quiet 12.27.2007, 9:25 AM
We're all spending some time away from our computers so things will be pretty quiet round here till after new year's. Happy holidays, everyone.
Btw, if:book just turned 3!
anatomy of a debate 12.21.2007, 1:16 AM
The New York Times continues to do quality interactive work online. Take a look at this recent feature that allows you to delve through video and transcript from the final Democratic presidential candidate debate in Iowa (Dec. 13, '07). It begins with a lovely navigation tool that allows you to jump through the video topic by topic. Clicking text in the transcript (center column) or a topic from the list (right column) jumps you directly to the corresponding place in the video.
The second part is a "transcript analyzer," which gives a visual overview of the debate. The text is laid out in miniature in a simple, clean schematic, navigable by speaker. Click a name in the left column and the speaker's remarks are highlighted on the schematic. Hover over any block of text and that detail of the transcript pops up for you to read. You can also search the debate by keyword and see word counts and speaking times for each candidate.
These are fantastic tools -? if only they were more widely available. These would be amazing extensions to CommentPress.
if all the sky was paper 12.19.2007, 6:23 AM
Perhaps the only blog featuring a tag cloud in which 'Assistant Post Mistress' looms large, The Travelling Bookbinder in Antarctica somehow seems suitable festive reading for the online book lover.
Book artist and travelling bookbinder, Rachel Hazell, is currently working and living in the world's most famous post office at Port Lockroy, Antarctica. For six white and blue months, Rachel will be working as Assistant Post Mistress and Penguin Monitor. Entries so far include 'thinking of poetry and missing it' and 'thinking about Ali Smith's enthusiasm for the spare and simple'. Oh and there are instructions on fashioning a book from a sheet of snow white A4.
a few rough notes on knols 12.17.2007, 5:06 PM
Think you've got an authoritative take on a subject? Write up an article, or "knol," and see how the Web judgeth. If it's any good, you might even make a buck.
Google's new encyclopedia will go head to head with Wikipedia in the search rankings, though in format it more resembles other ad-supported, single-author info sources like the About.com or Squidoo. The knol-verse (how the hell do we speak of these things as a whole?) will be a Darwinian writers' market where the fittest knols rise to the top. Anyone can write one. Google will host it for free. Multiple knols can compete on a single topic. Readers can respond to and evaluate knols through simple community rating tools. Content belongs solely to the author, who can license it in any way he/she chooses (all rights reserved, Creative Commons, etc.). Authors have the option of having contextual ads run to the side, revenues from which are shared with Google. There is no vetting or editorial input from Google whatsoever.
Except... Might not the ads exert their own subtle editorial influence? In this entrepreneurial writers' fray, will authors craft their knols for AdSense optimization? Will they become, consciously or not, shills for the companies that place the ads (I'm thinking especially of high impact topic areas like health and medicine)? Whatever you may think of Wikipedia, it has a certain integrity in being ad-free. The mission is clear and direct: to build a comprehensive free encyclopedia for the Web. The range of content has no correlation to marketability or revenue potential. It's simply a big compendium of stuff, the only mention of money being a frank electronic tip jar at the top of each page. The Googlepedia, in contrast, is fundamentally an advertising platform. What will such an encyclopedia look like?
In the official knol announcement, Udi Manber, a VP for engineering at Google, explains the genesis of the project: "The challenge posed to us by Larry, Sergey and Eric was to find a way to help people share their knowledge. This is our main goal." You can see embedded in this statement all the trademarks of Google's rhetoric: a certain false humility, the pose of incorruptible geek integrity and above all, a boundless confidence that every problem, no matter how gray and human, has a technological fix. I'm not saying it's wrong to build a business, nor that Google is lying whenever it talks about anything idealistic, it's just that time and again Google displays an astonishing lack of self-awareness in the way it frames its services -? a lack that becomes especially obvious whenever the company edges into content creation and hosting. They tend to talk as though they're building the library of Alexandria or the great Encyclopédie, but really they're describing an advanced advertising network of Google-exclusive content. We shouldn't allow these very different things to become as muddled in our heads as they are in theirs. You get a worrisome sense that, like the Bushies, the cheerful software engineers who promote Google's products on the company's various blogs truly believe the things they're saying. That if we can just get the algorithm right, the world can bask in the light of universal knowledge.
The blogosphere has been alive with commentary about the knol situation throughout the weekend. By far the most provocative thing I've read so far is by Anil Dash, VP of Six Apart, the company that makes the Movable Type software that runs this blog. Dash calls out this Google self-awareness gap, or as he puts it, its lack of a "theory of mind":
Theory of mind is that thing that a two-year-old lacks, which makes her think that covering her eyes means you can't see her. It's the thing a chimpanzee has, which makes him hide a banana behind his back, only taking bites when the other chimps aren't looking.
Theory of mind is the awareness that others are aware, and its absence is the weakness that Google doesn't know it has. This shortcoming exists at a deep cultural level within the organization, and it keeps manifesting itself in the decisions that the company makes about its products and services. The flaw is one that is perpetuated by insularity, and will only be remedied by becoming more open to outside ideas and more aware of how people outside the company think, work and live.
He gives some examples:
Connecting PageRank to economic systems such as AdWords and AdSense corrupted the meaning and value of links by turning them into an economic exchange. Through the turn of the millennium, hyperlinking on the web was a social, aesthetic, and expressive editorial action. When Google introduced its advertising systems at the same time as it began to dominate the economy around search on the web, it transformed a basic form of online communication, without the permission of the web's users, and without explaining that choice or offering an option to those users.
He compares the knol enterprise with GBS:
Knol shares with Google Book Search the problem of being both indexed by Google and hosted by Google. This presents inherent conflicts in the ranking of content, as well as disincentives for content creators to control the environment in which their content is published. This necessarily disadvantages competing search engines, but more importantly eliminates the ability for content creators to innovate in the area of content presentation or enhancement. Anything that is written in Knol cannot be presented any better than the best thing in Knol. [his emphasis]
And lastly concludes:
An awareness of the fact that Google has never displayed an ability to create the best tools for sharing knowledge would reveal that it is hubris for Google to think they should be a definitive source for hosting that knowledge. If the desire is to increase knowledge sharing, and the methods of compensation that Google controls include traffic/attention and money/advertising, then a more effective system than Knol would be to algorithmically determine the most valuable and well-presented sources of knowledge, identify the identity of authorites using the same journalistic techniques that the Google News team will have to learn, and then reward those sources with increased traffic, attention and/or monetary compensation.
For a long time Google's goal was to help direct your attention outward. Increasingly we find that they want to hold onto it. Everyone knows that Wikipedia articles place highly in Google search results. Makes sense then that they want to capture some of those clicks and plug them directly into the Google ad network. But already the Web is dominated by a handful of mega sites. I get nervous at the thought that www.google.com could gradually become an internal directory, that Google could become the alpha and omega, not only the start page of the Internet but all the destinations.
It will be interesting to see just how and to what extent knols start creeping up the search results. Presumably, they will be ranked according to the same secret metrics that measure all pages in Google's index, but given the opacity of their operations, who's to say that subtle or unconscious rigging won't occur? Will community ratings factor in search rankings? That would seem to present a huge conflict of interest. Perhaps top-rated knols will be displayed in the sponsored links area at the top of results pages. Or knols could be listed in order of community ranking on a dedicated knol search portal, providing something analogous to the experience of searching within Wikipedia as opposed to finding articles through external search engines. Returning to the theory of mind question, will Google develop enough awareness of how it is perceived and felt by its users to strike the right balance?
One last thing worth considering about the knol -? apart from its being possibly the worst Internet neologism in recent memory -? is its author-centric nature. It's interesting that in order to compete with Wikipedia Google has consciously not adopted Wikipedia's model. The basic unit of authorial action in Wikipedia is the edit. Edits by multiple contributors are combined, through a complicated consensus process, into a single amalgamated product. On Google's encyclopedia the basic unit is the knol. For each knol (god, it's hard to keep writing that word) there is a one to one correspondence with an individual, identifiable voice. There may be multiple competing knols, and by extension competing voices (you have this on Wikipedia too, but it's relegated to the discussion pages).
Viewed in this way, Googlepedia is perhaps a more direct rival to Larry Sanger's Citizendium, which aims to build a more authoritative Wikipedia-type resource under the supervision of vetted experts. Citizendium is a strange, conflicted experiment, a weird cocktail of Internet populism and ivory tower elitism -? and by the look of it, not going anywhere terribly fast. If knols take off, could they be the final nail in the coffin of Sanger's awkward dream? Bryan Alexander wonders along similar lines.
While not explicitly employing Sanger's rhetoric of "expert" review, Google seems to be banking on its commitment to attributed solo authorship and its ad-based incentive system to lure good, knowledgeable authors onto the Web, and to build trust among readers through the brand-name credibility of authorial bylines and brandished credentials. Whether this will work remains to be seen. I wonder... whether this system will really produce quality. Whether there are enough checks and balances. Whether the community rating mechanisms will be meaningful and confidence-inspiring. Whether self-appointed experts will seem authoritative in this context or shabby, second-rate and opportunistic. Whether this will have the feeling of an enlightened knowledge project or of sleezy intellectual link farming (or something perfectly useful in between).
The feel of a site -? the values it exudes -? is an important factor though. This is why I like, and in an odd way trust Wikipedia. Trust not always to be correct, but to be transparent and to wear its flaws on its sleeve, and to be working for a higher aim. Google will probably never inspire that kind of trust in me, certainly not while it persists in its dangerous self-delusions.
A lot of unknowns here. Thoughts?
bothered about blogging etc 12.17.2007, 6:16 AM
I've never liked seeing movies in groups. After two hours immersed in a fictional world I dread that moment when you emerge blinking into the light and instantly have to give your verdict.
Personally I want time to mull, and for me a pleasure of private reading is not needing to share my opinion - or know what it is - until I'm good and ready.
I have similar problems with blogging. With such brilliant and articulate colleagues knocking out posts for if:book on a regular basis, I must admit I get nervous about adding speedy contributions. And when I do write words I think might be worth sharing, I wonder if I really want to cast them adrift in such fast flowing waters.
bloggers together - ben vershbow of if:book and cory doctorow of boing boing
I bring this up because the networked book involves active readers happily sharing their thoughts online with others happy to read them.
I dread finding the margins of my e-reader crammed with the scrawlings of cleverclogs, even if I'm free to jump in on their arguments. Having said that, I'm convinced there's immense potential in building communities of debate around interesting texts. There's plenty of intelligence and generosity of spirit on the web to counteract the bilge and the bile.
Doris Lessing asks in her Novel prize acceptance speech,
"How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc?"
Lessing's dismay at addiction to the screen amongst the even quite reasonable is a reminder of the importance of working to heal the cultural divide between bookworms and book geeks. This will involve patience on either side as familiar arguments are replayed to wider audiences. We need to talk in plain English about issues that are so much more interesting and culturally fruitful than many even quite reasonable lovers of literature seem to think they are.
textual montage: the documentary biography 12.14.2007, 6:07 PM
There's something about the work of Herman Melville that brings out the unexpected in his readers. Example can be drawn almost at random. Call Me Ishmael, the poet Charles Olson's lyrical little book on Moby-Dick, is as much a meditation on patrimony, artistic and otherwise, as it is about Melville. When the U. S. government locked him up at Ellis Island, the Trinidadian socialist C. L. R. James took the opportunity to move into literary criticism, writing Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In, in which he found Melville a sympathetic audience for his argument against state capitalism. Maurice Sendak, best known for Where the Wild Things Are, created semi-pornographic illustrations for an edition of Pierre, Melville's little-known novel about incest and doubt. Claire Denis turned the comparatively staid Billy Budd into Beau Travail, a sun-dazed film about the French Foreign Legion that culminates in one of the most desparate dance numbers ever. Paul Metcalf, Melville's great-grandson, smashed together Columbus, teratology, the Bobby Greenlease kidnapping & murder of 1953, and his family's misgivings about their ancestor to form Genoa, a collage novel.
I set off to write about Metcalf and his unclassifiable books – most of them textual collages made of appropriated writing. Metcalf's writing is perhaps worth paying attention to in light of electronic media, thoughhere's precious little about him on the Internet (an interview, an obituary). Thinking about Metcalf's work, however, I found myself sidetracked: when asked about the inspirations for his textual collages, he pointed to another work on Melville, Jay Leyda's The Melville Log. I'll return to Metcalf some other time; he's not going anywhere.
The Melville Log, though. This is a book that might be just as weird as anything else that Melville ever inspired. It's also instructive for thinking about how composition in the age of the ubiquitous archive could work. First, a bit of backstory: though Melville was prominent early in his career, he'd faded entirely from the American consciousness by 1920, when Billy Budd was discovered and Moby-Dick was discovered to be the Great American Novel of the nineteenth century. Literary scholars went to work scrutinizing Melville's life and work; Jay Leyda arrived on the scene in the 1940s, having missed the main boom, but being a big part of a post-war boomlet. In 1951, after years of work, he published The Melville Log, a compilation of first-hand sources about Melville's life and work. In the half-century since, it's become a foundational text for anyone seeking to learn about Melville's life.
I knew that much – just about anyone who's read Melville has heard of The Melville Log – but I'd never bothered to actually look at a copy of Leyda's book. From that description, it doesn't sound interesting. But I found a cheap used copy on Amazon & ordered it; a week later, it turned up on my door. From the dedication, it became clear that this wasn't the book I'd assumed it was:
This book was begun as a birthday present
for my teacher, Sergei Eisenstein.
Jay Leyda, it turns out, wasn't just a literary historian; in fact, he's best known as a film historian, a field in which he played a foundational role. He had, it seems clear, an interesting life. Considering an career as a filmmaker, Leyda went to Moscow in the 1930s to study film with Eisenstein, the only American to do so; he seems to have worked on Bezhin Meadow as a stills photographer. Returning to the U.S., he served as an advisor to Mission to Moscow, a propaganda film designed to shore up American support for the Soviet Union during WWII (a film later to be soundly denounced as evidence of Hollywood's un-Americanism). From there he went on to write his Melville book; he also wrote biographies of Emily Dickinson, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Modest Mussorgsky, as well as a substantial amount of film criticism on Soviet and Chinese films.
What's the importance of this to his book on Melville? If Leyda learned anything from Eisenstein, it was the value of montage, putting adjacent shots into juxtaposition to create new meaning. Leyda explained what he was doing in his introduction:
The result is a book made of documents, documents of many kinds and from many sources, written by many men and women (and some children); but documents cannot be accepted unconditionally. A 'document' should be distrusted as much as a photograph, for documents are a fallible as their human authors. Letters contained as many falsehoods and misunderstandings in 1851 as they do in 1951, and journalists and critics (and typesetters) of a century ago operated under much the same pressures that they do today. Each document quoted here requires some judgment of its author's motives and character – although perhaps the First Mates who kept the whaling logs may be thought beyond suspicion.
(p. xii.) A few scanned spreads from the book give a feeling for its contents, how it juxtaposes bits and pieces of letters, business documents, journals, and Melville's work, using time – the march of years from Melville's birth to his death – as its central axis. Essentially, it's Eisenstein's montage, moved from the world of film into that of books, with not a little of what would subsequently be called multimedia. Click to enlarge:
For a book that might be thought of as a biography, there seems to be very little of the biographer: only the unobtrusive introduction to each entry is in Leyda's hand. (Tucked away at the back of the book, of course, is an enormous list of the sources of quotation.) But lack of the author's words doesn't signify the author's lack of intention. Here's Eisenstein explaining montage in Film Form, translated by Leyda: "By combining these monstrous incongruities we newly collect the disintegrated event into one whole, but in our aspect." Leyda, in his own introduction, winks at this: clearly, he's one of "the First Mates who kept the whaling logs" who would wish to be thought beyond suspicion.
There's a very interesting reading of Leyda's collage-work – and the way collage works – in Clare L. Spark's Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, a thorough dissection of the forces that made Melville into the Melville we think we understand. Melville's life is a challenge for the prospective biographer: there's not the usual plot arc or easy moral to be drawn from it, though that hasn't stopped people from trying to do so: a Great American Novelist needs to behave properly. According to Spark:
Leyda arranged his chronology of Melville's hitherto confusing or mysterious life to track a progression from Ahab's family-splitting bourgeois individualism to Billy Budd's socially responsible sacrifice on behalf of family unity and order, ordering Melville in the process. Every detail of The Melville Log was designed to fortify that message.
(pp. 10–11.) Spark has harsher words for Leyda in her chapter on his work: she sees him as a dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist and details the ways in which suppresses and misrepresents information in the guise of presenting the unvarnished truth. If you're interested in Melville or twentieth-century American propaganda – from both the right and the left – hers is a fascinating book and well worth seeking out.
* * * * *
But let's return from the depths of Melville criticism. If, as Spark argues, The Melville Log presents a subjective view of Melville to his readers, it's only able to do so because Leyda knew that only a miniscule fraction of those who read his book would be able or have the inclination to consult the original documents that he was quoting, the majority of which weren't publicly accessible.
A thought experiment: what happens if, thanks to book-scanning projects, all those sources were publicly accessible?(The University of Connecticut's Olson collection might be seen as a start.) Having everything available doesn't obviate the need for projects like Leyda's; we need editors to sort through the chaff and to point out the things that are interesting. A born-digital project like this could be instantly accountable in a way that it would be difficult for a print version to be: a link could take the reader from the quotation to the quoted document. Going further: a reader who's dissatisfied with the slant of a digital Melville Log could assemble their own alternate version.
Technically, this isn't difficult. But the tools to do this don't seem to exist yet; and supporting this sort of ecosystem of research doesn't seem to be an immediate priority for those compiling archives.
a safe haven for fan culture 12.14.2007, 10:23 AM
The Organization for Transformative Works is a new "nonprofit organization established by fans to serve the interests of fans by providing access to and preserving the history of fanworks and fan culture in its myriad forms."
Interestingly, the OTW defines itself -? and by implication, fan culture in general -? as a "predominately female community." The board of directors is made up of a distinguished and, diverging from fan culture norms, non-anonymous group of women academics spanning film studies, english, interaction design and law, and chaired by the bestselling fantasy author Naomi Novik (J.K. Rowling is not a member). In comments on his website, Ethan Zuckerman points out that
...it's important to understand the definition of "fan culture" - media fandom, fanfic and vidding, a culture that's predominantly female, though not exclusively so. I see this statement in OTW's values as a reflection on the fact that politically-focused remixing of videos has received a great deal of attention from legal and media activists (Lessig, for instance) in recent years. Some women who've been involved with remixing television and movie clips for decades, producing sophisticated works often with incredibly primitive tools, are understandably pissed off that a new generation of political activists are being credited with "inventing the remix".
In a nod to Virginia Woolf, next summer the OTW will launch "An Archive of One's Own," a space dedicated to the preservation and legal protection of fan-made works:
An Archive Of Our Own's first goal is to create a new open-source software package to allow fans to host their own robust, full-featured archives, which can support even an archive on a very large scale of hundreds of thousands of stories and has the social networking features to make it easier for fans to connect to one another through their work.
Our second goal is to use this software to provide a noncommercial and nonprofit central hosting place for fanfiction and other transformative fanworks, where these can be sheltered by the advocacy of the OTW and take advantage of the OTW's work in articulating the case for the legality and social value of these works.
OTW will also publish an academic journal and a public wiki devoted to fandom and fan culture history. All looks very promising.
ghost story 12.13.2007, 10:55 AM
02138, a magazine aimed at Harvard alumni, has a great article about the widespread practice among professors of using low-wage student labor to research and even write their books.
...in any number of academic offices at Harvard, the relationship between "author" and researcher(s) is a distinctly gray area. A young economics professor hires seven researchers, none yet in graduate school, several of them pulling 70-hour work-weeks; historians farm out their research to teams of graduate students, who prepare meticulously written memos that are closely assimilated into the finished work; law school professors "write" books that acknowledge dozens of research assistants without specifying their contributions. These days, it is practically the norm for tenured professors to have research and writing squads working on their publications, quietly employed at stages of co-authorship ranging from the non-controversial (photocopying) to more authorial labor, such as significant research on topics central to the final work, to what can only be called ghostwriting.
Ideally, this would constitute a sort of apprentice system -? one generation of scholars teaching the next through joint endeavor. But in reality the collaborative element, though quietly sanctioned by universities (the article goes into this a bit), receives no direct blessing or stated pedagogical justification. A ghost ensemble works quietly behind the scenes to keep up the appearance of heroic, individual authorship.
...and cinematic photographs 12.11.2007, 7:53 PM
To make a trifecta of film posts for the day, I'll point out Jonathan Harris's The Whale Hunt. Properly speaking, this isn't a film at all; rather, it's a sequence of 3,214 photographs which Jonathan Harris took over a week's trip to Alaska to observe a traditional whale hunt. Harris has date-stamped, captioned, and tagged (in three ways) each photograph. They appear in a Flash interface which displays the images in sequence: a very long slideshow. What's interesting about Harris's work – and which may merit his declaration that it's "an experiment in human storytelling" is they way in which tags are used in the interface: if you click the whale that appears in the top center of each photographs, you can change the constraints on the sequence of photographs that you're looking at. You can choose to see, for example, only photographs taken in Barrow, Alaska; only photographs featuring the first whale killed; only photographs that show children. Or you can choose a mixture of qualifications. One particularly interesting qualifier is the use of "cadence": you can choose to see pictures that were taken close together in time – presumably when more interesting things were happening – or further apart – when, for example, the narrator is sleeping and has the camera set up to automatically photograph every five minutes.
My sense in playing with it for a bit is that using constraint in this manner isn't a tremendously compelling method of storytelling. It is, however, a powerful way of drilling into an archive to see exactly what you want to see.
...and literary cinema 12.11.2007, 11:50 AM
Talking of cinematic readings, I just came across LA artist Sandow Birk's visually stunning cinematic update of Dante's Inferno. The film was made by laboriously creating a paper 'toy theater' and then shooting in live film, making for another complex contemporary interplay of paper with digital media.
cinematic reading 12.11.2007, 8:36 AM
Random House Canada underwrote a series of short videos riffing on Douglas Coupland's new novel The Gum Thief produced by the slick Toronto studio Crush Inc. These were forwarded to me by Alex Itin, who described watching them as a kind of "cinematic reading." Watch, you'll see what he means. There are three basic storylines, each consisting of three clips. This one, from the "Glove Pond" sequence, is particularly clever in its use of old magazines:
flight paths: a networked novel 12.10.2007, 12:59 AM
I'd like to draw your attention to an exciting new project: Flight Paths, a networked novel in progress by Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph, co-authors most recently of the lovely multimedia serial "Inanimate Alice." The Institute is delighted to be a partner on this experiment (along with the Institute of Creative Technologies at De Montfort University and Arts Council England), which marks our first foray into fiction. A common thread with our past experiments is that this book will involve its readers in the writing process. The story begins:
"I have finished my weekly supermarket shop, stocking up on provisions for my three kids, my husband, our dog and our cat. I push the loaded trolley across the car park, battling to keep its wonky wheels on track. I pop open the boot of my car and then for some reason, I have no idea why, I look up, into the clear blue autumnal sky. And I see him. It takes me a long moment to figure out what I am looking at. He is falling from the sky. A dark mass, growing larger quickly. I let go of the trolley and am dimly aware that it is getting away from me but I can't move, I am stuck there in the middle of the supermarket car park, watching, as he hurtles toward the earth. I have no idea how long it takes - a few seconds, an entire lifetime - but I stand there holding my breath as the city goes about its business around me until...
He crashes into the roof of my car."
The car park of Sainsbury's supermarket in Richmond, southwest London, lies directly beneath one of the main flight paths into Heathrow Airport. Over the last decade, on at least five separate occasions, the bodies of young men have fallen from the sky and landed on or near this car park. All these men were stowaways on flights from the Indian subcontinent who had believed that they could find a way into the cargo hold of an airplane by climbing up into the airplane wheel shaft. It is thought that none could have survived the journey, killed by either the tremendous heat generated by the airplane wheels on the runway, crushed when the landing gear retracts into the plane after take off, or frozen to death once the airplane reaches altitude.
'Flight Paths' seeks to explore what happens when lives collide - an airplane stowaway and the fictional suburban London housewife, quoted above. This project will tell their stories.
Through the fiction of these two lives, and the cross-connections and contradictions they represent, a larger story about the way we live today will emerge. The collision between the unknown young man, who will be both memorialised and brought back to life by the piece, and the London woman will provide the focus and force for a piece that will explore asylum, immigration, consumer culture, Islam and the West, as well as the seemingly mundane modern day reality of the supermarket car park itself. This young man's death/plummet will become a flight, a testament to both his extreme bravery and the tragic symbolism of his chosen route to the West.
Here the authors explain the participatory element:
The initial goal of this project is to create a work of digital fiction, a 'networked book', created on and through the internet. The first stage of the project will include a web iteration with, at its heart, this blog, opening up the research process to the outside world, inviting discussion of the large array of issues the project touches on. As well as this, Chris Joseph and Kate Pullinger will create a series of multimedia elements that will illuminate various aspects of the story. This will allow us to invite and encourage user-generated content on this website and any associated sites; we would like to open the project up to allow other writers and artists to contribute texts - both multimedia and more traditional - as well as images, sounds, memories, ideas. At the same time, Kate Pullinger will be writing a print novel that will be a companion piece to the project overall.
We're very curious/excited to see how this develops. Go explore the site, which is just a preliminary framework right now, and get involved. And please spread the word to other potential reader/paticipants. A chance to play a part in a new kind of story.
10 types of publication 12.07.2007, 2:42 PM
In my other life, in the world of web startups, I often have to contend with people who are steadfastly convinced that everyone lives in the technical future. In this world, everyone blogs, knows what an RSS feed does, has an opinion on Yahoo! Pipes, and will be able to tell me why this list of characterizations of 'the technical future' is already obsolete. And yet Chris, in his introductory post as if:book's co-director, remarks on 'how so much reading promotion cuts literature off from other media, as if anyone still lives solely in a 'world of books'.
This strange inability of two worlds to acknowledge one another reminds me of a classic geek joke:
As Chris pointed out, we all exist in a world of multiple media outlets, which cross-fertilise vigoriously. But what have analog and digital to say about one another? At the first if:book:group meeting in London, Kate Pullinger remarked on how despite writing both print and digital fiction, her last print novel barely even mentioned the internet. Noga Applebaum pointed out how she's devoted an entire PhD thesis to the overwhelmingly negative portrayals of technology in children's fiction. Digital technology seems to appear in analog media only in cursory, fantastical or critical portrayals. Meanwhile, the 'content' of analog media is absorbed (digitized) into this brave new world, whose capacity for infinite reproducibility creates exciting new opportunities to see text in motion while causing a kerfuffle with its touted potential irreversibly to disrupt the established modus vivendi.
The relation between the worlds appears strangely asymmetrical. Print is at best a source of 'content', a sweet and outmoded 'original', sometimes a fetish. Even the lexicon reinforces this.
In a recent meeting, someone spotted me doodling, captured some doodle with his 'analog to digital converter' (ie a camera phone), and mailed it around. But what is it called if this image, thus digitized, is rendered in paper again? Is there a word for that? 'Analogized' doesn't sound right (though I'm going to stick with it for the moment, faute de mieux).
The lack of a functioning concept of 'analogization' implies that we don't need one, that there are 10 ways of publishing: those exploring, or eventually destined for digitization, and those destined for the scrap heap - or at best an obscure warehouse on the outskirts of asprawling megalopolis.
But is this true?
Geeks have a solid history of taking internet references back out into meatspace (pleasingly, the title of the above graphic, from the wonderful xkcd.com, is 'in_ur_reality.png'). But it takes truly mass adoption of the internet to turn re-analogization of internet culture from being a nerdy in-joke to something you might see at Hallowe'en on the New York subway:
Rebecca Lossin, in a thoughtful comment on Chris' recent post about Blake, remarks on "...something that while acknowledged by champions of electronic formats, is not dealt with very thoroughly. Books still seem more important than blogs. Big books seem even more important than little books." Books, especially big books, are still associated with authority, thanks - she continues - to "...an extremely important aspect of reading: the acculturated reader."
"The acculturated reader" sums succinctly what I was gesturing at when I posted about a messageboardful of average internet users debating the cultural significance of bookshelves. These readers, acculturated to the nexus of significations traditionally ascribed to physical books, navigate these significations in daily life but are additionally literate in internet discourse. Unlike many commentators on the apparent binary in play here, they see no competition or contradiction at all.
My introductory post on this blog was about how, as an aspiring (print) writer, I fell accidentally in love with the internet. As I explored the medium, my interest in print publication waned, and my suspicion grew that for a writer who wants her writing to change the world, there are more effective, instant-gratification - and digital - media out there that scratch the verbal itch without requiring the writer to receive 1,005,678 rejection letters and starve in obscurity for decades first (well, not the rejection letters anyway).
But since cocking that snook at the slow-moving world of print, I've spent the year pondering the relation between analog and digital writing. And I've concluded that there are more than 10 ways of publishing; that they are not in opposition to one another; and that a new generation of 'acculturated readers' is emerging that takes on board both the cultural significance of books and also the affordances of the internet, uses each tactically according to the kinds of writing/reading each facilitates best, and is beginning to explore the movement of content not just from analog to digital but also back to analog again.
So here's a beautiful example of a symbiosis of print and digital media, come full circle. BibliOdyssey is a gloriously eccentric blog dedicated to obscure, intriguing, unusual or visually stunning print art. Today I learned that the pick of BibliOdyssey is to be published as a physical book.
This trajectory - books that originate in blogs - pulls away from the narrative of ineluctable digitization that preoccupies much of the debate around the relation between print and the internet. Of course, it's not new (remember Jessica Cutler?). But the BibliOdyssey book narrative is especially delicious (should that be del.icio.us?), as the material in the book consists of print images that were digitized, uploaded into scores of obscure online archives, collected by the mysterious PK on the BibliOdyssey blog and then re-analogized as a book. It's an anthology of content that has come on a strange journey from print, through digitization and back to print again. So it's possible to observe these images in multiple cultural contexts and investigate the response of 'the acculturated reader' in each. The question is: what does the material gain or lose in which medium?
The post-bit atom fascination of an 'original', a rare object, is powerful. But once digitized and uploaded into public-access archives (however byzantine, in practice, these are to navigate) this layer of interest is stripped, and value must be found elsewhere. Quirkiness; novelty; art-historical interest; the fleeting delight of stumbling upon something visually stunning whilst idly browsing. But the infinite reproducibility of the image means that it's only of transactional value in a momentary, conversational sense: I send you that link to an amusing engraving, and our relationship is strengthened if you grasp why I sent that particular one and respond in kind.
The overall value of the blog, then, is in its function as dense repository of links that can be used thus. So what is the value of the images again once re-analogized? In the case of BibliOdyssey, it's a beautiful coffee-table book, delightful in itself and that archly foregrounds its status as hip-to-the-internets.
Perhaps, a century down the line, when climate change has killed off the internet and we're all living in candlelit huts, it'll be a scarce and precious resource hinting at times gone by. But however the future pans out, right now it's both evidence of the dialogic relation of analog and digital media, and also a palimpsest offering glimpses of the shifting signification of cultural content when published in different forms. Texts, images or collections of such aren't just sitting there waiting to be digitized: once digitized, they take on new life, and increasingly creep back out into the analog world to glue captions to your cats.
generation gap? 12.07.2007, 11:48 AM
A pair of important posts, one by Siva Vaidhyanathan and one by Henry Jenkins, call for an end to generationally divisive rhetoric like "digital immigrants" and "digital natives."
Partly, I resist such talk because I don't think that "generations" are meaningful social categories. Talking about "Generation X" as if there were some discernable unifying traits or experiences that all people born between 1964 and pick a year after 1974 is about as useful as saying that all Capricorns share some trait or experience. Yes, today one-twelfth of the world will "experience trouble at work but satisfaction in love." Right.
Invoking generations invariably demands an exclusive focus on people of wealth and means, because they get to express their preferences (for music, clothes, electronics, etc.) in ways that are easy to count. It always excludes immigrants, not to mention those born beyond the borders of the United States. And it excludes anyone on the margins of mainstream consumer or cultural behavior.
In the case of the "digital generation," the class, ethnic, and geographic biases could not be more obvious.
In reality, whether we are talking about games or fan culture or any of the other forms of expression which most often get associated with digital natives, we are talking about forms of cultural expression that involve at least as many adults as youth. Fan culture can trace its history back to the early part of the 20th century; the average gamer is in their twenties and thirties. These are spaces where adults and young people interact with each other in ways that are radically different from the fixed generational hierarchies affiliated with school, church, or the family. They are spaces where adults and young people can at least sometimes approach each other as equals, can learn from each other, can interact together in new terms, even if there's a growing tendency to pathologize any contact on line between adults and youth outside of those familiar structures.
As long as we divide the world into digital natives and immigrants, we won't be able to talk meaningfully about the kinds of sharing that occurs between adults and children and we won't be able to imagine other ways that adults can interact with youth outside of these cultural divides. What once seemed to be a powerful tool for rethinking old assumptions about what kinds of educational experiences or skills were valuable, which was what excited me about Prensky's original formulation [pdf], now becomes a rhetorical device that short circuits thinking about meaningful collaboration across the generations.
kindle maths 101 12.07.2007, 9:19 AM
Chatting with someone from Random House's digital division on the day of the Kindle release, I suggested that dramatic price cuts on e-editions -? in other words, finally acknowledging that digital copies aren't worth as much (especially when they come corseted in DRM) as physical hard copies -? might be the crucial adjustment needed to at last blow open the digital book market. It seemed like a no-brainer to me that Amazon was charging way too much for its e-books (not to mention the Kindle itself). But upon closer inspection, it clearly doesn't add up that way. Tim O'Reilly explains why:
...the idea that there's sufficient unmet demand to justify radical price cuts is totally wrongheaded. Unlike music, which is quickly consumed (a song takes 3 to 4 minutes to listen to, and price elasticity does have an impact on whether you try a new song or listen to an old one again), many types of books require a substantial time commitment, and having more books available more cheaply doesn't mean any more books read. Regular readers already often have huge piles of unread books, as we end up buying more than we have time for. Time, not price, is the limiting factor.
Even assuming the rosiest of scenarios, Kindle readers are going to be a subset of an already limited audience for books. Unless some hitherto untapped reader demographic comes out of the woodwork, gets excited about e-books, buys Kindles, and then significantly surpasses the average human capacity for book consumption, I fail to see how enough books could be sold to recoup costs and still keep prices low. And without lower prices, I don't see a huge number of people going the Kindle route in the first place. And there's the rub.
Even if you were to go as far as selling books like songs on iTunes at 99 cents a pop, it seems highly unlikely that people would be induced to buy a significantly greater number of books than they already are. There's only so much a person can read. The iPod solved a problem for music listeners: carrying around all that music to play on your Disc or Walkman was a major pain. So a hard drive with earphones made a great deal of sense. It shouldn't be assumed that readers have the same problem (spine-crushing textbook-stuffed backpacks notwithstanding). Do we really need an iPod for books?
UPDATE: Through subsequent discussion both here and off the blog, I've since come around 360 back to my original hunch. See comment.
We might, maybe (putting aside for the moment objections to the ultra-proprietary nature of the Kindle), if Amazon were to abandon the per copy idea altogether and go for a subscription model. (I'm just thinking out loud here -? tell me how you'd adjust this.) Let's say 40 bucks a month for full online access to the entire Amazon digital library, along with every major newspaper, magazine and blog. You'd have the basic cable option: all books accessible and searchable in full, as well as popular feedback functions like reviews and Listmania. If you want to mark a book up, share notes with other readers, clip quotes, save an offline copy, you could go "premium" for a buck or two per title (not unlike the current Upgrade option, although cheaper). Certain blockbuster titles or fancy multimedia pieces (once the Kindle's screen improves) might be premium access only -? like HBO or Showtime. Amazon could market other services such as book groups, networked classroom editions, book disaggregation for custom assembled print-on-demand editions or course packs.
This approach reconceives books as services, or channels, rather than as objects. The Kindle would be a gateway into a vast library that you can roam about freely, with access not only to books but to all the useful contextual material contributed by readers. Piracy isn't a problem since the system is totally locked down and you can only access it on a Kindle through Amazon's Whispernet. Revenues could be shared with publishers proportionately to traffic on individual titles. DRM and all the other insults that go hand in hand with trying to manage digital media like physical objects simply melt away.
* * * * *
On a related note, Nick Carr talks about how the Kindle, despite its many flaws, suggests a post-Web2.0 paradigm for hardware:
If the Kindle is flawed as a window onto literature, it offers a pretty clear view onto the future of appliances. It shows that we're rapidly approaching the time when centrally stored and managed software and data are seamlessly integrated into consumer appliances - all sorts of appliances.
The problem with "Web 2.0," as a concept, is that it constrains innovation by perpetuating the assumption that the web is accessed through computing devices, whether PCs or smartphones or game consoles. As broadband, storage, and computing get ever cheaper, that assumption will be rendered obsolete. The internet won't be so much a destination as a feature, incorporated into all sorts of different goods in all sorts of different ways. The next great wave in internet innovation, in other words, won't be about creating sites on the World Wide Web; it will be about figuring out creative ways to deploy the capabilities of the World Wide Computer through both traditional and new physical products, with, from the user's point of view, "no computer or special software required."
That the Kindle even suggests these ideas signals a major advance over its competitors -? the doomed Sony Reader and the parade of failed devices that came before. What Amazon ought to be shooting for, however, (and almost is) is not an iPod for reading -? a digital knapsack stuffed with individual e-books -? but rather an interface to a networked library.
gained the world and lost your audience 12.06.2007, 5:24 PM
A passage from Gabriel Josipovici's elegant novel Everything Passes gave me pause on the train yesterday morning. Here, Josipovici's protagonist argues for reading Rabelais as the first modern writer:
—Rabelais, he says, is the first writer of the age of print. Just as Luther is the last writer of the manuscript age. Of course, he says, without print Luther would have remained a simple heretical monk. Print, he says, scooping up the froth in his cup, made Luther the power he became, but essentially he was a preacher, not a writer. He knew his audience and wrote for it. Rabelais, though, he says, sucking his spoon, understood what this new miracle of print meant for the writer. It meant you had gained the world and lost your audience. You no longer knew who was reading you or why. You no longer knew who you were writing for or even why you were writing. Rabelais, he says, raged at this and laughed at it and relished it, all at the same time.
[ . . . . ]
—Rabelais, he says, is the first author in history to find the idea of authority ridiculous.
She looks at him over her coffee-cup. —Ridiculous? she says.
—Of course, he says. For one thing he no longer felt he belonged to any tradition that could support or guide him. He could admire Virgil and Homer, but what had they to do with him? Homer was the bard of the community. He sang about the past and made it present to those who listened. Virgil, to the satisfaction of the Emperor Augustus, made himself the bard of the new Roman Empire. He wove its myths about the past together in heart-stopping verse and so gave legitimacy to the colonisation and subjugation of a large part of the peninsula. But Rabelais? If enough people bought his books, he could make a living out of writing. But he was the spokesman of no one but himself. And that meant that his role was inherently absurd. No one had called him. Not God. Not the Muses. Not the monarch. Not the local community. He was alone in his room, scribbling away, and then these scribbles were transformed into print and read by thousands of people whom he'd never set eyes on and who had never set eyes on him, people in all walks of life, reading him in the solitude of their rooms.
( pp. 17–19.) It's worth quoting at length because Josipovici's prose opens so many questions: today, we potentially find ourselves in a situation where authority and the audience could potentially be radically rearranged, maybe as much so as when Rabelais was writing.
welcome, sebastian mary! (it's official) 12.05.2007, 5:50 PM
We are very happy to welcome Sebastian Mary Harrington onto the "official" Institute masthead. This is long overdue, and merely formalizes what is already without question one of our most important and well established partnerships. But formalized it is. And we're damn pleased.
It all started two Octobers ago with a casual comment on a post about iPods and reading. An email exchange ensued and before we knew it sMary was blogging away, quickly carving out her place as what you might call our "new online literary forms correspondent." For over a year now she's been writing some of the best coverage to be found anywhere on alternative reality games (ARGs), as well as brilliant speculative essays on the future shape of authorship, copyright and the economics of publishing. (She's also become a dear friend.) I wonder if it's happened before: a random blog comment leading to a paid writing gig? It's a good story in itself, and sort of captures why blogging is such an important part of our work.
Here's little sampler of her if:book portfolio (running newest to oldest):
- "books and the man i sing": parts one, two and three
- "of babies and bathwater"
- "it's multimedia, jim, but not as we know it"
- "pay attention to the dance"
- "give away the content and sell the thing"
- net native stories are already here: so are the vultures"
- "do bloggers dream of electrifying text?"
Once again, we're delighted sMary will be officially working with us for part of every month, continuing to deliver her sharp insights and humor here on if:book, and taking part in some of our emerging activities on the London scene.
This is also probably a good time to say a bit more about sMary's other endeavors. In addition to her work with the Institute, she's co-founder of the UK web startup School of Everything (chosen by Seedcamp as one of Europe's hottest startups of 2007) and co-founder and creative director of the cult London art event ARTHOUSEPARTY. You can find out a bit more on our staff page.
Another warm welcome to sMary. You'll no doubt be hearing more from her soon.
the tomb of the book 12.04.2007, 6:02 PM
"Vista de la Biblioteca Vasconcelos" by Eneas, on Flickr
A lovely meditation at BLDG Blog on the architecture of storage facilities for unwanted books. Speaks volumes (as it were) to the anxiety of obsolescence that keeps librarians up at night -? the thought of libraries themselves becoming tombs.
...a relatively random piece of 100-year old legislation - dealing with copyright law, of all things - has begun to exhibit architectural effects.
These architectural effects include the production of huge warehouses in the damp commuter belts of outer London. These aren't libraries, of course; they're stockpiles. Text bunkers.
...Perhaps it will take some future moment of cultural archaeology to break into these places, spelunking back into the literate past, to find well-tempered rooms still humming at 50ºF, humidity-free, where the past is refrigerated and Shakespeare's name can still be recognized on the spines of books.
a grant for Sophie from The Macarthur Foundation 12.03.2007, 4:14 PM
We are very happy to announce that the Macarthur Foundation has just provided a $400,000 grant which will ensure the release of version 1.0 of Sophie in February. Yay!
talking of poets and sparkles 12.03.2007, 8:14 AM
'The cast of mind which searches, which questions, which dissents, has a great history. Each society has given it its own form: religious, literary. scientific. Much of the strength of Blake derives from the twofold form which dissent took in his time: rational and inspired... The history of dissent is not yet ended; it does not end. Men die, and societies die. They are not more lasting for being without dissent, they are more brittle: for they are purposeless, because they deny themselves a future.'
So writes Charles Bronowski in his book on William Blake, A Man Without a Mask, quoted by Shirley Dent of the Institute of Ideas in an article on the anniversary of Blake's birth 250 years ago.
Brilliant, belligerent, barmy Blake has been claimed as a figurehead by all kinds of hippies and politicoes over the years, and was recently cited as 'The Godfather of Psychogeography' by Ian Sinclair for, among other things, seeing angels in the trees of Peckham Rye and the new Jerusalem in leafy north London:
"The fields from Islington to Maylebone,
To Primrose Hill and Saint John's Wood:
Were builded over with pillars of gold,
Are there Jerusalems pillars stood."
(This quote from Jerusalem features in Merlin Coverley's excellent guide to Psychogeography which includes city strollers from Defoe and Poe to Debord and Will Self).
William Blake, the man who wandered through the charter'd streets of London finding in the face of every passerby 'marks of weakness, marks of woe', who engraved and painted his own books of poems, selling his songs on subscription (or failing to sell them), would have made one hell of a blogger too. I imagine him mashing up maps of Hampstead with his personal mythology, forging a new kind of book on the anvil of his laptop, engaging his community of readers in fervent debate, plying them with animations of innocence and experience.