futureofthebook.org going down for repairs 01.31.2007, 3:34 PM
This weekend we're going to take futureofthebook.org down for repairs. It's a good looking site (thanks Rebecca Mendez), but a second look will expose the visible marks of a system that hasn't served our interests for a long time. So in the spirit of the housekeeping we've been doing since the beginning of the year (including the retreat), we're doing a major clean-up of the site. More like an extreme makeover, actually. We're not sure how long it will take, given the number of projects we're still juggling.
Don't worry! The blog is going to stay up and we'll keep posting, and the Institute is going strong. In some ways we're victims of our own success: we haven't been able to keep up our own house due to the number of interesting things we've been putting out. We just know that it can't be put off any longer. Things to look forward to: a site that does a better job of explaining our mission, exhibiting our projects, and highlighting our collected thoughts.
bob on the air 01.30.2007, 12:21 PM
Yesterday Bob did a radio interview on "The Speakeasy" on WFMU, almost certainly the most interesting (and one of the few) independent radio stations in the New York area. I highly recommend giving it a listen. It's always nice to hear Bob tell the story of the Institute and the decades of work, collaboration and experience that led up to where we are today. Things tend to get caught up in the rhythm of the day to day on the blog so here's a nice antidote -- a big picture moment.
You can get the podcast from the Speakeasy archive in either RealAudio or m3u format (which will play on iTunes or whatever your default media player is on your machine). Heads up: there are a few minutes of jazz music before the interview gets started. The whole thing's about an hour.
give away the content and sell the thing 01.29.2007, 2:45 PM
So I was tickled when Paul Miller pointed me to a piece Chris Anderson blogged yesterday about the same thing. Increasingly, musicians are giving their music away for free in order to drive gig attendance - and it's driving music reproduction companies crazy. And yet, what can they do? "The one thing that you can't digitize and distribute with full fidelity is a live show".
A minor synchronicity; but then I stop by here and find Gary Frost and bowerbird vigorously debating the likeliness of the digitisation of everything, and of the death of 'the original' as even a concept, in the context of Ben's piece about the National Archives sellout. And then I remember that, the day before, someone sent me a spoof web page telling me to get a First Life. And I start to wonder if there's some kind of post-digital backlash taking shape.
OK, Anderson is talking about music; it's hard to speculate about how the manifest 'authentic' appeal of a time-bound, ephemeral 'gig' experience translates literally to the field of physical books without falling back into diaphanous stuff about tactility and marginalia and so on. But, in the light of people's manifest willingness to pay ridiculous sums to see the 'real' Madonna in real time and space, is it really feasible to talk, as bowerbird does, about the coming digitisation of everything?
As far as I can see, as more digitisation progresses, authenticity is becoming big business. I think it's worth exploring the possibilities of a split between 'book' as pure content, and book as 'authentic' object. In particular, I think it's worth exploring the possible economics of this: the difference in approach, genesis, theory, self-justification, style and paycheque of content created for digital reproduction, and text created for tangible books. And finally, I think whoever manages to sus both has probably got it made.
apologies for relative silence 01.26.2007, 9:07 AM
The beginning of the week was spent at the Educause conference in Atlanta where Jesse and I conducted the first public hands-on event with Sophie in which forty professors got to load it on their machines and put it through some not-terribly taxing paces. it was touch and go but Sophie performed well enough that people seem to be excited about getting a real beta version, hopefully next month. Yesterday, ben and i were at a small all-day meeting at the Getty Research Institute to discuss how a scholarly conference might be conceived differently in the era of the network -- not just the "proceeding" that get published afterwards but the run-up to the meeting and the face-to-face portion as well. We brought along Trebor Scholz, Manan Ahmed and Michael Naimark, each of whom wowed me all day long with their remarkably prescient thoughts on the matter. Turns out that re-thinking conferences is remarkably similar to re-thinking books . . . the big questions all relate to re-defining long-standing rhythms and hierarchies which have been in place for a few hundred years -- the role of the speaker and audience is being up-ended in ways similar to the roles of author and reader.
robinson crusoe 01.26.2007, 9:05 AM
David Rothman over at Teleread has a very thoughtful review of a multimedia project coming out of the University of North Carolina which traces the real-world aspects of the Robinson Crusoe story. Rothman asks some very interesting questions about the possible over-use of Flash and the relationship of multimedia to text. (note: he says something very complimentary about me in the piece which makes me uncomfortable recommending it, but the questions he asks are important and very much worth considering.)
net-native stories are already here: so are the vultures 01.23.2007, 9:33 AM
A split is under way in the culture industry at present, between ever more high-budget centrally-created and released products designed to net the 'live experience' ticket or product-buying punter, and new forms of distributed, Net-mediated creativity. This is evidenced throughout the culture industry; but while ARGs (alternate reality games) are a strong candidate for being understood as the 'literary' output of this new culture, there is little discussion of increasing attempts to transform this emerging genre straight into a vehicle for advertising. In the light of my own rather old-fashioned literary idealism, I want first to situate ARGs in the context of this split between culture-as-industry and culture-as-community, to argue the case for ARGs as participatory literature, and finally to ponder the appropriateness of leaving them to the mercies of the PR industry.
the culture industry and the new collaboration
Anti-pirating adverts have been common since video came into wide use. But the other day I saw one at the cinema that got me thinking. Rather than taking the line that copying media is a crime, it showed scenes from Apocalypto, while pointing out that such a spectacular film is much better enjoyed on a huge cinema screen. It struck me as a shrewd take: rather than making ominous noises about crime, the advert aimed to drive cinema attendance by foregrounding the format-specific benefits (darkened room, audience, popcorn, huge screen) of the cinema experience .
It reminded me of a conversation I had with musician-turned-intellectual Pat Kane. Since the advent of iTunes and the like, he said, gigging is often a musician's main source of income. I had a look at live performance prices, and discovered that whereas in 2001 high-end tickets cost $60, in 2006 Paul McCartney (amongst others) charged $250 per ticket. The premium is for the format-specific features of the experience: the atmosphere, the 'authenticity', the transient moment. Everything else is downloadable.
But the catch is that you have to sell material that suits the 'live' immersive experience. That means all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza gigs (Madonna crucified on a mirrored cross in Rome, anyone?) and super-colossal epic 'excitement' films, full of special effects, chases, explosions and the like. Consider the top ten grossing films 2000-06: three Harry Potters, three Lord of the Ringses, three X-Men films, three Star Warses, three Matrix films, Spider-man, two Batmans, The Chronicles of Narnia, Day After Tomorrow, Jurassic Park 3, Terminator 3 and War of the Worlds. Alongside that there were typically at least two high-budget CGI films in the top ten each year Exciting fantasy epics are on the up, because if you produce anything else the punters are more likely to skip the cinema experience and just download it.
So the networked replicability of content drives a trend for high-budget, high-concept cultural content for which you can justifiably charge at the door. But other forms are on the up. The NYT just ran a story about M dot Strange, who brought a huge YouTube audience to his Sundance premiere. And December's Wired called the LonelyGirl15 phenomenon on YouTube 'The future of TV'. It's not as if general cinema release is the only way to make your name. Sandi Thom's rise to fame through a series of webcasts tells the same story.
Here, we see artists who reverse the paradigm: rather than seeking to thrill a passive audience, they intrigue an active one. Rather than seeking to retain control, they farm parts of the story out. As Lonelygirl15's story grows, each characer will get a vlog: rather than produce the whole thing themselves, the originators will work out a basic storyline and then pair writers and directors with actors and let them loose.
I don't wish to argue here that this second paradigm of community-based participative creation is necessarily 'better', or that it will supplant existing cultural forms. But it is emerging rapidly as a major cultural force, and merits examination both in its own right and for clues to the operation of Net-native forms of literature.
fact or fiction? who cares?
A frequent characteristic of these kinds of networked co-creation is debate about the 'reality' of its products. LonelyGirl15 whipped up a storm on ARG Network while people tried to work out if she was an ARG trailhead, an advertising campaign, or a real teenager. Similarly, many have suspected Sandi Thom's webcast story of including a layer of fiction. But this has not hurt Sandi's career any more than it killed interest in LonelyGirl15. Built into these discussions is a sense that this (like much ambiguity) is not a bug but a feature, and is actually intrinsic to the operation of the net. After all, the promise underpinning Second Life, MUDs, messageboards and much of the Net's traffic is radical self-reinvention beyond the bounds of one's life and physical body. Fiction is part of Net reality.
Literary theorists have held fiction in special regard for thousands of years; if fiction is intrinsic to the 'reality' of the Net, what happens to storytellers? Is there a kind of literature native to the Net?
ARGs: net-native literature
Though it's a relatively young phenomenon, and I have no doubt that other forms will emerge, the strongest candidates at present for consideration as such are ARGs (alternate reality games). Unlike PVP online games, they are at least partially written (textual), and rely heavily on participants' collaboration through messageboards. If you're trying to catch up, you essentially read the 'story' as it is 'written' by its participants in fora dedicated to solving them. They have a clear story, but are dependent for their unfolding on community participation - and may be changed by this participation: in 2001, Lockjaw ended prematurely when participants brought a class-action lawsuit against the fictional genetic engineering company at the heart of the story. Or perhaps it didnt - I've seen one reference to this event, but other attempts simply lead me deeper into a story that may or may not still be active.
Thus, like LonelyGirl15 and her ilk, ARGs also bridge fact and fiction. This is part of their pleasure, and it is pervasive: I had a Skype conversation yesterday with Ansuman Biswas, an artist who has been sucked into the now-unfolding MEIGEIST game when its creators referenced his work in the course of casting story clues. Ansuman delightedly sent me the link to the initial thread on the game at unfiction, where participants have been debating whether Ansuman exists or not. Even though I was talking to him at the time I almost found myself wondering, too.
Where ARGs as a creative form diverge from print literature (at least, from modern print literature) is in their use of pastiche, patchwork and mash-up. One of the delights of storytelling is the sense of an organising intelligence at work in a chaos of otherwise random events. ARGs provide this, but in a way appropriate to the Babel of content available on the Net. Participants know that someone is orchestrating a storyline, but that it will not unfold without the active contribution of the decoders, web-surfers, inveterate Googlers and avid readers tracking leads, clues, possible hints and unfolding events through the chaos of the Web. Rather than striving for that uber-modernist concept, 'originality', an ARG is predicated on the pre-existence of the rest of the Net, and works like a DJ with the content already present. In this, it has more in common with the magpie techniques of Montaigne (1533-92), or the copious 'authoritative' quotations of Chaucer than contemporary notions of the author-as-originator.
the PR money-shot
The downside of some ARG activity is the rapid incursions of the marketing machine into the format, and a corresponding tendency towards high-budget games with a PR money-shot. For example, I Love Bees turned out to be a trailer for Halo 2. This spills over into offline publication: Cathy's Book, itself an interactive multimedia concept co-written by Sean Stewart, one of the puppetmasters of the 2001 ARG 'The Beast, made headlines last year when it included product placements from Clinique. So where YouTube, myspace, webcasts and the like appear to be working in some ways to open up and democratise creative activity as a community activity, it is as yet unclear whether the same is true of ARGs. Is it acceptable for immersive fiction to be so seamlessly integrated with the needs of the advertising world? Is the idealism of Aristotle and Sidney still worth keeping? Or is such purism obsolete?
where are the artists?
Either way, this new genre represents, I believe, the first stirrings of a Net-native form of storytelling. ARGs have all the characteristics of networked cultural production: they unfold through the collaboration of a networked problem-solving community; they use multiple media, mixtures of fact and fiction, and a distributed reader/participant base. Their operation, and their susceptibility to co-opting by the marketing industry poses many questions; but the very nature of the form suggests that the way to address these is through engagement, not criticism. So, ultimately, this is a call for writers and artists interested in what the form is and could become: to situate Net writing in the context of why writers have always written, to explore its potential, and to ensure that it remains a form that belongs to us, rather than being sold back to us in darkened theatres with a bagful of memorabilia.
triangulating reality -- the net at its best 01.23.2007, 6:42 AM
Now that Hussein and Zarqawi are dead, the U.S. propoganda machine is working overtime to demonize Moqtada al-Sadr as the key obstacle to "peace in Iraq." It's fairly easy for them to do that since no mainstream U.S. news outlet bothers to interview him or present his ideas in any coherent fashion. Last week the Italian paper, La Repubblica published an interview with him that was not covered here. Helena Cobban (who was the first commenter in our edition of the Iraq Study Group Report), has just put up a translation on her blog. Read it to see a completely different view of the man than the one you get here. Read it to realize the power of the internet to get people working together to present a more complex view of reality than the one we get via the mainstream press. Here is Helena Cobban's postscript to the post:
Update Saturday p.m.: Christiane just sent me a great document that's a three-column tabulation of the Italian original, JHM's translation, and her own. It's a Word doc. She has picked out in red the few points where she feels JHM probably misunderstood the Italian, but says in an accompanying email that she thinks his English is far better than hers. Thanks, Christiane, and thanks again, JHM. You're once again showing us the great information-leveraging power of the internet.
national archives sell out 01.22.2007, 10:21 AM
This falls into the category of deeply worrying. In a move reminiscent of last year's shady Smithsonian-Showtime deal, the U.S. National Archives has signed an agreement with Footnote.com to digitize millions of public domain historical records -- stuff ranging from the papers of the Continental Congress to Matthew B. Brady's Civil War photographs -- and to make them available through a commercial website. They say the arrangement is non-exclusive but it's hard to see how this is anything but a terrible deal.
Here's a picture of the paywall:
Dan Cohen has a good run-down of why this should set off alarm bells for historians (thanks, Bowerbird, for the tip). Peter Suber has: the open access take: "The new Democratic Congress should look into this problem. It shouldn't try to undo the Footnote deal, which is better than nothing for readers who can't get to Washington. But it should try to swing a better deal, perhaps even funding the digitization and OA directly."
Absolutely. (Actually, they should undo it. Scrap it. Wipe it out.) Digitization should not become synonymous with privatization.
Elsewhere in mergers and acquisitions, the University of Texas Austin is the newest partner in the Google library project.
unbound - google publishing conference at NYPL 01.18.2007, 5:00 PM
Interesting bit of media industry theater here. I'm here in the New York Public Library, one of the city's great temples to the book, where Google has assembled representatives of the book business to undergo a kind of group massage. A pep talk for a timorous publishing industry that has only barely dipped its toes in the digital marketplace and can't decide whether to regard Google as savior or executioner. The speaker roster is a mix of leading academic and trade publishers and diplomatic envoys from the techno-elite. Chris Anderson, Cory Doctorow, Seth Godin, Tim O'Reilly have all spoken. The 800lb. elephant in the room is of course the lawsuits brought against Google (still in the discovery phase) by the Association of American Publishers and the Authors' Guild for their library digitization program. Doctorow and O'Reilly broached it briefly and you could feel the pulse in the room quicken. Doctorow: "We're a cabal come over from the west coast to tell you you're all wrong!" A ripple of laughter, acid-laced. A little while ago Michael Holdsworth of Cambridge University Press pointed to statistics that suggest that Book Search is driving up their sales... Some grumble that the publishers' panel was a little too hand-picked.
Google's tactic here seems simultaneously to be to reassure the publishers while instilling an undercurrent of fear. Reassure them that releasing more of their books in a greater variety of forms will lead to more sales (true) -- and frightening them that the technological train is speeding off without them (also true, though I say that without the ecstatic determinism of the Google folks. Jim Gerber, Google's main liason to the publishing world, opened the conference with a love song to Moore's Law and the gigapixel camera, explaining that we're within a couple decades' reach of having a handheld device that can store all the content ever produced in human history -- as if this fact alone should drive the future of publishing). The event feels more like a workshop in web marketing than a serious discussion about the future of publishing. It's hard to swallow all the marketing speak: "maximizing digital content capabilities," "consolidation by market niche"; a lot of talk of "users" and "consumers," but not a whole lot about readers. Publishers certainly have a lot of catching up to do in the area of online commerce, but barely anyone here is engaging with the bigger questions of what it means to be a publisher in the network era. O'Reilly sums up the publisher's role as "spreading the knowledge of innovators." This is more interesting and O'Reilly is undoubtedly doing more than almost any commercial publisher to rethink the reading experience. But most of the discussion here is about a culture industry that seems more concerned with salvaging the industry part of itself than with honestly rethinking the cultural part. The last speaker just wrapped up and it's cocktail time. More thoughts tomorrow.
the sea change is coming... 01.17.2007, 1:39 PM
Eons ago, when the institute was just starting out, Ben and I attended a web design conference in Amsterdam where we had the good fortune to chat with Steven Pemberton about the future of the book. Pemberton's prediction, that "the book is doomed," was based on the assumption that screen technologies would develop as printer technologies had. When the clunky dot-matrix gave way to the high-quality laser printer, desk top publishing was born and an entire industry changed form almost overnight.
"The book, Pemberton contends, will experience a similar sea-change the moment screen technology improves enough to compete with the printed page."
This seemed like a logical conclusion. It seemed like the screen technology innovations we were waiting for had to do with resolution and legibility. Over the last two years if:book has reported on digital ink and other innovations that seemed promising. But the fact that we were looking out for a screen technology that could "compete with the printed page," made it difficult for us to see that the real contender was not page-like at all.
It's interesting that we made the same assumptions about the structure of the ebook itself. Early ebook systems tried to compete with the book by duplicating conventions like the Table of Contents navigational strategy, and discreet "pages," that have to be "turned" with the click of a mouse. (And, I'm sorry to report, most contemporary ebooks continue to cling to print book structure). We now understand that networked technologies can interface with book content to create entirely new and revolutionary delivery systems. The experiments the institute has conducted: "Gam3r Th30ry" and the "Iraq Quagmire Project" prove beyond question that the book is evolving and adapting to networked culture.
What kind of screen technology will support this new kind of book? It appears that touch-screen hardware paired with zooming interface software will be the tipping point Pemberton was anticipating. There are many examples of this emerging technology. In particular, I like Jeff Han's experimental work (his TED presentation is below): Jeff demonstrates an "interface free" touch screen that responds to gesture and lets users navigate through a simulated 3D environment. This technology might allow very small surfaces (like the touchpads on hand-held devices) to act as portals into limitless deep space.
And that brings me around to the real reason the touchscreen zooming interface is the key to the next generation of "books." It allows users to move into 3D networked space easily and fluently and it gets us beyond the linearity that is the hallmark and the limitation of the paper book. To come into its own, the networked book is going to require three-dimensional visualizations for both content and navigation. Here's an example of how it might work, imagine the institute's Iraq Study Group Report in 3D. Main authors would have nodes or "homesites" close to the book with threads connecting them to sections they authored. Co-authors/commentors might have thinner threads that extend out to their, more remotely located, sites. The 3D depiction would allow readers to see "threads" that extend out from each author to everything they have created in digital space. In other words, their entire network would be made visible. Readers could know an author's body of work in a new way and they could begin to see how collaborative works have been understood and shaped by each contributor. It would be ultimate transparency. It would be absolutely fascinating to see a 3D visualization of other works and deeds by the Iraq Study Groups' authors, and to "see" the interwoven network spun by Washington's policy authors. Readers could zoom out to get a sense of each author's connections. Imagine being able to follow various threads into territories you never would have found via other, more conventional routes. This makes me really curious about what the institute will do in Second Life. I wonder if you can make avatars that act as the nodes for all their threads? Perhaps they could go about like spiders, connecting strands to everything they touch? Hmmm.
But anyway, in my humble opinion the sea change is coming. It's going to be three-pronged: screen technology, networked content, and 3D visualization. And it's going to be very, very cool.
ambiguity -- it's not a bug, it's a feature 01.14.2007, 6:50 PM
the insititute is convened at a retreat on the jersey shore today and tomw. we've invited seven of our closest co-conspirators to discuss the future. the title of this post was the last thing that someone put up on the whiteboard. more later.
bush's iraq speech: a critical edition 01.11.2007, 9:43 AM
Last month we published an online edition of the Iraq Study Group Report in a new format we're developing (in-house name is "Comment Press") that allows readers to enter into conversation with a text and with one another. This was a first step in a creative partnership with Lewis Lapham and Lapham's Quarterly, a new journal that will look at contemporary issues through the lens of history. Launching only a few days before Christmas, the timing was certainly against us. Only a handful of commenters showed up in those first few days, slowing down almost to a halt as the holiday hibernation period set in. Since New Year's, however, the site has been picking up momentum and has now amassed a sizable batch of commentary on the Report from a diverse group of respondents including Howard Zinn, Frances FitzGerald and Gary Hart.
While that discussion continues to develop in the Report's margins, we are following it up with a companion text: the transcript and video of President Bush's address to the nation last night where he outlined his new strategy for Iraq, presented in a similarly Talmudic fashion with commentary accreting around the central text. To these two documents invited readers and other interested members of the public can continue to append their comments, criticisms and clarifications, "at liberty to find," in Lapham's words, "'the way forward' in or out of Iraq, back to the future or across the Potomac and into the trees."
An added feature this time around is that we're opening the door to general commenters, although with a fairly high barrier to entry. This is an experiment with a more rigorously moderated kind of web discussion and a chance for Lapham and his staff to begin to explore what it means to be editors in the network environment. Anyone is welcome to apply for entry into the discussion by providing a little background on themselves and a sample first comment. If approved by the Lapham's Quarterly editors (this will all happen within the same day), they will be given a login, at which point they can fire at will on both the speech and the report.
Together these two publications comprise Operation Iraqi Quagmire, a journalistic experiment and a gesture toward a new way of handling public documents in a networked democracy.
***Note: we strongly recommend viewing this on Firefox***
the end of media industries 01.10.2007, 8:00 AM
Imagine a world without publishers, broadcasters or record labels. Imagine the complex infrastructure, large distribution networks, massive advertising campaigns, and multi-million signing contracts provided by the media incumbents all gone from our society. What would our culture look like? Will the music stop? Will pens dry up?
I would hope not, but I recently read Siva Vaidhyanathan's book, The Anarchist in the Library, and I encountered a curious quote from Time Warner CEO, Richard Parsons:
This is a very profound moment historically. This isn't just about a bunch of kids stealing music. It's an assault on everything that constitutes cultural expression of our society. If we fail to protect and preserve out intellectual property system, the culture will atrophy. And the corporations wont be the only ones hurt. Artists will have no incentive to create. Worst-case scenario: the country will end up in a sort of Cultural Dark Age.
The idea that "artists will have no incentive to create" without corporations' monetary promise goes against everything we know about the creative mind. Through out human history, self-expression has existed under the extreme conditions, for little or no gain; if anything, self-expression has flourished under the most unrewarding conditions. Now we that the Internet provides a medium to share information, people will create.
A fundamental misunderstanding in the relationship between media industry and the artist has produced an environment that has led the industry to believe that they are the reason for creative output, not just a beneficiary. However, the Internet is bringing the power of production and distribution to the user. And if production and distribution -- which are where historically media companies made their money -- can be handled by users, then what will be left for the media companies? With the surge in content, will media companies need to become filters and editors? If not, then what is there?
The current media model depends on controlling the flow of information, and as information becomes harder to control their power will diminish. On the internet we see strong communities building around very specific niches. As these communities get stronger, they will become harder to compete with. I believe that these niches will develop into the next generation media companies. These will be the companies that the large media companies will need to compete with.
The challenges that the current media companies face remind me of what happened to AT&T in the 1990s. After being broken up into "baby-bells", AT&T was left providing only long distance. It was just a matter of time before the "baby-bells" began eating away at AT&T's business from below, and there was little AT&T could do about it.
I think Richard Parsons' quote shows a misunderstanding not only in the reason why people share information, but also in the direction of new technologies. For that reason I do not have much hope for the current media companies to adjust. Their only hope is to change and change represents their demise.
open-sourcing Second Life 01.09.2007, 3:16 AM
Yesterday, Linden Labs, the creators of Second Life, announced the release of the source code for their client application (the thing you fire-up on your machine to enter Second Life). This highly anticipated move raises all sorts of questions and possibilities about the way we use 3-D digital environments in our day to day life. From the announcement:
"Open sourcing is the most important decision we've made in seven years of Second Life development. While it is clearly a bold step for us to proactively decide to open source our code, it is entirely in keeping with the community-creation approach of Second Life," said Cory Ondrejka, CTO of Linden Lab. " Second Life has the most creative and talented group of users ever assembled and it is time to allow them to contribute to the Viewer's development. We will still continue Viewer development ourselves, but now the community can add its contributions, insights, and experiences as well. We don't know exactly which projects will emerge - but this is part of the vibrancy that makes Second Life so compelling"
2006 was undoubtedly a breakthrough year for Second Life, with high profile institutions like IBM and Harvard taking a leading role in developing new business models and forms of classroom interaction. It looks like Linden Labs got the message too, and is working hard to court new developers to create a more robust framework for future community and business interests. From the blog:
Releasing the source now is our next invitation to the world to help build this global space for communication, business, and entertainment. We are eager to work with the community and businesses to further our vision of our space.
This is something that has definitely caught our eye here at the Institute, and while we may not be currently ready to dive into the source code ourselves, we are firmly behind Bob's resolution to find out what can be done in a three-dimensional environment.
blogging restructures consciousness? 01.08.2007, 7:22 AM
The following story suggests that it does. Last month, Chris Bowers of the progressive political blog MyDD, underwent a small existential crisis brought on by a ham-fisted report on public television about political blogging that bungled a number of basic facts, including Bowers' very existence on the MyDD masthead. The result was a rare moment of introspection in an otherwise hyper-extroverted medium:
...I admit that the past three years of blogging have altered me in some rather dramatic ways that do, in fact, begin to call very existence into question. I am not referring to the ways that blogging has caused a career change, granted me political and media access that I still find shocking, almost entirely ended my participation in old social circles and presented me with new ones, allowed me to work from home, or otherwise had an impact on the day to day activities of my life. Instead, I am actually referring to an important way in which blogging has altered my very consciousness. After two and a half years of virtually non-stop blogging, my perception of myself as a distinct individual has dramatically waned. My interior monologue has virtually disappeared. I no longer have aesthetic-based epiphanies, and I almost never concern myself with examining internal passions or emotions anymore. Blogging has not just changed the activities in which I engage--the activities in which I engage in order to be a successful blogger have profoundly altered the way my mind operates and the way I conceptualize my agency in relation to others. In effect, I do not exist in the same way I once existed.
First off, I'm reminded of something Sebastian Mary was saying last month about moving beyond the idea of "authorship" and the economic and political models that undergird it (the print publishing industry, academia etc.) toward genuinely new forms of writing for the electronic landscape. "My hunch," she says, "is that things are going two ways: writers as orchestrators of mass creativity, or writers as wielders of a new rhetoric." Little is understood about what the collapse of today's publishing systems would actually mean or look like, and even less about the actual experience of the new writing -- that is, the new states of mind and modes of vision that are only beginning to be cracked open through the exploration of new forms. Bowers, as a spokesman for the new rhetoric (or at least one fledgeling branch of it) shines a small light on this murky area.
This also brings me back to Bob's recent excursion into Walter Ong territory, talking about the possibility of a shift, through new networked forms of creativity, back toward something resembling the collectivity of oral cultures. Bowers and his blog might suggest the beginnings of a case study. Is this muting of the interior monologue, this waning sense of self as a "distinct individual," the product of a kind of communication that is at once written and oral -- both individualistic and collective?
Ong called the invention of writing the "technologizing of the word," a process that fundamentally restructures human consciousness. In this history of literacy, the spoken word is something that wells up directly from the human unconscious, whereas written language is expressed through artificial (i.e. human-made) frameworks, systems of "consciously contrived, articulable rules." These rules (and their runes) create a scaffold for the brain, which, now able to engage with complex ideas in contemplative solitude as opposed to interlocution, begins to conceive of itself as an individual entity rather than as part of a collective. Literate cultures are thus cognitively different than oral ones.
Bowers' confession suggests that this progression is being, if not reversed, then at least confused.
The kind of communication that he and his fellow rhetoriticians have been orchestrating in recent years in the blogosphere -- not to mention parallel developments elsewhere with wikis, message boards, social media, games and other inchoate forms that feel as much like public spaces as documents -- has a speed and plasticity that approaches oral communication. A blog post isn't so much a finished opus as a lump of clay that readers and other bloggers collectively shape through comments and discussion. Are these new technologies of the word (and beyond the word) restructuring consciousness?
We political bloggers have spilled a great deal of ink on analytical, meta-blogosphere commentaries, and on how we would like to se the political process be reformed. I think we can do an equally great service--both to politics and to blogging--by spilling a little more ink on ourselves.
the play's the thing 01.05.2007, 4:42 PM
In response to Bob's post on atomisation, Jesse Wilbur talks about how his college-era faith in Great Books seems to have largely given way to the sporadic appreciation of 30-second YouTube snippets.
That started me thinking about the literary canon. All those Great Books. There were huge critical quarrels about their validity, how they came to be great and so on: how bound up its measures of 'quality' were with historically-specific class and cultural assumptions. And all that.
Thinking of it as contingent and biased and so on makes it hard to think of the canon with anything like the reverence I felt towards it as a teenager. And yet, you don't have to be T S Eliot to mourn that reverence, and everything it implied. An agreed-upon body of cultural matter that could (notionally, at least) be shared by all. Cultural cohesion externalised in print form. It's hard not to find that a seductive idea. Cultural capital, shared frames of reference and implicit association with the elites, all easily communicable to a stranger via a few arch quotations.
And yet, if I know this body of supposedly eternal literature is the product of the collective privilege of a bunch of mostly-heterosexual dead white European males, do I really want a shared body of cultural reference framed by those assumptions? Etc, etc. This is an old debate. The question is very literally academic these days. The literary canon is the hobby of a few; new 'literary' books are still produced, but it seems increasingly that we are offered a choice between unacceptable (because obviously stacked in favour of the usual contenders) canonical elitism, ham-fisted revisionism, and deadening lowest-common-denominator populism. Given those options, I for one would rather stick to fooling around on messageboards.
So if the canon is this problematic, either adopted or rejected, then what replaces it? Aimless fooling around on messageboards? This atomised culture in which you cannot ever assume that you have any points of reference in common with anyone? Perhaps. Perhaps 'twas ever thus, and the literary canon was a convenient (body of) fiction papering over the cracks.
But if (and yes, I know this is a big if) the best thing the literary canon did for us was to provide a shared frame of reference for at least some, then are there other ways of achieving the same end? Stultifying elitism, PC revisionism, and drooling populism are all, in different ways, heavily invested in the idea of canon itself, which rests on the assumption that cultural content is produced by others for us to consume. This is a big assumption, and one that Alex Itin , the denizens of YouTube and a zillion other Web fora are busy prodding as we speak. It may be that fooling around on messageboards is not aimless at all.
So what does user-generated content do to enable new shared frames of reference? I'm not convinced that YouTube provides more than, as Jesse says, the occasional giggle, nor am I convinced that the ephemerality of messageboard chat is enough for a culture to chew on. But I think new art forms are beginning to emerge. For example, what I like about Itin's work is that it moves between online and offline spaces, and involves physical exchanges of objects in real time, between strangers or friends. If (again, this is a big if) the aim of co-creation were to begin to reassemble shared points of reference amid a tundra of media atomisation, then stuff that at least in part actually happens in the physical world is infinitely more powerful than on-screen interaction.
There is huge potential in play, social algorithms, games, creative collaborations and as-yet-undiscovered open-source social codings to enable the creation of shared cultural content that can mitigate media atomisation. Computer games, ARGs and the like are beginning to explore this, but there's much more to investigate. How might it work in textual form? How do you move between online and offline elements? How can such activity be captured? How archived or communicated? Is there a poetics of social algorithms? I can imagine a future in which the development of social algorithms within which co-creation can fruitfully take place - both on and offline - becomes an art form in its own right. And (perhaps fancifully) I imagine our current state of cultural entropy at least mitigated, if not reversed by such a distributed culture of co-creation.
has google already won? 01.05.2007, 1:34 AM
Rich Skrenta, an influential computer industry insider, currently co-founder and CEO of Topix.net and formerly a big player at Netscape, thinks it has, crowning Google king of the "third age of computing" (IBM and Microsoft being the first and second). Just the other day, there was a bit of discussion here about whether Google is becoming a bona fide monopoly -- not only by dint of its unrivaled search and advertising network, but through the expanding cloud of services that manage our various personal communication and information needs. Skrenta backs up my concern (though he mainly seems awed and impressed) that with time, reliance on these services (not just by individuals but by businesses and oranizations of all sizes) could become so total that there will effectively be no other choice:
Just as Microsoft used their platform monopoly to push into vertical apps, expect Google to continue to push into lucrative destination verticals -- shopping searches, finance, photos, mail, social media, etc. They are being haphazard about this now but will likely refine their thinking and execution over time. It's actually not inconceivable that they could eventually own all of the destination page views too. Crazy as it sounds, it's conceivable that they could actually end up owning the entire net, or most of what counts.
The meteoric ascendance of the Google brand -- synonymous in the public mind with best, quickest, smartest -- and the huge advantage the company has gained by becoming "the start page for the Internet," means that its continued dominance is all but assured. "Google is the environment." Others here think these predictions are overblown. To me they sound frighteningly plausible.
free speech requires the right to quote from ALL media -- not just text 01.04.2007, 9:35 AM
Mike Stark, writing in the The Daily Kos provides a wonderfully detailed account of one man's heroic effort to do battle with Disney as one of the principal purveyors of hate radio. In his own blog, Spocko wrote beautifully crafted pieces alerting advertisers of the vile things that were being said in their name and attached short audio clips to illustrate the point. Several advertisers pulled their ads from KSFO and Disney hit back by contacting Spocko's ISP and his blog is now down. This is one of the clearest examples I've seen of why we need to establish legal precedents for the quotation of audio and video. How can we have a comprehensive and crucial discussion about our culture if we can't quote from it.
atomization 01.04.2007, 9:04 AM
During three different conversations during the holidays people told me "i'm reading more now, not less." referring not to books, but rather time spent surfing the net and reading email. Given my interest in the "future of the book" i think people say this sort of thing to me somewhat guiltily, trying to cover for the unstated concern that all reading might not be equal. I'm not even close to wanting to make a value judgement in this regard, but the following quote from yesterday's NY Times article suggests that for those of us living in the world of near infinite media choice, the social role of the (print) book has undergone a dramatic transformation.
PRINCETON, N.J., Dec. 29 -- Logan Fox can't quite pinpoint the moment when movies and television shows replaced books as the cultural topics people liked to talk about over dinner, at cocktail parties, at work. He does know that at Micawber Books, his 26-year-old independent bookstore here that is to close for good in March, his own employees prefer to come in every morning and gossip about "Survivor" or "that fashion reality show" whose title he can't quite place.
BUT HAS IT? My guess is that this change started more than 75 years ago with the ascendancy of broadcast media, movies, radio and tv, rather than with the rise of the net. My further guess is that if he had listened carefully 26 years ago when he opened the store, Logan Fox would have overheard discussions about movies and tv-shows in perhaps the same proportions as today. If anything is different today, I think it's the atomization of choice. When i talk with friends, most of whom swim in the vast media ocean, we often have trouble finding something that all of us have watched, listened to or read. This seems to be the more signficant shift with potentially profound implications for society going forward.
the ambiguity of net neutrality 01.03.2007, 12:14 PM
Meanwhile in a recent Wired column, Larry Lessig, also strongly in favor of net neutrality but at the same time hesitant about the robust government regulation it entails, does a bit of soul-searching about the landmark antitrust suit brought against Microsoft almost ten years ago. Then too he came down on the side of the regulators, but reflecting on it now he says might have counseled differently had he known about the potential of open source (i.e. Linux) to rival the corporate goliath. He worries that a decade from now he may arrive at similar regrets when alternative network strategies like community or municipal broadband may by then have emerged as credible competition to the telecoms and telcos. Still, seeing at present no "Linus Torvalds of broadband," he decides to stick with regulation.
Network neutrality shouldn't be trumpeted uncritically, and it's healthy and right for leading advocates like Lessig to air their concerns. But I think he goes too far in saying he was flat-out wrong about Microsoft in the late 90s. Even with the remarkable success of Linux, Microsoft's hegemony across personal and office desktops seems more or less unshaken a decade after the DOJ intervened.
Allow me to add another wrinkle. What probably poses a far greater threat to Microsoft than Linux is the prospect of a web-based operating system of the kind that Google is becoming, a development that can only be hastened by the preservation of net neutrality since it lets Google continue to claim an outsized portion of last-mile bandwidth at a bargain rate, allowing them to grow and prosper all the more rapidly. What seems like an obvious good to most reasonable people might end up opening the door wider for the next Microsoft. This is not an argument against net neutrality, simply a consideration of the complexity of getting what we wish and fight for. Even if we win, there will be other fights ahead. United States vs. Google?
retreat to his study / thoughts for '07 01.02.2007, 7:49 AM
2006 was a big year for the Institute. We emerged as a sort of publishing lab, a place for authors and readers to rethink books in the digital age -- both theoretically (in the wide-ranging dicussions on this blog) and practically (in hands-on experimentation). The project that got things rolling on the practical end -- and which is now wrapping up its current phase and down-shifting tempo -- was undoubtedly Mitch Stephens' book blog Without Gods. Like many of our experiments, this one emerged not by some grand design but through an offhand suggestion, when we thought we were headed somewhere else.
Two Novembers ago Bob and I were meeting Mitch for lunch at a cafe near NYU to chat about blogging and its impact on the news media (remember that Mitch, though lately preoccupied with the history of atheism, is a professor in the journalism program at NYU). We were preparing to host a meeting at USC of leading academic bloggers to discuss how scholars were beginning to use blogs to enliven discourse in their fields, and how certain ones (like Juan Cole and PZ Myers) were reaching a general readership, bringing their knowledge to bear on media coverage of subjects like Iraq or the intelligent design movement.
At one point during the lunch it came up that Mitch was in the early stages of researching a new book on nonbelievers and the idea was tossed out -- I suppose in the spirit of the discussion -- that he start a blog to see how the writing process might be opened up in real time, engaging readers in dialog. Mitch seemed intrigued (guardedly) and said he'd think it over.
A few weeks later, back from a fascinating time in LA, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from Mitch saying that he'd been considering the blog idea and wanted to give it a shot. We'd returned from the USC meeting pretty charged up by the discussion we had there and convinced that blogging represented at least the primitive beginnings of a major reorganization of scholarly and public discourse. But we were at a loss as to what our small outfit could do to help. Mitch's email, if not the answer to all our questions, seemed like a great way to get our hands dirty making a tangible product and would perhaps help us to figure out our next steps. We had a few brainstorm meetings, pulled together a basic design, and Without Gods was born.
A year on, I think it's safe to say that it's been a success -- actually a turning point for us in balancing the proportions in our work of theoretical pondering to practical experimentation. It's somewhat ironic that the most substantial thing to come out of the academic blogging inquiry was slightly to the side of the initial question, and conceived before the meeting. But that's often how things occur. Questions lead to other questions. Without Gods led to Gamer Theory, Gamer Theory led to Holy of Holies, which in turn led to the Iraq Study Group Report. Which I suppose all in some way stems from the academic blogging inquiry and the many tributaries it opened up. MediaCommons is steeped in a belief in the importance of vibrant and visible conversation among scholars in forms ranging from the blog to the networked book -- values laid out in the original USC gathering, and developed through our work on Without Gods and beyond.
Now, as hinted before, Mitch has decided it's time to retreat to his study in order to bring the book to fruition -- offline. As he forges ahead, however, he'll carry with him the echoes -- and the archive -- of the past year's discussions.
After a year of mostly daily blogging on this site, I am cutting back.
As most of you know, I am writing a book on the history of disbelief for Carroll and Graf. The blog -- produced while working on the book -- was an experiment conceived by the Institute for the Future of the Book. It has been a success. I have been benefiting from informed and insightful comments by readers of the blog as I've tested some ideas from this book and explored some of their connections to contemporary debates.
I may continue to post sporatically here, but now it seems time to retreat to my study to digest what I've learned, polish my thoughts and compose the rest of the narrative. The trick will be accomplishing that without losing touch with those - commenters or just silent readers - who are interested in this project....do try to check back here once in a while. There will be some updates and, perhaps, some new experiments.
New experiments such as "Holy of Holies," a paper that Mitch delivered last month before an NYU working group on "Secularism, Religious Authority, and the Mediation of Knowledge" (it's still humming with over a hundred comments). Although blog posting will be sporadic, futureofthebook.org/mitchellstephens will remain the internet hub for Mitch's book, sections of which may appear in draft state in a format similar to the NYU paper (depending on where Mitch, and his publisher, are at). If you'd like to be notified directly of such developments, there's a form on the site where you can enter your email address.
Thanks, Mitch, and best of luck. We couldn't have asked for a better partner in exploring this transitional territory. I hope 2007 proves to be as interesting and as healthy a mix of thinking and doing, for you and for us.