it's multimedia, jim, but not as we know it 04.30.2007, 4:26 PM
I spent yesterday evening in a visitors' centre for a country that doesn't exist. Kymaerica is a parallel universe with its own artefacts, stories, history and geography, roughly coexistent with this world (the 'linear' world) but not identical to it.
The central space for exploring Kymaerican history and heritage is online, but it erupts into the 'linear' world here and there. There is a permanent installation in Paris, Illinois; there are now five plaques in the UK: during the London exhibition there was a bus tour around Kymaerican sites corresponding with Central London.
The creator of this Borghesian experience is Eames Demetrios, designer, writer, filmmaker and Kymaerica's 'geographer-at-large'. I was struck by the parallels between his work, and some aspects of alternate reality gaming (ARGing), which I've argued here recently represents the emergence of a new genre of genuinely Web-native fiction (see Ben's post below about World Without Oil for recent if:book discussion of this form). Though Kymaerica is presented as a piece of art, and alternate reality gaming generally thinks of itself more as entertainment, they have much in common. And this provides some intriguing insights into how, when thinking about the relationships in storytelling between form and content, the nature of the Web requires a radical rethinking of what fiction is. So my apologies in advance for the way this first attempt to do just that has turned into a longish post.
Eames calls what he does 'three-dimensional storytelling'. I want to call the genre of which I believe that Kymaerica and ARGs are both instances 'multimedia storytelling'. 'Storytelling', as opposed to 'fiction', because the notion of fiction belongs with the print book and is arguably inseparable from a series of relatively recent conventions around suspension of disbelief. And genuinely 'multimedia' in the sense that it uses multiple delivery mechanisms online but is not confined to the Web - indeed, is most successful when it escapes its boundaries.
People have been telling stories since the first humans sat round a culture. Narratives are fundamental to how we make sense of our world. But the print industry is such that otherwise highly-educated publishers, writers and so on talk as if no-one knew anything about works of the imagination before the novel appeared, along with the category of 'fiction' and all the cognitive conventions that entails. Why is this?
The novel is one delivery mechanism for storytelling, that emerged under specific social and cultural conditions. The economic, cultural and social structures created by and creating the novel hold up the commodification of individual imaginations (the convention of 'original' work, the idea of 'great' authors and so on) as their ideological and idealised centrepiece. The novel was for a long time the crown jewel of the literate culture industry. But it remains only one way of telling stories. And part of its conventions derive from the nature of the book as physical object: boundedness, fixity, authorship.
Meanwhile, many of us live now in a networked, post-industrial era, where many of the things that seemed so certain to a Dickens or Trollope no longer seem as reliable. And, perhaps fittingly, we have a new delivery mechanism for content. But unlike the book, which is bounded, fixed, authored, the Web is boundless, mutable, multi-authored and deeply unreliable. So the conception of singly-authored 'fiction' may not work any more. Hence I prefer the term 'storytelling': it is older than 'fiction', and less complicit in the conceptual framework that produced the novel. And as Ben has just suggested, the Web in many ways recalls oral storytelling much more than modern conceptions of fiction.
I also want to be clear about what I mean by 'multimedia', as the word is often used in contexts that replicate much of the print era's mindset and as such, at a fundamental, misunderstand something about the Web. On the basis of experiments in this form to date, Multimedia fiction' evokes something digital but book-like: bounded, authored, fixed like a book, just with extra visual stimuli and maybe some superficially interactive bells and whistles. I have yet to come across a piece, in this sense, of 'multimedia fiction' that's as compelling as a book.
But the Web isn't a book. Its formal nature is radically different. It's boundless, mutable, multi-authored. So if the concrete physical form and economic conditions of a book's production make certain demands of a story, and reciprocally shape its reading public, then what equivalent demands do the Web make?
Gamer Theory and Mediacommons demonstrate the potential for a 'networked book' to become a site of conversation, networked debate and dynamic exploration. But these are discursive rather than imaginative works. If the generic markers of a novel are fairly recognisable, what are the equivalent markers of a networked story? Drawing out the parallels between Kymaerica and an ARG, I want to suggest a concept of 'multimedia storytelling' characterised by the following qualities:
2) a rebalancing of authorship with collaboration, and
3) a dissolution of the boundary between fact and fiction, and attendant replacement of 'suspension of disbelief' with play.
Web reading tends towards entropy. You go looking for statistics on the Bornean rainforest and find yourself reading the blog of someone who collects orang utan coffee mugs. Anyone doing sustained research on the Web needs a well-developed ability to navigate countless digressions, and derive coherence from the sea of chatter. And multimedia storytelling mimics this reading practice. The reader's activity consists not in turning pages but in following clues, leads, associative echos and lateral leaps, and reconstructing sense from the fragments. It is pleasurable precisely because it offers a souped-up, pre-authored and more rewarding (because fantastic) version of the usual site-hopping experience. A typical ARG may include many different websites along with emails, IM chats, live action and other media. Part of the pleasure is derived from an experience that requires the 'reader' to sift through a fragmented body of information and reassemble the story.
Kymaerica is not fragmented across the Web like an ARG: the bulk of the story archive is available through the eponymous site. But the offline, physical traces of its story can be found in Texas, Illinois, London, Oxfordshire and elsewheres. And the story itself is deliberately fragmented. The way Eames explains it, he has the entire history of this world worked out in detail, but deliberately only reveals tiny parts of it through supposedly 'factual' tools such as plaques, guides and the kinds of snippet you might find in a museum dealing with the 'real' or factual world. "I always want to hint at something that's just out of reach," he told me. "It's like writing a novel so you can publish a haiku."
So just as an ARG offers fragments of the story for the players to reconstitute, for Eames it's up to the audience to join the dots. This fragmented delivery then requires a radical rebalancing of the relationship between the author and the reader.
Whereas the relationship between a print author and a novel reader might be characterised as serial imaginative monogamy, the relationship between multimedia storytelling and its readers is fragmented, multiple, polyamorous, mutable. Again, this mimics the multiplicity, interactivity and mutability of Web reading, along with its greater reliance on user-generated content. ARG stories play out in time and, while the core story is worked out in advance, are highly improvisatory on the edges. Players work together on fora, or even - as in WWO - write additional imaginative content for the story. Interaction with characters in the story may take place in real time, either in the flesh or by IM or email; mistakes may generate whole new storylines; the players collaborate to solve puzzles and progress the story.
Eames' three-dimensional storytelling remains similarly improvisatory. The back story is worked out ahead of schedule; but every conversation he has with others expands the story further, and needs to be incorporated into the archives. He's keen to get the world well enough established to invite others to contribute material to the archives. And the experience is highly absorbing, even for the initially sceptical: in Paris, Illinois, the local townsfolk now hold a Kymaerican Spelling Bee as part of the town's annual festival. Neither ARGs nor Kymaerica have entirely abandoned the notion of sustained authorship, as in different ways Ficlets or the Million Penguins wiki experiment attempt to do. Rather, it has been resituated in a context where the reader or listener has been recast as something more like a player. The story is a game; the game structure already exists; but the game is not there until it is played.
The replacement of 'reading' or 'listening' with 'playing' is the final characteristic I associate with multimedia storytelling, and is inseparable from the existence of Web stories in a network rather than a bounded artefact, whether print book or CD-ROM. A networked story is porous at the edges, inviting participation, comment and contribution; this renders the notion of 'suspension of disbelief' useless.
The first books represented a revered source of ancient authority: the Bible, the classical philosophers, the theologians. And even when telling stories, books provide a conceptual proscenium arch. Opening the covers of a book, like seeing the lights go down in a theatre, conveys a clear signal to begin your 'suspension of disbelief'. But the Web gives no such clear signals. The Web is all that is not authoritative: it is a white noise of opinion, bias, speculation, argument and debate. Story, in essence. Even the facts on the Web are more like narratives than any reliable truth. The Web won't tell you which sites you can take seriously and which not; there are no boundary markers between suspending disbelief and taking things literally. Instead of establishing clear conventions for which books are to be taken as 'authoritative' and read literally, and which to be treated as pure imagination, the Web invites the reader to half-believe everything all the time, and believe nothing at the same time. To play a game of 'What if this were true'?
Again, multimedia storytelling mimics this experience. Is this site in-game, or just the product of some crazy people? Was there really a Great Dangaroo Flood on Old Compton St? It uses familiar tools conventionally used to communicate 'real world' information: email, IM, the semiotic register of tourist guides, plaques, visitors' centres. It hands the responsibility for deciding on when to suspend disbelief back to the individual. And in doing so, it transforms this from 'suspension of disbelief' to an active choice: to a kind of performed imaginative participation best described as 'play'.
Multimedia stories are not 'read': they are played. And unlike a suspension of disbelief, which contains within itself the assumption that we will afterwards revert to a condition of lucid rationality, play has a tendency to overspill its boundaries. The Parisian Embassy in Illinois is beginning to have a reciprocal effect on its surroundings: a street in the town has been renamed in line with Kymaerican history. The Florida authority responsible for historic sites has received at least one complaint about Kymaerican plaques, which they sensibly just said were not their responsibility. Take away the proscenium arch and fact and fiction begin dancing in ways that either exhilarate or terrify you.
Reports of the death of the novel are greatly exaggerated. Multimedia storytelling in the form I've just tried to outline does not compete with the novel, for reasons which I hope I've made clear. But the Web as storytelling medium deserves better than misguided attempts either to claim its ascendancy over previous forms, or else to force it to deliver against ideas of 'fiction' that do not reflect its nature. The interlocking qualities of fragmentation, collaboration and boundlessness mimic the experiences of reading on the Web and require a different kind of participation than 'reading'. Suspension of disbelief becomes deliberately-performed play, collaborative reconstruction of the story is essential to the experience, and an ongoing improvisatory dance takes place between author and readership.
benevolent conspiracy 04.30.2007, 10:38 AM
"Fuel prices jumped this week, led by gasoline which gained over a dollar a gallon on average. Oil distributors pointed to several "renegotiated" delivery contracts as proof that a long-rumored shortfall in the supply of U.S. oil has finally arrived. Oil producers were tight-lipped about the adjusted contracts, and as I write this it's still unclear how extensive the shortfall will turn out to be."
And thus the stage is set for World Without Oil, the social consciousness-raising ARG (alternate reality game) launched today by Jane McGonigal and associates. I'm already in flagrant violation of the "this is not a game" convention that governs all ARGs, but since this something I and others here at the Institute aim to follow closely in the coming weeks and months, we'll have to treat the curtain between fact and fiction as semi-transparent.
From the perspective of our research here, I'm deeply intrigued because the ARG is an entirely net-native storytelling genre, employing forms as diverse and scattered as the media landscape we live in today. ARGs don't rely on a specific software application, game system or OS, rather they treat the entire Internet as their platform. Players typically employ a whole battery of information technologies -- email, chat, blogs, search engines, message boards, wikis, social media sites, cell phones -- in pursuit of an elusive narrative thread.
The story is usually spun through cryptic clues and half-disclosures, one bread crumb at a time, by the game's authors, or "puppetmasters." To have any hope of success, players must work together, sharing clues and pooling information as they go. The whole point is to make the story into a group obsession -- to mobilize players into problem-solving collectives where they can debate and test different hypotheses as a smart mob. It's sort of like surfing an alternate version of the net, using all the social search tactics of the real one.
Of course, the net is a murky territory, full of conspiracy theories, identity traps and misinformation. ARGs take this uncertainty and make it their idiom. The game (remember, it's not a game) might involve websites that to the casual observer look perfectly real -- a corporate home page, a personal blog -- but that are in fact a part of the fiction. ARGs use the playbook of spammers, phishers and social reality hackers like the Yes Men to create a fictional universe that blends seamlessly with the real.
But we're not just talking about an alternate net here, we're talking about an alternative world. ARGs frequently assign tasks that pull players away from their computers and propel them into their physical environment (the phenomenally popular I Love Bees had people running all over San Francisco answering pay phones). This couldn't be more unlike the whole Second Life phenomenon (which, as you may have noticed, we've barely covered here). Instead of building a one-to-one simulacrum of the actual world (yeah yeah, you can fly, big whoop), this takes the actual world and tilts it -- reinterprets it. There's imagination happening here.
World Without Oil takes this in a new direction. McGonigal has been talking for some time now about using ARGs for more than just pure play. She believes they could be harnessed to solve real world problems (for more about this, read this recent long piece in SF Weekly by Eliza Strickland). Hence the premise of oil shocks. The WWO website was set up by ten friends who met in the chaos of the Denver Airport during the blizzards this past December. During that time, they bonded and got to talking about citizen journalism and the potential of the web for organizing masses of people to deal with crises without having to rely solely on big media and big government. A weird tip about an impending oil crisis on April 30th got their paranoid wheels turning and they decided to set up a central hub for netizens to send reportage and personal testimonies about life during the shocks. Today is April 30 and lo and behold: the shocks have arrived!
The idea is to collectively imagine a reality that could very likely come to pass, and to share information and ideas -- alternative energy innovations, new forms of transport, new forms of community -- that could help us get through it. It's an opportunity for self-reeducation and perhaps the forging of some real-world relationships. There's even a page for teachers to guide students through this collaborative hallucination, and to learn something about energy geopolitics as they do it.
As an entry to the serious games movement, this has to be one of the most innovative efforts out there. But I find myself wondering whether simply getting everyone to report from their corner of the crisis -- postcards from the apocalypse --will be enough to create a full-blown ARG phenomenon. Is this participatory in quite the right way? While I ecstatically applaud the intention here of repurposing a form that to date has been employed mainly as a viral marketing tool (the first ARG was built around Spielberg's "A.I." in 2001), I worry that the WWO construct seems to have been shorn of most of the usual mystery elements -- the codes, clues and crumbs -- that make ARGs so addictive. There's a whiff of homework here, something perhaps a little too earnest, that could prevent it from gaining traction. I sincerely hope I'm wrong.
Still, even if this fails to take off, I think this is an important milestone and will be important to study as it unfolds. WWO suggests what could be the ideal dystopian form for the cultural moment: a mode of storytelling that taps directly into the present human condition of networked information blitz and tries to channel it toward real-world awareness, or even action. The ARG adopts tactics long employed in military war games and conflict exercises and turns them (at least potentially) toward grassroots activism. WWO is trying to rouse, as Sebastian Mary put it in a previous post, our "democratic imagination. In SF Weekly piece I link to above, McGonigal puts it this way:
"When you start projecting that out to bigger scales, that's when these games start to look like a real way to achieve, if not world peace, then some kind of world-benevolent conspiracy, where we feel like we are all playing the same game."
Many people I know loved the film "Children of Men" by Alfonso Cuarón because they felt that it showed them, with the cutting clarity of allegory, the way the world really is. The premise, that the human race has lost the ability to reproduce itself (a dying world, without children, slowly self-destructing), was of course implausible, but all the same it felt like a layer was being peeled away to reveal a terrible truth. Probably the most unsettling moment for me was the lights rose at the end and we exited the theater into the street. Everything looked different, fragile, like something awful was being hidden just beneath the surface. But the feeling soon faded and I filed the experience away: "Children of Men"; a brilliant film; one of the year's best; shamefully overlooked at the Oscars.
What would "Children of Men" look like as an ARG? What would a networked tactic bring to this story? Would it be simply dispatches from a dying world, or could we do something more constructive? Could the darkened theater and the streets outside somehow be merged?
Our first stories were oral stories. When we were children our parents read to us aloud stories that we listened to over and over again until they were embedded in our unconscious. We knew the stories inside and out, backwards and forwards. Reading became a ritual of call and response: a physical act. In the classroom too, teachers read aloud to us. We knew the stories inside and out, backwards and forwards. Call and response. At recess we ran out into the playground and re-eanacted the stories -- replayed them, spun new ones. Those early experiences hearken back to earlier cultures -- oral, pre-literate ones where the word was less the realm of contemplation and more the realm of action. ARGs seem to tap into this power of the oral story -- the spark of the imagination and then the dash, together, into the playground.
gamer theory 2.0 04.25.2007, 10:09 AM
...is officially live! Check it out. Spread the word.
I want to draw special attention to the Gamer Theory TextArc in the visualization gallery - a graphical rendering of the book that reveals (quite beautifully) some of the text's underlying structures.
TextArc was created by Brad Paley, a brilliant interaction designer based in New York. A few weeks ago, he and Ken Wark came over to the Institute to play around with the Gamer Theory in TextArc on a wall display:
Ken jotted down some of his thoughts on the experience: "Brad put it up on the screen and it was like seeing a diagram of my own writing brain..." Read more here (then scroll down partway).
starting bottom-left, counter-clockwise: Ken, Brad, Eddie, Bob
More thoughts about all of this to come. I've spent the past two days running around like a madman at the Digital Library Federation Spring Forum in Pasadena, presenting our work (MediaCommons in particular), ducking in and out of sessions, chatting with interesting folks, and pounding away at the Gamer site -- inserting footnote links, writing copy, generally polishing. I'm looking forward to regrouping in New York and processing all of this.
Thanks, Florian Brody for the photos.
Oh, and here is the "official" press/blogosphere release. Circulate freely:
The Institute for the Future of the Book is pleased to announce a new edition of the "networked book" Gamer Theory by McKenzie Wark. Last year, the Institute published a draft of Wark's path-breaking critical study of video games in an experimental web format designed to bring readers into conversation around a work in progress. In the months that followed, hundreds of comments poured in from gamers, students, scholars, artists and the generally curious, at times turning into a full-blown conversation in the manuscript's margins. Based on the many thoughtful contributions he received, Wark revised the book and has now published a print edition through Harvard University Press, which contains an edited selection of comments from the original website. In conjunction with the Harvard release, the Institute for the Future of the Book has launched a new Creative Commons-licensed, social web edition of Gamer Theory, along with a gallery of data visualizations of the text submitted by leading interaction designers, artists and hackers. This constellation of formats -- read, read/write, visualize -- offers the reader multiple ways of discovering and building upon Gamer Theory. A multi-mediated approach to the book in the digital age.
More about the book:
Ever get the feeling that life's a game with changing rules and no clear sides, one you are compelled to play yet cannot win? Welcome to gamespace. Gamespace is where and how we live today. It is everywhere and nowhere: the main chance, the best shot, the big leagues, the only game in town. In a world thus configured, McKenzie Wark contends, digital computer games are the emergent cultural form of the times. Where others argue obsessively over violence in games, Wark approaches them as a utopian version of the world in which we actually live. Playing against the machine on a game console, we enjoy the only truly level playing field--where we get ahead on our strengths or not at all.
Gamer Theory uncovers the significance of games in the gap between the near-perfection of actual games and the highly imperfect gamespace of everyday life in the rat race of free-market society. The book depicts a world becoming an inescapable series of less and less perfect games. This world gives rise to a new persona. In place of the subject or citizen stands the gamer. As all previous such personae had their breviaries and manuals, Gamer Theory seeks to offer guidance for thinking within this new character. Neither a strategy guide nor a cheat sheet for improving one's score or skills, the book is instead a primer in thinking about a world made over as a gamespace, recast as an imperfect copy of the game.
The Institute for the Future of the Book is a small New York-based think tank dedicated to inventing new forms of discourse for the network age. Other recent publishing experiments include an annotated online edition of the Iraq Study Group Report (with Lapham's Quarterly), Without Gods: Toward a History of Disbelief (with Mitchell Stephens, NYU), and MediaCommons, a digital scholarly network in media studies. Read the Institute's blog, if:book. Inquiries: curator [at] futureofthebook [dot] org
McKenzie Wark teaches media and cultural studies at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College in New York City. He is the author of several books, most recently A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard University Press) and Dispositions (Salt Publishing).
a problem 04.23.2007, 4:59 PM
A screaming comes across the sky: the familiar roar of the growing Media Event, gathering power as it leaves the launchpad – the shootings at Virginia Tech – behind it. It has happened before, and it will happen again, and we know exactly how it will work: cover stories and TV coverage of Seung-Hui Cho will proliferate for the next few weeks, while journalists try furiously to get to the bottom of what caused this, feeling out the endless ramifications.
I don't have any noteworthy opinions on Cho. I am, however, interested in the news cycle and how it impacts the way we think about the world we live in. This is something brought home last week by this post from Wonkette, which points out that 160 people were killed in Iraq at roughly the same time as the Virginia Tech massacre. The tone is crass, but I think it's on target: Iraqbodycount.org estimates that 700 people died in Iraq last week, over twenty times the number killed in Virginia. That's not a ratio reflected by coverage in the American media: looking at the front pages of The New York Times for the past week, I find seven stories on Cho, two on deaths in Iraq. It's a strange and problematic disparity when you think about it. While it's difficult to predict where and when the next school shooting will occur, there's a high probability that a similarly high number of people will die in Iraq in the coming week. Predictability doesn't translate into preventability, but there's some correlation: we can still do something about Iraq.
The media is very good at reporting on sharply punctuated events (the death of Anna Nicole Smith; the rise and fall of Sanjaya; French politics when there's an election happening). The news cycle feeds on novelty. I'm sure in the weeks to come we'll learn more than we ever wanted to about the sad life of Cho. The media's not very good at reporting on things that go on for a long time: as the war in Iraq grinds past its fourth anniversary, it's hard for anyone to get excited about what's happening there, no matter how horrific they are. Any number of similar long-standing issues are similarly poorly served: when was the last time you heard about what's going on in New Orleans? Afghanistan? post-tsunami Indonesia?
This becomes an if:book issue simply because temporality has become such an enormous part of the way we deal with electronic media. The past few years have witnessed the ascendency of blog-based writing online; when we read blogs, we tend to read the most recent posts, to look at what's new. This works very well for targeting certain sorts of problems: a snippy post at Boing Boing about some perceived wrong will target thousands of would-be hackers' wrath. But we don't seem to have a good way to deal with big, lasting problems that aren't changing quickly, in part because the media forms that we have to use are so strongly time-based. Historically, this is a space in which books have functioned: consider the role of Thomas Paine's pamphlets or Uncle Tom's Cabin in fomenting past wars. An open-ended question: how can this be done in today's media environment? Are the forms we have good enough? Or do we not know how to use them?
gamer theory 2.0 (beta) 04.23.2007, 5:32 AM
The new Gamer Theory site is up, though for the next 24 hours we're considering it beta. It's all pretty much there except for some last bits and pieces (pop-up textual notes, a few explanatory materials, one or two pieces for the visualization gallery, miscellaneous tweaks). By all means start poking around and posting comments.
The project now has a portal page that links you to the constitutent parts: the Harvard print edition, two networked web editions (1.1 and 2.0), a discussion forum, and, newest of all, a gallery of text visualizations including a customized version of Brad Paley's "TextArc" and a fascinating prototype of a progam called "FeatureLens" from the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland. We'll make a much bigger announcement about this tomorrow. For now, consider the site softly launched.
monkeys typing 04.20.2007, 10:15 AM
Things are quiet here except for the soft patter of keyboards as we type/code/tweak away at Gamer Theory 2.0. The site goes live first thing Monday, at which point normal levels of conversation should resume. (Meanwhile, peaking out the window, it appears that spring has finally decided to arrive. Hallelujah!)
sophie blog and tutorial 04.18.2007, 5:37 PM
We've just started a blog for Sophie. The first entry shows Sophie running on an emulator for the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child aka/$100 laptop machine). The second announces the first Sophie tutorial which you can download from here.
gamer theory update 04.18.2007, 9:04 AM
Gamer Theory 2.0 is nearly there, we're just taking a few extra few days to apply the finishing touches and to get a few last visualizations mounted in the gallery. The print edition from Harvard is available now.
For those of you in the city, there's a great Gamer Theory event planned for tonight at the New School followed by drinks in Brooklyn at Barcade -- a bar (as the name suggests) fitted out as a retro video game arcade (have a pint and play a round of Rampage, Gauntlet or Frogger). Here's more info:
what: McKenzie Wark will present, and lead a discussion of his new book Gamer Theory (Harvard University Press). Jaeho Kang (Sociology, The New School for Social Reseach) will act as the respondent.
where: Wolff Conference Room, 2nd floor, 65 5th avenue (between 14th and 13th streets)
when: 6-8PM, Wednesday 18th April 2007
then: drinks & games at Barcade, 388 Union Ave Williamsburg (L train to Lorrimer st, take Union exit)
samizdat express 04.17.2007, 9:21 AM
In his latest NY Times column, Edward Rothstein meditates on the vastness of the public domain and the pleasures of skimming it in simple digital editions prepared by B+R Samizdat Express. Since 1993 B+R, run by Barbara and Richard Seltzer of West Roxbury, Massachusetts, has been selling bundles of plain text (ASCII) digital literature scooped from Project Gutenberg and arranged by theme, genre or period into anthologies -- first on floppy disc, and now on CD-ROM and DVD. It's all stuff you can get for free by grazing the web's various public domain repositories, but B+R have done the work of harvesting and sorting and they'll ship these multi-shelf-spanning chunks to you for the price of a single print volume. Browse through nearly 200 book collections they've assembled so far and you'll find packages ranging from "Anthropology and Myth" ($19), "Works of Guy de Maupassant" ($12), or "The American Revolution and Early Republic as witnessed by Mercy Warren and Others" ($19). Some works are provided in audio through text-to-voice conversion software.
As Rothstein notes, the bare-bones formatting and sheer volume of the anthologies makes these works hard to digest, but there's no doubt B+R provides a valuable service, especially for people in places where books are scarce and net access unreliable. All in all, it's an e-book advocate's playground but more of a hallucinogenic head trip for the average reader -- a way to sample vastness. It does make one's wheels start to turn, though, on what other elucidating layers could be built on top of the vast murk of the digital library.
report on democratization and the networked public sphere 04.16.2007, 2:06 AM
I was at the "Democratization and the Networked Public Sphere" panel on Friday night in a room full of flagrantly well-read attendees. But it was the panelists who shone. They fully grasped the challenges facing the network as it emerges as the newest theater in the political and social struggle for a democratic society. It was the best panel I've seen in a long time, with a full spectrum of views represented: Ethan Zuckerman self-deprecatingly described himself as "one of those evil capitalists," whose stance clearly reflected the values of market liberalism. On the opposite side, Trebor Scholz raised a red flag in warning against the spectre of capitalism that hovers over the 'user-generated content' movement. In between (literally—she sat between them), Danah Boyd spoke eloquently about the characteristics of a networked social space, and the problems traditional social interaction models face when superimposed on the network.
Danah spoke first, contrasting the characteristics of online and offline public spaces, and continuing on to describe the need for public space at a time when we seem obsessed with privacy. The problem with limiting ourselves to discussions of privacy, she said, is that we forget that public space only exists when we are using it. She then went on to talk about her travels and encounters with the isolation of exurban life—empty sidewalks, the physical distances separating teens from their social peers, the privatization of social space (malls). Her point was that with all this privacy and private space, the public space is being neglected. What is important though is to recognize how networked spaces are becoming a space for public life. Even more important: these new public spaces are under threat as much as the real life publics that have been stripped away by suburban isolation.
Ethan Zuckerman began with a presentation of the now infamous 1984 Mac ad, remixed to star Hillary Clinton. He then pointed out that a strikingly similar remix had been made in 2004 by the media artist Astrubal, featuring Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Zuckerman was excited because it pointed to the power of the remix, and the network as an alternative vector for dissent in a regime with a highly controlled press. While the ad is a deadly serious matter in Tunisia, in America it is just smear. The Hillary ad seems to be a turning point in media representations on the network in the US. Zuckerman asserted that 21st century political campaigns will be different than 20th century campaigns precisely because of the power of citizen generated media combined with the distributive power of the network.
Trebor Scholz warned that unbridled enthusiasm for user-generated content may mask an undercurrent of capitalist exploitation, even though most rhetoric about user-generated content proposes exactly the opposite. In most descriptions, user-generated content is an act of personal expression, and has value as such: Scholz referenced Yochai Benkler's notion that people gain agency as they express themselves as speakers, and that this characteristic may transfer to the real world, encouraging a politically active citizenry. But Trebor's main point was that the majority of time spent on self-expression finds its way onto a small number of sites—YouTube and MySpace in particular. He had some staggering numbers for MySpace: 12% of all time spent online in America is dedicated to MySpace alone. The dirty secret is that someone owns MySpace, and it isn't the content producers. It's Rupert Murdoch. Google, of course, owns YouTube. And therein lies the crux of Trebor's argument: someone else is getting rich off a user's personal expression, and the creators cannot claim ownership of their own work. They produce content that nets only social capital, while the owners take in millions of dollars.
It's a tricky point to make, since Boyd noted that most producers are using these services expressly to gain social capital—monetary concerns don't enter the equation. I have a vague sense of discomfort in taking a stance that is ultimately patronizing to producers, saying "You shouldn't do this for fear of enriching someone else." But I can't get away from the idea that Trebor is right —users are locked in to a site by their social ties, and the companies hold a great deal of power over them. Further, that power is not just social but also legal: the companies own the content.
On the other hand, users have a great deal of power over the companies, a fact made plain by the recent protest against the 'News Feed' feature added to Facebook. The feature caused a huge uproar in the Facebook community and a call for boycotting Facebook spread—ironically—using the News Feed feature. Facebook
removed the feature. responded by allowing users to control what went in the feeds. [updated 4.17.07. thanks to andrew s.]
This discussion spun off into another one: what does it mean that 700,000 users found it in their willpower to protest a feature on Facebook, when only a portion of those would be as active in any other public sphere? Boyd claims that this is a signal that networked public spaces are a viable arena for public participation. Zuckerman would agree—the network can activate a community response in the real world. Dissidents working against repressive governments have used the network to amplify their voices and illuminate the plight of people and nations ignored by the mainstream media. This is reason for optimism. In America we've recently seen national and regional politics embracing networked spaces (see Obama in MySpace). Let's hope they do so in good faith, and also embrace the spirit of openness and collaboration that is an essential part of the network.
I have hope, but I am also circumspect. The networked public space can serve the needs of a democracy, but it can also devolve into venality. There is a difference between using the network to further human freedom and the lesson that I take away from the Facebook uprising. What happened on Facebook is not a triumph of a civil polity; it's more like the plaintive cry in a theater when the projector breaks. Public outcry over a trivial action doesn't improve our democracy—it just shows how far into triviality we have fallen.
the new harpers.org 04.11.2007, 3:02 AM
Harper's has a new web concept designed by Paul Ford of F Train. History bears heavily on the refurbished site, almost overwhelmingly -- especially compared to the stripped-down affair that preceded it. But considering that Harper's has a more than ordinary amount of history to cart around -- at 157 years, it's the oldest general interest monthly in the United States -- it makes sense that Ford and the editors had time on the brain. A journal that has published continuously since before the Civil War, on through Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, civil rights, the 60s, the Cold War, right up to the present carries a hefty chunk of the national memory -- and a lot of baggage, good and bad. So it's fitting that the new design is packed with dates, inviting readers to dig into the past while also surveying the present. I can't think of another news site in which the archives mingle so promiscuously with the front page spread. The result is a site that feels as much like a library as a periodical.
Directly beneath the title banner and above stories from the current issue is a highly compressed archive navigation, three rows tall. On the top row, Harper's 16 decades fan out from left to right. Below them are the ten years of a given decade. Below that, the twelve months of a given year. Thus, every issue of Harper's ever printed is just three clicks away. Of course, you need a subscription to view most of the content. (A hint, though: articles between the 1850 debut issue and 1899 are all available for free at the website of Cornell's Making of America project, which undertook the task of scanning the first half-century's worth of Harper's.)
Clearly, the editors have been thinking a great deal about how to use the web to bring Harper's' long, winding paper trail into the light and into use. The new design may be a little over-freighted, but shine light it does. By placing current events in such close proximity with the past, things are nested in a historical context -- a refreshing expansion of scope next to the perpetual present of the 24-hour news cycle. Already there are a few features that help connect the dots. One is "topic pages" that allow readers to track particular subjects through the archive. Take a look, for example, at this trail of links for "South Africa":
- 4 Images from 1983 to 2001
- 67 Articles from 1850 to 2007
- 2 Cartoons from 1985
- 44 Events from 2000 to 2007
- 10 Facts from 1999 to 2006
- 4 Stories from 1888 to 1983
- 2 Jokes from 1881 to 1912
- 4 Photographs from 1987 to 2001
- 1 Poem from 1883
- 6 Reviews from 1887 to 2005
A smart next step would be to let readers trace, tag and document their own research trails and share those with other readers. This could be an added incentive for a new generation of Harper's subscribers: access not only to an invaluable historical archive but to a social architecture in which communities and individuals could interpret that archive and bring it into conversation with the contemporary.
"spring_alpha" and networked games 04.10.2007, 2:13 AM
Jesse's post yesterday pondering the possibility of networked comics reminded me of an interesting little piece I came across last month on the Guardian Gamesblog by Aleks Krotoski on networked collaboration -- or rather, the conspicuous lack thereof -- in games. The post was a lament really, sparked by Krotoski's admiration of the Million Penguins project, which for her threw into stark relief the game industry's troubling retentiveness regarding the means of game production:
Meanwhile in gameland, where non-linearity is the ideal, we're at odds with the power of games as the world's most compelling medium and the industry's desperate attempts to integrate with the so-called worthy (yet linear) media. And ironically, we've been lapped by books. How embarrassing. If anyone should have pushed the user-generated boat out, it should have been the games industry.
...Sure, there are a few new outlets for budding designers to reap the kudos or the ridicule of their peers, but there's not a WikiGame in sight. Until platform owners have the courage to open their consoles to players, a million penguins will go elsewhere. And so will gamers.
Well I just came across a very intriguing UK-based project that might qualify as a wiki-game, or more or less the equivalent. It's called "spring_alpha" and is by all indications a game world that is openly rewritable on both the narrative and code level. What's particularly interesting is that the participatory element is deeply entwined with the game's political impulses -- it's an experiment in rewriting the rules of a repressive society. As described by the organizers:
"spring_alpha" is a networked game system set in an industrialised council estate whose inhabitants are attempting to create their own autonomous society in contrast to that of the regime in which they live. The game serves as a "sketch pad" for testing out alternative forms of social practice at both the "narrative" level, in terms of the game story, and at a "code" level, as players are able to re-write the code that runs the simulated world.
...'spring_alpha' is a game in permanent alpha state, always open to revision and re-versioning. Re-writing spring_alpha is not only an option available to coders however. Much of the focus of the project lies in using game development itself as a vehicle for social enquiry and speculation; the issues involved in re-designing the game draw parallels with those involved in re-thinking social structures.
My first thought is that, unlike A Million Penguins, "spring_alpha" provides a robust armature for collaboration: a fully developed backstory/setting as well as an established visual aesthetic (both derived from artist Chad McCail's 1998 work "Spring"). That strikes me as a recipe for success. In the graphics, sound and controls department, "spring_alpha" doesn't appear particularly cutting edge (it looks a bit like Google SketchUp, though that may have just been in the development modules I saw), but its sense of distributed creativity and of the political possibilities of games seem quite advanced.
Can anyone point to other examples of collaboratively built games? Does Second Life count?
printing out the web 04.10.2007, 12:01 AM
That's what Hewlett-Packard is hoping to do. The NYT explains.
HP recently acquired a small online photo-printing company named Tabblo, which has been developing software that will automatically reformat any web page, in any layout, to be easily printable. HP's goal is to use this technology to create a browser plugin, as ubiquitous as Flash and Java, that could become "the printing engine of the web." Let's hope, for the sake of the world's forests, that a decent electronic reader comes out first.
(Thanks, Peter Brantley.)
networked comics 04.09.2007, 10:59 AM
Last week in Columbus, OH, I saw Scott McCloud give a fantastic presentation about creativity and storytelling using sequential art. I got two books signed, and since I was the last person on line, I started a little conversation about networked comics.
First off, it's not every day that you get to meet one of your idols. He's influenced the way that I think about storytelling and sequential art, which manages to have everyday repercussions in my work in interaction design and wireframing. Understanding Comics is right at the top of my practical reading guide with the Polar Bear book and Visual Displays of Quantitative Information.
Secondly, in Reinventing Comcis he covers a lot of territory with regard to the form that web comics can take and the method by which they can support themselves. But, as he notes in his presentation, while he was focused on the new openness of a boundless screen, webcomics recapitulated traditional forms and appeared like toadstools after a spring rain. As he said, "Tens of thousands—literally, tens of thousands of webcomics are out there today." They are easy to find, but they're guided by the goals of traditional comics, and made with many of the same choices in framing and pacing, even if their story lines are wildly varied.
In a previous post I said "The next step for online comics is to enhance their networked and collaborative aspect while preserving the essential nature of comics as sequential art." I still think there's something there, so I posed that questiont to Scott. He politely redirected, saying the form of a networked comic is completely unknown and that the discussion would last for many hours. Offhand, he knew of only a few experiments. He did say, "The process will be more interesting than the final product." This is something that we say here with regards to Wikipedia, but even more so with collaborative fiction as in 1mil Penguins. So without further guidance, I ventured into the web myself, searching for examples of what I would call networked comics.
One nascent form of collaborative art has been the (relatively) popular practice of putting up one half of the equation—the art only, or the words only—and getting someone else to do the other half. If you said that sounds like regular comix, you'd be right. It's normal practice in the sequential art world to have a writer and an artist collaborate on a story. But the novelty here is having multiple writers work with the same panels, with an artist who doesn't know what she is drawing for. Words, infinitely malleable, are shaped to fit the images, sometimes with implausible but funny results. Here's an example that Kristopher Straub and Scott Kurtz have started on Halfpixel.com. They call it "Web You.0 (beta)," with the tagline "Infinite possible punchlines!" You take an image, put new words in the balloons, and resubmit the comic. The result: user-generated comics. Not necessarily good comics, but that's not quite the point.
But that's about it. There isn't much in the way of a discussion going on about networked comics. This is understandable: making images is hard. Making images that are tied to a text is harder. This is the art and science of comics, and it's difficult to see how they can be pried apart to create room for growth without completely disrupting the narrative structures inherent to the medium. When I look for something that takes a form that is fundamentally reliant on the network, I come up short. Maybe it would look like a hyper-extended comic 'jams', with panels by different artists on an evolving storyline. Maybe the form of a networked comic is something like a wiki with drawing tools. Or better yet, an instruction to the crowd that results in something like Sheep Market or swarmsketch. It's interesting to see what "art from the mob" looks like, and seems to have the greatest potential for group-directed authorship. Maybe it will be something like magnetic word art (those word magnets you find on your friend's fridge and use to write non-sensical and slightly naughty phrases with), combined with some sort of automatic image search. Obviously there are a lot of possibilities if you are willing to cede a little of the artistic control that tends to be so tightly wound up in the traditional method of making comics. I hate to end my posts with "we need more experiments!" but given the current state of the discussion, that's just what I have to do.
noonebelongsheremorethanyou 04.07.2007, 10:16 AM
josh portway sent a note today saying "i have found the future of the book" which included a link to a delightfully charming site made by Miranda July to tout her new book of short stories. It's interesting to note how the low-tech mode of expression works so brilliantly in the high tech context of the browser.
sophie alpha version is up 04.06.2007, 3:18 PM
As promised, an alpha version of Sophie is available here. As it says on the download page . . . To be honest we're betwixt and between about releasing Sophie now. On the one hand, it's definitely not ready for prime-time and we're not particularly happy about releasing software with so many bugs, no documentation and incomplete features; on the other hand, Sophie is real and promises to be fantastic . . . so we didn't want people to think it was vaporware either.
democratization and the networked public sphere 04.06.2007, 2:05 PM
New Yorkers take note! This just came in from Trebor Scholz at the Institute for Distributed Creativity: a terrific-sounding event next Friday evening at The New School. Really wish I could attend but I'll be doing this in London. Details below.
Democratization and the Networked Public Sphere
* Panel Discussion with dana boyd, Trebor Scholz, and Ethan Zuckerman
Friday, April 13, 2007, 6:30 - 8:30 p.m.
The New School, Theresa Lang Community and Student Center
55 West 13th Street, 2nd floor
New York City
Admission: $8, free for all students, New School faculty, staff, and alumni with valid ID
This evening at the Vera List Center for Art & Politics will discuss the potential of sociable media such as weblogs and social networking sites to democratize society through emerging cultures of broad participation.
danah boyd will argue four points. 1) Networked publics are changing the way public life is organized. 2) Our understandings of public/private are being radically altered 3) Participation in public life is critical to the functioning of democracy. 4) We have destroyed youths' access to unmediated public life. Why are we now destroying their access to mediated public life? What consequences does this have for democracy?
Trebor Scholz will present the paradox of affective immaterial labor. Content generated by networked publics was the main reason for the fact that the top ten sites on the World Wide Web accounted for most Internet traffic last year. Community is the commodity, worth billions. The very few get even richer building on the backs of the immaterial labor of very very many. Net publics comment, tag, rank, forward, read, subscribe, re-post, link, moderate, remix, share, collaborate, favorite, write. They flirt, work, play, chat, gossip, discuss, learn and by doing so they gain much: the pleasure of creation, knowledge, micro-fame, a "home," friendships, and dates. They share their life experiences and archive their memories while context-providing businesses get value from their attention, time, and uploaded content. Scholz will argue against this naturalized "factory without walls" and will demand for net publics to control their own contributions.
Ethan Zuckerman will present his work on issues of media and the developing world, especially citizen media, and the technical, legal, speech, and digital divide issues that go alongside it. Starting out with a critique of cyberutopianism, Zuckerman will address citizen media and activism in developing nations, their potential for democratic change, the ways that governments (and sometimes corporations) are pushing back on their ability to democratize.
For more information about the panelists go here.
alex itin netrospectives 04.06.2007, 2:31 AM
Our dear friend and artist in residence Alex Itin has been getting noticed of late. Yesterday he was profiled on The Daily Reel, a popular site that curates quality video from around the web and frequently features his work. Other interesting video sites have also been a-knockin'.
An even better meditation on Alex's work is this comment posted by Sol Gaitan last month in response to his popular piece, "I Made Pictures of Making a Picture of Everyone Who Might Be Looking At These Pictures of Everyone" (a bona fide blockbuster on Vimeo). I've reproduced it in full:
Robert Rauschenberg's fabulous exhibition of 43 transfer drawings at Jonathan O'Hara Gallery produce that feeling, in retrospective, of seeing something that is going to mean a lot in the future. And they did. Executed in the 60's they were the precursors, as well as the result, of appropriation. Duchamp and Picasso are two obvious examples that come to mind when one thinks of the origins of appropriation, today we prefer the term "mash-up." The exciting thing about Rauschenberg is his extraordinary use of the quotidian to create highly manipulated works that elude classification. As his combines include and exclude us, the transfer drawings leave us with a feeling of immediacy and at the same time of blurry memories.
Alex Itin's play with appropriation produces the same feeling. He is doing something that is going to mean a lot. His investigations of the uses of technology to produce an art as dynamic as its medium, is evident in these "horizontal scrolls." The medium is limiting, so Alex is searching for a way to blog that defies its verticality, very much along the lines of the Institute, where his art resides. There are extraordinarily beautiful artist homepages on the Internet, but Alex's redefinition of the blog as a place of encounter, intentional or by chance, a place of fusion where he produces and manipulates his mash-ups is unprecedented. With this "horizontal scroll" he moves a very important step forward. He addresses us in all our anonymity while creating the piece in front of our very individual eyes. His use of the blog as a way of communication through live creation makes it burst along its seams.
The way Rauschenberg's transfer drawings fall on the paper seems aleatory, but it responds to the limitations he found in both collage and monotype before he started his silkscreen explorations: "I felt I had to find a way to use collage in drawing to incorporate my own way of working on that intimate scale," (as cited on the show's catalogue by Lewis Kachur from art historian Roni Feinstein's dissertation, NYU 1990.) The result are aerial collages of images transferred from newspaper that become a testimony of their times. The 60's were charged times, and the newsprint chosen by Rauschenberg; the civil rights movement, Vietnam, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, astronauts, consumer products, address high modernism, while their heterogeneity alludes to the fragmentary condition of postmodernism. Alex's depiction of those looking at his blog is highly charged in a similar manner; who are us anyway? What seems improvisation takes the form of social commentary, as he says on his blog:
who is my audience?... I think I'll draw them and perform in front of the drawing. Today's post also asks the question (more than most), which here is the real work of art? The drawing, or the film of the drawing, or the whole thing together on the blog, or what?
Rauschenberg's masterful use of gouache, watercolor and ink washes lends coherence to the whole. It centers the viewers attention on image and text, fusing them. Their dynamism makes us think of the artist at work. Alex has the medium, and the shrewdness, to put both, process and work, in front of our eyes. The result is not the voyeuristic epiphany of seeing Pollock dripping paint on a canvas that would become the actual piece, here it is the artist at work, moving in precarious terrain, which IS the piece.
Rauschenberg's pieces elude nomenclature, they are neither painting, nor collage, nor sculpture, they are thresholds to new forms of perception. Today's challenge is to rethink the meaning of appropriation in a moment when capitalist commodity culture has become the determinant of our daily lives. To appropriate today is to expose the unresolved questions of a world shaped by the information era. Permanence is constantly challenged and the evolution of Alex Itin's work on his blog shows this as clearly as it can be.
already born digital 04.05.2007, 3:54 AM
Joan Acocella has an interesting review in The New Yorker of Darren Wershler-Henry's recent book The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting (previously discussed here on if:book). It's worth a look just for all the juicy backstory it delivers on the typewriter as well as accounts of various writers' intense, sometimes haunted, relationships with their machines. But Acocella also delves into an important area that apparently gets only passing consideration in the book -- the way writing has changed since the advent of computers. Reading this makes you remember that with word processors we've all been writing "born digital" texts for quite some time:
Mallarmé spoke of the uncertainty with which we face a clean sheet of paper and try, in vain, to record our thoughts on it with some precision. As long as we were feeding paper into a typewriter, this anxiety was still present to our minds, and was revealed in the pointillism of Wite-Out, or even in the dapple of letters that were darker, pressed in confidence, as opposed to the lighter ones, pressed more hesitantly. A page produced on a manual typewriter was like a record of the torture of thought. With the P.C., the situation is altogether different. The screen, a kind of indeterminate space, does not seem violable in the same way as the page. And, because what we write on it is so effortlessly and undetectably erasable, the final text buries the evidence of our struggle, asserting that what we said was what we thought all along. Wershler-Henry suggests that the P.C.--with some help from Derrida and Baudrillard--ushered us into a world in which the difference between true and false is no longer cause for doubt or grief; falsity is taken for granted. I don't know if he was thinking about the spurious perfection of the computer-generated page, but it would be a useful example.
Something else to think about is the effect that the computer, with its astonishing capabilities, has had on us as writers. Take just one example: the ease of moving a block of text. Highlight, hit control X, move cursor, hit control V, and, presto, that paragraph is in a new place. Of course, we were able to move things in typewritten text, too, but all that business with the scissors and the tape made us think twice, and maybe it was wise for us to hesitate before changing the order in which our brains produced our thoughts. In recent years, I have read a lot of writings that seemed to say, "This paragraph is here because it seemed an O.K. place to shove it in." Furthermore, by allowing us to move text easily, computers influence us to write in movable units. In the novel that won Britain's Booker Prize last year, Kiran Desai's "The Inheritance of Loss," there is a line space, indicating a break of thought, every three pages or so.
dismantling the book 04.04.2007, 12:48 PM
Peter Brantley relates the frustrating experience of trying to hunt down a particular passage in a book and his subsequent painful collision with the cold economic realities of publishing. The story involves a $58 paperback, a moment of outrage, and a venting session with an anonymous friend in publishing. As it happens, the venting turned into some pretty fascinating speculative musing on the future of books, some of which Peter has reproduced on his blog. Well worth a read.
A particularly interesting section (quoted further down) is on the implications for publishers of on-demand disaggregated book content: buying or accessing selected sections of books instead of entire volumes. There are numerous signs that this will be at least one wave of the future in publishing, and should probably prod folks in the business to reevaluate why they publish certain things as books in the first place.
Amazon already provides a by-the-page or by-the-chapter option for certain titles through its "Pages" program. Google presumably will hammer out some deals with publishers and offer a similar service before too long. Peter Osnos' Caravan Project includes individual chapter downloads and print-on-demand as part of the five-prong distribution standard it is promoting throughout the industry. If this catches on, it will open up a plethora of options for readers but it might also unvravel the very notion of what a book is. Could we be headed for a replay of the mp3's assault on the album?
The wholeness of the book has to some extent always been illusory, and reading far more fragmentary than we tend to admit. A number of things have clouded our view: the economic imperative to publish whole volumes (it's more cost-effective to produce good aggregations of content than to publish lots of individual options, or to allow readers to build their own); romantic notions of deep, cover-to-cover reading; and more recently, the guilty conscience of the harried book consumer (when we buy a book we like to think that we'll read the whole thing, yet our shelves are packed with unfinished adventures).
But think of all the books that you value just for a few particular nuggets, or the books that could have been longish essays but were puffed up and padded to qualify as $24.95 commodities (so many!). Any academic will tell you that it is not only appropriate but vital to a researcher's survival to hone in on the parts of a book one needs and not waste time on the rest (I've received several tutorials from professors and graduate students on the fine art of fileting a monograph). Not all thoughts are book-sized and not all reading goes in a straight line. Selective reading is probably as old as reading itself.
Unbundling the book has the potential to allow various forms of knowledge to find the shapes and sizes that fit them best. And when all the pieces are interconnected in the network, and subject to social discovery tools like tagging, RSS and APIs, readers could begin to assume a role traditionally played by publishers, editors and librarians -- the role of piecing things together. Here's the bit of Peter's conversation that goes into this:
Peter: ...the Google- empowered vision of the "network of books" which is itself partially a romantic, academic notion that might actually be a distinctly net minus for publishers. Potentially great for academics and readers, but potentially deadly for publishers (not to mention librarians). As opposed to the simple first order advantage of having the books discoverable in the first place - but the extent to which books are mined and then inter-connected - that is an interesting and very difficult challenge for publishers.
Am I missing something...?
Friend: If you mean, are book publishers as we know them doomed? Then the answer is "probably yes." But it isn't Google's connecting everything together that's doing it. If people still want books, all this promotion of discovery will obviously help. But if they want nuggets of information, it won't. Obviously, a big part of the consumer market that book publishers have owned for 200 years want the nuggets, not a narrative. They're going, going, gone. The skills of a "publisher" -- developing content and connecting it to markets -- will have to be applied in different ways.
Peter: I agree that it is not the mechanical act of interconnection that is to blame but the demand side preference for chunks of texts. And the demand is probably extremely high, I agree.
The challenge you describe for publishers - analogous in its own way to that for libraries - is so fundamentally huge as to mystify the mind. In my own library domain, I find it hard to imagine profoundly differently enough to capture a glimpse of this future. We tinker with fabrics and dyes and stitches but have not yet imagined a whole new manner of clothing.
Friend: Well, the aggregation and then parceling out of printed information has evolved since Gutenberg and is now quite sophisticated. Every aspect of how it is organized is pretty much entirely an anachronism. There's a lot of inertia to preserve current forms: most people aren't of a frame of mind to start assembling their own reading material and the tools aren't really there for it anyway.
Peter: They will be there. Arguably, when you look at things like RSS and Yahoo Pipes and things like that - it's getting closer to what people need.
And really, it is not always about assembling pieces from many different places. I might just want the pieces, not the assemblage. That's the big difference, it seems to me. That's what breaks the current picture.
Friend: Yes, but those who DO want an assemblage will be able to create their own. And the other thing I think we're pointed at, but haven't arrived at yet, is the ability of any people to simply collect by themselves with whatever they like best in all available media. You like the Civil War? Well, by 2020, you'll have battle reenactments in virtual reality along with an unlimited number of bios of every character tied to the movies etc. etc. etc. I see a big intellectual change; a balkanization of society along lines of interest. A continuation of the breakdown of the 3-television network (CBS, NBC, ABC) social consensus.
blocked in china 04.03.2007, 4:13 PM
I found an interesting project that performs real time tests on websites to determine wether they are blocked by China's "Great Firewall" and I was (somewhat) surprised to find that our very own blog was filtered:
Our ideas are considered subversive by the Chinese government! We must be must be doing something right (edit: see comments below)!
Any of our readers find their own sites blocked?
follow the eyes: screenreading reconsidered (again) 04.03.2007, 9:53 AM
From Editor&Publisher (via Print is Dead): The Poynter Institute just released findings from a study in which eye-tracking sensors were used to analyze the behavior of 600 readers across print and online news sources. The resulting data clashes with the usual assumptions:
When readers chose to read an online story, they usually read an average of 77% of the story, compared to 62% in broadsheets and 57% in tabloids...
The study looked at two tabloids, the Rocky Mountain News and Philadelphia Daily News; two broadsheets, the St. Petersburg Times and The Star-Tribune of Minneapolis; and two newspaper Web sites, at the Times and Star-Tribune.
Considering the increasingly disaggregated nature of people's news-sifting, is "two newspaper websites" really the right test bed for gauging online reading habits? Still, this is a pretty interesting, myth-busting find, though in a way not at all surprising.
This takes us back to the discussion around Cory Doctorow's recent piece betting on the long-term persistence of print for certain kinds of reading. Print reading, he says, tends toward the sustained and immersive, the long-form linear narrative. Computer reading, on the other hand, is multi-tasky -- distracted, social, bite-sized, multidirectional. One could poke a lot of holes in these characterizations, but generally speaking, they do sum up the way in which many of us divide our reading labor (and leisure) across "platforms." Contrary to popular belief, Doctorow argues, people do like reading on screens. But they also like reading from printed pages. It's not either/or -- the different modes of reading reinforce the different modes of conveyance, paper and PC.
I've tended to agree, but many of the folks in the comments here didn't. They insisted that it's only a matter of time before we'll be doing the vast majority of our reading on screens -- even the linear, immersive reading that seems most resistant to digital migration. Getting past my own deep attachment to print, and reckoning with how far into daily practice electronic reading has already penetrated in so little time, I have to admit that this is probably true, though I imagine print will likely persist for at least a few more generations, and will always have its uses (and will hopefully be kept as a contingency reserve in case the lights go out).
Ultimately, this is a boring game, betting on which technology will win out. But it's interesting sometimes to analyze what motivates certain big cultural actors to wager the way they do.
If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense that Doctorow, generally an advocate for new technologies, wants to see print survive, and why despite his progressive edge, he's a bit of a traditionalist. As a novelist, Doctorow is deeply invested in the economic model of print. That's the way he actually sells books (and probably the way he likes to read them). And yet he grasps the Internet's potential to leverage print -- his career as a writer took off at precisely the moment when these two worlds entered into a complex symbiosis. As such, he has long been evangelizing the practice of giving away e-books to sell more print books, pointing to his own great success as proof of the hybrid concept.
At the surreal Google conference I attended at the New York Public Library in January, Doctorow took the stage as mollifier-in-chief, soothing the gathered representatives of the publishing industry with assurances that print is here to stay, is in fact reinforced by new online discovery tools like Google Book Search and free e-versions (which he suggests are used primarily for browsing or "market research"). All of this is right and true -- for now -- and Doctorow's advice to publishers to loosen up and embrace the Web as a gateway toward offline reading experiences, and as a way to socially situate their texts on the network is good advice, but it doesn't necessarily shed light on the longer term. The Poynter study, in its crude way, does.
Net-native writing will always be for a distracted audience, print for a captivated one, says Doctorow. He's comfortable with that split. And I guess I've been too, suggesting as it does two sorts of knowledge, neither of which we'd want to lose. But the gap will almost certainly narrow, and figuring out the consequences of that is certainly one of our biggest challenges.
the situation with sophie 04.02.2007, 12:16 PM
Someday this week we''ll post an alpha version for people to try out -- check here for the announcement. This version won't have a standalone reader and has lots of bugs but the file format is solid and you can start making real books with it. Our schedule for future releases is as follows.
June -- a more robust version of the current feature set
August -- a special version of Sophie optimized for the OLPC (aka $100 laptop or XO) in time for the launch of the first six million machines
September -- a beta version of Sophie 1.0 which will include the first pass at a Sophe reader
December -- release of Sophie 1.0