on writing less 03.31.2008, 9:52 AM
"Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parceque je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte." Pascal, Lettres provinciales, 16, Dec.14,1656.
I used to co-edit Pick Me Up, a cult London digital newsletter. After some years perfecting the flamboyant and self-congratulatory prose style that wins points as an Oxford undergrad, it was a whole new aesthetic. Minimal design, lots of white space. Keep the language plain, tell the story in simple words. We'd pass articles back and forth, ruthlessly prune one anothers' words for anything too flash. I quickly stopped being precious about 'my' words: the aim was to make the language invisible.
Back then (we went our separate ways around 2 years ago), we were just-underground: our stories regularly hijacked by broadsheets and advertising campaigns. But since then the writing register I learned there has proliferated. It's become the hip corporate copywriting style: Howies, Innocent Smoothies, any Web2.0 startup's 'About Us' page.
Looking back, my involvement with Pick Me Up was the point where I started to think hard about the unique qualities of writing for the Web. But while plain language has become the bedrock of corporate communications, especially online, the 'literary' register resists its incursions. Wordsworth's efforts notwithstanding, short sentences, plain language, and simple structure signify simple-mindedness. Discussing Japanese mobile phone fiction, Jane Sullivan writes in The Age
What's the downside? Quality control, apparently. So far the mobile phone format has meant that the style of writing is generally unadventurous -? short, simple sentences, lots of dialogue, pauses to indicate thought -? and the stories themselves are hackneyed tales of romance.
I think it was Nietzsche who said that difficulty is often mistaken for greatness in a writer, because readers mistake their own pride at deciphering a text for an inherent profundity within it. Never mind that Pascal's bon mot has been attributed to writers as long-gone and canonical as Cicero; forget brevity being the soul of wit; simplicity indicates poor quality.
Similarly. It's become an article of faith in web design that any content below the fold (ie requiring a visitor to scroll down) will attract dramatically fewer viewings; this reflects a well-founded pragmatism oriented toward the need to hook a reader straight away. But few of the 'literary' webspaces I've come across in my research over the last few months pay much attention to this principle. I've lost count of the number of blog 'novels' I've come across, glanced through, bookmarked with every intention of returning for a closer read, and then forgotten. Part of the problem, again and again, is that I'm confronted with thousands of words of Arial ten-point and a scroll bar - along with the long sentences, elaborate structures and rich vocabulary that for many are the marker of literary quality. The net result is that these literary webspaces field a prose style and layout that - while it might make perfectly decent print reading - provides a sucky user experience.
My literacy credentials are more than respectable. I'm happy plowing my way through thorny texts - in the right form. But with billions of pages on the Web clamoring for attention, I get irritated with those that insist, however noble and literary their intentions, on making that most basic online error of loading too much text into one place. While the idea of savoring a sprawling, muscular Jamesian sentence in the wifi-free zone of the subway delights me, the idea of being asked to do so online fills me with horror.
Whatever you may think of the actual story, the first episode in Pengin's WeTellStories experiment, The 21 Steps, suggests a growing recognition of the need to adapt storytelling modes online. It's a decent balance of Web-native visualization and textual storytelling. The reader doesn't have to deal with more than 20 or so words per click, 40-50 per 'chapter'. The whole thing takes 5-10 minutes to read. This, in my view, is about where Web storytelling needs to be pitched.
Penguin's production is an all-singing, all-dancing multimedia experince produced by an ARG studio. But simpler, text-based offerings are if anything more subject to the brutal need to edit for the Web reader's attention span. Dickens' chapter length was constrained in many cases by magazine serialization; now that DailyLit.com delivers daily bite-sized email or RSS doses of books to subscribers, will this affect the way future storytellers shape their work?
There is no disputing the fact that the Web is not the most comfortable medium for long-form reading (see Ian Bogost's cracking article, and the ensuing discussion, for more on this). And the social media boom is spearheading a change in written language toward a simpler, plainer, more demotic register. So does this mean we are - over two centuries after Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads proposed a new literature embracing 'the language of ordinary men' - finally abandoning the privileging of prosiness as a marker of cultural quality? How does this square with the equation, so often taken for granted, between long-form writing and cultural virtue? Does it signify a cultural decline? Or is this just another kind of literacy, a new register for the emerging high priests of our evolving discourse to master and manipulate?
Either way, it's hard to escape the fact that today we read, online, across multiple platforms including but not limited to a textual one. And yet, like a filmmaker grimly trying to observe the Aristotelian unities, many writers obstinately struggle to popularize material on the Web that is profoundly unsuited to being read there. I look forward to seeing more storytellers who embrace not only good writing but also the basic principles of good Web design - especially the one about not writing too much.
As a final note: I'm aware of the irony of my having just written a thousand words on brevity. My posts at if:book are the sole exception I make to general Web writing rule of 3 short paragraphs maximum; I have mixed feelings about making the exception. But for the sake of keeping it to a thousand I'll save that discussion for another time.
against reading 03.27.2008, 10:50 PM
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a
I picked up Mikita Brottman's The Solitary Vice: Against Reading from the shelf of the St. Mark's bookstore hoping that it was a different book than it turned out to be. After needlessly explaining the innuendo in her title, Brottman starts out with a promising premise: she's tired of the piety that reading is good for you. I am too: I'd like somebody to explain exactly why reading is good for you. We're prepared from youth (Fahrenheit 451, firmly entrenched in the high school canon) to defend against the enemies of literacy who'd like nothing more than to burn our books in the name of the future. These barbarians haven't yet arrived. Like the battalion guarding the frontier in Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe, it's possible that we're guarding nothing while life slips away. Somebody, in the name of contrariness if nothing else, should be making the argument against reading.
high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to
Brottman's not that contrarian; perhaps it's foolish to seek such a champion in the written word. She's not arguing against reading; instead, she's arguing against reading novels. Her book is something of an inversion of Sven Birkerts's The Gutenberg Elegies, a book not about the impending demise of print books so much as about how the novel shapes character, an argument he moves into the territory of memoir in his more recent My Sky Blue Trades and Reading Life. The predictable arguments are brought into play: Socrates wasn't sure about poets. Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey shows up on cue to demonstrate how novels set up unrealistic expectations for the real world. The novel blinds people to the real world; the solitary act of reading makes the reader less social. Books read in school are boring; the classics are moldy and old and the worlds they depict often bear little resemblance to our own. Reading novels won't make you a better person. Probably Hitler read books.
eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
that feels a flea, the base
- ball fan, the statistician—
nor is it valid
to discriminate against “business documents and
What best to do? Like Birkerts, Brottman trots out her reading history that it might serve as an exemplar for our redemption. "A man's work," remarked Camus, "is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened." Brottman finds one of those images in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon, which led her down the garden path of true-life tell-alls, eventually to find heaven in true crime tales. From these, Brottman reasons, we can learn more than from all the Gothic fiction every written. She might be right. We should read what we like: to the pure, all things are pure, and nuggets of truth can be found in the garbage of celebrities. "Life is worth while," Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts writes before he gives up, "for it is full of dreams and peace, gentleness and ecstasy, and faith that burns like a clear white flame on a grim dark altar."
school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
the imagination”— above
insolence and triviality and can present
My problem with Brottman's argument is that it's not a particularly difficult one to make. Critics worry about a general vogue for memoirs rather than fiction; journalists worry about fiction sold as memoir. It's no longer daring to claim that a film can be just as rich as the written word. The staid gray pages of The New York Times regularly review video games. Maybe the New Criterion's still fighting these battles – I haven't checked lately – but my sense is that Brottman's tilting at windmills.
for inspection, ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them,”
shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.
Not much poetry is cited in Brottman's twenty-page bibliography, but the omission of Marianne Moore's "Poetry" (grotesquely interpolated with my text) surprises me. Moore's cross-examination of her art says more in less space than The Solitary Vice; it's not, perhaps, a fair fight, but this is, after all, the Internet. "Poetry" begs to be re-made: now more than ever, the value of reading needs to be interrogated. Brottman's book doesn't quite get there; we still have Moore.
the big book of TED 03.27.2008, 3:46 PM
At TED 2008, visual cartographers David Sibbet and Kevin Richards produced over 700 spontaneous sketches of the keynote presenters' ideas, using Autodesk visualization tools. These sketches have now been turned into The BIGVIZ, a downloadable 200-page interactive ebook.
Parts of it are rather gnomic without reference to the talks that inspired them; but it's a fascinating glimpse into the way ideas mutate as they are filtered through different forms.
this is a game. no really, it is 03.26.2008, 2:26 PM
This morning, I received an envelope through the post. It contained two chapters of a pulp murder mystery, along with an invitation to a private gathering with the same title as the booklets: Looking For Headless. The gathering will take place in an anonymous City of London complex of rooms for hire by the hour.
It feels like the rabbit hole for a promising ARG. The accompanying letter describes how Georges Bataille formed a secret society, Acéphale, in 1938. Now, in 2008, two Swedish artists have discovered a Bahamas-based offshore company named Headless, which they have been investigating for the last year. At the meeting, I presume, I and the other invitees (whoever they are) will learn more.
A key characteristic of an ARG is the convention 'This Is Not A Game'. Puppetmasters work to sustain the illusion that the game's elements are part of the 'real' world - that's a real person who emailed you, this is a real corporate website. Though players know the game is a game, there's stil a thrill at the edges: should I phone that company, is it in-game, will I just get some confused receptionist? What's real, who is complicit? But here the program is running backwards. Headless is, in fact, real. Owned by the Sovereign Trust Gibraltar. Little other information is available. Goldin+Senneby, the artist duo behind the project, state that they are interested in business as fiction, and in acts of withdrawal perpetrated through corporate structures.
ARG-like, the edge is ambiguous. The art-world jargon the artists use to discuss the project feels - perhaps deliberately - like yet another act of withdrawal. The two chapters of 'Looking for Headless' I received contain real transcripts of real detective reports, use the real names of real people, are authored by a real person - John Barlow . Though he has never met the people who commissioned him to work on this project, Barlow has scripted himself into the story. But parts of it are pure fiction. Reading the first two chapters of Looking for Headless is unnerving: which parts of this happened, and which did Barlow invent? In a story about the shadowy realm of offshore tax management, it is hard to be certain. Have the meeting's invitees, as - it is implied - the reincarnation of Acéphale - Headless - been incorporated into a game, an art project, a work of fiction, or something altogether more sinister?
Today, Barlow left for Nassau, Bahamas to continue his investigation of Headless. He'll be blogging his experiences here. It is not clear whether he will be blogging factual accounts, or embroidered ones. Or if, caught between pervasive, digitally-mediated self-narration and an emerging sphere of digital storytelling whose core insistence is that a game is not a game, we have lost the ability to tell the difference.
from work to text 03.26.2008, 1:06 PM
I spent the weekend before last at the Center for Book Arts as part of their Fine Press Publishing Seminar for Emerging Writers. There I was taught to set type; not, perhaps, exactly what you'd expect from someone writing for a blog devoted to new technology. Robert Bringhurst, speaking about typography a couple years back, noted that one of typography's virtues in the modern world is its status as a "mature technology"; as such, it can serve as a useful measuring stick for those emerging. A chance to think, again, about how books are made: a return to the roots of publishing technology might well illuminate the way we think about the present and future of the book.
I've been involved with various aspects of making books – from writing to production – for just over a decade now. In a sense, this isn't very long – all the books I've ever been involved with have gone through a computer – but it's long enough to note how changes in technology affect the way that books are made. Technology's changed rapidly over the last decade; I know that my ability to think through them has barely kept up. An arbitrary chronology, then, of my personal history with publishing technology.
The first book I was involved in was Let's Go Ireland 1998, for which I served as an associate editor in the summer of 1999. At that point, Let's Go researcher/writers were sent to the field with a copious supply of lined paper and a two copies of the previous year's book; they cut one copy up and glued it to sheets of paper with hand-written changes, which were then mailed back to the office in Cambridge. A great deal of the associate editor's job was to type in the changes to the previous years' book; if you were lucky, typists could be hired to take care of that dirty work. I was not, it goes without saying, a very good typist; my mind tended to drift unless I were re-editing the text. A lot of bad jokes found their way into the book; waves of further editing combed some of them out and let others in. The final text printed that fall bore some resemblance to what the researcher had written, but it was as much a product of the various editors who worked on the book.
The next summer I found myself back at Let's Go; for lack of anything better to do and a misguided personal masochism I became the Production Manager, which meant (at that point in time) that I oversaw the computer network and the typesetting of the series. Let's Go, at that point, was a weirdly forward-looking publishing venture in that the books were entirely edited and typeset before they were handed over to St. Martin's Press for printing and distribution. Because everything was done on an extremely tight schedule – books were constructed from start to finish over the course of a summer – editors were forced to edit in the program used for layout, Adobe FrameMaker, an application intended for creating industrial documentation. (This isn't, it's worth pointing out, the way most of the publishing industry works.) That summer, we began a program to give about half the researchers laptops – clunky beige beasts with almost no battery life – to work on; I believe they did their editing on Microsoft Word and mailed 3.5'' disks back to the office, where the editors would convert them to Frame. A change happened there: those books were, in a sense, born digital. The translation of handwriting into text in a computer no longer happened. A word was typed in, transferred from computer to computer, shifted around on screen, and, if kept, sent to press, the same word, maybe.
Something ineffable was lost with the omission of the typist: to go from writing on paper to words on a screen, the word on the page has to travel through the eye of the typist, the brain, and down to the hand. The passage through the brain of the typist is an interesting one because it's not necessarily perfect: the typist might simply let the word through, or improve the wording. Or the typist make a mistake – which did happen frequently. All travel guides are littered with mistakes; often mistakes were not the fault of a researcher's inattentiveness or an editor's mendaciousness but a typist's poor transliteration. That was the argument I made the next year I applied to work at Let's Go; a friend and I applied to research and edit the Rome book in Rome, rather then sending copy back to the office. Less transmissions, we argued, meant less mistakes. The argument was successful, and Christina and I spent the summer in Rome, writing directly in FrameMaker, editing each other's work, and producing a book that we had almost exclusive control over, for better or worse.
It's roughly that model which has become the dominant paradigm for most writing and publishing now: it's rare that writing doesn't start on a computer. The Internet (and, to a lesser extent, print-on-demand publishing services) mean that you can be your own publisher; you can edit yourself, if you feel the need. The layers that text needed to be sent through to be published have been flattened. There are good points to this and bad; in retrospect, the book we produced, full of scarcely disguised contempt for the backpackers we were ostensibly writing for, was nothing if not self-indulgent. An editor's eye wouldn't have hurt.
And so after a not inconsequential amount of time spent laying out books, I finally got around to learning to set type. (I don't know that my backwardness is that unusual: with a copy of Quark or InDesign, you don't actually need to know much of an education in graphic design to make a book.) Learning to set type is something self-consciously old-fashioned: it's a technology that's been replaced for all practical purposes. But looking at the world of metal type through the lens of current technology reveals things that may well have been hidden when it was dominant.
While it was suggested that the participants in the Emerging Writing Seminar might want to typeset their own Emerging Writing, I didn't think any of my writing was worth setting in metal, so I set out to typeset some of Gertrude Stein. I've been making my way through her work lately, one of those over-obvious discoveries that you don't make until too late, and I thought it would be interesting to lay out a few paragraphs of her writing. Stein's writing is interesting to me because it forces the reader to slow down: it demands to be read aloud. There's also a particular look to Stein's work on a page: it has a concrete uniformness on the page that makes it recognizable as hers even when the words are illegible. Typesetting, I though, might be an interesting way to think through it, so I set myself to typeset a few paragraphs from "Orta or One Dancing", her prose portrait of Isadora Duncan.
Typesetting, it turns out, is hard work: standing over a case of type and pulling out type to set in a compositing stick is exhausting in a way that a day of typing and clicking at a computer is not. A computer is, of course, designed to be a labor-saving device; still, it struck me as odd that the labor saved would be so emphatically physical. Choosing to work with Stein's words didn't make this any easier, as anyone with any sense might have foreseen: participles and repetitions blur together. Typesetting means that the text has to be copied out letter by letter: the typesetter looks at the manuscript, sees the next letter, pulls the piece of type out of the case, adds it to the line in the compositing stick. Mistakes are harder to correct than on a computer: as each line needs to be individually set, words in the wrong place mean that everything needs to be physically reshuffled. With the computer, we've become dependent upon copying and pasting: we take this for granted now, but it's a relatively recent ability.
There's no end of ways to go wrong with manual typesetting. With a computer, you type a word and it appears on a screen; with lead type, you add a word, and look at it to see if it appears correct in its backward state. Eventually you proof it on a press; individual pieces of type may be defective and need to be replaced. Lowercase bs are easily confused with ds when they're mirrored in lead. Type can be put in upside-down; different fonts may have been mixed in the case of type you're using. Spacing needs to be thought about: if your line of type doesn't have exactly enough lead in it to fill it, letters may be wobbly. Ink needs attention. Paper width needs attention. After only four days of instruction, I'm sure I don't know half of the other things that might go wrong. And at the end of it all, there's the clean up: returning each letter to its precise place, a menial task that takes surprisingly long.
We think about precisely none of these things when using a computer. To an extent, this is great: we can think about the words and not worry about how they're getting on the page. It's a precocious world: you can type out a sentence and never have to think about it again. But there's something appealing about a more altricial model, the luxury of spending two days with two paragraphs, even if it is two days of bumbling – one never spends that kind of time with a text any more. A degree of slowness is forced upon even the best manual typesetter: every letter must be considered, eye to brain to hand. With so much manual labor, it's no surprise that there so many editorial layers existed: it's a lot of work to fix a mistake in lead type. Last-minute revision isn't something to be encouraged; when a manuscript arrived in the typesetter's hands, it needs to be thoroughly finished.
Letterpress is the beginning of mechanical reproduction, but it's still laughably inefficient: it's still intimately connected to human labor. There's a clue here, perhaps, to the long association between printers and progressive labor movements. A certain sense of compulsion comes from looking at a page of letterset type that doesn't quite come, for me, from looking at something that's photoset (as just about everything in print is now) or on a screen. It's a sense of the physical work that went into it: somebody had to ink up a press and make those impressions on that sheet of paper. I'm not sure this is necessarily a universal reaction, although it is the same sort of response that I have when looking at something well painted knowing how hard it is to manipulate paint from my own experience. (I'm not arguing, of course, that technique by itself is an absolute indicator of value: a more uncharitable essayist could make the argument could be made that letterpress functions socially as a sort of scrapbooking for the blue states.) Maybe it's a distrust of abstractions on my part: a website that looks like an enormous amount of work has been put into it may just as easily have stolen its content entirely from the real producers. There's a comparable amount of work that goes into non-letterpressed text, but it's invisible: a PDF file sent to Taiwan comes back as cartons of real books; back office workers labor for weeks or months to produce a website. In comparison, metal typesetting has a solidity to it: the knowledge that every letter has been individually handled, which is somehow comforting.
Nostalgia ineluctably works its way into any argument of this sort, and once it's in it's hard to pull it out. There's something disappointing to me in both arguments blindly singing the praises of the unstoppable march of technology and those complaining that things used to be better; you see exactly this dichotomy in some of the comments this blog attracts. (Pynchon: "She had heard all about excluded middles; they were bad shit, to be avoided; and how had it ever happened here, with the chances once so good for diversity?") A certain tension between past and present, between work and text, might be what's needed.
major news: IFB and NYU libraries to collaborate 03.25.2008, 12:46 PM
A couple of weeks ago, I alluded to a new institutional partnership that's been in the works for some time. Well I'm thrilled to officially announce that the we are joining forces with the NYU Division of Libraries!
From Carol A. Mandel, dean of the NYU Libraries. "IFB is a thought leader in the future of scholarly communication. We will work together to develop new software and new options that faculty can use to publish, review, share, and collaborate at NYU and in the larger academic community."
A basic breakdown of what this means:
-? NYU is now our technical home. All IFB sites are running out of there with IT support from the NYU Libraries' top-notch team.
-? Bob, Dan and I will serve as visiting scholars at NYU.
-? With recently secured NEH digital humanities start-up funding (along with other monies yet to be raised), we will work with the NYU digital library team, headed by James Bullen, to develop social networking tools and infrastructure for MediaCommons. This will serve as applied research for digital tools and frameworks that NYU is presently developing.
-? We will work with NYU librarians, with the digital library team, and with Monica McCormick, the Libraries' program officer for digital scholarly publishing, to create forums for collaboration and to develop specific projects and digital initiatives with NYU faculty, and possibly NYU Press.
Needless to say, we're tremendously excited about this partnership. Things are still being set up but expect more news in the weeks and months ahead.
a serious shot at screen reading 03.24.2008, 8:11 AM
Another new online magazine: Triple Canopy (noted by Ed Park). Unlike Issue and Rosa B. this isn't a design magazine – although the content is very interesting – but like them, it's a serious attempt to construct a new kind of magazine for the screen-reading environment. While Rosa B.'s design uses the affordances of dynamic layering, Issue concentrates on reader annotation, Triple Canopy simply does away with the scroll bar.
Removing the scroll bar is an obvious idea for improving screen reading that's only rarely implemented: when you read text with a scroll bar (like this blog), the reader is forced to remove their concentration from the text to scroll down and then to find where the reading left off. It's something we're all quite used to, but that doesn't mean it's an advantageous reading behavior; we put up with because we rarely have a choice. Triple Canopy reverts from the scroll bar to the paged model of the codex book: if you click on the "+" sign to the right of the page, a new page slides in. It's obvious where to resume reading. The text itself is well-cared for: it's presented in columns of legible width, another lesson of print design that's too often ignored in the online world. Worth noting as well is the way that images are integrated into some of the texts; again, there's a clear and understood model for how reading works. Video can be slotted into some of the pieces without causing a disturbance or overwhelming: it appears on a page by itself, meant to be the primary focus of attention.
It's not entirely perfect: while the "+" sign always advances a page, "–" sometimes goes back a page and sometimes goes to the previous article (if clicked on the first page of the article). I wish clicking the "triplecanopy" at the bottom took you back to the issue's table of contents and not the magazine's front page. Because the site's made in HTML, the design breaks if you increase or decrease the font size in your browser. And the Powerpoint-style wipe when the pages change quickly grows tiresome. But these are minor quibbles with a design that's overwhelmingly successful. I'll be curious to see if this is sustainable over more issues.
first of penguin's interactive fictions up 03.21.2008, 1:04 PM
Ben posted a few weeks back about an intriguing new interactive project in the pipeline from Penguin. WeTellStories, produced for Penguin by ARG studio SixToStart is now out in the open. Comprising six stories based on Penguin Classics, released one a week for the next six weeks, WeTellStories aims to create born-digital riffs on classic books.
I played through ('read' doesn't quite describe it) the first of these earlier today: The 21 Steps by Charles Cumming, based on Buchan's classic thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps. The 21 Steps is told through narrative bubbles that pop up as the story picks its way across a Google Earth-like satellite map, and describes the experience of a man suddenly caught up in sinister events that he can't seem to escape.
Overall the experience works. The writing is spare enough to keep the pacing high, vital when the other umpteen billion pages I could possibly be surfing are all clamoring for my attention. The dot moving across the map creates a sense of movement forward (as well as some frustration as it crawls between narrative points), and the Google Earth styling is familiar enough as a reading environment for me to focus on enjoying the story rather than diverting too much energy to decoding peripheral material. The interface is simple and tactile in ways that advance the story without distracting from its development, either by offering diverging routes through it or overloading the central 'chase' narrative with multimedia clutter. And the satnav pictures add a pleasurable feeling of recognition ('Look! There's my house!') to offset an essentially far-fetched story.
For a single-visit online story experience, it was nearly too long: I found myself checking how many instalments I still had to get through. The ending was somewhat anticlimactic. And though WeTellStories has been rumored to have ARG elements, and is produced by an ARG studio, I did a hunt around for potential ARG-style 'further reading' rabbit holes and found nothing. So either it's too subtle for a journeywoman ARG fan like me, or the overarching 'game' element really is just the invitation to follow all six stories and then answer some questions to win a prize.
If so, I'll be disappointed. But it's early days still, and there may be more up SixToStart's sleeve than I've seen so far. It's encouraging to see 'traditional' publishers exploring inventive ways of riffing on their swollen backlists' cachet and immeasurably rich narrative wealth. And The 21 Steps comes closer than most 'authored' digital fictions I've encountered to achieving some harmony between narrative and delivery mechanism. So though I'm being nitpicky, the project so far hints at the possiblity that we're beginning to see online creative work that's finding ways of marrying the Web's fragmented, kinetic megalomania with the discipline needed for a gripping story.
expressive processing: post-game analysis begins 03.20.2008, 3:27 AM
So Noah's just wrapped up the blog peer review of his manuscript in progress, and is currently debating whether to post the final, unfinished chapter. He's also just received the blind peer reviews from MIT Press and is in the process of comparing them with the online discussion. That'll all be written up soon, we're still discussing format.
Meanwhile, Ian Bogost (the noted game designer, critic and professor) started an interesting thread a couple of weeks back on the troubles of reading Expressive Processing, and by extension, any long-form text or argument, on the Web:
The peer review part of the project seems to be going splendidly. But here's a problem, at least for me: I'm having considerable trouble reading the book online. A book, unlike a blog, is a lengthy, sustained argument with examples and supporting materials. A book is textual, of course, and it can thus be serialized easily into a set of blog posts. But that doesn't make the blog posts legible as a book...
...in their drive to move textual matter online, creators of online books and journals have not thought enough about the materiality of specific print media forms. This includes both the physicality of the artifacts themselves (I violently dogear and mark up my print matter) and the contexts in which people read them (I need to concentrate and avoid distraction when reading scholarship). These factors extend beyond scholarship too: the same could be said of newspapers and magazines, which arguably read much more casually and serendipitously in print form than they do in online form.
I've often considered Bolter and Grusin's term "remediation" to be a derogatory one. Borrowing and refashioning the conventions of one medium in another opens the risk ignoring what unremediated features are lost. The web has still not done much more than move text (or images, or video) into a new distribution channel. Digitizing and uploading analog material is easy and has immediate, significant impact: web, iPod, YouTube. We've prized simple solutions because they are cheap and easy, but they are also insufficient. In the case of books and journal articles, to offer a PDF or print version of the online matter is to equivocate. And the fashionable alternative, a metaverse-like 3D web of the sort to which Second Life points, strikes me as a dismal sidestepping of the question.
so when are you going to retire?: a book in process about age, work and identity 03.18.2008, 1:18 PM
I want to give a shout out to a wonderful new project by a dear friend of ours. So When Are You Going to Retire? is -? or will be, or is in the process of becoming -? a book exploring questions of age, work and identity through the stories of people over 80 who continue, against the odds, to work for a living. As of very recently, the author, Ashton Applewhite, has begun documenting her research on a very attractive new weblog, and is inviting readers, writers and experts in the field to join her in conversations and story sharing that hopefully will shape the book's development. In an email, Ashton explained to me why she's doing this:
I'm a generalist writing about a broad topic: people in their 80s and 90s who are still in the workforce, and what we can learn from them. Following on the Institute's work with Siva and Mitchell Stephens, I'm excited about using the blog as a mechanism for thinking out loud as I go through my material, formulate the themes of the book, and write the proposal. I think that ongoing feedback from experts (gerontologists, social scientists, demographers, etc.) and discerning readers will sharpen and inform my thinking -? in other words, that the network will help me build a better book. I also think i'll end up with a valuable platform for leveraging and disseminating my work over the long run -? one that could radically revise conventional notions of shelf life. Cutting Loose, my book about women and divorce (HarperCollins, 1997) is still in print; imagine what sales would look like if it were at the hub of an ongoing social network, and what a rich site that would be?
Though this isn't an officially Institute-sponsored project, we've done a fair bit of kibbitzing from the sidelines on the conceptual layout of the site and on general strategies for writing it (this being Ashton's first foray into blogging). We're also brainstorming with Ashton on that most crucial of issues: building an audience. Most of our networked book projects have been on technology or media-related subjects that naturally appeal to online readerships and get picked up easily in the blogospheric grapevine. Ashton's book doesn't have such an obviously built-in wired constituency, although its potential readership is far broader and more diverse than that of any of the works we've published. I imagine it will be a gradual, word of mouth kind of thing.
So check out Ashton's rich and inviting site, join the conversation, and spread the word to anyone you know who might be interested. If you know of any specific sites or online communities that Ashton might want to connect with, let her know through the "email me" link near the top of her site. There's already quite a lot to delve into since Ashton's been blogging under the radar for the past several months, cutting her teeth on the form and piling up some wonderful stories (many of which you can listen to in audio). Help start building this network, and this book.
issue magazine 03.18.2008, 12:27 PM
Hot on the heels of Rosa B. (mentioned last week) comes Issue Magazine, another new web-based publication looking at the changing world of publishing and design. Issue #0, edited by Alexandre Leray and Stéphanie Vilayphiou, is undergoing a slow rollout this week, culminating in a live chat with Arie Altena, Jouke Kleerebezem, and Harrisson on Friday. Currently they're featuring an essay and an interview with David Reinfurt of Dexter Sinister and Dot Dot Dot on the idea of open-source design and publishing; an interview with Kleerebezem and a piece by Roger Chartier will be up before the end of the week.
What's particularly interesting about the format of Issue – and one area in which it differs from Rosa B. – is the way that commenting has been integrated into the articles: after units of the text, there's the opportunity for the reader to add comments. It's a bit like CommentPress in conception, but the prompts to comment in Issue appear less frequently than every paragraph. This makes sense: paragraph-level commenting is invaluable for close-reading, but less necessary for the general discussion of an essay. Because it's early, there don't seem to be any comments yet, but it's a promising model of how the readers can be more immediately integrated into a publication.
hmmm. . . . please discuss 03.18.2008, 5:57 AM
The following quote was in AP story i read in MIT's Technology Review this morning about Microsoft licensing Adobe's mobile Flash and PDF software.
"Flash content is the most prolific content on the web today; it is the way people express themselves on the Internet,'' Adobe spokesman Gary Kovacs said.
Hmmm . . . . i suppose it might be true that if you add up all the gigabytes of You-Tube videos that more content on the web is in Flash than any other format. But to say that Flash is the way that most people express themselves seems just a tad disingenuous. You-Tube and other sites convert amateur production into Flash; only a small minority of that content is actually created in Flash. But the reason i'm bothering to post this isn't to call Adobe out for misleading numbers it's to raise a warning flag -- actually two warning flags
1. Converting amateur production into Flash as You-Tube and other for-profit sites do, effectively moves that content into a proprietary format which resists re-use and re-mix. This is not a good thing.
2. Flash is not easy software to master. If it were true that most conent on the web was created natively in Flash rather than converted into it after the fact, that would mean that content creation had moved decisively into the province of the professional, returning us to the built-in the hierarchies of print and broadcast media. Also not a good thing.
step inside the books: new york event this friday (3/21) 03.17.2008, 5:31 PM
If you're in the New York area, don't miss this. Friday, March 21, 2008, 7-9pm - ?New York, NY - ?125 Maiden Lane, 2nd Floor.
FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY: Step inside three books, drink free beer and wine, and experience the future of the book:
Mark Batty Publisher, Hotel St. George Press, the Institute for the Future of the Book, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Workspace Writers Residency program offer a night of multi-media readings that invite attendees to step inside books, celebrating how new media and traditional publishing fuse to create innovative projects that are more than "just books." On this night, authors Garth Risk Hallberg, Alex Rose, and Alex Itin demonstrate how their stories rely on more than just words.
Hallberg's illustrated novella, A Field Guide to the North American Family, documents two fictional families through 63 entries accompanied by evocative photographs contributed by some of today's freshest photographic talents, as culled from the book's ongoing companion website, afieldguide.com. Read from start to finish or in a "choose your own adventure" style, Hallberg's attention to narrative detail makes clear why he was included in the 2008 Harcourt Best New American Voices anthology, and why Print called A Field Guide to the North American Family "a modern illuminated manuscript." Hallberg will project photographs from the book.
The interwoven, post-modern folktales that comprise The Musical Illusionist by Alex Rose muse upon historical arcana, tethered together by music and topography. Drawing on his experience as a director whose films, videos, and animations have appeared on HBO, MTV, Comedy Central, Showtime, and the BBC, Rose conjures, in the words of the Village Voice, "the playful parables of Jorge Luis Borges . . . exotic maps and exquisite prints further suggest a volume passed down from an epoch much more enthralled with mystery than our own." Rose will read from the title story of his collection, accompanied by a surround-sound score composed by David Little and recorded by the Formalist Quartet.
As an artist-in-residence at Brooklyn's Institute for the Future of the Book, Alex Itin uses text, original illustrations and animations, and music to encourage readers to reconsider the definition of a book. Take for example Itin's Orson Whales: Melville's Moby Dick meets Orson Welles, and Led Zeppelin. Itin's multi-media books will be screened.
The LMCC is the leading voice for arts and culture in downtown New York City, producing cultural events and promoting the arts through grants, services, advocacy, and cultural development programs.
googlization of everything now has print publisher 03.17.2008, 3:36 PM
In case you missed the news last week, Siva has locked up a deal with the University of California Press to publish the North American print edition of The Googlization of Everything. It's due out late summer, 2009. Profile will publish it in the UK and British Commonwealth. We're currently brainstorming next steps for the blog as Siva moves into intense drafting and revising mode. Congrats, Siva!
in search of jenny everywhere 03.17.2008, 12:12 AM
It's mainly the literary world that assumes fictional work to be best when the creation of only one person. Most TV shows, movies, games and comics are created by teams. But though creativity here is not bound by the Romantic conception of the individual Artist, neither is it free for all. Fan fiction notwithstanding, as the property of publisher, broadcast company or studio, fictional universes are strictly controlled.
In the comics world, there are a handful of characters that could be described as explicitly 'open-source'. Mythic characters are no-one's property. Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius was created with the intention that he be available for use as an open character. And Octobriana, a kind of socialist Barbarella, is Communist in both origin and legal status. Allegedly - though the story is somewhat murky - the creation of a 1960s Soviet underground group, her genesis outside Western comics publishing has meant that Octobriana has always existed in the public domain, and she has appeared in numerous different universes.
Inspired partly by Octobriana, in 2001 Barbelith founder and Web commentator Tom Coates and comic artist Steven Wintle led a community discussion about open-source narrative figures. As a result of these discussions, the group decided to create their own: in discussions over the next few months, Jenny Everywhere, aka 'The Shifter' was born.
Wintle's original sketch for Jenny (Source: The Shifter Archive)
Jenny has certain core characteristics. She is a multidimensional person able to appear anywhere, in any universe, at any time. She can be in more than one place at a time. Her favorite food is toast, she wears goggles on her forehead, she is usually depicted with short dark hair and comfortable clothing. (The discussion threads where these characteristics were agreed make intriguing reading). But though she as some distinguishing features, she is explicitly available for any artist to use, providing the following text (first associated with Jenny in 2002) appears alongside:
The character of Jenny Everywhere is available for use by anyone, with only one condition. This paragraph must be included in any publication involving Jenny Everywhere, in order that others may use this property as they wish. All rights reversed.
I wasn't part of Jenny's genesis. I came across her only recently, while hunting for something else, and was fascinated. An explicitly open-source character: neither a proprietary figure repurposed on the fringes of legality by fan communities, nor a mythic and hence uncopyrightable figure, nor one whose copyright has simply lapsed, but a set of narrative opportunities co-created and available for everyone to use. As much a political gesture as an artistic framework. I wanted evidence that she'd grown beyond that initial idea.
A bit of Web archaeology turned up a cluster of excitement and creative activity between 2001 and 2003 centering on the Barbelith community. She made appearances in numerous webcomics, turned up on blogs, popped up on Boing Boing. But then it all went quiet again.
I'd had hopes that Jenny might be, as the NYT article suggested, a herald of cultures to come. And there's nothing more dispiriting than to read past predictions for phenomena that never came to be. But websites become flavor of the month so swiftly, and fade just as swiftly: it seemed that Jenny Everywhere just a transient moment in the hyperaccelerated maelstrom of geek subcultures.
But it seems I was wrong. Jenny is making a comeback. A 2007 Jenny competition on Stripfight saw a rash of new appearances; around the same time The Shifter Archive was launched, a new attempt by US comic artist David 'Fesworks' Leyk (to whom I'm hugely indebted for the information in this article) to collate and make available all extant Jenny Everywhere work. And new comics are beginning to appear.
A common pattern of relatively self-organizing co-creation sees a notionally 'flat' structure in fact driven by a self-selecting 'core' that gives the whole collective focus and drives creative energy. When this core steps back, the entire project often falters. I've found myself speculating: did Jenny's initial core creators find their open-source character, unprotected by the corporate interests of a publisher or distributor, mutating to a point where she ceased to interest them? Or was it just a case of people moving on to new projects?
Either way, it points to the fact that for an open-source idea to reproduce, it must be able to outgrow its pioneers. After the initial enthusiasm died down, Jenny is still going strong: not harbored and protected by a close group in the bosom of a web community, but at large and self-reproducing. As 'Fesworks' puts it:
"There is no "official" site for Jenny Everywhere. Since she is Public Domain, and open-source [...], technically every single Jenny Everywhere comic and story out there is "Fan Fiction". They only connect to other people's stories and comic if they choose to connect them."
Jenny is a tantalizing glimpse of how collaborative, open creativity can be accelerated by the Web. Compared to her print prototype Octobriana, her spread in just seven years is phenomenal. But she raises many questions. For one thing, it is hard to see how a character not possessing quantum superpowers could survive the narrative vicissitudes of starring in the creations of multiple writers without disintegrating to meaninglessness - which in turn may mean that Jenny is a one-off. Then, her genesis and (still short) history is an intriguing case study of the difficulties of balancing creative vision with open collaboration - a problem, arguably, that also faced the Million Penguins wiki-novel and is at the core of the complicated relationship between artists and the Web.
And finally, it's also about archiving, the fragility of Web history and - Wayback Machine notwithstanding - the rapid decay of old digital artefacts. 2003 is not a long time ago, but many of the old Jenny links are broken. Without the efforts of 'Fes', Jenny might be little more than a memory by now. Does any of this matter? If the Web is to become a meaningful locus for creative work, then these are indeed questions to take seriously.
friday projections 03.14.2008, 4:40 AM
It's all go on the digital publishing scene in the UK with Penguin launching their first ARG next week - go to www.wetellstories.co.uk for more details, and various big companies plotting experiments. Meanwhile this week Gail Rebuck, chief executive of the Random House Group, delivered the Stationers' Company Annual Lecture on New Chapter or Last Page? Publishing books in a digital age, an upbeat and positively inspirational assessment of the potential for e-reading.
She ends: "This future is ours to grasp, but only if we understand that it is not technology that makes books, but readers, and authors and creativity. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that every child can read, and can have his or her world opened to the extraordinary possibility that only books can offer. Our responsibility is to nurture every last drop of creativity and talent that we have in our society. And finally our responsibility is to protect creativity so that all of us, not just the authors themselves, can be rewarded and enriched."
All great stuff and well worth reading in full.
Rebuck says, "people who think a new reading device will somehow change the content of the books we love are missing the point: our attraction to narrative is visceral and enduring, an integral part of being human. Whether we choose to read our favourite novelists on a printed page or in E Ink, it simply doesn't matter, because that core experience of books will remain undiminished."
Undiminished yes, but changed surely. The next great breakthrough won't be an e-reader but some born digital piece of transliterate brilliance. Great art stops us in our hectic cultural tracks and forces us to settle down and appreciate it on whatever 'platform' it was made for. We need a digital Shakespeare (or even a Rowling) to get readers downloading with passion.
I feel more confident about our enduring cultural richness than the viability of parts of the publishing industry in these turbulent times of convergence and confusion when anyone with a sharp mind, an office full of macs and some financial backing can have a crack at producing pretty much anything . Doing our research for the Arts Council it's been a delight to meet sparky young independent publishers like Salt and Snow who are doing exciting things to sell books made of paper in a webby way, but it's tough out there.
I was delighted to be on the panel of 'Book Futures' last night, the final event of the London Word Festival, a dynamic new event marketed through a torrent of blogposts, emails and facebookery. Up there with me was Scott Pack, the once much feared buyer of Waterstones - he who decided which books went in the shop windows - whose blog-to-book company The Friday Project appears to be in deep financial trouble. Of course rumours of new backers hover, but it's hard to tell right now whose waving whose drowning.
trade-offs 03.13.2008, 2:13 PM
I watched it on Vimeo and was struck by the terrific back and forth discussion between Alex and the people who are looking at his work. It's gone beyond "cool video dude" and "you rock" to include rather thoughtful sharing of feelings and riffs on ideas for new work. By engaging with his "readers" in the way that he is, Alex is building a community around his work. He is inventing a new medium and unconsciously taking on the role of "author in a networked environment" that we talk about so often on these pages.
Check out this exchange on Vimeo about the video:
I am struck by the compromise Alex has to make as an artist in order to build a community around his work. When we first met, Alex was making brilliant multi-modal works combining his paintings, video and audio mash-ups. While on the one hand he had complete control over how the elements appeared and combined it was done in proprietary software which created standalone documents which seriously limited the size of his potential audience. In 2005 he became the institute's first artist in residence and we made a blog for him where he started posting a continuous stream of individual works. Moving onto the web provided a much larger audience, but the blog format meant that he lost the ability to make complex layered works. Alex's big web breakthrough came when he started to post his paintings to Flickr and his videos to Vimeo. This allowed him to begin a dialog with his audience and even to begin a series of exciting collaborations with other artists. But at the expense of having to put his paintings on one site and his videos on another.
The balkanization of art works (video here, photos there, and audio in yet another space) in the web 2.0 environment is frustrating, but i completely understand why it's better to show your work in a place which fosters a dynamic and lively back and forth. I look forward to the day when artists won't have to make a trade-off between form/content and community.
Sophie 1.0 is being released next week and Alex is the first artist we're giving it to. Sophie documents don't display in a web page (yet) but they do have an online component which enables people to have a conversation about the work in the "margin" of the work itself. Stay tuned, we'll put an announcement up here of Alex's first Sophie.
google books API 03.13.2008, 2:03 PM
Web developers can use the Books Viewability API to quickly find out a book's viewability on Google Book Search and, in an automated fashion, embed a link to that book in Google Book Search on their own sites.
As an example of the API in use, check out the Deschutes Public Library in Oregon, which has added a link to "Preview this book at Google" next to the listings in their library catalog. This enables Deschutes readers to preview a book immediately via Google Book Search so that they can then make a better decision about whether they'd like to buy the book, borrow it from a library or whether this book wasn't really the book they were looking for.
The GBS API is a big step forward, but there are some technical limitations. Google data loads after the rest of the page, and may not be instant. Because the data loads in your web browser, with no data "passing through" LibraryThing servers, we can't sort or search by it, and all-library searching is impossible. You can get something like this if you create a Google Books account, which is, of course, the whole point.
(via Peter Brantley)
rosa b. 03.13.2008, 7:48 AM
A quick note to point out Rosa B, a new online publication in French and English from the CAPC Museum of Contemporary Art Bordeaux and the Bordeaux School of Fine Arts. Their first issue, online now, is about contemporary publishing and edited by the very interesting Thomas Boutoux. More of an art slant than a business one, but the features would probably interest readers of this site: an interview with Stuart Bailey of dot dot dot and Dexter Sinister about his publishing and design-related activities; novelist and critic Matthew Stadler talks about the social space of reading; and a nicely excerpted bit of Friedrich Kittler's Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, which has been out in English translation for a while but could stand more readers.
Worth noting as much as the content is the form: Rosa B. is clearly designed for online reading, and takes advantages of the affordances of the web; it's nice to see texts on reading that have been designed by someone who thinks about how they'll be read. Texts overlap and intersect with other texts and illustrations; long filmed interviews mix with text amiably.
more compelling than choice 03.12.2008, 6:09 PM
The first two major ARGs to play out, The Beast and ilovebees, surprised their creators: the collective intelligence of thousands of players was taking down in hours puzzles that the puppetmasters had expected the community to wrestle with for days. And in order for the game not to go stale, new challenges - sometimes created on the fly - had to keep coming. If the content fizzled out, or the puzzles were too easy, the players would become restless and lose interest.
I was reminded of this by the recent discussion on this blog about hypertext. 'Boring' is such a loaded word; and yet so much of the Web feels, to me, deeply boring. Even the interesting stuff. Internet addiction is all about clicking across link after link, page after page of content, unable to tear oneself away but still strangely bored. Faced with infinite places to go, all content becomes undifferentiated; lacking in narrative; boring. Much like the paralysis consumers face when confronted with 15 near-identical types of pesto, choice of content made as easy as a click here or there reduces it all to a blur.
I found myself pondering easy choice, supermarket paralysis and internet addiction in the context of the exciting promise and strange underwhelmingness of much hyperfiction. Then, yesterday, interactive game creator and SixToStart ARG writer James Wallis said something that flipped the light on. "Writing for interactive is different to print writing," he said. But this isn't in the way someone habituated to storytelling on paper might expect. For such, 'interactive' might suggest an exciting opportunity to cast off the formal shackles of one-page-after-the-next. (Certainly, when I first came across HTTP, that's what it seemed to promise me). "When you think of interactive, you think of the Garden of Forking Paths, non-linear narrative and so on. But if you want people to stay interested, that doesn't work at all."
Instead, he says, writing for interactive takes a more or less linear narrative, and makes the reader/user/player work it. In an ARG, a crucial piece of information might be hidden behind a login that needs to be hacked; the story's progression might depend on a puzzle being solved to reveal a code. The payoff of interactivity, the thing that gives the story a hook that it couldn't get otherwise, is less about 'choice' or a pleasure of diverging from linear narrative, than a sense of active contribution to the progression of that narrative. Of course, because an ARG plays out in real time, players may solve things 'too' quickly or take the story in a new direction - then, to avoid shattering the 'This Is Not A Game' illusion the puppetmasters must create new content to reflect that divergence.
Earlier, in a comment on the hypertext discussion, I found myself pondering emotional involvement - as measured by whether a story can move you to tears - in the context of interactive narrative. Games that eschew development of 'characters' in favor of making you, the central protagonist, the 'character' that develops. Tearjerking moments in 1983 text-based adventure games. How does a character or situation creep up on us so that we care enough to be sad when they're gone?
Perhaps it's easier to let this happen when you're being swept along by a movie, or barely noticing as you turn page after page. I can't prove this, but it feels as though having to make empty, consequence-free choices about where a narrative goes next pulls me back from imaginative involvement to a more meta-level, strategic, structural kind of thinking, that's inimical to emotional absorption. It's a bit like something pulling me back from an exciting moment in my book and inviting me to contemplate the paper. Forcing me to choose between narrative possibilities, when that choice has (as in the supermarket, faced with the rows of pesto choices) no consequences, and implying too - as the supermarket does - that choice were in itself a positive addition to my experience, in fact undermines my ability to relax into that experience. Compare that to a hidden group of puppetmasters evolving a narrative on the fly to fit around an amorphous, self-organizing group of players, going to extraordinary lengths to avoid rupturing the story's consistency, and you can see that here are radically different kinds of 'interactive'.
Making you work for the next chunk of story, or making you the central protagonist. If these are two narrative tools that demonstrably help make stories work in a digital space, are there more? And are they perceived as markers for quality interactive fiction? Or are game-like narratives still considered somehow a 'lower' art form, nerdy and plebeian, unsuitable for 'serious' writing or consideration as powerful narrative? I would welcome any evidence to the contrary.
migrating eastward 03.10.2008, 12:23 AM
Buckle your seatbelts, we may be experiencing a bit of turbulence. We're in the process of migrating our server from Los Angeles, where for the past three and a half years it has resided, at the University of Southern California, to our home town of New York. Our ties to USC remain strong and will continue, but we're currently forging an exciting new relationship in NYC and so have decided to move our technical operations here. More details on this soon.
For now, this means that we may be going a day or two here on if:book without new posts. And, due to minor complications in the switchover process, it also means we could experience a few hours of total site outage (crossing our fingers that this can be avoided). At any rate, if:book and the rest of the Institute's sites will be soon be running smoothly again from a little box in the big apple. Bear with us as we settle into our new digs.
friday musings on the literary 03.07.2008, 5:07 PM
Faber chief executive Stephen Page's article in yesterday's Guardian outlines some straightforward ways of taking advantage of social media, on-demand business models and so on in the interests of sustaining Faber into the 21st century. Push out content that brings people back to your core product; build communities; leverage print on demand. All fairly basic stuff.
But the comments are intriguing. Granted, Comment Is Free for some reason attracts exceptionally bellicose commenters; but even so the juxtaposition of Faber, a bastion of traditional highbrow literature, with its associations of TS Eliot and the 'aristocracy of culture', with the digital space, has prompted howls of derision entirely out of proportion to the relatively moderate statements in Page's piece.
The idea of using the Web - which, notwithstanding its roots in the military, has a strong bottom-up ideology - to further good old-fashioned 'high culture' is horrifying to one commenter: "Why must *YOU* be the one to create that additional content, when heretofore that content has been (relatively) independently produced? Because you need to control opinion and dictate what the reading public is told about?". To another, Page's attempts to harness the Web for old-fashioned publishing is doomed, because the internet's culture of sharing - via Project Gutenberg and elsewhere - will eventually mean that all books are free.
It seems as though the great commenting public wants it all ways. Faber is an intellectually-snobbish establishment and must give way before the bottom-up populism of digital content. Publishing should keep its grubby corporate hands off the purity of the internet's gift economy. Serious books are found only in independent booksellers. 'Serious writers' use the Web nowadays. The print book is doomed anyway. The print book will always exist. And so on.
What strikes me is that all these points are being muddled and thrown at the same article - often with little discernible reference to the thrust of the piece - because 'quality writing' is a cultural space where different kinds of internet use overlap. The Web is both a means of publishing content, and also a means of promoting content published in other media. But in the discourse of books and the internet the two are often talked about in the same breath, connected - or separated - by debates about quality, democracy and so on.
Page laments about the rise of the mass market, and the burying of 'serious' writing 'under a pile of celebrity biography, cookery and misery memoir'. But the ideology of 'the literary' - gestured at in Page's resolutely highbrow stance - is firmly connected to the tradition of print. Page does not envision a culture mediated solely through the Web, but rather a avision of 'global communities' finding niche interests and sourcing the books that nourish them, cheating the mass market of its final victory over 'serious' culture:
I am not an advocate of the life led online, but as broadband reaches all generations, genders and income brackets, so this will develop usefully. It won't be all of life but it must be a place where niche interests can develop, robbing the mass market of a portion of its control. Literature can thrive in these places.
So publishers must harness the great power of online networks through enriching reader experience. We must provide content that can be searched and browsed, and create extra materials - interviews, podcasts and the like. We mustn't be afraid of inviting readers to be involved. Beyond online retailing, publishers can now build powerful online places to showcase their books through their own and others' websites and build communities around their own areas of particular interest and do so with writers.
'Literature' here evokes a well-rooted (if not always clearly-defined) ideology. When I say 'literary' I mean things fitting a loose cluster of - sometimes self-contradictory - ideas including, but not limited to:
the importance of traceable authorship
the value of 'proper' language
the idea that some kinds of writing are better than others
that some kinds of publishing are better than others
that there is a hierarchy of literary quality
And so on. If examined too closely, these ideas tend to complicate and undermine one another, always just beyond the grasp. But they endure. And they remain close to the core of why many people write. Write, as an intransitive verb (Barthes), because another component of the ideology of 'literary' is that it's a broadcast-only model. If you don't believe me, check out any writers' community and see how much keener would-be Authors are to post their own work than to critique or review that of others. 'Literary' works talk to one another, across generations, but authors talk to readers and readers don't - or at least have never been expected - to talk back. (Feel free, by the way, to roll your own version of this nexus, or to disagree with mine. One of the reasons it's so pervasive as a set of ideas is because it's so damn slippery.)
Recently, in our Arts Council research, Chris and I have interviewed writers, magazines, publishers and proponents of countless other types of literary activity. And it's clear that the writerly world uses the Web in two distinct ways. Firstly, it is - as Page's article describes - an effective way of promoting or streamlining literary activity that is not intrinsically digital. A good example might be the way in which online zines function as a front-line filter for new writing - as it were the widest-mesh filter for literary quality - and for many is often the first taste of publishing.
People use the Web to share work, peer-review their writing, promote activities, sell books and find others with the same interests. But this activity happens almost always with reference to the ideology of the literary - in particular, to the aspirational associations of broadcast-only, hard-copy-printed, selected-and-paid-for-and-edited-by-someone-else-and-hopefully-bought-and-read-by-the-public publication. For those submitting to such magazines, the hope is that they will move up the literary food chain, get published in better known journals, and perhaps - the holy grail - finally after decades of grim and impecunious slogging, be anthologized by Faber.
But while the majority of 'literary' activity online is of this sort, defined always implicitly in relation to the painful journey towards selection for the ultimate validation of print publication, the vast majority of writing online is not. For starters, most of it doesn't self-identify as 'creative': it's informational, discursive, conversational and ephemeral. Then the Web encourages collaborative writing, interrogating the idea of individual voice. Fan fiction, with its lack of interest in 'originality', peer-to-peer social structures and cheerfully hedonic attitude interrogates the idea of 'originality'. Collaborative writing technologies interrogate the idea of authorship; 1337 interrogates 'proper' writing. I have yet to find a collaborative writing platform (try Protagonize, 1000000monkeys or ficlets if you like) that's produced a story I want to reread for its own sake. Ben has written recently on how 'boring' he finds hypertext. The skittish and innovation-hungry blogosphere, while increasingly a source of books is not in terms of the output most natural to it 'literary' in any sense that bears any relation to tradition of such. And when stories are told in a form that makes best use of the internet's boundless, unreliable, multi-platform qualities - think of an alternate reality game - this bears little resemblance to anything that could be assessed in such terms either.
I'm aware that all this could easily be read either as a dismissal of the cultural value of the Web, or else as a call to the world of literature to get back in its box. But I mean neither of those things. What I do want to suggest, though, is that it's not enough to murmur soothingly about how Web is a young form, and that it'll take a while for 'great writers' to emerge. Rather, it strikes me that the ideology of 'the literary' - including that of 'great writers' - is profoundly bound to the physical form of books, and to pretend otherwise is to misunderstand the Web.
Obviously plenty of print books have no literary value. But the ideology of 'literary' is inseparable from print. Authorship is necessary and value-laden at least partly because with no authorship there's no copyright, and no-one gets paid. The novel packs a massive cultural punch - but arguably 60,000 words just happens to make a book that is long enough to sell for a decent price but short enough to turn out reasonably cheaply. Challenge authorship, remove formal constraints - or create new ones: as O'Reilly's guides to creating appealing web content will tell you, your online readership is more likely to lose interest if asked to scroll below the fold. Will the forms stay the same? My money says they won't. And hence much of what's reified as 'literary', online, ceases to carry much weight.
So net-savvy proponents of 'literary' stuff aren't trying to use the Web as a delivery mechanism. Why would you, when there are so many other things it's useful for? Tom Chivers, live poetry promoter and organizer of the London Word Festival, estimates that he spends a third to half of his time as a promoter on online community-building activities. But the 'literary' stuff that he's organizing happens elsewhere; his online activity is vital to promoting his work, but is not the work itself. Similarly, I spent a fascinating hour or so this afternoon talking to Joe Dunthorne, who told me that he was spurred to complete his novel Submarine by the enthusiastic popular response that first drafts of the initial material generated on writers' community ABCTales - an intriguingly twenty-first century way to find the validation you need to push your writing career forward. Tom and Joe are both in their twenties, passionate about writing and confidently net-native. Both use the Web in a way that supports their literary interests. But neither sees the Web as a suitable format for 'final' publication.
This isn't to suggest that there's no room for 'the literary' online. Finding new writers; building a community to peer-review drafts; promoting work; pushing out content to draw people back to a publisher's site to buy books. All these make sense, and present huge opportunities for savvy players. But - and here I realise that this all may be just a (rather lengthy) footnote to Ben's recent piece on Hypertextopia - to attempt to transplant the ideology of the literary onto the Web will fail unless it is done with reference to the print culture that produced it. Otherwise the work will, by literary standards, be judged second-rate, while by geek standards it'll seem top-down, limited and static. Or just boring.
I'll be interested to see how Faber approaches online community-building. Done well, here's no reason why it shouldn't help shift books. But while it might help shift books, or be used to reproduce or share books, the Web is fundamentally other to the philosophy that produces books. Anyone serious about using the Web on its own terms as a delivery mechanism for artistic material needs to abandon print-determined criteria for evaluating quality - literary values - and investigate what the medium is really good for.
nicholson baker on the charms of wikipedia 03.07.2008, 2:43 AM
I finally got around to reading Nicholson Baker's essay in the New York Review of Books, "The Charms of Wikipedia," and it's... charming. Baker has a flair for idiosyncratic detail, which makes him a particularly perceptive and entertaining guide through the social and procedural byways of the Wikipedia mole hill. Of particular interest are his delvings into the early Wikipedia's reliance on public domain reference works, most notably the famous 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica: "The fragments from original sources persist like those stony bits of classical buildings incorporated in a medieval wall."
Baker also has some smart things to say on the subject of vandalism:
Wikipedians see vandalism as a problem, and it certainly can be, but a Diogenes-minded observer would submit that Wikipedia would never have been the prodigious success it has been without its demons.
This is a reference book that can suddenly go nasty on you. Who knows whether, when you look up Harvard's one-time warrior-president, James Bryant Conant, you're going to get a bland, evenhanded article about him, or whether the whole page will read (as it did for seventeen minutes on April 26, 2006): "HES A BIG STUPID HEAD." James Conant was, after all, in some important ways, a big stupid head. He was studiously anti-Semitic, a strong believer in wonder-weapons - ?a man who was quite as happy figuring out new ways to kill people as he was administering a great university. Without the kooks and the insulters and the spray-can taggers, Wikipedia would just be the most useful encyclopedia ever made. Instead it's a fast-paced game of paintball.
Not only does Wikipedia need its vandals - ?up to a point - ?the vandals need an orderly Wikipedia, too. Without order, their culture-jamming lacks a context. If Wikipedia were rendered entirely chaotic and obscene, there would be no joy in, for example, replacing some of the article on Archimedes with this:
Archimedes is dead.
Other people will also die.
All hail chickens.
The Power Rangers say "Hi"
Even the interesting article on culture jamming has been hit a few times: "Culture jamming," it said in May 2007, "is the act of jamming tons of cultures into 1 extremely hot room."
critical perspectives on web 2.0 03.06.2008, 1:13 AM
First Monday has a new special issue out devoted to unpacking the politics, economics and ethics of Web 2.0. Looks like lots of interesting stuff. From the preface by Michael Zimmer:
Web 2.0 represents a blurring of the boundaries between Web users and producers, consumption and participation, authority and amateurism, play and work, data and the network, reality and virtuality. The rhetoric surrounding Web 2.0 infrastructures presents certain cultural claims about media, identity, and technology. It suggests that everyone can and should use new Internet technologies to organize and share information, to interact within communities, and to express oneself. It promises to empower creativity, to democratize media production, and to celebrate the individual while also relishing the power of collaboration and social networks.
But Web 2.0 also embodies a set of unintended consequences, including the increased flow of personal information across networks, the diffusion of one's identity across fractured spaces, the emergence of powerful tools for peer surveillance, the exploitation of free labor for commercial gain, and the fear of increased corporatization of online social and collaborative spaces and outputs.
In Technopoly, Neil Postman warned that we tend to be "surrounded by the wondrous effects of machines and are encouraged to ignore the ideas embedded in them. Which means we become blind to the ideological meaning of our technologies" . As the power and ubiquity of Web 2.0 rises, it becomes increasingly difficult for users to recognize its externalities, and easier to take the design of such tools simply "at interface value" . Heeding Postman and Turkle's warnings, this collection of articles will work to remove the blinders of the unintended consequences of Web 2.0's blurring of boundaries and critically explore the social, political, and ethical dimensions of Web 2.0.
flight paths 2.0 03.05.2008, 1:10 AM
Back in December we announced the launch of Flight Paths, a "networked novel" that is currently being written by Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph with feedback and contributions from readers. At that point, the Web presence for the project was a simple CommentPress blog where readers could post stories, images, multimedia and links, and weigh in on the drafting of terms and conditions for participation. Since then, Kate and Chris have been working on setting up a more flexible curatorial environment, and just this week they unveiled a lovely new Flight Paths site made in Netvibes.
Netvibes is a web-based application (still in beta) that allows you to build personalized start pages composed of widgets and modules which funnel in content from various data sources around the net (think My Yahoo! or iGoogle but with much more ability to customize). This is a great tool to try out for a project that is being composed partly out of threads and media fragments from around the Web. The blog is still embedded as a central element, and is still the primary place for reader-collaborators to contribute, but there are now several new galleries where reader-submitted works can be featured and explored. It's a great new platform and an inventive solution to one of CommentPress's present problems: that it's good at gathering content but not terribly good at presenting it. Take a look, and please participate if you feel inspired.
hypertextopia 03.03.2008, 12:57 PM
Hypertextopia is a space where you can read and write stories for the internet. On the surface, it looks like a mind-map, but it embeds a word-processor, and allows you to publish your stories like a blog.
The site is gorgeously done, applying a fresh coat of Web 2.0 paint to the creaky concepts of classical hypertext. I find myself strangely conflicted, though, as I browse through it. Design-wise, it is a triumph, and really gets my wheels spinning w/r/t the possibilities of online writing systems. The authoring tools they've developed are simple and elegant, allowing you to write "axial hypertexts": narratives with a clear beginning and end but with multiple pathways and digressions in between. You read them as a series of textual screens, which can include beautiful fold-out boxes for annotations and illustrations, and various color-coded links (the colors denote different types of internal links, which the author describes). You also have the option of viewing stories as nodal maps, which show the story's underlying structure. This is part of the map of "The Butterfly Boy" by William Vollmann (by all indications, the William Vollmann):
Lovely as it all is though, it doesn't convince me that hypertext is any more viable a literary form now, on the Web, than it was back in the heyday of Eastgate and Storyspace. Outside its inner circle of devotees, hypertext has always been more interesting in concept than in practice. A necessary thought experiment on narrative's deconstruction in a post-book future, but not the sort of thing you'd want to read for pleasure.
It's always felt to me like a too-literal reenactment of Jorge Luis Borges' explosion of narrative in The Garden of Forking Paths. In the story, the central character, a Chinese double agent in WWI being pursued by a British assassin who has learned of his treachery, recalls a lost, unfinished novel written by a distant ancestor. It is an infinte story that encompasses every possible event and outcome for its characters: a labyrinth, not in space but in time. Borges meant the novel not as a prescription for a new literary form but as a metaphor of parallel worlds, yet many have cited this story as among the conceptual forebears of hypertext fiction, and Borges is much revered generally among technophiles for writing fables that eerily prefigure the digital age.
I've always found it odd how people (techies especially) seem to get romantic (perhaps fetishistic is the better word) about Borges. Prophetic he no doubt was, but his tidings are dark ones. Tales like "Forking Paths," Funes the Memorious and The Library of Babel are ideas taken to a frightening extreme, certainly not things we would wish to come true. There are days when the Internet does indeed feel a bit like the Library of Babel, a place where an infinity of information has led to the death of meaning. But those are the days I wish we could put the net back in the box and forget it ever happened. I get a bit of that feeling with literary hypertext -? insofar as it reifies the theoretical notion of the death of the author, it is not necessarily doing the reader any favors.
Hypertext's main offense is that it is boring, in the same way that Choose Your Own Adventure stories are fundamentally boring. I know that I'm meant to feel liberated by my increased agency as reader, but instead I feel burdened. What are offered as choices -? possible pathways though the maze -? soon start to weigh like chores. It feels like a gimmick, a cheap trick, like it doesn't really matter which way you go (that the prose tends to be poor doesn't help). There's a reason hypertext never found an audience.
I can, however, see the appeal of hypertext fictions as puzzles or games. In fact, this may be their true significance in the evolution of storytelling (and perhaps why I don't get them, because I'm not a gamer). Thought of this way, it's more about the experience of navigating a narrative landscape than the narrative itself. The story is a sort of alibi, a pretext, for engaging with a particular kind of form, a form which bears far more resemblance to a game than to any kind of prose fiction predecessor. That, at any rate, is how I've chosen to situate hypertext. To me, it's a napkin sketch of a genuinely new form -? video games -? that has little directly to do with writing or reading in the traditional sense. Hypertext was not the true garden of forking paths (which we would never truly want anyway), but a small box of finite options. To sift through them dutifully was about as fun as the lab rat's journey through the maze. You need a bigger algorithmic engine and the sensory fascinations of graphics (and probably a larger pool of authors and co-creators too) to generate a topography vast enough to hide, at least for a while, its finiteness -? long enough to feel mysterious. That's what games do, and do well.
I'm sure this isn't an original observation, but it's baggage I felt like unloading since classical hypertext is a topic we've largely skirted around here at the Institute. Grumbling aside though, Hypertextopia offers much to ponder. Recontextualizing a pre-Web form in the Web is a worthwhile experiment and is bound to shed some light. I'm thinking about how we might play around in it...