MediaCommons paper up in commentable form 03.30.2007, 1:12 PM
We've just put up a version of a talk Kathleen Fitzpatrick has been giving over the past few months describing the genesis of MediaCommons and its goals for reinventing the peer review process. The paper is in CommentPress -- unfortunately not the new version, which we're still working on (revised estimated release late April), it's more or less the same build we used for the Iraq Study Group Report. The exciting thing here is that the form of the paper, constructed to solicit reader feedback directly alongside the text, actually enacts its content: radically transparent peer-to-peer review, scholars talking in the open, shepherding the development each other's work. As of this writing there are already 21 comments posted in the page margins by members of the editorial board (fresh off of last weekend's retreat) and one or two others. This is an important first step toward what will hopefully become a routine practice in the MediaCommons community.
In less than an hour, Kathleen will be delivering the talk, drawing on some of the comments, at this event at the University of Rochester. Kathleen also briefly introduced the paper yesterday on the MediaCommons blog and posed an interesting question that came out of the weekend's discussion about whether we should actually be calling this group the "editorial board." Some interesting discussion ensued. Also check at this: "A First Stab at Some General Principles".
not just websites 03.27.2007, 6:43 PM
At a meeting of the Interaction Designer's Association (IxDA) one of the audience members, during the Q&A, asked "Why are we all making websites?"
What a fantastic question. We primarily consider the digital at the Institute, and the way that discourse is changing as it is presented on screen and in the network. But the question made me reevaluate why a website is the form I immediately think of for any new project. I realized that I have a strong predilection for websites because I love the web, and I know what I'm doing when it comes to sites. But that doesn't mean a site is always the right form for every project. It prompted me to reconsider two things: the benefit of Sophie books, and the position of print in light of the network, and what transformations we can make to the printed page.
First, the Sophie book. It's not a website, but it is part of the network. During the development and testing of a shared, networked book, we discovered that there a particular feeling of intimacy associated with sharing Sophie book. Maybe it's our own perspective on Sophie that created the sensation, but sharing a Sophie book was not like giving out a url. It had more meaning than that. The web seemed like a wide-open parade ground compared to the cabin-like warmth of reading a Sophie book across the table from Ben. Sophie books have borders, and there was a sense of boundedness that even tightly designed websites lack. I'm not sure where this leads yet, but it's a wonderfully humane aspect of the networked book that we haven't had a chance to see until now.
On to print. One idea for print that I find fascinating, though deeply problematic, is the combination of an evolving digital text with print-on-demand (POD) in a series of rapidly versioned print runs. A huge issue comes up right away: there is potentially disastrous tension between a static text (the printed version) and the evolving digital version. Printing a text that changes frequently will leave people with different versions. When we talked about this at the Institute, the concern around the table was that any printed version would be out of date as soon as the toner hit the page. And, since a book is supposed to engender conversation, this book, with radical differences between versions, would actually work against that purpose. But I actually think this is a benefit from our point of view—it emphasizes the value of the ongoing conversation in a medium that can support it (digital), and highlights the limitations of a printed text. At the same time it provides a permanent and tangible record of a moment in time. I think there is value in that, like recording a live concert. It's only a nascent idea for an experiment, but I think it will help us find the fulcrum point between print and the network.
As a rider, there is a design element with every document (digital or print) that makes the most of the originating process and creates a beautiful final product. So a short, but difficult question: What is the ideal form for a rapidly versioned document?
world without oil: democratic imagination? 03.27.2007, 6:57 AM
I've written a couple of times recently about alternate reality gaming as an emergent genre of Web-native storytelling. But one of the things that's puzzled and frustrated me is the fact that the stories played out in most of these games tend to revolve around sinister cults, reborn gods, out-of-control AIs, government conspiracies and suchlike: the bread-and-butter paranoias that permeate the Web. No criticism here, I should add. Asking 'What if all this were true?' can kick-start a very entertaining daydream.
But in exploring these games, and reading around them, it becomes clear that the way these stories are told is as interesting as their content. In particular, there is a tendency (see this paper by academic and game designer Jane McGonigal for example) for ARG-style collaborative problem-solving to escape the boundaries of gaming and become a real-world way for distributed groups of people to address a problem they cannot fix by themselves.
In addition, the founding dramatic convention is "This Is Not A Game." That is, the games are supposed to leak out into players' lives. And this, combined with a chance to practice widespread collaborative problem-solving, is a phenomenally powerful and intriguingly democratic artistic form. So why, I wanted to know, is no-one using it to address contemporary politics?
No sooner do I formulate the thought than I discover that McGonigal's latest project, trailed in a talk she gave at the 2007 San Francisco game developers' conference , is an ARG called World Without Oil. Its central characters believe that an oil crisis is approaching on April 30 - the game's launch date - and are trying to spread the word. Or are they...? Who is trying to stop them...? And we're off.
I'll be following this one closely. Rather than taking a fantastical theme, it invites players to think seriously about a situation which is increasingly imaginable in the near future. And it seems that people are ready to engage: since its appearance yesterday, the the Unfiction discussion thread about the game is already many pages long, and mixes discussion of the game with serious musings about the very real possibility of a world without oil.
It also looks as though it's going to go way beyond asking its players to solve ROT-13 encryption for the next clue. In this Gamasutra interview McGonigal explains her ideas about collective intelligence and gaming, and outlines the way in which World Without Oil will be not just a game but a collaborative storytelling process. Along with the narrative of the main fictional characters, players will be invited to create blogs detailing - as if it were happening - the problems they would face in a (so far) fictional world without oil. And the game will respond. So, in effect, it will invite players to take part in a huge collaborative exercise in imagining a very possible future.
Looking at this game, I was reminded of the RSA's response to the Stern report on climate change, where it was pointed out that reactions to climate change and the like often lurch between optimism and pessimism without progressing beyond high emotion to imaginative or practical engagement with the situation. On a similar tack, Dougald Hine wrote an article recently for opendemocracy discussing climate change as a challenge to the democratic imagination: "Whether or not we succeed technically in mitigating its effects, it is all too easy to envisage the result as a more or less unpleasant authoritarian future. The task is to imagine and bring about a future which can accommodate both austerity and autonomy."
It may be too soon to tell. But if it goes well, I have some hope that World Without Oil may manage to engage not just collective fear but a collective and collaborative imagination to address some increasingly urgent questions.
MediaCommons editorial board convenes 03.26.2007, 3:49 PM
Big things are stirring that belie the surface calm on this page. Bob, Eddie and I are down on the Jersey shore with the newly appointed editorial board of MediaCommons. Kathleen and Avi have assembled a brilliant and energetic group all dedicated to changing the forms and processes of scholarly communication in media studies and beyond. We're thrilled to be finally together in the same room to start plotting out how this initiative will grow from a rudimentary sketch into a fully functioning networked press/community. The excitement here is palpable. Soon we'll be posting some follow-up notes and a Comment Press edition of a paper by Kathleen. Stay tuned.
pay attention to the dance 03.22.2007, 12:43 PM
Sean Stewart and Elan Lee, creators of two of the most successful alternate reality games to date, gave the keynote speech at this year's Arg-Fest-O-Con, a conference of the alternate reality gaming community. The whole video is over an hour, but well worth a look; the theme of the speech is 'trust'.
When I wrote a little while ago about ARGs as an emergent genre of storytelling entirely native to the Web, I identified some ways in which an ARG differs from the conventions of fiction in print form. In particular, part of the pleasure of an ARG is that it blurs the line between fact and fiction. There is a strange thrill to not knowing whether the latest link in the trail is fact (out of game) or fiction (in-game). It is also participatory and collaborative: the story does not unfold unless readers (players) collaborate to follow the trail of puzzles, hidden clues and hints. And though the story itself is 'authored' - the sites are prepared ahead of play, the story is worked out, and the whole operation is meticulously planned - it is always in a sense improvisatory. If the players pick up on a mistake, the 'puppetmasters' (game creators and operators) will work as fast as they can to incorporate it into the story if possible, so as not to destroy the fabric of the game.
Stewart and Lee describe the process of unfolding an ARG as a dance between players and puppetmasters, in which players are invited to suspend their disbelief for the duration of the story. Within the invitation, they explain, is a promise that you won't be made to feel stupid for playing along. And behind all this is trust on both sides.
This is important, he says, because no-one really knows how this genre works. Printed books bring with them a whole host of familiar protocols around how you read. People are familiar with the physical conventions of a book and the formal conventions of particular genres of book, and hence the experience is codified in a way that allows for a degree of detachment between producer and consumer. In contrast, ARGs as a genre are (in their current form, at least) less than ten years old and have very few established generic or formal codes. So in lieu of a tradition, the genre needs trust between participants.
It's also important because in an ARG suspension of disbelief works very differently. Whereas I know my novel stops being 'real' when I put my book down, an ARG inserts itself into my life in a much less clear-cut way. The game might phone you up, email you, post things to your house; all these events would be part of the story. Unlike a novel, it does not have edges. This lack of edges is typical of the Web. A blog is never finished, there is always a new link, and so on. But for fiction, this poses problems: if I'm suspending disbelief so I can enjoy the story, I want to know that I'm not going to be made to feel stupid for going along with it. I also need to know at what point to snap out of it and start taking things literally again. So it is no surprise that two prominent exponents of a kind of storytelling with no formal boundary-markers (no proscenium arch, if you will) emphasise the importance of trust between creators and participants in such a story.
The late Susan Sontag's recent piece in the Guardian is a passionate plea for the cultural and moral importance of novels. Narratives, she says, are of vital importance in helping humans make sense of their reality. I am one hundred per cent with her on this. However, she confines this faith in the improving power of stories specifically to the novel, while managing to sidestep both the cultural specificity of novels as a form, and role of oral storytellers, court poets, bards, folk tales and the countless other narrative traditions throughout history.
In the course of her rallying-cry for the novel (also, incidentally, a phillippic against those claiming the book to be dead), she inveighs against television (which rant I rather liked), and also proposes 'the hypernovel' as her main example of why fiction on the Net will never work. This 'hypernovel' as she describes it, is characteristically multiple-choice, notionally endless, possibly multi-authored and directionless narrative with none of the salutary benefits of stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end. And this, she implies, will simply not do. Readers like stories.
Given the ahistoricity of her approach to stories in general, it seems likely to me that Sontag takes for granted the established model of print authorship. This by necessity assumes a writer radically severed from its readership - which, as it is a paper book, cannot join the conversation - by a complex and time-consuming book-production process. The way she discusses debates around 'the hypernovel' clearly assume an equivalent level of detachment between the this notional hypernovel's creator and its consumers. But the model of separation between author and readers simply does not work on the Web, a medium characterised by minimal publication lead time and a conversational dynamic. However, this does not mean that, on the Web, storytelling is impossible. Nor does it mean that that nothing is ever authored. It just means it works differently.
The Web is a young medium. And ARGs are - by its enthusiasts' own admission - a very new genre. I would be very surprised if it did not evolve much further. But I'd be interested to know what Sontag might have made of a genre of storytelling that used not print but the Web; and yet, was not directionless or multiple-choice but collaboratively played out; that was authored, but with room for improvisation; and that took as its founding principle a delicate consensual suspension of disbelief rooted not in clear boundaries between 'fact' (the world outside the book) and 'fiction' (the world inside it) but in trust between all participants in the story.
blooker nominees 03.21.2007, 2:21 AM
The short list of nominees for Lulu.com's second annual Blooker Prize, which is given to the year's best book adapted from or based on a blog (or web comic), has been announced. This piece in the UK Times looks at how some publishers have begun more aggressively talent scouting in the blogosphere.
cathy davidson of duke on the value of wikipedia 03.20.2007, 11:36 AM
Cathy Davidson at Duke continues to impress me with her willingness to publicly take on complicated issues. Here's a link to an article she wrote for this week's Chronicle of Higher Education (re-blogged on the Hastac site) in which she takes one of the most progressive and positive stances in relation to Wikipedia that i've seen from a senior and highly regarded scholar. [and here's a link to a piece i wrote a few months back which takes on Jaron Lanier's critique of Wikipedia.]
networked journalism in action 03.19.2007, 2:48 AM
An excellent piece in the LA Times this weekend looks at how Josh Marshall's little Talking Points Memo blog network led the journalistic charge that helped bring the US attorneys scandal to light. As the article details, TPM's persistent muckraking was also instrumental in bringing national attention to the 2002 racial gaffe that cost Trent Lott his Senate leadership, to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandals, and to the initially underappreciated public opposition to Bush's plan to privatize social security. Truly a force to be reckoned with. And most important, it was all achieved through sustained collaboration with its readership:
The bloggers used the usual tools of good journalists everywhere -- determination, insight, ingenuity -- plus a powerful new force that was not available to reporters until blogging came along: the ability to communicate almost instantaneously with readers via the Internet and to deputize those readers as editorial researchers, in effect multiplying the reporting power by an order of magnitude.
In December, Josh Marshall, who owns and runs TPM , posted a short item linking to a news report in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about the firing of the U.S. attorney for that state. Marshall later followed up, adding that several U.S. attorneys were apparently being replaced and asked his 100,000 or so daily readers to write in if they knew anything about U.S. attorneys being fired in their areas.
For the two months that followed, Talking Points Memo and one of its sister sites, TPM Muckraker, accumulated evidence from around the country on who the axed prosecutors were, and why politics might be behind the firings. The cause was taken up among Democrats in Congress. One senior Justice Department official has resigned, and Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales is now in the media crosshairs.
This is precisely what Jeff Jarvis means by "networked journalism": a more nuanced notion than "citizens journalism" in that it doesn't insist on a strict distinction between professional and amateur. The emphasis instead is on a productive blurring of that boundary through collaboration and distribution of labor. There's no doubt that what we're seeing here is a democratization of the journalistic process, but this bottom-up movement doesn't mean the end of hierarchy. Marshall and his small staff are clearly the leaders here, a new breed of editors coordinating complex chains of effort.
screenreading reconsidered 03.19.2007, 1:45 AM
There's an interesting piece by Cory Doctorow in Locus Magazine, a sci-fi and fantasy monthly, entitled "You Do Like Reading Off a Computer Screen." discussing the differences between on and offline reading.
The novel is an invention, one that was engendered by technological changes in information display, reproduction, and distribution. The cognitive style of the novel is different from the cognitive style of the legend. The cognitive style of the computer is different from the cognitive style of the novel.
Computers want you to do lots of things with them. Networked computers doubly so -- they (another RSS item) have a million ways of asking for your attention, and just as many ways of rewarding it.
And he illustrates his point by noting throughout the article each time he paused his writing to check an email, read an RSS item, watch a YouTube clip etc.
I think there's more that separates these forms of reading than distracted digital multitasking (there are ways of reading online reading that, though fragmentary, are nonetheless deep and sustained), but the point about cognitive difference is spot on. Despite frequent protestations to the contrary, most people have indeed become quite comfortable reading off of screens. Yet publishers still scratch their heads over the persistent failure of e-books to build a substantial market. Befuddled, they blame the lack of a silver bullet reading device, an iPod for books. But really this is a red herring. Doctorow:
The problem, then, isn't that screens aren't sharp enough to read novels off of. The problem is that novels aren't screeny enough to warrant protracted, regular reading on screens.
Electronic books are a wonderful adjunct to print books. It's great to have a couple hundred novels in your pocket when the plane doesn't take off or the line is too long at the post office. It's cool to be able to search the text of a novel to find a beloved passage. It's excellent to use a novel socially, sending it to your friends, pasting it into your sig file.
But the numbers tell their own story -- people who read off of screens all day long buy lots of print books and read them primarily on paper. There are some who prefer an all-electronic existence (I'd like to be able to get rid of the objects after my first reading, but keep the e-books around for reference), but they're in a tiny minority.
There's a generation of web writers who produce "pleasure reading" on the web. Some are funny. Some are touching. Some are enraging. Most dwell in Sturgeon's 90th percentile and below. They're not writing novels. If they were, they wouldn't be web writers.
On a related note, Teleread pointed me to this free app for Macs called Tofu, which takes rich text files (.rtf) and splits them into columns with horizontal scrolling. It's super simple, with only a basic find function (no serious search), but I have to say that it does a nice job of presenting long print-like texts. By resizing the window to show fewer or more columns you can approximate a narrowish paperback or spread out the text like a news broadsheet. Clicking left or right slides the view exactly one column's width -- a simple but satisfying interface. I tried it out with Doctorow's piece:
I also plugged in Gamer Theory 2.0 and it was surprisingly decent. Amazing what a little extra thought about the screen environment can accomplish.
amazon starts to close the loop 03.15.2007, 1:18 PM
About two and a half years ago, when the institute was first developing the idea of the "networked book," we started a thought experiment which tries to imagine what would happen if Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto today and posted it to the web in a form which captured the extensive "conversation" that the essay provoked. About a year ago i made an image for a talk which cobbled together thumbnails from various books on Amazon which were related to the Communist Manifesto:
The point of the image was that these books, which are a concrete manifestation of the conversation, exist as isolated islands which at best can reference each other but which are not connected in the way we might imagine in the networked world being born.
Well, amidst all the discussion of the pluses and minuses of both Google and Microsoft book search, for the past two years Amazon has been quietly doing something exciting.
If you go to the Amazon page for an edition of the Communist Manifesto, you'll see a reference to 2061 books in Amazon's list which reference the Manifesto with a hot-link to each reference in each of the books.
The only big missing piece is an interactive semantic map with links between all 2061 books.
time out and some of what went into it 03.14.2007, 2:42 AM
A remaindered link that I keep forgetting to post. A couple of weeks back, Time Out London ran a nice little "future of books" feature that makes mention of the Institute. A good chunk of it focuses on On Demand Books, the Espresso book machine and the evolution of print, but it also manages to delve a bit into networked territory, looking at Penguin's wiki novel project and including a few remarks from me about the yuckiness of e-book hardware and the social aspects of text. Leading up to the article, I had some nice conversations over email and phone with the writer Jessica Winter, most of which of course had no hope of fitting into a ~1300-word piece. And as tends to be the case, the more interesting stuff ended up on the cutting room floor. So I thought I'd take advantage of our laxer space restrictions and throw up for any who are interested some of that conversation.
(Questions are in bold. Please excuse rambliness.)
The other day I was having an interesting conversation with a book editor in which we were trying to determine whether a book is more like a table or a computer; i.e., is a book a really good piece of technology in its present form, or does it need constant rethinking and upgrades, or is it both? Another way of asking this question: Will the regular paper-and-glue book go the way of the stone tablet and the codex, or will it continue to coexist with digital versions? (Sorry, you must get asked this question all the time...)
We keep coming back to this question is because it's such a tricky one. The simple answer is yes.
The more complicated answer...
When folks at the Institute talk about "the book," we're really more interested in the role the book historically has played in our civilization -- that is, as the primary vehicle humans use for moving around ideas. In this sense, it seems pretty certain that the future of the book, or to put it more awkwardly, the future of intellectual discourse, is shifting inexorably from printed pages to networked screens.
Predicting hardware is a tougher and ultimately less interesting pursuit. I guess you could say we're agnostic: unsure about the survival or non-survival of the paper-and-glue book as we are about the success or failure of the latest e-book reading device to hit the market. Still, there's this strong impulse to try to guess which forms will prevail and which will go extinct. But if you look at the history of media you find that things usually aren't so clear cut.
It's actually quite seldom the case that one form flat out replaces another. Far more often the two forms go on existing together, affecting and changing one other in a variety of ways. Photography didn't kill painting as many predicted it would. Instead it caused a crisis that led to Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism. TV didn't kill radio but it did usurp radio's place at the center of the culture and changed the sorts of programming that it made sense for radio to deliver. So far the Internet hasn't killed TV but there's no question that it's bringing about a radical shift in both the production and consumption of television, blurring the line between the two.
The Internet probably won't kill off books either but it will almost certainly affect what sorts of books get produced, and on the ways in which we read and write them. It's happening already. Books that look and feel much the same way today as they looked and felt 30 years ago are now almost invariably written on computers with word processing applications, and increasingly, researched or even written on the Web.
Certain things that we used to think of as books -- encyclopedias, atlases, phone directories, catalogs -- have already been reinvented, and in some cases merged. Other sorts of works, particularly long-form narratives, seem to have a more durable relationship with the printed word. But even here, our relationship with these books is changing as we become more accustomed to new networked forms. Continuous partial attention. Porous boundaries between documents and media. Social and participatory forms of reading. Writing in public. All these things change the very idea of reading and writing, so when you resume an offline mode of doing these things, your perceptions and way of thinking have likely changed.
(A side note. I think this experience of passage back and forth between off and online forms, between analog and digital, is itself significant and for people in our generation, with our general background, is probably the defining state of being. We're neither immigrant or native. Or to dip into another analogical pot, we're amphibians.)
As time and technology progress and we move with increasing fluidity between print and digital, we may come to better appreciate the unique affordances of the print book. Looked at one way, the book is an outmoded technology. It lacks the interactivity and interconnectedness of networked communication and is extremely limited in scope when compared with the practically boundless universe of texts and media that exists online. But you could also see this boundedness is its greatest virtue -- the focus and structure it brings, enabling sustained thought and contemplation and private intellectual growth. Not to mention archival stability. In these ways the book is a technology that would be hard to improve upon.
John Updike has said that books represent "an encounter, in silence, of two minds." Does that hold true now, or will it continue to as we continue to rethink the means of production (both technological and intellectual) of books? What are the advantages and disadvantages of a networked book over a book traditionally conceived in that "silent encounter"?
I think I partly answered this question in the last round. But again, as with media forms, so too with ways of reading. Updike is talking about a certain kind of reading, the kind that is best suited to the sorts of things he writes: novels, short stories and criticism. But it would be a mistake to apply this as a universal principle for all books, especially books that are intended as much, if not more, as a jumping off point for discussion as for that silent encounter.
Perhaps the biggest change being brought about by new networked forms of communication is the redefinition of the place of the individual in relation to the collective. The present publishing system very much favors the individual, both in the culture of reverence that surrounds authors and in the intellectual property system that upholds their status as professionals. Updike is at the top of this particular heap and so naturally he defends it as though it were the inviolable natural order.
Digital communication radically clashes with this order: by divorcing intellectual property from physical property (a marriage that has long enabled the culture industry to do business) and by re-situating textual communication in the network, connecting authors and readers in startling ways that rearrange the traditional hiearchies.
What do you think of print-on-demand technology like the Espresso machine? One quibble that I have with it, and it's probably a lost cause, is that it seems part of the death of browsing (which is otherwise hastened by the demise of the independent bookstore and the rise of the "drive-through" library); opportunities for a chance encounter with a book seem to be lessened. Just curious--has the Institute addressed the importance of browsing at all?
The serendipity of physical browsing would indeed be unfortunate to lose, and there may be some ways of replicating it online. North Carolina State University uses software called Endeca for their online catalog where you pull up a record of a book and you can look at what else is next to it on the physical shelf. But generally speaking browsing in the network age is becoming a social affair. Behavior-derived algorithms are one approach -- Amazon's collaborative filtering system, based on the aggregate clickstreams and purchasing patterns of its customers, is very useful and getting better all the time. Then there's social bookmarking. There, taxonomy becomes social, serendipity not just a chance encounter with a book or document, but with another reader, or group of readers.
And some other scattered remarks about conversation and the persistent need for editors:
Blogging, comments, message boards, etc... In some ways, the document as a whole is just the seed for the responses. It's pointing toward a different kind of writing that is more dialogical, and we haven't really figured it out yet. We don't yet know how to manage and represent complex conversations in an electronic environment. From a chat room to a discussion forum to a comment stream in a blog post, even to an e-mail thread or a multiparty instant-messaging conversation--it's just a list of remarks, a linear transcript that flattens the discussion's spirals, loops and pretzels into a single straight line. In other words, the minute the conversation becomes complex, we become unable to make that complexity readable.
We've talked about setting up shop in Second Life and doing an experiment there in modeling conversations. But I'm more interested in finding some way of expanding two-dimensional interfaces into 2.5. We don't yet know how to represent conversations on a screen once it crosses a certain threshold of complexity.
People gauge comment counts as a measure of the social success of a piece of writing or a video clip. If you look at Huffington Post, you'll see posts that have 500 comments. Once it gets to that level, it's sort of impenetrable. It makes the role of filters, of editors and curators--people who can make sound selections--more crucial than ever.
Until recently, publishing existed as a bottleneck model with certain material barriers to publishing. The ability to overleap those barriers was concentrated in a few bottlenecks, with editorial filters to choose what actually got out there. Those material barriers are no longer there; there's still an enormous digital divide, but for the 1 billion or so people who are connected, those barriers are incredibly low. There's suddenly a super-abundance of information with no gatekeeper; instead of a bottleneck, we have a deluge. The act of filtering and selecting it down becomes incredibly important. The function that editors serve in the current context will be need to be updated and expanded.
baudrillard and the net 03.12.2007, 6:43 PM
Sifting through the various Baudrillard obits, I came across this passage from America, a travelogue he wrote in 1989:
...This is echoed by the other obsession: that of being 'into', hooked in to your own brain. What people are contemplating on their word-processor screens is the operation of their own brains. It is not entrails that we try to interpret these days, nor even hearts or facial expressions; it is, quite simply, the brain. We want to expose to view its billions of connections and watch it operating like a video-game. All this cerebral, electronic snobbery is hugely affected - far from being the sign of a superior knowledge of humanity, it is merely the mark of a simplified theory, since the human being is here reduced to the terminal excrescence of his or her spinal chord. But we should not worry too much about this: it is all much less scientific, less functional than is ordinarily thought. All that fascinates us is the spectacle of the brain and its workings. What we are wanting here is to see our thoughts unfolding before us - and this itself is a superstition.
Hence, the academic grappling with his computer, ceaselessly correcting, reworking, and complexifying, turning the exercise into a kind of interminable psychoanalysis, memorizing everything in an effort to escape the final outcome, to delay the day of reckoning of death, and that other - fatal - moment of reckoning that is writing, by forming an endless feed-back loop with the machine. This is a marvellous instrument of exoteric magic. In fact all these interactions come down in the end to endless exchanges with a machine. Just look at the child sitting in front of his computer at school; do you think he has been made interactive, opened up to the world? Child and machine have merely been joined together in an integrated circuit. As for the intellectual, he has at last found the equivalent of what the teenager gets from his stereo and his walkman: a spectacular desublimation of thought, his concepts as images on a screen.
When Baudrillard wrote this, Tim Berners-Lee and co. were writing the first pages of the WWW in Switzerland. Does the subsequent emergence of the web, the first popular networked computing medium, trump Baudrillard's prophecy of rarified self-absorption or does this "superstition" of wanting "to see our thoughts unfolding before us," this "interminable psychoanalysis," simply widen into a group exercise? An obsession with being hooked into a collective brain...
I kind of felt the latter last month seeing the little phenomenon that grew up around Michael Wesch's weirdly alluring "Web 2.0...The Machine is Us/isng Us" video (now over 1.7 million views on YouTube). The viral transmission of that clip, and the various (mostly inane) video responses it elicited, ended up feeling more like cyber-wankery than any sort of collective revelation. Then again, the form itself was interesting -- a new kind of expository essay -- which itself prompted some worthwhile discussion.
I think the only honest answer is that it's both. The web both connects and insulates us, breaks down walls and provides elaborate mechanisms for self-confirmation. Change is ambiguous, and was even before we had a network connecting our machines -- something that Baudrillard's pessimism misses.
open source influence on education 03.12.2007, 1:30 PM
The Online Education Database is running a story on the way the Open Source movement changed education, that assumes a causal relationship between the two:
MIT provides just one of the 10 open source educational success stories detailed below. Open source and open access resources have changed how colleges, organizations, instructors, and prospective students use software, operating systems and online documents for educational purposes. And, in most cases, each success story also has served as a springboard to create more open source projects.
This reminds me of something I have often wondered: Was the open source movement the catalyst for opening up education? Or was it simply the advent of instant communication and easy to copy digital media? Haven't the ideals of open source long existed in academia?
gamer theory 2.0 - visualize this! 03.08.2007, 2:38 PM
Call for participation: Visualize This!
How can we 'see' a written text? Do you have a new way of visualizing writing on the screen? If so, then McKenzie Wark and the Institute for the Future of the Book have a challenge for you. We want you to visualize McKenzie's new book, Gamer Theory.
Version 1 of Gamer Theory was presented by the Institute for the Future of the Book as a 'networked book', open to comments from readers. McKenzie used these comments to write version 2, which will be published in April by Harvard University Press. With the new version we want to extend this exploration of the book in the digital age, and we want you to be part of it.
All you have to do is register, download the v2 text, make a visualization of it (preferably of the whole text though you can also focus on a single part), and upload it to our server with a short explanation of how you did it.
All visualizations will be presented in a gallery on the new Gamer Theory site. Some contributions may be specially featured. All entries will receive a free copy of the printed book (until we run out).
By "visualization" we mean some graphical representation of the text that uses computation to discover new meanings and patterns and enables forms of reading that print can't support. Some examples that have inspired us:
- Brad Paley's Text Arc
- Marcos Weskamp's Newsmap
- Fernanda Viegas' Wikipedia "History Flow"
- Chirag Mehta's US Presidential Speeches Tag Cloud
- Kushal Dave's Exegesis
- Magnus Rembold and Jurgen Spath's comparative essay visualizations in Total Interaction
- Philip DeCamp, Amber Frid-Jimenez, Jethran Guiness, Deb Roy: "Gist Icons" (pdf)
- CNET News.com's The Big Picture
- Visuwords online graphical dictionary
- Christopher Collins' DocuBurst
- Stamen Design's rendering of Kate Hayles' Narrating Bits in USC's Vectors
- Brian Kim Stefans' The Dreamlife of Letters
- Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries
Understand that this is just a loose guideline. Feel encouraged to break the rules, hack the definition, show us something we hadn't yet imagined.
All visualizations, like the web version of the text, will be Creative Commons licensed (Attribution-NonCommercial). You have the option of making your code available under this license as well or keeping it to yourself. We encourage you to share the source code of your visualization so that others can learn from your work and build on it. In this spirt, we've asked experienced hackers to provide code samples and resources to get you started (these will be made available on the upload page).
Gamer 2.0 will launch around April 18th in synch with the Harvard edition. Deadline for entries is Wednesday, April 11th.
Read GAM3R 7H30RY 1.1.
Download/upload page (registration required):
this might just blow your mind 03.08.2007, 4:01 AM
"I should try to draw everybody out there, I mean everybody who might be looking at this. I should try to draw all of you (and that's an awful lot of people)...So then I thought I'd try to draw everyone on the Internet. More or less. I should try to draw all of you..."
See much more here.
a change in social spaces 03.07.2007, 10:13 AM
Last week I went to an exhibit on Robert Moses, the legendary New York city planner, at the Museum of the City of New York. All the while making sure we drove through as much of the city that he helped develop as possible.
Perhaps the most powerful architectural expressions of that mission were the 23 public swimming pools with bathhouses Moses built in a five-year period beginning in the mid-1930s. A graceful colonnaded arcade shelters the shops and restaurants at Orchard Beach; the vivid geometric forms and intricate tile and brick work of the McCarren Park Pool in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, celebrate the therapeutic value of communal exercise. For Moses, those projects were part of a broader strategy to reinforce middle-class neighborhoods and deter residents from fleeing to the suburbs.
Moses believed large landmark projects provided an anchor for communities to build around, like the McCarren Park Pool, in our very own Brooklyn, which at it's peak held 6800 swimmers and served as a social hub.
But such projects could not work today. No one has the type of power Moses had during his reign, and communities are often now built with a Jane Jabobs-like philosophy in mind; that is, emphasis, on restoration, not on construction. But now technology is again changing the idea of a city, and the role of social spaces.
BusinessWeek recently ran a piece that looked at the transformation of the coffee shop into the modern age social office. Technology, especially wireless, is changing how people meet and work together. I wrote a post titled "Reading Buildings," a few months ago, where I wondered what libraries would be like if accessing of information became even less centralized:
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.
While technology poses the potential problem of atomization, it does pose an interesting problem for organizers and builders of social spaces: what sort of emphasis should there be on technology? Does bringing in technology, especially wireless, defeat the purpose of common social spaces? Or is that the new goal? Many websites now encourage meeting offline, but what are they to do once they meet?
emerging libraries at rice: day one 03.06.2007, 1:16 AM
For the next few days, Bob and I will be at the De Lange "Emerging Libraries" conference hosted by Rice University in Houston, TX, coming to you live with occasional notes, observations and overheard nuggets of wisdom. Representatives from some of the world's leading libraries are here: the Library of Congress, the British Library, the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina, as well as the architects of recent digital initiatives like the Internet Archive, arXiv.org and the Public Library of Science. A very exciting gathering indeed.
We're here, at least in part, with our publisher hat on, thinking quite a lot these days about the convergence of scholarly publishing with digital research infrastructure (i.e. MediaCommons). It was fitting then that the morning kicked off with a presentation by Richard Baraniuk, founder of the open access educational publishing platform Connexions. Connexions, which last year merged with the digitally reborn Rice University Press, is an innovative repository of CC-licensed courses and modules, built on an open volunteer basis by educators and freely available to weave into curricula and custom-designed collections, or to remix and recombine into new forms.
Connexions is designed not only as a first-stop resource but as a foundational layer upon which richer and more focused forms of access can be built. Foremost among those layers of course is Rice University Press, which, apart from using the Connexions publishing framework will still operate like a traditional peer review-driven university press. But other scholarly and educational communities are also encouraged to construct portals, or "lenses" as they call them, to specific areas of the Connexions corpus, possibly filtered through post-publication peer review. It will be interesting to see whether Connexions really will end up supporting these complex external warranting processes or if it will continue to serve more as a building block repository -- an educational lumber yard for educators around the world.
Constructive crit: there's no doubt that Connexions is one of the most important and path-breaking scholarly publishing projects out there, though it still feels to me more like backend infrastructure than a fully developed networked press. It has a flat, technical-feeling design and cookie cutter templates that give off a homogenous impression in spite of the great diversity of materials. The social architecture is also quite limited, and what little is there (ways to suggest edits and discussion forums attached to modules) is not well integrated with course materials. There's an opportunity here to build more tightly knit communities around these offerings -- lively feedback loops to improve and expand entries, areas to build pedagogical tutorials and to collect best practices, and generally more ways to build relationships that could lead to further collaboration. I got to chat with some of the Connexions folks and the head of the Rice press about some of these social questions and they were very receptive.
* * * * *
Michael A. Keller of Stanford spoke of emerging "cybraries" and went through some very interesting and very detailed elements of online library search that I'm too exhausted to summarize now. He capped off his talk with a charming tour through the Stanford library's Second Life campus and the library complex on Information Island. Keller said he ultimately doesn't believe that purely imitative virtual worlds will become the principal interface to libraries but that they are nonetheless a worthwhile area for experimentation.
Browsing during the talk, I came across an interesting and similarly skeptical comment by Howard Rheingold on a long-running thread on Many 2 Many about Second Life and education:
I've lectured in Second Life, complete with slides, and remarked that I didn't really see the advantage of doing it in SL. Members of the audience pointed out that it enabled people from all over the world to participate and to chat with each other while listening to my voice and watching my slides; again, you don't need an immersive graphical simulation world to do that. I think the real proof of SL as an educational medium with unique affordances would come into play if an architecture class was able to hold sessions within scale models of the buildings they are studying, if a biochemistry class could manipulate realistic scale-model simulations of protein molecules, or if any kind of lesson involving 3D objects or environments could effectively simulate the behaviors of those objects or the visual-auditory experience of navigating those environments. Just as the techniques of teleoperation that emerged from the first days of VR ended up as valuable components of laparascopic surgery, we might see some surprise spinoffs in the educational arena. A problem there, of course, is that education systems suffer from a great deal more than a lack of immersive environments. I'm not ready to write off the educational potential of SL, although, as noted, the importance of that potential should be seen in context. In this regard, we're still in the early days of the medium, similar to cinema in the days when filmmakers nailed a camera tripod to a stage and filmed a play; SL needs D.W. Griffiths to come along and invent the equivalent of close-ups, montage, etc.
Rice too has some sort of Second Life presence and apparently was beaming the conference into Linden land.
* * * * *
Next came a truly mind-blowing presentation by Noha Adly of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt. Though only five years old, the BA casts itself quite self-consciously as the direct descendant of history's most legendary library, the one so frequently referenced in contemporary utopian rhetoric about universal digital libraries. The new BA glories in this old-new paradigm, stressing continuity with its illustrious past and at the same time envisioning a breathtakingly modern 21st century institution unencumbered by the old thinking and constrictive legacies that have so many other institutions tripping over themselves into the digital age. Adly surveyed more fascinating-sounding initiatives, collections and research projects than I can possibly recount. I recommend investigating their website to get a sense of the breadth of activity that is going on there. I will, however, note that that they are the only library in the world to house a complete copy of the Internet Archive: 1.5 petabytes of data on nearly 900 computers.
(Speaking of the IA, Brewster Kahle is also here and is closing the conference Wednesday afternoon. He brought with him a test model of the hundred dollar laptop, which he showed off at dinner (pic to the right) in tablet mode sporting an e-book from the Open Content Alliance's children's literature collection (a scanned copy of The Owl and the Pussycat)).
And speaking of old thinking and constrictive legacies, following Adly was Deanna B. Marcum, an associate librarian at the Library of Congress. Marcum seemed well aware of the big picture but gave off a strong impression of having hands tied by a change-averse institution that has still not come to grips with the basic fact of the World Wide Web. It was a numbing hour and made one palpably feel the leadership vacuum left by the LOC in the past decade, which among other things has allowed Google to move in and set the agenda for library digitization.
Next came Lynne J. Brindley, Chief Executive of the British Library, which is like apples to the LOC's oranges. Slick, publicly engaged and with pockets deep enough to really push the technological envelope, the British Library is making a very graceful and sometimes flashy (Turning the Pages) migration to the digital domain. Brindley had many keen insights to offer and described a several BL experiments that really challenge the conventional wisdom on library search and exhibitions. I was particularly impressed by these "creative research" features: short, evocative portraits of a particular expert's idiosyncratic path through the collections; a clever way of featuring slices of the catalogue through the eyes of impassioned researchers (e.g. here). Next step would be to open this up and allow the public to build their own search profiles.
* * * * *
That more or less covers today with the exception of a final keynote talk by John Seely Brown, which was quite inspiring and included a very kind mention of our work at MediaCommons. It's been a long day, however, and I'm fading. So I'll pick that up tomorrow.
AAUP on open access / business as usual? 03.01.2007, 2:26 PM
On Tuesday the Association of American University Presses issued an official statement of its position on open access (literature that is "digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions" - Suber). They applaud existing OA initiatives, urge more OA in the humanities and social sciences (out of the traditional focus areas of science, technology and medicine), and advocate the development of OA publishing models for monographs and other scholarly formats beyond journals. Yet while endorsing the general open access direction, they warn against "more radical approaches that abandon the market as a viable basis for the recovery of costs in scholarly publishing and instead try to implement a model that has come to be known as the 'gift economy' or the 'subsidy economy.'" "Plunging straight into pure open access," they argue, "runs the serious risk of destabilizing scholarly communications in ways that would disrupt the progress of scholarship and the advancement of knowledge."
Peter Suber responds on OA News, showing how many of these so-called risks are overblown and founded on false assumptions about open access. OA, even "pure" OA as originally defined by the Budapest Open Access Initiative in 2001, is not incompatible with a business model. You can have free online editions coupled with priced print editions, or full open access after an embargo period directly following publication. There are many ways to go OA and still generate revenue, many of which we probably haven't thought up yet.
But this begs the more crucial question: should scholarly presses really be trying to operate as businesses at all? There's an interesting section toward the end of the AAUP statement that basically acknowledges the adverse effect of market pressures on university presses. It's a tantalizing moment in which the authors seem to come close to actually denouncing the whole for-profit model of scholarly publishing. But in the end they pull their punch:
For university presses, unlike commercial and society publishers, open access does not necessarily pose a threat to their operation and their pursuit of the mission to "advance knowledge, and to diffuse it...far and wide." Presses can exist in a gift economy for at least the most scholarly of their publishing functions if costs are internally reallocated (from library purchases to faculty grants and press subsidies). But presses have increasingly been required by their parent universities to operate in the market economy, and the concern that presses have for the erosion of copyright protection directly reflects this pressure.
According to the AAUP's own figures: "On average, AAUP university-based members receive about 10% of their revenue as subsidies from their parent institution, 85% from sales, and 5% from other sources." This I think is the crux of the debate. As the above statement reminds us, the purpose of scholarly publishing is to circulate discourse and the fruits of research through the academy and into the world. But today's commercially structured system runs counter to these aims, restricting access and limiting outlets for publication. The open access movement is just one important response to a general system failure.
But let's move beyond simply trying to reconcile OA with existing architectures of revenue and begin talking about what it would mean to reconfigure the entire scholarly publishing system away from commerce and back toward infrastructure. It's obvious to me, given that university presses can barely stay solvent even in restricted access mode, and given how financial pressures continue to tighten the bottleneck through which scholarship must pass, making less of it available and more slowly, that running scholarly presses as profit centers doesn't make sense. You wouldn't dream of asking libraries to compete this way. Libraries are basic educational infrastructure and it's obvious that they should be funded as such. Why shouldn't scholarly presses also be treated as basic infrastructure?
Here's one radical young librarian who goes further, suggesting that libraries should usurp the role of publishers (keep in mind that she's talking primarily about the biggest corporate publishing cartels like Elsevier, Wiley & Sons, and Springer Verlag):
...I consider myself the enemy of right-thinking for-profit publishers everywhere...
I am not the enemy just because I'm an academic librarian. I am not the enemy just because I run an institutional repository. I am not the enemy just because I pay attention to scholarly publishing and data curation and preservation. I am not the enemy because I'm going to stop subscribing to journals--I don't even make those decisions!
I am the enemy because I will become a publisher. Not just "can" become, will become. And I'll do it without letting go of librarianship, its mission and its ethics--and publishers may think they have my mission and my ethics, but they're often wrong. Think I can't compete? Watch me cut off your air supply over the course of my career (and I have 30-odd years to go, folks; don't think you're getting rid of me in any hurry). Just watch.
Rather than outright clash, however, there could be collaboration and merger. As business and distribution models rise and fall, one thing that won't go away is the need for editorial vision and sensitive stewardship of the peer review process. So for libraries to simply replace publishers seems both unlikely and undesirable. But joining forces, publishers and librarians could work together to deliver a diverse and sustainable range of publishing options including electronic/print dual editions, multimedia networked formats, pedagogical tools, online forums for transparent peer-to-peer review, and other things not yet conceived. All of it by definition open access, and all of it funded as libraries are funded: as core infrastructure.
There are little signs here and there that this press-library convergence may have already begun. I recently came across an open access project called digitalculturebooks, which is described as "a collaborative imprint of the University of Michigan Press and the University of Michigan Library." I'm not exactly sure how the project is funded, and it seems to have been established on a provisional basis to study whether such arrangements can actually work, but still it seems to carry a hint of things to come.
alex itin at monkeytown 03.01.2007, 12:48 PM
Last night's Monkeybook event was a big hit. Thanks to all who came. Very soon, we'll be announcing the relaunch of IT IN place with its fancy new archive interface. Just fixing a few last bugs. In the meantime, here's a little clip from last night shot by Vimeo founder Jakob Lodwick:
Vimeo user Alex Itin presented a show last night at Monkeytown, screening videos from Vimeo as well as paintings, animated GIFs, and HTML experiments.
It was an inspiring, relaxing night ... just laying around, eating food, drinking wine, and enjoying some commercial free video for a few hours.