Momus is a Scottish pop musician, based in Berlin, who writes smart and original things about art and technology. He blogs a wonderful blog called Click Opera -- some of the best reading on the web. He wears an eye patch. And he is currently doing a stint as an "unreliable tour guide" at the Whitney Biennial, roving through the galleries, sneaking up behind museum-goers with a bullhorn.
A couple of weeks ago, Dan had the bright idea of inviting Momus -- seeing as he is currently captive in New York and interested, like us, in the human migration from analog to digital -- to visit the institute. Knowing almost nothing about who we are or what we do, he bravely accepted the offer and came over to Brooklyn on one of the Whitney's dark days and lunched at our table on the customary menu of falafel and babaganoush. Yesterday, he blogged some thoughts about our meeting.
Early on, as happens with most guests, Momus asked something along the lines of: "so what do you mean by 'future of the book?'" Always an interesting moment, in a generally blue-sky, thinky endeavor such as ours, when you're forced to pin down some specifics (though in other areas, like Sophie, it's all about specifics). "Well," (some clearing of throats) "what we mean is..." "Well, you see, the thing you have to understand is..." ...and once again we launch into a conversation that seems to lap at the edges of our table with tide-like regularity. Overheard:
"Well, we don't mean books in the literal sense..."
"The book at its most essential: an instrument for moving big ideas."
"A sustained chunk of thought."
And so it goes... In the end, though, it seems that Momus figured out what we were up to, picking up on our obsession with the relationship between books and conversation:
It seems they're assuming that the book itself is already over, and that it will survive now as a metaphor for intelligent conversation in networks.
It's always interesting (and helpful) to hear our operation described by an outside observer. Momus grasped (though I don't think totally agreed with) how the idea of "the book" might be a useful tool for posing some big questions about where we're headed -- a metaphorical vessel for charting a sea of unknowns. And yet also a concrete form that is being reinvented.
Another choice tidbit from Momus' report -- the hapless traveler's first encounter with the institute:
I found myself in a kitchen overlooking the sandy back courtyard of a plain clapperboard building on North 7th Street. There were about six men sitting around a kidney-shaped table. One of them was older than the others and looked like a delicate Vulcan. "I expect you're wondering why you're here?" he said. "Yes, I've been very trusting," I replied, wondering if I was about to be held hostage by a resistance movement of some kind.
Well, it turned out that the Vulcan was none other than Bob Stein, who founded the amazing Voyager multi-media company, the reference for intelligent CD-ROM publishing in the 90s.
He took this lovely picture of the office:
What is a blook? It's a blog that turns into a book, the way, in evolution, mammals went back into the sea and became fish again. Except they didn't really do that, although undoubtedly some of us still enjoy a good swim.
And expanding upon this in a comment further down:
...the cunning thing about the concept of the blook is that it posits the book as coming after the blog, not before it, as some evolutionist of media forms would probably do. In this reading, blogs are the past of the book, not its future.
To be that evolutionist for a moment, the "blook" is indeed a curious species, falling somewhere under the genus "networked book," but at the same time resisting cozy classification, wriggling off the taxonomic hook by virtue of its seemingly regressive character: moving from bits back to atoms; live continuous feedback back to inert bindings and glue. I suspect that "the blook" will be looked back upon as an intriguing artifact of a transitional period, a time when the great apes began sprouting gills.
If we are in fact becoming "post-book," might this be a regression? A return to an aquatic state of culture, free-flowing and gradually accreting like oral tradition, away from the solid land of paper, print and books? Are we living, then, in an age of amphibians? Hopping in and out of the water, equally at home in both? Is the blog that tentative dip in the water and the blook the return to terra firma?
But I thought the theory of evolution had broken free of this kind of directionality: the Enlightenment idea of progress, the great chain gang of being. Isn't it all just a long meander, full of forks, leaps and mutations? And so isn't the future of the book also its past? Might we move beyond the book and yet also stay with it, whether as some defined form or an actual thing in our (webbed) hands? No progress, no regress, just one long continuous motion? Sounds sort of like a conversation...
thinking about blogging 2: democracy 03.01.2006, 11:13 AM
Banning books may be easy, but banning blogs is an exhausting game of Whack-a-Mole for politically repressive regimes like China and Iran.
Farid Pouya, recapping recent noteworthy posts from the Iranian blogosphere last week on Global Voices, refers to one blogger's observations on the chilled information climate under president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:
Andishe No (means New Thought) fears that country was pushed back to pre Khatami's period concerning censorship. He believes that even if many books get banned in twenty first century, government can not stop people getting information. Government wants to control weblogs in Iran and put them in a guideline.
Unlike the fleas that swarm American media and politics, Iran's cyber-dissidents frequently are the sole conduit for uncensored information -- an underground army of chiseler's, typing away at the barricades. Here we see the blog as a building block for civil society. Electronic samizdat. Basic life forms in a free media ecology, instilling new habits in both writers and readers: habits of questioning, of digging deeper. Individual sites may get shut down, individual bloggers may be jailed but the information finds a way.
Though the situation in Iran is far from enviable, there is something attractive about the moral clarity of its dissident blogging. If one wants the truth, one must find alternatives -- it's that simple. But with alternative media in the United States -- where the media ecology is highly developed and corruption more subtle -- it's hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Political blogs in America may resound with outrage and indignation, but it's the kind that comes from a life of abundance. All too often, political discourse is not something that points toward action, but an idle picking at the carcass of liberty.
Sure, we've seen blogs make a difference in politics (Swift Boats, Rathergate, Trent Lott -- 2004 was the "year of the blog"), but generally as a furtherance of partisan aims -- a way of mobilizing the groundtroops within a core constituency that has already decided what it believes.
When one looks at this map (admittedly a year old) of the American political blogosphere, one notes with dismay that there are in fact two spheres, mapping out all too cleanly to the polarized reality on the ground. One begins to suspect that America's political blogs are merely a pressure valve for a population that, though ill at ease, is still ultimately paralyzed.
Posted by ben vershbow at 11:13 AM
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tags: Ahmadinejad , Blogosphere , Transliteracies , blogging , blogs , democracy , enlightenment , iran , journalism , media , media_ecology , opposition , politics , samizdat
thinking about blogging 1: process versus product 02.28.2006, 7:53 AM
Thinking about blogging: where's it's been and where it's going. Recently I found food for thought in a smart but ultimately misguided essay by Trevor Butterworth in the Financial Times. In it, he decries blogging as a parasitic binge:
...blogging in the US is not reflective of the kind of deep social and political change that lay behind the alternative press in the 1960s. Instead, its dependency on old media for its material brings to mind Swift's fleas sucking upon other fleas "ad infinitum": somewhere there has to be a host for feeding to begin. That blogs will one day rule the media world is a triumph of optimism over parasitism.
While his critique is not without merit, Butterworth ultimately misses the forest for the fleas, fixating on the extremes of the phenomenon -- the tiny tier of popular "establishment" bloggers and the millions of obscure hacks endlessly recycling news and gossip -- while overlooking the thousands of mid-level blogs devoted to specialized or esoteric subjects not adequately covered -- or not covered at all -- by the press. Technorati founder David Sifry recently dubbed this the "magic middle" of the blogosphere -- that group of roughly 150,000 sites falling somewhere between the short head and the long tail of the popularity graph. Notable as the establishment bloggers are, I would argue that it's the middle stratum that has done the most in advancing serious discourse online. Here we are not talking about antagonism between big and small media, but rather a filling out of the media ecosystem -- where a proliferation of niches, like pixels on a screen, improves the resolution of our image of the world.
At their worst, bloggers -- like Swift's reiterative fleas -- bounce ineffectually off the press's opacities. But sometimes the collective feeding frenzy can expose flaws in the system. Moreover, there are some out there that have the knowledge and insight to decode what the press reports yet fails to adequately analyze. And there others still who are not tied so inexorably to the news cycle but follow their own daemon.
To me, Swift's satire, while humorously portraying the endless cycle of literary derivation, also suggests a healthier notion of process -- less parasitic and more cumulative. At best transformative. The natural accretion over time of ideas and tradition. It's only natural that poets build -- or feed -- on the past. They feel the nip at their behinds. They channel and reinvent. As do scholars and philosophers.
But having some expertise and knowing how to craft a sentence does not necessarily mean one is meant to blog. In an amusing passage, Butterfield speculates on how things might how gone horribly awry had George Orwell (oft hailed as a proto-blogger) been given the opportunity to maintain a daily journal online (think tedious rambling on the virtues of English cuisine). Good blogging requires not only a voice, but a special commitment -- a compulsion even -- to air one's thinking in real time. A relish for working through ideas in the open, often before they're fully baked.
But evidently Butterfield hasn't considered the merits of blogging as a process. He remains terminally hung up on the product, concluding that blogging "renders the word even more evanescent than journalism" and is "the closest literary culture has come to instant obsolescence." Fine. Blogging is in many ways a vaporous pursuit, but then so is conversation -- so is theatre. Blogging, in its essence, is about discussion and about working through ideas. And, I would argue, it is as much about reading as it is about writing.
Back in August, I wrote about this notion of the blog as a record of reading -- an idea to which I still hold fast. The blog is a tool (for writers and readers alike) for dealing with information overload -- for processing an unmanageable abundance of reading material. Most bloggers, the good ones anyway, not only point to links (though the good pointer sites like Arts & Letters Daily are invaluable), they comment upon them (as I am doing here), glossing them for their readers, often quoting at length. The blog captures that wave of energy emitted by the reader's mind upon contact with an idea or story.
I do think blogging goes a significant ways toward the Enlightenment ideal of a reading public, even if only one percent of that public is worth reading. Hemingway famously said that he wrote 99 pages of crap for every one page of masterpiece. We should apply a similar math to blogs, and hope the tools for filtering out that 99 percent improve over time. After all, one percent of 28 million is no small number (about the population of Buffalo, NY). I'm confident that, in aggregate, this small democratic layer illumines more than it obscures, blazing trails of readings and fostering conversation. And this, I would venture -- when combined and balanced with more traditional media sources -- offers a more balanced reading diet.
Posted by ben vershbow at 07:53 AM
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tags: Blogosphere , Online , blogging , blogs , hemingway , jonathan_swift , journalism , media , orwell , parasite , publishing , reading , technorati
washington post and new york times hyperlink bylines 02.14.2006, 12:56 PM
In an effort to more directly engage readers, two of America's most august daily newspapers are adding a subtle but potentially significant feature to their websites: author bylines directly linked to email forms. The Post's links are already active, but as of this writing the Times, which is supposedly kicking off the experiment today, only links to other articles by the same reporter. They may end up implementing this in a different way.
The email trial comes on the heels of two notoriously failed experiments by elite papers to pull readers into conversation: the LA Times' precipitous closure, after an initial 24-hour flood of obscenities and vandalism, of its "wikatorials" page, which invited readers to rewrite editorials alongside the official versions; and more recently, the Washington Post's shutting down of comments on its "post.blog" after experiencing a barrage of reader hate mail. The common thread? An aversion to floods, barrages, or any high-volume influx of unpredictable reader response. The email features, which presumably are moderated, seem to be the realistic compromise, favoring the trickle over the deluge.
In a way, though, hyperlinking bylines is a more profound development than the higher profile experiments that came before, which were more transparently about jumping aboard the wiki/blog bandwagon without bothering to think through the implications, or taking the time -- as successful blogs and wikis must always do -- to gradually build up an invested community of readers who will share the burden of moderating the discussion and keeping things reasonably clean. They wanted instant blog, instant wiki. But online social spaces are bottom-up enterprises: invite people into your home without any preexisting social bonds and shared values -- and add to that the easy target of being a mass media goliath -- and your home will inevitably get trashed as soon as word gets out.
Being able to email reporters, however, gets more at the root of the widely perceived credibility problem of newspapers, which have long strived to keep the human element safely insulated behind an objective tone of voice. It's certainly not the first time reporters' or columnists' email addresses have been made available, but usually they get tucked away toward the bottom. Having the name highlighted directly beneath the headline -- making the reporter an interactive feature of the article -- is more genuinely innovative than any tacked-on blog because it places an expectation on the writers as well as the readers. Some reporters will likely treat it as an annoying new constraint, relying on polite auto-reply messages to maintain a buffer between themselves and the public. Others may choose to engage, and that could be interesting.
Posted by ben vershbow at 12:56 PM
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tags: Publishing, Broadcast, and the Press , Social Software , blogs , email , journalism , media , new_york_times , newspapers , social_software , washington_post , wikis
GAM3R 7H30RY: part 2 02.03.2006, 7:00 PM
We had a highly productive face to face meeting with Ken this afternoon to review the prior designs and to try and develop, collaboratively, a solution based on the questions that arose from those designs. We were aiming for a solution that provides a compelling interface for Ken's book and also encourages open-ended discussion of the themes and specific games treated in the book.
What we came up with was a prototype of a blog/book page that presents the entire text of GAM3R 7H30RY, and a discussion board based around the games covered in the book, each corresponding with a specific chapter. These are:
- Allegory (on The Sims)
- America (on Civilization III)
- Analog (on Katamari Damarcy)
- Atopia (on Vice City)
- Battle (on Rez)
- Boredom (on State of Emergency)
- Complex (on Deus Ex)
- Conclusions (on SimEarth)
Unlike the thousand of gaming forums that already exist throughout the web, this discussion space will invite personal and social points of view, rather than just walkthroughs and leveling up cheats.
We also discussed the fact that discussion boards tend towards opacity as they grow, and ways to alleviate that situation. Growth is good; it reflects a rich back and forth between board participants. Opacity is bad; it makes it harder for new voices to join the discussion. To make it easier for people to join the discussion, Ken envisioned an innovative gateway into the boards based on a shifting graph of topics ranked by post date (x-axis) and number of responses (y-axis). This solution was inspired in part by "The Pool" -- "a collaborative online environment for creating art, code, and texts" developed by Jon Ippolito at the University of Maine -- in which ideas and project proposals float in different regions of a two-dimensional graph depending on quantity and tenor of feedback from the collective.
Returning to the book view, to push the boundaries of the blog form, we introduced a presentation format that uniquely fits around McKenzie's book form—twenty-five regularly sized paragraphs in nine different chapters. Yes, each chapter has exactly 25 paragraphs, making mathematically consistent presentation possible (as an information designer I am elated at this systematic neatness). We decided on showing a cascade of five paragraphs, with one paragraph visible at a time, letting you navigate through chapters and then sets of five paragraphs within a chapter.
As a delightful aside, we started prototyping with a sheet of paper and index cards, but by some sideways luck we pulled out a deck of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt's Oblique Strategies cards, which suited our needs perfectly. The resulting paper prototype (photo w/ wireframe cues photoshop'd in):
This project has already provided us with a rich discussion regarding authorship and feedback. As we develop the prototypes we will undoubtedly have more questions, but also, hopefully, more solutions that help us redefine the edges and forms of digital discourse.
Ben Vershbow contributed to this post.
Posted by jesse wilbur at 07:00 PM
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tags: GAM3R_7H30RY , Ken_Wark , authorship , blogs , book-blog_experiments , design , discussion_boards , feedback , gamer_theory , prototype , wireframe