pendulums, spirals, edges and mush 10.23.2006, 7:15 AM
posted by bob stein
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.
Dave Parry on October 23, 2006 10:04 AM:
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].If you are interested this is (somewhat) the subject of a talk/panel at the upcoming MLA conference.
Monica McCormick on October 23, 2006 5:31 PM:
Among other things, as Bob suggests, this is a great design problem. About ten years ago I served as editor on a book that required a solution to a related challenge. It was a book of paintings depicting the history of Zaire by Tshibumba Kanda Matulu. They had been collected by the anthropologist Johannes Fabian, who recorded Tshibumba's explications of the work and their conversations about it as the paintings were delivered. Fabian then wrote essays (about painting, popular history, ethnography, etc.) All of that was in the book. We wanted to clearly distinguish Tshibumba's voice from Fabian's -- not blur them so that one was "interpreting" the other. Our project team came up with some excellent ways to make clear (typographically) what was dialogue, what the painter's voice, and what the anthropologist. Working within traditions of the printed book, I think our solution worked well to convey the complex layers of this collaboration. Sadly, we could not afford to print all the amazing paintings in color. And I wonder now at our choice to name Fabian as the sole "author" on the cover, although not in every section of the book.
If we were doing it now as a digital project, I wonder what alternate choices we would make? And how could we include readers' thoughts in this conversation? Can networked books include some form of reader marginalia, without privileging the author?
A few of the paintings are shown at http://www.cafebabel.com/en/article.asp?T=A&Id=1939. The complete transcript (in parallel Swahili and English) of the painter/anthropologist dialog is at http://www2.fmg.uva.nl/lpca/aps/tshibumbaintro.html, and more information on the book, Remembering the Present, is at http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/6745.html. The paintings are now in the KIT Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam.
bowerbird on October 23, 2006 5:44 PM:
> 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
that's what i said when gamer-theory's site was
being designed. i thought it missed the mark,
but haven't looked in since the very beginning.
did participants think the design served them?
one of my specific concerns going in was the ease
with which the stream of contributions could be
downloaded as a whole to a participant's machine.
if i were to try to do that now, how would it go?
Sebastian Mary on October 24, 2006 2:22 PM:
The above started me thinking about my experiences with Pick Me Up, an (almost)open-source magazine that ran for nearly two years and was for me a formative set of lessons in collaborative writing and its social context. Discussing it turned into a longish piece, though, so I've blogged it here instead: http://sebastianmary.com/wordpress/?p=13 so as not to spam your systems. SM
K.G. Schneider on October 24, 2006 2:47 PM:
Trust this blog to pull me out of the hell of quarterly reports and get me thinking again about things that matter.
Perhaps--somewhat like blogs--the engagement of reader-as-author could be on a continuum of the author's (or authors') choice. In the abstract, I understand the excitement around the book-as-conversation, with or without a fulcrum. In real life, I am not sure *I* would ever want to write that way (which makes me feel all warm and fuzzy toward Mr. Nunberg, too).
sol gaitan on October 24, 2006 4:39 PM:
The problem seems to be rooted in the strict definition of the book, and of the book of the future in particular. Both Geoff Nunberg and John Seely Brown come from the school of the printed book, so does Monica McCormick's comment. So does Bob's pendulum because it suggests the need for "something solid" for the readers to react to. The notion of networked books, of content generated collaboratively, implies a totally different approach to the act of writing and thus, to the act of reading. It is not so much that all networked books will be "never-ending," but that new technologies (will) allow the conversation to be open. A book is an inert entity until someone reads it. In the networked book, the reader, as the link that completes the creative act, comes to the forefront, but this neither obliterates the author nor neutralizes the contents.
Why does an amalgam of voices necessarily cancel truth, or take away the pleasure of reading? Wikipedia articles may be boring for a certain kind of reader, not for all, and one expects that the interface problems will disappear sometime. Learning is generated through collaboration, through dialogue, through both deduction and induction. So, in fact, hundreds of film clips, if organized with a goal in mind, can be as effective as a linear text. Synthesis is achieved by the resolution of the conflict between thesis and antithesis and this requires collaboration, which in strict terms democratizes the process because it lends autonomy to it. How do we grapple with that notion has as much to do with better tools for collaborating as with how we collaborate. As Sebastian Mary puts it, with the "emotional tools" needed in any meaningful partnership.
alex itin on October 26, 2006 12:28 PM:
great post, but I love most your title... great nod to Carver... A title I have felt compelled to echo several times.
D. Robinson on November 10, 2006 5:33 PM:
Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author, 1968: "... a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as it was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination."
And somewhere else I seem to remember Barthes saying, "The only proper response to a work of art is another work of art."