to write. (It's more complicated than this, I know, but allow me this simplification for argument's sake.) But these layers of abstraction are tremendously useful for the users of a computer: you don't have to know what Unix or an operating system is to write a paper in Microsoft Word, you just need to know how to use Word. It doesn't matter whether you're using a Mac or a PC.
The world wide web takes this structure of abstraction layers even further. With the internet, it doesn't matter which computer you're on as long as you have an internet connection and a web browser. Thus I can go to another country and sit down at an internet café and check my email, which is pretty fantastic.
And yet there are still problems. Though everyone can use the Internet, it's imperfect. The same webpage will almost certainly look different on different browsers and on different computers. This is annoying if you're making a web page. Here at the Institute, we've spent ridiculous amounts of time trying to ascertain that video will play on different computers and in different web browsers, or wondering whether websites will work for people who have small screens.
A solution that pops up more and more often is Flash. Flash content works on any computer that has the Flash browser plugin, which most people have. Flash content looks exactly the same on every computer. As Ben noted yesterday, Flash video made YouTube possible, and now we can all watch videos of cats using record players.
But there's something that nags about Flash, the same thing that bothers Ben about Flash, and in my head it's consonant with what I notice about computers after using a typewriter or a record player. Flash is opaque. Somebody makes the Flash & you open the file on your computer, but there's no way to figure out exactly how it works. The View Source command in your web browser will show you the relatively simple HTML that makes up this blog entry; should you be so inclined, you could figure out exactly how it worked. You could take this entry and replace all the pictures with ones that you prefer, or you could run the text through a faux-Cockney filter to make it sound even more ridiculous than it does. You can't do the same thing with Flash: once something's in Flash, it's in Flash.
A couple years ago, Neal Stephenson wrote an essay called "In the Beginning Was the Command Line," which looked at why it made a difference whether you had an open or closed operating system. It's a bit out of date by now, as Stephenson has admitted: while the debate is the same, the terms have changed. It doesn't really matter which operating system you use when more and more of our work is being done on web applications. The question of whether we use open or closed systems is still important: maybe it's important to more of us, now that it's about how we store our text, our images, our audio, our video.
pre-order Gamer Theory on amazon! 10.12.2006, 12:53 AM
Yes, it's coming. The official pub date is April 15, 2007 from Harvard University Press, and the Institute will be producing a new online edition in conjunction with the print release. Pre-order now!
You'll notice Ken's dropped the L33T for the print title. He explains in a recent interview in RealTime:
For the website version I put the title in L33T [leet or gaming speak], partly in tribute to the early MUDs, but also to have a unique search string to put in Google or Technorati to track who was talking about it and where.
Smart. Also in that piece, a nice description of what we did:
As a critical engagement with the concepts of authorship, writing and intellectual property, GAM3R 7H30RY is a book written out of the social software fabric of blogs and wikis, Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia and CiteULike. In other words, it represents a new writing practice that actively decentralizes the text as an object and disseminates it as an ongoing multi-channel conversation.
social powerpointing, or, the darker side of flash 10.11.2006, 8:35 AM
SlideShare is a new web application that lets you upload PowerPoint (.ppt and .pps) or OpenOffice (.odp) slideshows to the web for people to use and share. The site (which is in an invite-only beta right now, though accounts are granted within minutes of a request) feels a lot like the now-merged Google Video and YouTube. Slideshows come up with a unique url, copy-and-paste embed code for bloggers, tags, a comment stream and links to related shows. Clicking a "full" button on the viewer controls enlarges the slideshow to fill up most of the screen. Here's one I found humorously diagramming soccer strategies from various national teams:
Another resemblance to Google Video and YouTube: SlideShare rides the tidal wave of Flash-based applications that has swept through the web over the past few years. By achieving near-ubiquity with its plugin, Flash has become the gel capsule that makes rich media content easy to swallow across platform and browser (there's a reason that the web video explosion happened when it did, the way it did). But in a sneaky way, this has changed the nature of our web browsers, transforming them into something that more resembles a highly customizable TV set. And by this I mean to point out that Flash inhibits the creative reuse of the materials being delivered since Flash-wrapped video (or slideshows) can't, to my knowledge, be easily broken apart and remixed.
Where once the "view source" ethic of web browsers reigned, allowing you to retrieve the underlying html code of any page and repurpose all or parts of it on your own site, the web is becoming a network of congealed packages -- bite-sized broadcast units that, while nearly effortless to disseminate through linking and embedding, are much less easily reworked or repurposed (unless the source files are made available). The proliferation of rich media and dynamic interfaces across the web is no doubt exciting, but it's worth considering this darker side.
a comment yields fan mail yields an even more interesting comment 10.10.2006, 9:21 AM
Ben's post about the failure of ebook hardware to improve reading as handily as ipods may have improved listening has generated some interesting discussion. i was particularly taken by one of the comments -- by Sebastian Mary and wrote her some fan mail:
From: bob stein
Subject: bit of fan mail
i thought your comment on if:book this morning was very perceptive, although i find myself not sure if you are saddened or gladdened by the changes you forsee. we are quite interested in collaborations with writers who are poking around at the edges of what is possible in the networked landscape. next time you're in the states, come visit us in williamsburg.
to which i got a deliciously thinky response:
Many thanks for your message!
I'm likewise interested in collaborations with writers who are poking around in what's possible in the networked landscape.
And in answer to your implicit question, I'm both saddened and gladdened by the networked death (or uploading) of the Author. I'm saddened, because part of me wishes I could have got in on the game when it was still fresh. I'm gladdened, because there's a whole new field of language out there to be explored.
I'm always dodging questions from people who want to know why, if I'm avoiding the rat race in order to concentrate on my writing, I'm not sending substandard manuscripts to indifferent publishers twice a year. The answer is that I feel that in an era of wikis, ebooks, RSS feeds and the like, to be trying to gain recognition by copyrighting and snail-print-publishing my words would be a clear case of failing to walk the walk. It's like Microsoft versus Linux, really, on a memetic level. And I'm a firm believer in open source.
So what would writers do, if they can't copyright themselves? What do I do, if I don't copyright myself? We don't live in an era of patrons any more, after all - and we've got to pay the rent.
But I don't think, if we're giving up on the industrial model of what a writer is (the Author, in the Barthesian sense) that we have to go back to the Ben Jonson model of aristocratic patronage. Rather, I'd advocate moving to a Web2.0 model of what writers do. Web2.0 companies don't sell software: they provide a service, and profit from the database that accrues as a byproduct of their service reaching critical mass. So if, as a writer, I provide a service, perhaps I can profit from the deeper insights that providing that service gives me.
So what does that look and feel like, in practice? It's certainly not the same as being a copywriter or copy-editor. It means learning to write collaboratively, or sufficiently accessibly that others can work with your words. It's as creative as it is self-effacing, and loses none of its power for being un-branded in the 'authorial' byline sense. In the semiotic white noise of an all-ways-self-publishing Web, people who can identify points of shared reference and use them to explain less easily communicable concepts (Greek-style rhetoricians brought up to date, if you will) are highly in demand.
I think writing experienced a split. I'd situate it in the first half of the 18th century, when the print industry was getting into gear, and along with it the high-falutin notions of 'literary purity' and 'high art' that serve to obscure the necessarily persuasive nature of all writing. So writing that was overtly persuasive (with its roots in Aristotle, via Sir Philip Sidney) evolved into advertising, while 'high art' writing (designed to obscure the industrial/economic aspect of print production even as it deifies the Author for a better profit) evolved into Eliot and Joyce, and then died into the Borders glut of 3 for 1 bestsellers.
In acknowledging and celebrating the persuasiveness of a well-written sentence, and re-embracing a role as servants, chronologers and also shapers of consensus reality, I think contemporary writers can begin to heal that split. But to do so we have to ditch the notion that political (in the sense of engaged) writing is somehow 'impure'. We have to ditch the notion that the practice and purpose of writing is to express our 'selves' (the fundamental premise of copyrighted writing: the author as 'vatic' individual). And we have to ditch the notion that our sentences should be copyrighted.
So how do we prove ourselves? Well. It's obvious to anyone who's spent time on an anonymous messageboard that good writers float to the top, seek one another out, and wield a disproportionate amount of power. By a similar principle, the blogerati are the new (actual, practical, political and financial) eminences grises.
It's in actually being judged on what your writing helps to make happen that writers will find their roles in a networked world. That's certainly how it's shaping up for me. So far, it's been interesting and scary, to say the least. And these are by no means my last words on it (I've not really thought about it coherently before!).
So I'm always happy to hear from others who are exploring the same frontiers, and looking for what words mean now.
Hope Williamsburg finds you well,
networking textbooks 10.09.2006, 12:06 AM
Daniel Anderson (UNC Chapel Hill), an ever-insightful voice in the wise crowd around the Institute, just announced an exciting english composition textbook project that he's about to begin developing with Prentice Hall. He calls it "Write Now." Already the author of two literature textbooks, Dan has been talking with college publishers across the industry about the need to rethink both their process and their product, and has been pleasantly surprised to find a lot of open minds and ears:
...publishers are ready to push technology and social writing both in the production and distribution of their products and in the content of the texts. I proposed playlist, podcast, photo essay, collage, video collage, online profile, and dozens of other technology-based assignments for Write Now. Everyone I talked to welcomed those projects and wanted to keep the media and technology focus of the books. And, not one publisher balked at the notion of shifting the production model of the book to one consistent with the second Web. I proposed adding a public dimension to the writing through social software. I suggested participation from a broad community, and asked that publishers fund and facilitate that participation. I asked that some of the materials be released for the community to use and modify. We all had questions about logistics and boundaries, but every publisher was eager to implement these processes in the development of the books.
In fact, my eventual selection of Prentice Hall as a home for the project was based mainly on their eagerness to figure out together how we might transform the development process by opening it up. I started with an admission that I felt like I was straddling two worlds: one the open source, communal knowledge sphere I admire and participate with online, and two the world where I wanted to publish textbooks that challenge the state of writing but reach mainstream writing classes. We sat down and started brainstorming about how that might happen. The results will evolve over the next several years, but I wouldn't have committed to the process if I didn't believe it would offer opportunities for future students, for publishers, and for me to push writing.
As is implied above, Write Now will constitute a blend of the cathedral and the bazaar modes of authorship -- Dan will be principal architect, but will also function as a moderator and coordinator of contributions from around the social web. Very exciting.
He also points to another fledgeling networked book project in the rhet/comp field, Rhetworks: An Introduction to the Study of Discursive Networks. I'm going to take some time to look this over.
phony bookstore 10.06.2006, 5:58 PM
Since it's trash the ebooks week here at if:book, I thought I'd point out one more little item to round out our negative report card on the new Sony Reader. In a Business Week piece, amusingly titled "Gutenberg 1, Sony 0," Stephen Wildstrom delivers another less than favorable review of Sony's device and then really turns up the heat in his critique of their content portal, the Connect ebook store:
These deficits, however, pale compared to Sony's Connect bookstore, which seems to be the work of someone who has never visited Amazon.com. Sony offers 10,000 titles, but that doesn't mean you will find what you want. For example, only four of the top 10 titles on the Oct. 1 New York Times paperback best-seller list showed up. On the other hand, many books are priced below their print equivalents--most $7.99 paperbacks go for $6.39--and can be shared among any combination of three Readers or pcs, much as Apple iTunes allows multiple devices to share songs.
The worst problem is that search, the essence of an online bookstore, is broken. An author search for Dan Brown turned up 84 books, three of them by Dan Brown, the rest by people named Dan or Brown, or sometimes neither. Putting a search term in quotes should limit the results to those where the exact phrase occurs, but at the Sony store, it produced chaos. "Dan Brown" yielded 500 titles, mostly by people named neither Dan nor Brown. And the store doesn't provide suggestions for related titles, reviews, previews--all those little extras that make Amazon great.
Remember that you can't search texts at all on the actual Reader, though Sony does let you search books that you've purchased within your personal library in the Connect Store. But it's a simple find function, bumping you from instance to instance, with nothing even approaching the sophisticated concordances and textual statistics that Amazon offers in Search Inside. You feel the whole time that you're looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Such a total contraction of the possibilities of books. So little consideration of the complex ways readers interact with texts, or of the new directions that digital and networked interaction might open up.
an open letter to claire israel 10.06.2006, 1:18 PM
literary zeitgest, google-style 10.06.2006, 2:42 AM
At the Frankfurt Book Fair this week, Google revealed a small batch of data concerning use patterns on Google Book Search: a list of the ten most searched titles from September 17 to 23. Google already does this sort of snapshotting for general web search with its "zeigeist" feature, a weekly, monthly or annual list of the most popular, or gaining, search queries for a given period -- presented as a screengrab of the collective consciousness, or a slice of what John Battelle calls "the database of intentions." The top ten book list is a very odd assortment, a mix of long tail eclecticism and current events:
Diversity and Evolutionary Biology of Tropical Flowers By Peter K. Endress
Measuring and Controlling Interest Rate and Credit Risk By Frank J. Fabozzi, Steven V. Mann, Moorad Choudhry
Ultimate Healing: The Power of Compassion By Lama Zopa Rinpoche; Edited by Ailsa Cameron
The Holy Qur'an Translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali
Hegemony Or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance By Noam Chomsky
Perrine 's Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense By Thomas R Arp, Greg Johnson
Build Your Own All-Terrain Robot By Brad Graham, Kathy McGowan
choose your own adventure dvd 10.05.2006, 8:36 AM
Mainstream film has, for most of its life, been a linear viewing experience. Deviations from that formula have caused a stir: the first one I can remember is the three different endings of "Clue" in 1985. More recently, DVD's have regularly included alternate endings as part of the bonus materials. These 'extras' are a part of nearly every new DVD, a crowd-pleasing trend that began with the Criterion Collection of laserdiscs. Moving films to digital media allowed for a transformative experience—frame by frame control, inclusion of alternate soundtracks, and clips from the cutting room floor (including alternate endings). These additions allowed viewers to radically alter the way they watch film.
But the Onyx Project takes the possibilities of digital media one step further. It transforms the movie experience by allowing the viewer to completely control the unfolding of the story. You control the trajectory and progress of the film by choosing the clip you want to see next, using the proprietary NAV system (Non-linear Arrayed Video—patent pending). There is a shuffle mechanism, if choosing seems too difficult (or if you're feeling serendipitous). The marketing materials promise that with over 500 segments to choose from, no two viewers will see the same thing. The DVD is a garden of forking paths.
I think this is pretty cool stuff: not only technologically, but because I happen to like David Straithairn. (Whistler is one of the all-time best geeks on film.) In the Onyx project, Straithairn plays "Robert A. Henderson, Colonel, U.S. Army." The Onyx Project is his story.
As Henderson unfolds the history of the mission he named Onyx, he speaks of Islam and Christianity, of Mideast history and culture, and of our own political scene. He talks in depth of the military, both of its past and traditoins as well as his own modern area of expertise in Special Operations. He explores his attitutes about President Bush, both before and since the Onyx mission, and of the impact his thoughts — and actions — may have had on his own life, both professional and personal.
The content seems perfectly reasonable (perhaps even a little mundane). Still, I have some doubts about the form: as with most things not web enabled, I instinctively feel claustrophobic. The edges are too close, 500 segments though there be. They say there is a web enabled version of NAV coming out—I'm curious to see what makes it different from traditional hypermedia. Another reservation: out of 500 clips, how is it possible to make a sensible narrative? There is a common scenario in video games: you are exploring the world, taking your time to discover the boundaries of the game, and all of a sudden you find yourself confronted with a character telling you some weighty news in hopes of moving the story along. This places one obvious path in front of you, where an infinite number of paths existed before. I hope the director (Larry Atlas) has managed to successfully construct a cohesive narrative without relying on that kind of contrivance (in the DVD form it would be only allowing a single choice following a particular clip). I think, however, that a feeling of restriction will settle on viewers no matter what, as they try to exert editorial control over the scene choices to construct their own narratives, only to, perforce, be herded back into Henderson's story.
In a fully networked experience, fans could expand on the story at will, bringing their own stories into play against the backdrop of Col. Henderson and the Onyx Project. The loose narrative structure provides an endless stage for people to create their own roles. It could quickly take on the dimensions of the best Alternate Reality Games, blurring the boundaries between reality and media fiction for contributors and viewers. Right now the Onyx Project let's you choose your own adventure; what happens when we write our own adventure?
phony reader 2: the ipod fallacy 10.04.2006, 11:13 AM
Since the release of the Sony Reader, I've been thinking a lot about the difference between digital text and digital music, and why an ebook device is not, as much as publishers would like it to be, an iPod. This is not an argument over the complexity of literature versus the complexity of music, rather it is a question of interfaces. It seems to me that reading interfaces are much more complicated than listening ones.
The iPod is, as skeptics initially complained, little more than a hard drive with earphones. But this is precisely its genius: the simplicity of its interface, the sleekness of its form, the radical smallness of its immense storage capacity. All these allow us to spend less time sorting through our music -- lugging around stacks of albums, ejecting and inserting tapes or discs -- and more time listening to it.
A sequence of smooth thumb gestures leads to the desired track. Once the track has commenced, the device is tucked away into a pocket or knapsack, and the music takes over. That's the simplicity of the iPod. Reading devices, on the other hand -- whether paperback, web page or specialized ebook hardware -- are felt and perceived throughout the reading experience. The text, the visual design, and the reader's movement through them are all in constant interaction. So the device necessarily must be more complex.
In other words, a book -- even a digital one -- is something you have to "handle" in order to process its contents. The question Sony should be asking is what handling a book should mean in a digital, networked context? Obviously, it's something very different than in print.
Another thing about portable music players from Walkmen to iPods is that music, in its infinite variety, can be delivered to the senses through a uniform channel: from the player, through the wire, to the ear. Again, with books it's not so simple. Different books have different looks, and with good reason: they are visual media. This is something we tend to forget because we so strongly associate books with intangible things like stories and abstract ideas. But writing is a manipulation of visual symbols, and reading is something we do with our eyes. So well-considered visual design, of both documents and devices, is crucial -- as much for electronic documents as for print ones.
Publishers want their ipod, a simple gadget locked into a content channel (like iTunes), but they're going to have to do a lot better than the Sony Reader. To date, the web has done a much better job at fostering a wide variety of reading forms, primitive as they may still be, than any specialized ebook device or ebook format. A hard drive with ear phones may work for music, but a hard drive (and a pitifully small one at that) with an e-ink screen won't be sufficient for books.
google and the future of print 10.03.2006, 8:11 AM
Veteran editor and publisher Jason Epstein, the man who first introduced paperbacks to American readers, discusses recent Google-related books (John Battelle, Jean-Noël Jeanneney, David Vise etc.) in the New York Review, and takes the opportunity to promote his own vision for the future of publishing. As if to reassure the Updikes of the world, Epstein insists that the "sparkling cloud of snippets" unleashed by Google's mass digitization of libraries will, in combination with a radically decentralized print-on-demand infrastructure, guarantee a bright future for paper books:
[Google cofounder Larry] Page's original conception for Google Book Search seems to have been that books, like the manuals he needed in high school, are data mines which users can search as they search the Web. But most books, unlike manuals, dictionaries, almanacs, cookbooks, scholarly journals, student trots, and so on, cannot be adequately represented by Googling such subjects as Achilles/wrath or Othello/jealousy or Ahab/whales. The Iliad, the plays of Shakespeare, Moby-Dick are themselves information to be read and pondered in their entirety. As digitization and its long tail adjust to the norms of human nature this misconception will cure itself as will the related error that books transmitted electronically will necessarily be read on electronic devices.
Epstein predicts that in the near future nearly all books will be located and accessed through a universal digital library (such as Google and its competitors are building), and, when desired, delivered directly to readers around the world -- made to order, one at a time -- through printing machines no bigger than a Xerox copier or ATM, which you'll find at your local library or Kinkos, or maybe eventually in your home.
Predicated on the "long tail" paradigm of sustained low-amplitude sales over time (known in book publishing as the backlist), these machines would, according to Epstein, replace the publishing system that has been in place since Gutenberg, eliminating the intermediate steps of bulk printing, warehousing, retail distribution, and reversing the recent trend of consolidation that has depleted print culture and turned book business into a blockbuster market.
Epstein has founded a new company, OnDemand Books, to realize this vision, and earlier this year, they installed test versions of the new "Espresso Book Machine" (pictured) -- capable of producing a trade paperback in ten minutes -- at the World Bank in Washington and (with no small measure of symbolism) at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt.
Epstein is confident that, with a print publishing system as distributed and (nearly) instantaneous as the internet, the codex book will persist as the dominant reading mode far into the digital age.