what I heard at MIT 01.26.2006, 9:47 AM
Over the next few days I'll be sifting through notes, links, and assorted epiphanies crumpled up in my pocket from two packed, and at times profound, days at the Economics of Open Content symposium, hosted in Cambridge, MA by Intelligent Television and MIT Open CourseWare. For now, here are some initial impressions -- things I heard, both spoken in the room and ricocheting inside my head during and since. An oral history of the conference? Not exactly. More an attempt to jog the memory. Hopefully, though, something coherent will come across. I'll pick up some of these threads in greater detail over the next few days. I should add that this post owes a substantial debt in form to Eliot Weinberger's "What I Heard in Iraq" series (here and here).
Naturally, I heard a lot about "open content."
I heard that there are two kinds of "open." Open as in open access -- to knowledge, archives, medical information etc. (like Public Library of Science or Project Gutenberg). And open as in open process -- work that is out in the open, open to input, even open-ended (like Linux, Wikipedia or our experiment with MItch Stephens, Without Gods).
I heard that "content" is actually a demeaning term, treating works of authorship as filler for slots -- a commodity as opposed to a public good.
I heard that open content is not necessarily the same as free content. Both can be part of a business model, but the defining difference is control -- open content is often still controlled content.
I heard that if you build the open-access resources and demonstrate their value, the money will come later.
I heard that content should be given away for free and that the money is to be made talking about the content.
I heard that reputation and an audience are the most valuable currency anyway.
I heard that the academy's core mission -- education, research and public service -- makes it a moral imperative to have all scholarly knowledge fully accessible to the public.
I heard that if knowledge is not made widely available and usable then its status as knowledge is in question.
I heard that libraries may become the digital publishing centers of tomorrow through simple, open-access platforms, overhauling the print journal system and redefining how scholarship is disseminated throughout the world.
And I heard a lot about copyright...
I heard that probably about 50% of the production budget of an average documentary film goes toward rights clearances.
I heard that many of those clearances are for "underlying" rights to third-party materials appearing in the background or reproduced within reproduced footage. I heard that these are often things like incidental images, video or sound; or corporate logos or facades of buildings that happen to be caught on film.
I heard that there is basically no "fair use" space carved out for visual and aural media.
I heard that this all but paralyzes our ability as a culture to fully examine ourselves in terms of the media that surround us.
I heard that the various alternative copyright movements are not necessarily all pulling in the same direction.
I heard that there is an "inter-operability" problem between alternative licensing schemes -- that, for instance, Wikipedia's GNU Free Documentation License is not inter-operable with any Creative Commons licenses.
I heard that since the mass market content industries have such tremendous influence on policy, that a significant extension of existing copyright laws (in the United States, at least) is likely in the near future.
I heard one person go so far as to call this a "totalitarian" intellectual property regime -- a police state for content.
I heard that one possible benefit of this extension would be a general improvement of internet content distribution, and possibly greater freedom for creators to independently sell their work since they would have greater control over the flow of digital copies and be less reliant on infrastructure that today only big companies can provide.
I heard that another possible benefit of such control would be price discrimination -- i.e. a graduated pricing scale for content varying according to the means of individual consumers, which could result in fairer prices. Basically, a graduated cultural consumption tax imposed by media conglomerates
I heard, however, that such a system would be possible only through a substantial invasion of users' privacy: tracking users' consumption patterns in other markets (right down to their local grocery store), pinpointing of users' geographical location and analysis of their socioeconomic status.
I heard that this degree of control could be achieved only through persistent surveillance of the flow of content through codes and controls embedded in files, software and hardware.
I heard that such a wholesale compromise on privacy is all but inevitable -- is in fact already happening.
I heard that in an "information economy," user data is a major asset of companies -- an asset that, like financial or physical property assets, can be liquidated, traded or sold to other companies in the event of bankruptcy, merger or acquisition.
I heard that within such an over-extended (and personally intrusive) copyright system, there would still exist the possibility of less restrictive alternatives -- e.g. a peer-to-peer content cooperative where, for a single low fee, one can exchange and consume content without restriction; money is then distributed to content creators in proportion to the demand for and use of their content.
I heard that such an alternative could theoretically be implemented on the state level, with every citizen paying a single low tax (less than $10 per year) giving them unfettered access to all published media, and easily maintaining the profit margins of media industries.
I heard that, while such a scheme is highly unlikely to be implemented in the United States, a similar proposal is in early stages of debate in the French parliament.
And I heard a lot about peer-to-peer...
I heard that p2p is not just a way to exchange files or information, it is a paradigm shift that is totally changing the way societies communicate, trade, and build.
I heard that between 1840 and 1850 the first newspapers appeared in America that could be said to have mass circulation. I heard that as a result -- in the space of that single decade -- the cost of starting a print daily rose approximately %250.
I heard that modern democracies have basically always existed within a mass media system, a system that goes hand in hand with a centralized, mass-market capital structure.
I heard that we are now moving into a radically decentralized capital structure based on social modes of production in a peer-to-peer information commons, in what is essentially a new chapter for democratic societies.
I heard that the public sphere will never be the same again.
I heard that emerging practices of "remix culture" are in an apprentice stage focused on popular entertainment, but will soon begin manifesting in higher stakes arenas (as suggested by politically charged works like "The French Democracy" or this latest Black Lantern video about the Stanley Williams execution in California).
I heard that in a networked information commons the potential for political critique, free inquiry, and citizen action will be greatly increased.
I heard that whether we will live up to our potential is far from clear.
I heard that there is a battle over pipes, the outcome of which could have huge consequences for the health and wealth of p2p.
I heard that since the telecomm monopolies have such tremendous influence on policy, a radical deregulation of physical network infrastructure is likely in the near future.
I heard that this will entrench those monopolies, shifting the balance of the internet to consumption rather than production.
I heard this is because pre-p2p business models see one-way distribution with maximum control over individual copies, downloads and streams as the most profitable way to move content.
I heard also that policing works most effectively through top-down control over broadband.
I heard that the Chinese can attest to this.
I heard that what we need is an open spectrum commons, where connections to the network are as distributed, decentralized, and collaboratively load-sharing as the network itself.
I heard that there is nothing sacred about a business model -- that it is totally dependent on capital structures, which are constantly changing throughout history.
I heard that history is shifting in a big way.
I heard it is shifting to p2p.
I heard this is the most powerful mechanism for distributing material and intellectual wealth the world has ever seen.
I heard, however, that old business models will be radically clung to, as though they are sacred.
I heard that this will be painful.
the economics of open content 01.23.2006, 9:31 AM
For the next two days, Ray and I are attending what hopes to be a fascinating conference in Cambridge, MA -- The Economics of Open Content -- co-hosted by Intelligent Television and MIT Open CourseWare.
This project is a systematic study of why and how it makes sense for commercial companies and noncommercial institutions active in culture, education, and media to make certain materials widely available for free—and also how free services are morphing into commercial companies while retaining their peer-to-peer quality.
They've assembled an excellent cross-section of people from the emerging open access movement, business, law, the academy, the tech sector and from virtually every media industry to address one of the most important (and counter-intuitive) questions of our age: how do you make money by giving things away for free?
Rather than continue, in an age of information abundance, to embrace economic models predicated on information scarcity, we need to look ahead to new models for sustainability and creative production. I look forward to hearing from some of the visionaries gathered in this room.
More to come...
lessig in second life 01.20.2006, 9:27 AM
Wednesday evening, I attended an interview with Larry Lessig, which took place in the virtual world of Second Life. New World Notes announced the event and is posting coverage and transcripts of the interview. As it was my first experience in SL, I will post more on the experience of attending an interview/ lecture in a virtual space. For now, I am going to comment upon two quotes that Lessig covered as it relates to our work at the institute.
Lawrence Lessig: Because as life moves online we should have the SAME FREEDOMS (at least) that we had in real life. There's no doubt that in real life you could act out a movie or a different ending to a movie. There's no doubt that would have been "free" of copyright in real life. But as we move online things that were before were free now are regulated.
Yesterday, Bob made the point that our memories increasingly exist outside of ourselves. At the institute, we have discussed the mediated life, and a substantial part of that mediation occurs as we continue to digitize more parts of our lives, from photo albums to diaries. Things we once created in the physical world now reside on the network, which means that it is being published. Photo albums documenting our trips to Disneyland or the Space Needle (whose facade is trademarked and protected) that one rested within the home, are uploaded to flickr, potentially accessible to anyone browsing the Internet, a regulated space. This regulation has enormous influence on the creative outlets of everyone, not just professionals. Without trying to sound overly naive, my concern is not just that speech and discourse of all people are being compromised. As companies become more litigious towards copyright infringement (especially when their arguments are weak), the safe guards of the courts and legislation are not protecting its constituents.
Lawrence Lessig: Copyright is about creating incentives. Incentives are prospective. No matter what even the US Congress does, it will not give Elvis any more incentive to create in 1954. So whatever the length of copyright should be prospectively, we know it can make no sense of incentives to extend the term for work that is already created.
The increasing accessibility of digital technology allows people to become creators and distributors of content. Lessig notes that with each year, the increasing evidence from cases such as the Google Book Search controversy show the inadequacy of current copyright legislation. Further, he insightfully suggests to learn from the creations that young people produce such as anime music videos. Their completely different approach to intellectual property informs the cultural shift that is running counter to the legal status quo. Lessig suggest that these creative works have the potential to inform policy makers that these attitudes are moving toward the original intentions of copyright law. Then, policy makers hopefully may begin to question why these works are currently considered illegal.
The courts' failure to clearly define an interpretation of fair use puts at risk the discourse that a functioning democracy requires. The stringent attitudes towards using copyrighted material goes against the spirit of the original intentions of the law. Although, it may not be a role of the government and the courts to actively encourage creativity. It is sad that bipartisan government actions and courts rulings actively discourage innovation and creativity.
the future of the book: korea, 13th century 12.27.2005, 11:35 AM
Nestled in the Gaya mountain range in southern Korea, the Haeinsa monastery houses the Tripitaka Koreana, the largest, most complete set of Buddhist scriptures in existence -- over 80,000 wooden tablets (enough to print all of Buddhism's sacred texts) kept in open-air storage for the past six centuries. The tablets were carved between 1237 and 1251 in anticipation of the impending Mongol invasion, both as a spiritual effort to ward off the attack, and as an insurance policy. They replaced an earlier set of blocks that had been destroyed in the last Mongol incursion in 1231.
From Korea's national heritage site description of the tablets:
The printing blocks are some 70cm wide 24cm long and 2.8cm thick on the average. Each block has 23 lines of text, each with 14 characters, on each side. Each block thus has a total of 644 characters on both sides. Some 30 men carved the total 52,382,960 characters in the clean and simple style of Song Chinese master calligrapher Ou-yang Hsun, which was widely favored by the aristocratic elites of Goryeo. The carvers worked with incredible dedication and precision without making a single error. They are said to have knelt down and bowed after carving each character. The script is so uniform from beginning to end that the woodblocks look like the work of one person.
I stayed at the Haeinsa temple last Friday night on a sleeping mat in bare room with a heated floor, alongside a number of noisy Koreans (including the rather sardonic temple webmaster -- Haiensa is a Unesco World Heritage site and so keeps a high profile). At three in the morning, at the call to the day's first service, I tramped around the snowy courtyards under crisp, chill stars and watched as the monks pounded a massive barrel-shaped drum hanging inside a pagoda. This was for the benefit of those praying inside the temple (where it sounds like distant thunder). Shivering to the side, I continued to watch as they rang a bell the size of a Volkswagen with a polished log swung on ropes like a wrecking ball. Next to it, another monk ripped out a loud, clattering drum roll inside the wooden ribs of a dragon-like fish, also suspended from the pagoda's roof. It was freezing cold with a biting wind -- not pleasant to be outside, and at such an hour. But the stars were absolutely vivid. I'm no good at picking out constellations, but Orion was poised unmistakeably above the mountains as though stalking an elk on the other side of the ridge.
It's a magical, somewhat harsh place, Haiensa. The Changgyeonggak, the two storage halls that house the Tripitaka, were built ingeniously to preserve the tablets by blocking wind, facilitating ventilation and distributing moisture. You see the monks busying themselves with devotions and chores, practicing an ancient way of life founded upon those tablets. The whole monastery a kind of computer, the monks running routines to and from the database. The mountains, Orion, the drum all part of the program. It seemed almost more hi-tech than cutting edge Seoul.
More on that later.
off to seoul 12.17.2005, 7:02 AM
Over the next couple of weeks I will be traveling in South Korea, the land that invented moveable type (1234), and which to this day is cooking up the future of the book on a high flame: from massivly multiplayer online games, to Samsung's Ubiquitous Dream Hall, to the massively multiplayer citizen journalism site OhmyNews. It will take me about 20 hours to get there but I feel I'll be stepping a few years into the future. I expect... well, I have no idea what to expect. And all this futurama is only the tip of the iceberg. I have a camera and it shouldn't be too hard to find an internet connection, so expect a few postcards.
the light of the disk is endless 08.12.2005, 9:26 AM
"The cover of the book was rubbed with a patina made from lamp black, Yakskin glue, and brains. It was burnished to a gloss and inscribed with an ink made from crushed pearls and silver." That is a description of the one of the Tibetan monastic manuscripts, or pothi, that Jim Canary discussed in his recent presentation, "The Tibetan Book: From Pothi to Pixels and Back Again," at The Changing Book Conference (University of Iowa). Pothi were originally made of palm leaves. They are up to four feet in length and thin in shape; consisting of loose leaves in cloth covers pressed between wooden boards. They are sometimes housed in wooden boxes that resemble child-sized coffins. The Tibetan pothi are stored in long, narrow pigeon holes built into the walls surrounding the chanting area of the temple. Jim showed us a picture of these impressive libraries, with ceilings so high, the walls, and their overstuffed catacombs, disappear into darkness.
Jim Canary has over sixty of hours of video, taken during his trips to Tibet, documenting the monastic printing process. He plans to edit and publish the video as a CD Rom in tandem with a print book. He showed us some selections, which I do not have, so I will do my best to describe them. Video #1: a man sits on the stone steps outside the temple. There are two tall stacks of paper next to him and a bowl of water in front of him. He is preparing the paper for printing, taking one sheet from the top of the pile, passing it through a pan of water and placing it on top of the other pile. He has hundreds of sheets to dampen, so he is working in a brisk rhythmic manner. When he's finished, the stack will be pressed between two wooden blocks. Video #2: printing takes place in a building across from the temple. The printing is done in teams of two. One man holds the hand-carved wooden block and prepares it with ink. His partner places each damp sheet on the wooden block for burnishing, then removes it and sets it aside to dry. The men work quickly in tandem, surrounded by the music of monks chanting in the temple next door. The tone and rhythm of the chant matches the rhythm of their work. It is designed to correspond with the heart beat, and it works to knit all participants together into a single, metaphorical "body" which is, in turn, joined to all humanity through the meditation. The result of all this unity is a book, shaped like a body, which will be housed, along with hundreds of others, in the temple walls.
Mr. Canary's presentation was also about the future of these mystical books, which are being cataloged, preserved, reproduced and distributed using digital technology. Some monks are now working on laptops, transcribing text and burning DVDs. Here is an excerpt from a poem written by one of the monks in praise of digital materials, which, in his eyes, are as exquiste as a patina made from lamp black, Yakskin glue, and brains, burnished to a gloss and inscribed with an ink made from crushed pearls and silver are to me.
…The light of the disk is endless
like the light of the disks in the sky, sun and moon.
With a single push of our finger on a button
We pull up the shining gems of text…
e-poetry 2005 08.09.2005, 1:45 PM
E-Poetry 2005, "an international digital poetry festival," will be held this fall, September 28 through October 1, in London:
E-Poetry 2005 is both a conference and festival, dedicated to showcasing the best talent in digital poetry and poetics from around the world. E-Poetry combines both a high-level academic conference and workshop, examining growing trends in this young and emergent art form, with a festival of the latest and most exciting work from both established and new practitioners.
(via Grand Text Auto)
The 2005 Computers and Writing Conference 06.22.2005, 12:36 PM
Stanford University hosted the 2005 Computers and Writing conference this past weekend. Each session was rife with "future of the book" food for thought. This is an informal summary, with apologies to all the fabulous presentations that I don't mention (sorry, being only one person, I could not attend them all). Some of the major themes (which dovetail nicely with issues we are exploring at the institute) included: Open Source, new interpretations of literacy and "writing," the changing role of the teacher/student, performance, multimodality, and networked community. It is important to note that these themes often blur together in a complicated interdependence. This thematic interplay was evident in the pre-conference workshops which included instruction in open source tools and applications like Drupal that allow for multimodality and the creation of communal authoring environments. Workshops in "Reading Images" and "Using Video to Teach Writing" addressed multiple modalities and new concepts of writing.
I was excited to see that the Computers and Writing community understands the potential of, and imperative for, Open Source. It's practical advantages (free and customizable) and it's philosophical advantages (community-based and built for sharing rather than for selling) make it ideally suited to the goals of the educational community. Open Source came up over and over during the presentations and was featured in the first town hall session "Open Source Opens Thinking." The session challenged the Computers and Writing community "to consider a position statement of collective principles and goals in relation to Open Source." Such a statement would be useful and productive; I'm hoping it will materialize.
The changing role of the teacher and student was evident in several presentations: most notably, the pilot program at Penn State (see my earlier post) in which students publish their "papers" on a wiki. The wiki format allows for intensive peer-review and encourages a culture of responsibility.
There was a lot of speculation about how writing will evolve and how other modalities might be incorporated into our notion of literacy. Andrea Lunsford's keynote speech addressed this issue, calling for a return to oral and embodied "performative literacies." She referred to Tara Shankar's MIT dissertation "Speaking on the Record," which confronts the way we privilege writing above other modalitites for knowledge and education. She says: "Reading and writing have become the predominant way of acquiring and expressing intellect in Western culture. Somewhere along the way, the ability to write has become completely identified with intellectual power, creating a graphocentric myopia concerning the very nature and transfer of knowledge. One of the effects of graphocentrism is a conflation of concepts proper to knowledge in general with concepts specific to written expression."
Shankar calls for new practices that embrace oral communication. She introduces a new word: "to provide a counterpart to writing in a spoken modality: speak + write = sprite. Spriting in its general form is the activity of speaking "on the record" that yields a technologically supported representation of oral speech with essential properties of writing such as permanence of record, possibilities of editing, indexing, and scanning, but without the difficult transition to a deeply different form of representation such as writing itself."
The need for a multimodal approach to writing was addressed in the second Town Hall meeting "Composition Beyond Words." Virginia Kuhn opened by calling for a reconsideration of "writing," and the goals of visual literacy. Bradley Dilger reminded us that literacy goes beyond "the letter;" we need multiple interfaces for the same data because not everyone looks at data the same way. Madeleine Sorapure pointed out that writing with computers is determined by underlying code structures which are, themselves, a form of writing. She quoted Loss Pequeno Glazier, "Code is the writing within the writing that makes the work happen." Gail Hawisher, talked about the 10 year process of incorporating multiple modalities into the first-composition courses at the University of Illinois. Cynthia Selfe addressed this struggle, saying: "colleges are not comfortable with multiple modalities." She advises the C&W community to "think about how to give professional development/support to resistant colleges in ways that are sustainable over time." Stuart Moulthrop also offered some cautionary words of advice. In addition to faculty and administration, Moultrop says students are resistant to multimodality. Code, for example, is fatally hard to teach non-programmers or visually oriented people. "There is a political problem," Moulthrop says, "we are living through a backlash moment. People are very angry about how fast the future has come down on them."
Some participants delivered "papers" that attempted to demonstrate these new multimodal imperatives. Most notably, Todd Taylor's presentation, "The End of Composition," which asked, "Can a paper be a film?" Todd argues "yes" with a cinematic montage of sampled and remixed clips along with original footage, which was enthusiastically received by the audience (alt. review in Machina Memorialis blog.) Morgan Gresham's Town Hall presentation was a student-produced video and a question to the audience; is this just a remake of a bad commercial, or is it a "paper"? Christine Alfano's presentation experimented with a hypertext, "Choose Your Own Adventure," style that allowed the audience to determine the trajectory of the talk. Once the selection was made, she dropped the other two papers/options to the floor. The choice, unfortunately for me, eliminated the material that I most wanted to hear about (Shelly Jackson's Patchwork Girl). Additionally, "virtual" presentations were delivered during an online companion conference called: Computers and Writing Online 2005 When Content Is No Longer King: Social Networking, Community, and Collaboration This interactive online conference served, "as an acknowledgment of the value of social networks in creating discourse of and about scholarly work." CWOnline 2005 made both the submission and presentation process open to public review via the Kairosnews weblog. Despite some flaws, I thought these experimental presentations pushed at the boundaries of academic discourse in a useful way. They reminded us how far we have to go and how difficult the project of putting ideas into practice really is.
Finally, the conference highlighted ways in which computers are being used to cultivate community across cultures and institutions; and between students, teachers, and scholars. Sharing Cultures, a joint project of Columbia College Chicago and Nelson Mandela University Metropolitan University, in South Africa "creates two interconnected, on-line writing and learning communities…the project purposely includes students who traditionally have not had access to, or have been actively marginalized from, both digital and international experiences." Virginia Kuhn approached computers and community at the local level, with a service learning class called, "Multicultural America," which asked students to write an ebook documenting local history. The finished work is part of an ongoing display at a Milwaukee community center. This project inspired an interesting reversal; community members who worked with students on the project are now (thanks to a generous grant) coming to the University of Milwaukee for supplemental study. Within the academy there are also exciting opportunities for computer-based community-building. In her Town Hall presentation, Gail Hawisher said that literacy on campus is, "usually taken care of by first year composition." If we are to incorporate visual literacy into our definition of literacy then, "Perhaps we should be looking to art and design for literacy instead of just the English dept." This is an incredibly smart idea because, short of requiring composition teachers to have degrees in art, film, AND writing, collaborative efforts with other departments seem to be the best way to ensure a deep and rigorous understanding of the material. I had an interesting conversation with Stuart Moulthrop about this. We imagined a massively-multi-player game environment that would allow scholars from around world to collaborate on curriculum across institutional and disciplinary boundaries. Wouldn't it be great, we thought, if someone who wanted to teach an odd combination like, film/biology/physics, could put a course scenario into the game where it would be played out by biologists, film scholars, and physicists. In other words a kind of life-time learning environment for the experts, a laboratory for the exchange of knowledge across disciplinary boundaries, and place to weave together different strands of human insight in order to create a more complete "picture" of the universe.
Networked Pedagogies: Opensourcing the Writing Classroom 06.18.2005, 4:45 PM
Penn State has initiated a pilot program of 10 wiki-based composition classes. Richard Doyle, Jeff Pruchnic, and Trey Conner, instructors in the pilot-program discussed their experiences this morning at the Computers & Writing Conference in Stanford. They found that students produce better work in a peer-reviewed environment. Grammar and mechanics are contextualized and there is greater motivation to create error-free work. Students read each other's work, which forces them to consider their arguments carefully in order to avoid repeating someone else's point.
They also found that the self-governing ecology of the networked wiki format creates a fruitful environment for discussion and debate. The wiki places control over the direction and duration of the discussion into the student's hands. Richard Doyle also pointed out that there has not been a single editing war in the years that he has been teaching the course. He attributes the lack of unproductive "flame wars" to the amount of work his students have. Each student produces about 100 pages of material and must read, comment on, and GRADE their fellow students' work. This is a learner-centered environment where, as Richard Doyle puts it, "the teacher acts as coach or zen master, making periodic interventions." Doyle also points out that in these wiki-based courses, "students are learning how to interact in an information dense environment responsibly. They are being trained to deal with the fluid environments they are going to find themselves in."
transliteracies: the politics of online reading 06.18.2005, 2:33 PM
Warren Sack presented two interesting diagrams yesterday at Transliteracies. The first was a map of how political conversations happen in newsgroups:
The work is that of John Kelly, Danyel Fisher, and Marc Smith; it shows conversations on the newsgroup alt.politics.bush. Blue dots are left-leaning participants in the newsgroup; red dots are right-leaning participants. Lines between dots show a conversation. Here, it's clear that a conversation is predominantly taking place across the political lines: people are arguing with each other.
The second is a map of how conversations (represented by links) happen on political blogs in the United States:
This is the work of Lada Adamic and Natalie Glance and it shows connections between political blogs. Blue dots are leftist blogs; red dots are rightist blogs. One notes here that the left-leaning blogs and right-leaning blogs tend to link to themselves, not across the political divide. People are reinforcing their own beliefs.
Obviously, it's a stretch to claim that American politics became more polarized and civics died a death because internet conversations moved from newsgroups to blogs. But it's clear from these diagrams that the way in which different forms of online reading take place (and the communities that are formed by this online reading) has political ramifications of which we need to be conscious.
serendipity 06.18.2005, 1:16 PM
the pinpoint accuracy of computer-searches, leaves those of us lucky enough to have spent time in library stacks, nostalgic for the unexpected discovery of something we didn't know we were looking for but which just happened, serendipitously, to be on a nearby shelf. George Legrady, artist and prof at UC Santa Barbara, just showed a project he is working on for the new public library in Seattle that gave the first glimpse of serendipity in online library searching which lets you see all the books that have recently been checked out on a particular subject. Beautiful and Exciting.
the cramped root: worshipping the artifact 06.17.2005, 2:08 PM
A plant in a container grows differently than a plant in open soil. The roots conform to the shape of the pot. Similarly, our very notions of reading, of books, of knowledge classification are defined by the pot in which they grew. The texture of paper, the topography of the library, the entire university system - these were defined by restraints. Physical, economic, etc. And to a significant extent they are artifacts of their times. An example: the act of reading in bed, as Dan mentions, is frequently invoked as the ideal, as the supreme pleasure of reading, something that computers could never match. But this supine, passive reading stance is not pre-ordained. It is in many ways an artifact of the growth of the novel - a grand, fictional creation to be read in leisure settings. Lying down works well. It's pleasurable. You get lost in rich, immersive worlds. But there are immersive worlds that require a different posture. And there are kinds of reading that are more active.
The computer, too, in its current stage of development, is an artifact of the paper book, the typewriter, and the supercomputer terminal. These define the "pot" in which the computer has grown. And so far, the questions about online "reading" are defined by this cramped root structure. Even though the pot has shattered, we continue to grow as though the walls were there.
Another analogy: the horseless carriage. For years after its invention, the automobile was known as "the horseless carriage." People could define it only in terms of what had come before. You could say that online reading is the territory of "the horseless book."
transliteracies: the pleasure of the text 06.17.2005, 2:07 PM
Two books on my bookshelf: the first, a Penguin paperback of The Recognitions by William Gaddis, the spine reinforced with tape, almost every one of the 976 pages covered with annotations in several different colors of ink, some pages torn, many dogeared, some obvious coffee stains. It's a survivor of a misbegotten thesis project. The second, an old copy of Grace Metalious's soapy Peyton Place which I found on 6th Avenue two years ago & read cover to cover over the course of six delirious hours when I had taken more DayQuil than I should have. It's a cheap paperback from the late 1950s, and its yellow pages have clearly passed through any number of hands, but they're almost entirely unmarked. (God only knows why I decided that I needed to read Peyton Place. I can't recommend it.)
One of the themes that arose in the first session of Transliteracies was that there are several different types of reading. When academics talk about reading, they tend to mean an intensive activity; there's typically a lot of writing involved. A great deal of reading, however, isn't anywhere near as intensive: like my copy of Peyton Place, the text escapes unmarked by the pen. When we talk about moving reading from the printed page to the screen, this is an important consideration: the screen needs to accommodate both of these. Why can't we curl up with an electronic book? has been a persistent question since electronic reading became a possibility, but it misses the important point that we don't want to curl up with every book we read. We can only curl up with something if we're reading it - to some degree - passively.
transliteracies begins.. reading is complex 06.17.2005, 11:57 AM
Over the next couple of days, we'll be posting live from the Transliteracies conference..
The conference kicked off with a rich historical lecture by Adrian Johns, a professor at the University of Chicago and author of The Nature of the Book. Johns examined three revolutionary moments in the development of scientific knowledge - Galileo, Newton, and James Clark Maxwell - and their relationship to the evolving print medium and the social practices of interpretation and transmission that were then developing. Beginning with the iconoclastic moment of Galileo's theological collision with the Catholic church, moving through Newton and the incipient system of journal production - "philosophical transaction" - in authoritative matrices like the Royal Society, up to Maxwell at Cambridge University, his breakthroughs on electricity and magnetism, and the development of written examinations. The overriding lesson: reading is complex. We should not overestimate the power of the book purely as the "container of meaning." The surrounding social reading practices, the charismatic human deliverers of certain texts, are no less important. Each book has a sort of periodical system that follows from it - its ideas move through local systems of perusal, reinterpretation and dissemination. It gets continually "re-published" through this human ecology.
Then there is the scientific revolution going on today: information technology and medical information. Medical error - diagnostic and prescriptive - kills thousands each year, largely due to interruptions in information flow. Info tech could create seamless systems that greatly reduce error. But Johns points out that a good half of the systems implemented so far fail to solve the problems. In fact, all of them create new kinds of errors - confusions between the different groups in the massive medical tangle. So here we have a kind of online reading that has been tested in a highly consequential setting. Johns suggests that medical reading is more like literary reading than we think. For instance, physicians and pharmacists read differently. They have differences in training, worldview, sense of self. Seemingly cosmetic features of the text - fonts, color, layout - are of great consequence.
transliteracies: research in the technological, social, & cultural practices of online reading 06.16.2005, 10:06 AM
Bob's post last week about changing patterns of media consumption kicked off an interesting discussion, one that leads up perfectly to the "Transliteracies" conference we are attending this weekend at UC Santa Barbara.
Alan Liu, director of the Transliteracies project, posted this response, which very elegantly lays out some of the important questions. He's allowed me to re-post it here..
BEGIN: The relationship between "browsing" and the "sheer volume" of information is complicated. To start with, I think there is much to be gained in complicating our usually uniform concepts of "browsing" (all shallow, fragmented, attention-deficient) and "volume" ("sheer," as in a towering, monolithic cliff).
We get a sense of the hidden complexity I indicate if we think historically. Below is a passage from Roger Chartier -- the leading scholar in the "history of the book" field -- that should give us pause about making any quick associations between browsing and today's information glut:
"Does this reaction toward the end of the [18th] century indicate a consciousness that reading styles had changed, that the elites in western Europe had passed from intensive and reverent reading to a more extensive, nonchalant reading style, and that such a change called for correction? . . . In the older style: (1) Readers had the choice of only a few books, which perpetuated texts of great longevity. (2) Reading was not separated from other cultural activities such as listening to books read aloud time and again in the bosom of the family, the memorization of such texts . . . , or the recitation of texts read aloud and learned by heart. (3) The relation of reader to book was marked by a weighty respect and charged with a strong sense of the sacred character of printed matter. (4) The intense reading and rereading of the same texts shaped minds that were habituated to a particular set of references and inhabited by the same quotations. It was not until the second half of the eighteen century in Germany and the beginning of the nineteenth century in New England that this style of reading yielded to another style, based on the proliferation of accessible books, on the individualization of the act of reading, on its separation from other cultural activities, and on the descralization of the book. Book reading habits became freer, enabling the reader to pass from one text to another and to have a less attentive attitude toward the printed word, which was less concentrated in a few privileged books." -- Roger Chartier, "Urban Reading Practices, 1660-1770," in his The Cultural Uses of Print in Early Modern France, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1987), pp. 222-24
It's pretty certain that browsing in the face of sheer volume were deep habits of literacy (specifically, of high print literacy). By contrast, one might ask: who read so intensely and deeply -- to instance the extreme -- that they only really read one book? There were probably just three classes of such people: the very poor (I remember, but can't find at present, an essay by Chartier about people in the past who owned just one book, which was found on their body after a coach accident in Paris), the extremely pious (who read the Bible), or the "genius" author. (Think of Blake, for example: no matter how many books he read, he really only had one or two books on his mental bookshelf: the Bible and Milton.) By contrast, everyone else browsed.
Mass literacy in the twentieth century, perhaps, may be a phenomenon of browsing. Think of Reader's Digest. After my family immigrated to the U.S. in my childhood, we were a kind of microcosm of assimilation (into English literacy) in this regard. There were two major investments in books in my household: the Reader's Digest series of condensed books (a kind of packaged browsing) and The World Book encyclopedia (a veritable lesson in reading as browsing-cum-volume). I drank deeply from both founts as a child, since these were the main books in the house. I was intense in my browsing.
So now let's snap back to the present and the act of browsing cyber- or multi-media volumes of information. I've started a project (combining humanists, social scientists, and computer scientists) called Transliteracies to look into "online reading." It's my hypothesis that there are hidden complexities and intelligences in low-attention modes of browsing/surfing that we don't yet know how to chart. Google, after all, is making a fortune for algorithms enacting this hypothesis. Or to cite a historical googler: Dr. Johnson, sage of the Age of Reason, was famous for "devouring" books just by browsing them instead of reading "cover to cover." (To allude to the titles of the two serial magazines he was involved with, he would have called browsing Rambling or Idling [The Rambler, The Idler.)
Just as "browsing" is complex, so I think that there are hidden complexities in the notion of "sheer volume." Some of the digital artists I know -- e.g., George Legrady, Pockets Full of Memories -- are "database artists" whose work asks the question, in essence: what happens to the notion of art when we gaze not at one work in rapt wonder but several thousand works -- when, in other words, the "work" is "volume"? What if quantity, in other words, was a matter of quality? Aren't there different kinds of "volume," some more intelligent, beautiful, kinder, humane (not to mention efficient and flexible, the usual postindustrial desiderata) than others?
I'd better stop, since this comment is too long. As Blake said about volume: "Enough! or too much."
web marginalia 05.23.2005, 7:09 AM
About a week ago, I attended a fascinating workshop at USC on Social Software in the Academy - a gathering of some of the most interesting thinkers, teachers and innovators at the intersection of technology and education. I learned a great deal, much of which I'm still processing and will be posting about this week. I also found out about some exciting new tools. One of them is Wikalong, a plugin for the Firefox browser. Wikalong makes it possible to write notes in the margin of a web page (something we take for granted in paper books). Reviews, rebuttals, conversations, subversive commentary, a "roving weblog," or just plain old notes - all of these are possible in the little sidebar wiki notebook that Wikalong places to the left of any web page you go to. Online reading enhanced.
A great part of history is written in the marginalia, and I suspect that networked marginalia is territory worth exploring. Wikalong might be just a literal-minded stepping stone to more interesting forms, but the profundity of the margin (which lies in its spacial relationship to the primary text) shouldn't be underestimated. Sparks fly between juxtaposed texts. While hyperlinks enable the reader to leap between textual worlds, they suck you down a wormhole to a distant place. Sometimes it's better to be in both spaces at the same time (like keeping two browser windows open at once). Think of the Talmud, the great Jewish compendium of law and exegesis. On each page, commentaries are arrayed around a core text. Wikalong may seem insignificant next to this ancient hypertext system, but it points to a related sort of spatial intertextuality that should theoretically be possible in the new medium. If a flat page can be so multi-dimensional, think of how far we might be able to go in a virtual space.
Another handy tool is PurpleSlurple, which provides granular addressability for any existing web page. In other words, it inserts links for paragraphs and headers, allowing you to reference specific sections of text on a given page. Each "slurped" page gets its own URL, as does each individual element that has been anchored with a reference number. It's primitive, but could come in extremely handy. For bloggers, this provides another way to reference a particular passage in a long web document. Just slurp the page, then link to the specific section.
Nils Peterson, of Washington State University, presented these tools, along with del.icio.us and a visualization application from Tufts called VUE, as a "juxtaposition of technologies" - a toolkit enabling a web reader or writer to more effectively annotate, reference and quote within the web.
"transliteracies" conference 05.18.2005, 10:48 AM
"How are people today “reading” in digital, networked environments? For example, what is the relation between reading and browsing, or searching? Or between reading and multimedia? Can innovations in technologies or interfaces increase the productivity, variety, and pleasure of these new kinds of reading? How can the historical diversity of human reading practices help us gauge the robustness of the new digital practices; and, inversely, how can contemporary practices provide new ways to understand the technical, social, and cultural dimensions of historical reading?"
June 17-18 at UC Santa Barbara, kicking off the Transliteracies Project: "Research in the Technological, Social, and Cultural Practices of Online Reading".
(thanks, Grand Text Auto)
abandon all hope, ye who enter here 04.16.2005, 1:23 PM
Silly-sounding business jargon and corporate pep talk abounded at the eBooks in Education Conference at McGraw-Hill in New York. The kind of stuff that makes the eyes and mind glaze over. "Fluidity of work flow." "Content creation." "Course-centric versus learner-centric." The "three-legged stool," of digital publishing... Books are "learning objects." A teacher is just a "sage on the stage," as though teaching were an antiquated idea. Youth is a marketing problem to be solved, the latest batch of young professionals in the making, rolling along the conveyor belt. Tim Magner, a stuffed shirt from our dear own Department of Ed., talked about priming kids for the new global economy (he also took the opportunity to mention that we're doing the same for Iraq). But nothing about the issues at the heart of education. Nothing about a civil society, an educated citizenry, etc. About nurturing critical faculties in an age of information blitz. About advancing the light against darkness. I don't doubt the good intentions of many of the speakers and attendees (though I do doubt some) but to someone outside the industry, the conference was plainly nothing more than a congregation of hucksters and homogenizers. Only the accessibility folks (the ones concerned with opening up digital media to people with disabilities), and one soft-spoken tech development manager from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, seemed to exhibit any kind of public spiritedness, or a belief that technology should be made to serve human beings and not companies.
Then there were the numbing waves of PowerPoint, PowerPoint, PowerPoint! Nothing more perfectly exemplifies the muddled thinking, ignorance of design, and all-around mediocrity of the so-called "ebook industry." Each presenter - with the exception of George Kerscher of the Daisy Consortium (who is blind) - supplemented their talk with the obligatory PowerPoint presentation, which, after a while, becomes a kind of torture. The slides flip one after the other after the other, the bullet points rattle like hail. Incomprehensible charts and graphs slouch across backgrounds of pastel or mock-marble. There's a lot of teal. A lot of magenta. The slick veneer of the corporate board room washes over you like microwaved cheese, but the occasional tell-tale typo betrays the obvious haste and lack of consideration with which the things are made. In most cases the presenter abdicates entirely and plays human accompaniment to the PowerPoint show, lamely reading aloud as the panels slide past, sort of like the airline stewardess doing her bit with the oxygen mask while the safety film plays behind. After sitting through a few of these, your brain feels like it's been flattened out with a rolling pin. I kept thinking of Hart Crane's lines:
"The mind has shown itself at times
Too much the baked and labeled dough
Divided by accepted multitudes."
I also thought of Edward Tufte's wonderful monograph, "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint" (encapsulated here), a shrewd critique of sandblasted thinking in Microsoft-era America. It's a little frightening to hear adults talk about the future of education in the scrubbed, frictionless language of the corporate slideshow. If they are teaching by example, then it is a sorry example indeed.
"Particularly disturbing is the adoption of the PowerPoint cognitive style in our schools. Rather than learning to write a report using sentences, children are being taught how to formulate client pitches and infomercials. Elementary school PowerPoint exercises (as seen in teacher guides and in student work posted on the Internet) typically consist of 10 to 20 words and a piece of clip art on each slide in a presentation of three to six slides -a total of perhaps 80 words (15 seconds of silent reading) for a week of work. Students would be better off if the schools simply closed down on those days and everyone went to the Exploratorium or wrote an illustrated essay explaining something."
I couldn't resist including the cover illustration of Tufte's piece. which gloriously sends up the totalitarianism of PowerPoint..
the dinosaurs are myopic: publishing industry clueless about the future of textbooks 04.15.2005, 3:37 PM
I spent yesterday in the McGraw-Hill building listening to the textbook publishing industry's ideas about the future of the book. It was grim. The abysmal lack of creativity and insight, the singular focus on "revenue models," and the utter disregard for the needs of students and teachers, made for a dull, and sometimes disturbing, day.
The ebook offerings ranged from plain old PDFs, to web-based books, to jury-rigged versions of Microsoft office. The only panel that offered a forward-looking vision of the future and interesting ebook software to go with it was the accessibility panel, moderated by George Kerscher—Secretary General, Daisy consortium—who is blind. This panel included a demo of Dolphin Audio Publishing’s EasePublisher a tool that facilitates the creation of multimedia content that unites text, audio and images. Dolphin and Elsevier were the only companies that addressed multimedia and its role in the future book. While McGraw-Hill is offering PDF textbooks because they are, “the easiest, fastest, cheapest solution.” Dolphin is thinking about how to enrich the learning experience for everyone. They found that when students with no disabilities used their multimedia books, they learned more. Apparently the combination of text (reading), audio (hearing the text read by a human), and image (photos, videos or illustrations that illuminate the material) enhances learning. Designing electronic textbooks that exploit this opportunity seems like a no-brainer. Teachers I’ve spoken to and my own experience with students in the classroom suggests that multi-media ignites student enthusiasm. Making PDF textbooks is like driving a Jaguar in first gear. But after 10 years of experience in the field, McGraw-Hill’s Ginny Moffet believes that: “students only care about the grade,” and “the biggest challenge to the [electronic textbook] industry is the high cost of content creation.” Hmmm, what about making a high quality product that everyone wants to buy, isn’t that the problem they should be trying to solve? It’s clear that the job of making an interesting electronic textbook is not being taken up by any of the old giants. Our prediction (and our hope) is that the future of the electronic textbook will not be directed by corporations, but by small start-ups, or non-profit consortiums of schools and academics. Efforts like the non-profit, Virtual High School, are an interesting beginning.
6th avenue agriculture 04.15.2005, 10:15 AM
Even before the head of the University of Nebraska library began bemoaning how the pictures had fallen out of their collection of vintage agronomy ebooks, the Open eBook Forum conference on ebooks in education felt a great deal like a convention of cattlemen gathered to discuss the latest advances in treating animal ailments and increasing their milkfat percentages. The cattle, of course, are the hapless students, handily divided into K-12 & college lots. The publishing industry, with the help of the software industry, is doing their best to milk them for all they can.
The major image that came to my mind, however, was genetically modified corn. Genetically modified corn is theoretically a good thing: you get a bigger harvest of better corn. But! for the good of the masses - so it doesn't get loose in the wild - Monsanto's made their GM corn sterile. What this means for their bottom line: the farmers have to buy new seeds every single year. In short, what should be a renewable resource has become corporate property. And this strategy, more or less, is what the people at the Open Ebook Forum were most delighted about having hit upon. They're selling coursepacks to college kids which expire at the end of the term, ebooks to libraries which only one user can check out at once, and more software to parents so their kids can do their schoolwork. Hopefully, this technology will let you, the efficient new school administrator, get those pesky teachers out of your payroll. Then: profit!
The future of the book looked incredibly bleak from the McGraw-Hill auditorium. One bright spot of enthusiasm: a few groups of people (including Geoff Freed from the CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media and John Worsfeld from Dolphin Computer Access) working on making media more accessible to people with disabilities. Not coincidentally, they were the only people there not primarily concerned with making money off the students.
ebooks in education 04.14.2005, 8:10 AM
"Details are still being worked out, but here's the MIT team's current recipe: Put the laptop on a software diet; use the freely distributed Linux operating system; design a battery capable of being recharged with a hand crank; and use newly developed 'electronic ink' or a novel rear-projected image display with a 12-inch screen. Then, give it Wi-Fi access, and add USB ports to hook up peripheral devices. Most importantly, take profits, sales costs and marketing expenses out of the picture."
nothing has changed in 3,000 years 04.01.2005, 11:18 AM
Our exploration of digital technology and the revolution it has provoked in our reading and writing practice, tends to focus on the latest gadget and the newest software, but we are also concerned with the things that don't change and the aspects of human communication that are so deeply a part of our nature that they can not be removed from our reading and writing systems. The first "Information Esthetics" lecture at the Chelsea Museum brought this to the fore last night. Robert Bringhurst spoke about hand-lettered manuscripts, and about typography that respects and preserves the texture and uniqueness of the hand-made mark. He argued for the humanity of fine craftsmanship. He even managed to convince me that slight variations in the shape of letterforms can serve as metaphors for our own individuality.
He also made the point that the devices in our writing/reading systems are physiologically based. The average page is a size that can be held easily in our hands and read at arm's length. Bringhurst showed a slide of an Egyptian manuscript. The size of the papyrus was very similar to page we use today, and the text was composed in blocks around images. Very much like magazine layouts. As I was admiring the beauty of the manuscript, Bringhurst said, “as you can see, nothing has changed in 3,000 years.” That shouldn't shock me, but it did. I've been so absorbed in thinking about the next new thing, I'd forgotten that reading and writing is a very very old thing.
Interesting to think that whether we are reading something written on stone, papyrus, paper, or a computer screen, we need the same things we've aways needed: legibility, context, and "texture." I'm radically summarizing Bringhurst's lecture (hope I'm doing it justice). The way I understand it, texture is Bringhurst's way of describing the particular kind of beauty we look for in cultural artifacts. Texture, is evidence of complexity, information, meaning and the imperfect human hand at work.
So, I'm thinking about how this "texture" manifests in digital manuscripts and it seems to me that it does so in several ways including: the craftsmanship of the digital document itself (which includes the code, the interface, and the composition), the richness of information/meaning that resides in virtual layers or as "links" within the text, and the way beauty can be crafted out of the physical material itself--light emitted by a computer screen.
(photo by Alex Itin)
Information Esthetics lecture series 03.23.2005, 2:46 PM
Brad Paley, creator of Text Arc and many other gorgeous data visualizations popular here at if:book, has put together a fascinating lecture series running March through July in New York. The series starts next Thursday in Chelsea with renowned typographer Robert Bringhurst. From Brad:
"I'm excited to have put together something that seems tailor-made for the interests of Institute for the Future of the Book participants and on-lookers."
Information Esthetics: Lecture Series One starts March 31 in Chelsea
People who value clarity and engagement is visual displays, whether as fine art or on Wall Street, are invited to seven evenings with some of the field's deepest thinkers and finest practitioners. The series opens with distinguished typographer Robert Bringhurst at 6:00 pm, March 31 at the Chelsea Art Museum. Fine spirits and snacks will be served. It's free with the $3 discounted museum admission.
A little more about Information Esthetics..
Making data meaningful—this phrase could describe what dozens of professions strive for: Wall Street systems designers, fine artists, advertising creatives, computer interface researchers, and many others. Occasionally something important happens in these practices: a data representation is created that reveals the subject’s nature with such clarity and grace that it both informs and moves the viewer. We both understand and care. This is the focus of Information Esthetics.
Information Esthetics, a recently formed not-for-profit organization, has organized a lecture series dedicated to helping this happen more often.
For the full program, visit InformationEsthetics.org. Thanks, Brad! We'll definitely be there.
institute for the future of the book field trip to the recent past 03.10.2005, 11:18 AM
last night Printed Matter "the world's greatest source for artists' publications" threw open the doors to their storage space. my colleague, dan visel, and i couldn't resist the opportunity to rummage through the bins for hidden treasures dating from the late 70s. 2 thoughts: we're still a long way from the time when browsing an electronic archive will be anywhere near as pleasing, at least on the sensual plane; paper art may have hit it's height in that moment with the arrival of desktop publishing and cheap xeroxing; now a lot of the energy that people were putting into the creation of paper art is likely going into e-artifacts and e-zines.
building the cathedral: collaborative authorship and the internet 02.16.2005, 5:25 PM
The World Wide Web is, quite possibly, the most collaborative multi-cultural project in the history of mankind. Millions of people have contributed personal homepages, blogs, and other sites to the growing body of human expression available online. It is, one could say, the secular equivalent of the medieval cathedral, designed by a professional, but constructed by non-professionals, regular folk who are eager to participate in the construction of a legacy. Such is the context for projects like Wikimedia and the Semantic Web, designed by elite programmers, built by the masses.
One of the most pressing questions with regard to collaborative authorship is, can the content be trusted? Does the anonymous group author have the same authority as the credentialed single author? Is our belief in the quality of information inextricably connected to our belief in the authority of the writer? Wikimedia (the non-profit organization that initiated Wikipedia, Wikibooks,, Wiktionary, Wikinews, Wikisource, and Wikiquote) addresses these concerns by offering a new model for collaborative authorship and peer review. Wikipedia's anonymously published articles undergo peer review via direct peer revision. All revisions are saved and linked; user actions are logged and reversible. “This type of constant editing,” Wikimedia co-director Angela Beesley alleges, “allows you to trust the content over time.” The ambition of Wikimedia is to create a neutral territory where, through open debate, consensus can be reached on even the most contentious topics. The Wikimedia authoring system sets up a democratic forum where contributors construct their own rulespace and policies emerge from consensus-based, rather than top-down, processes. So the authority of the Wikimedia collaborative book depends, in part, on a collective self-discipline that is defined by and enforced by the group.
The collaborative authoring environment engendered by the web will make even more ambitious and far-reaching projects possible. Projects like the Semantic Web, which aims to make all content searchable by allowing users to assign semantic meaning to their work, will organize the prodigious output of collaborative networks, and could, potentially, cast the entire web as a collaboratively authored “book.”
the web in the world 02.14.2005, 7:07 PM
In ten years, the world wide web has become an indispensable fact of life. Where do we take it next? At the conference's closing plenary session, Peter Lunenfeld asked a similar question: "What is the next big dream that will keep us going? Are we out of ideas?" He then offered something called "urban computing" as a possible answer.
Here is my attempt (rather long, I apologize) to jump on that dream...
I live in New York, and in the past few years I've observed a transformation. My neighborhood coffee shop looks like an advertisement for Apple. At any given time, no less than two thirds of the customers are glued to their laptops, with mugs of coffee steaming in perilous proximity. Power cords snake among the tables and plug into strips deployed around the cafe floor. Go to the counter and they'll be happy to give you a dog-eared business card bearing the password to their wireless network. Of course, people have been toting around notebook computers since they first became available in the mid-80s, and they've certainly been no stranger to coffee shops. But with the introduction of Wi-Fi people are flocking in droves. Some kind of exodus has begun.
It's a familiar sight throughout the more cosmopolitan neighborhoods of the city. Go to any Starbucks on the Upper West Side and you're competing with half a dozen other customers for a space on their too-few powerstrips. And their Wi-Fi service isn't even free. And come spring, I predict the same will occur in the city's parks, especially those downtown, which are rapidly being integrated into a massive wireless infrastructure. No single entity is responsible for this, rather a lattice of different initiatives working toward a common goal: free high speed Wi-Fi coverage across Manhattan.
Mobile web and messaging technologies have already created a new breed of roving web users. Cell phones, PDAs, text messaging, Blue Tooth, RSS, podcasting (the list goes on..) have swept into our daily life like a tidal wave. More and more, we're able to read, search, capture, edit, and send on the go, and with satellite-fed positioning technologies, we can pinpoint our location at any given time. What we have is the beginnings of a kind of "augmented reality" where information relates intimately to place, and vice versa. The world itself can now be as searchable, linkable, and informative as the web - a synthesis, or overlay, of real and virtual realities.
So the next big dream could be the evolution of the web into something more than a desktop system - into something that we can use while moving, and interact with anywhere.
Imagine an entire city redesigned as a communication platform. This has recently become a hot emerging field of research: "urban computing", or "locative media". It has also entered the choppy waters of urban planning. In his talk at the conference, New York sociologist and Silicon Alley chronicler Michael Indergaard, spoke of developers in lower Manhattan hoping to recast the hobbled financial district as a high-tech place "to work and play" - a weave of communications and public space. Given the tangle of ego, money and politics that has converged on Ground Zero, it's hard to predict how this will pan out.. (for examples of recent initiatives, Downtown Alliance, Spectropolis). Or witness the hotly debated proposal to make the entire city of Philadelphia into one giant Wi-Fi hotspot.
Ultimately, the idea is to overlay the complex of buildings, streets and public spaces - the entire fabric of urban life - with the interconnectivity of the web. The implications for culture are as enormous as they are for business. Cities have always been the most brilliant cultural dynamos. Take the simplest, most essential urban act - walking through town - and you will discover a rich attendant tradition: from the eternal stroller, the flaneur, to the urban dérive, or drift, "a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances," as expostulated by the French Situationalists of the 1960s, most notably Guy-Ernest Debord. Or take the traditions of buskering, street photography, or the countless films that employ the city as canvas (take, for example, Woody Allen, who time and again has used the geography and rhythm of Manhattan in his neurotic self-portraits). And let's not forget what is probably the greatest literary treatment of consciousness in the modern city: Joyce's Ulysses. In each case, the city is interpreted as a matrix of "psychogeographies" (to borrow again from the Situationalists) for which the amble, the stroll, the idle on the stoop, are the most effective tools of discovery (see earlier post City Chromosomes - An SMS Chronicle). The city is also the realm of chance: a kind of particle accelerator of circumstance that whips up coincidences with adrenalizing rapidity. It's not hard to see how this is similar to our movements in virtual space - surfing, browsing, chatting, searching, stumbling upon newness - and how these two ways of movement could act in concert when computers are unmoored from desks.
The beginnings of this can be found at the intersection of photography and the web. Digital cameras and camera phones have become incredibly popular. People are snapping pictures everywhere they go, then sharing them through email, image messaging, or online image banking services like Ofoto or Flickr. New technologies are in the works that will allow people to plug in photos the same way they plug in keywords on a search engine, effectively asking "what am I looking at?" or "where have I seen this before?" (see earlier post, Hyperlinking the Eye of the Beholder). Amazon's new yellow pages service allows you to see photos of the business your are looking for, and to virtually stroll, or scroll, down the block to get a sense of the surrounding environment (see earlier post, From Apsen to A9). A student project called "Grafedia" was presented recently at the Tisch ITP winter show which allows people to put "hyperlinks" in any physical environment. As described by its inventor John Geraci:
Grafedia is hyperlinked text, written by hand onto physical surfaces and linking to rich media content - images, video, sound files, and so forth. It can be written anywhere - on walls, in the streets, or in bathroom stalls. Grafedia can also be written in letters or postcards, on the body as tattoos, or anywhere you feel like putting it. Viewers "click" on these grafedia hyperlinks with their cell phones by sending a message addressed to the word + "@grafedia.net" to get the content behind the link."
I can imagine Grafedia as a fun urban diversion - a trail of crumbs, a flirtation, a new way of marking territory - or even as a kind of x-ray vision into closed spaces. A discrete little tag could alert a passerby to shady goings-on within. Though primitive, these new technologies represent the seeds for new social practices, new ways of creating and sharing meaning.
And locative media need not be restricted to cities. GPS technology presents new possibilities for tracing a meaningful path through the physical world - global hide-and-seek, or more frightening, a means of surveillance. A recreational pastime, "geocaching," has already sprung up around this technology. In the game, which resembles a kind of global scavenger hunt, participants identify "caches" on the web and track them down with their GPS device. Caches are used as a kind of exchange for anything people might like to share - books, software, recipes, jewelry, clothing, art (anything, really) - and as a stop along the trail to other caches. Clearly, the thrill of finding, of tracking, is the main attraction here.
Solitary roaming through nature could also, theoretically, be "plugged in" to the mobile web. One of the conference presenters, John Chris Jones, has for the past four years has been writing a peripatetic web journal beamed in from his Wordsworthian walks through the English countryside. I for one would find this to be a terrible intrusion into solitude, but I offer up the possibility without judgement, keeping in mind that Thoreau's "isolated" cabin on Walden Pond was less than a mile from the train tracks.
In the end, societies and cultures work through presence - through people, things, and ideas interacting in the same environment. Far from stripping individual locales of their unique qualities, the web in its infant decade has enabled people to explore and converse like never before about their particular place in the world, while simultaneously connecting every point on the map - the realization of McLuhan's "global village". The next step, it would seem, is to shed the physical restrictions of desktop computing so the village can be explored on foot.
collecting and archiving the future book 02.08.2005, 8:02 PM
The collection and preservation of digital artworks has been a significant issue for museum curators for many years now. The digital book will likely present librarians with similar challenges, so it seems useful to look briefly at what curators have been grappling with.
At the Decade of Web Design Conference hosted by the Institute for Networked Cultures. Franziska Nori spoke about her experience as researcher and curator of digital culture for digitalcraft at the Museum for Applied Art in Frankfurt am Main. The project set out to document digital craft as a cultural trend. Digital crafts were defined as “digital objects from everyday life,” mostly websites. Collecting and preserving these ephemeral, ever-changing objects was difficult, at best. A choice had to be made between manual selection, or automatic harvesting. Nori and her associates chose manual selection. The advantage of manual selection was that critical faculties could be employed. The disadvantage was that subjective evaluations regarding an object’s relevance were not always accurate, and important work might be left out. If we begin to treat blogs, websites, and other electronic ephemera as cultural output worthy of preservation and study (i.e. as books), we will have to find solutions to similar problems.
The pace at which technology renews and outdates presents a further obstacle. There are, currently, two ways to approach durability of access to content. The first, is to collect and preserve hardware and software platforms, but this is extremely expensive and difficult to manage. The second solution, is to emulate the project in updated software. In some cases, the artist must write specs for the project, so it can be recreated at a later date. Both these solutions are clearly impractical for digital librarians who must manage hundreds of thousand of objects. One possible solution for libraries, is to encourage proliferation of objects. Open source technology might make it possible for institutions to share data/objects, thus creating “back-up” systems for fragile digital archives.
Nori ended her presentation with two observations. "Most societies create their identity through an awareness of their history." This, she argues, compells us to find ways to preserve digital communications for posterity. She notes that cultural historians, artists, and researchers "are worried about a future where these artifacts will not be accessible."
the tomorrow book 02.08.2005, 5:51 PM
"The Jan van Eyck Academie and the Charles Nypels Foundation invite designers, book critics, book theoreticians and book makers to submit project proposals in the context of the research project 'The tomorrow book. Navigating to, within and beyond the book'. 'The tomorrow book' intends to query the future of the book from a multi-disciplinary standpoint. In doing so, the following aspects will be treated: editing, typography, book design, publishing and distribution. The umbrella theme of the project is navigation towards, inside and outside of the book. Research candidates can submit project proposals for 'The tomorrow book' up to 15 April 2005."
the book is doomed 01.22.2005, 12:04 PM
"The book is doomed." That was Steven Pemberton’s definitive answer to my musings about the future of the book in the digital age. It was the end of the first day of an international conference on web design, we were at the Friday night conference dinner, eating a crème brulee that had been set ablaze just minutes before, and I don’t mean the little blue acetylene flame that puffs out after a few seconds. The chef blasted our crème brulee for several minutes with a torch that looked like something a forest ranger would use to execute a controlled burn.
So, I’m eating my crème brulee, trying to understand this pronouncement; when someone like Steven Pemberton says that the book, in the digital age, is doomed, you have to take it seriously. He cites The Innovator's Dilemma, by Clayton M. Christensen. The thesis, Pemberton explains, has to do with the process of innovation and adoption. A new invention has to find a niche market that will allow it to improve and develop. Once the new invention advances enough to allow it to compete with the entrenched technology it is quickly adopted. This often radically changes an industry. Pemberton gives computer printers as an example. Anyone remember the old dot matrix printers? They had gears on the side that fit into corresponding holes in the paper. Remember how slow they were and how poor the quality was? The introduction of the laser printer made vast improvements in printer quality and as soon as printer technology improved, a revolution in desktop publishing was made possible.
The book, Pemberton contends, will experience a similar sea-change the moment screen technology improves enough to compete with the printed page.
light reading 12.17.2004, 3:49 PM
"The Book as Object and Performance exhibition (through January 22 @ Gigantic Art Space in New York, curated by Sara Reisman) presents work by over 20 artists, each using the book as a point of departure to explore the physical, sensual or conceptual dimension of reading and the written word.
But despite lofty ambitions, the exhibit provides little more than light reading. Though several works are visually arresting, few do more than glide over the potentially bottomless themes at hand. Most stick to playful reorganization of materials: a pile of wooden hoops culling newspaper headlines from around the globe; a precarious tower of books with a gaping acid-chewed hole at the top; a doorway filled with crumpled sheets of paper; a dictionary with words dislocated from their definitions. A collection of small, easily forgotten pleasures.
An exception to this is a mysterious piece titled "Perseverance" by Jenny Perlin consisting of a small, worn book in a glass case, above which plays a strange film of man battling anxiety, chewing his nails to the quick. Also memorable was a one-night-only "reading" of the ten commandments by Polish-born artist Maciej Toporowicz, a piece first performed in communist Poland in 1980, and part of small program of live explorations last night, filling out the "performance" part of the equation. The gallery lights are extinguished and Toporowicz takes his place in front of an illuminated glass bowl of water, perched atop an open Bible. He places his face in the water, as though reading through the aqueous medium, and remains there long enough for the audience to start imagining.. what? That he is drowning in this sacred, much-abused text? That he is drawing impossible sustenance from its power? He begins to twitch and tremble. Finally his head rips up out of the water, gasping.
The photo above shows bottles containing philosophical texts that have been literally chewed up and spit out. Click below to see more pictures from the exhibition...
the book as object and performance - exhibit in New york 12.15.2004, 5:59 PM
"The Book as Object and Performance is an exhibition of artworks that takes the format of the book as a point of departure to deconstruct that which is bound up in text, image and the physicality of books."
Through January 22 @ Gigantic Art Space
*Plus: tomorrow night, in conjunction with the exhibition!
Thursday, December 16, 6-8pm: an evening of performances by AUX (Reynard Loki and Christopher Shores), Joseph A. Fish, Jesal Kapadia, Pia Lindman, and Maciej Toporowicz..
more from USC conference: useful dichotomies for reconsidering scholarship in the digital era 12.11.2004, 11:48 AM
from Tara McPherson:
- practice/theory (practice as research in action)
- process/product (embrace productive failure)
- open/closed (what does versioning mean?)
- dialogue/argument (new ways of marshaling evidence; what does it mean when argument shifts into dialogue?)
- pedagogy/scholarship/service (tenure system is archaic; most non-traditional modes of scholarly inquiry are considered nothing more than community service)
- many/single (how do we rethink collaboration?)
- tools/theories (blurring that boundary)
Tara McPherson is Associate Professor of Gender and Critical Studies; Chair, Division of Critical Studies, School of Cinema-Television, USC; and editor of the forthcoming Vectors, an electronic peer-reviewed journal.
Live from "Scholarship in the Digital Age" Conference at USC: The New Story 12.10.2004, 2:53 PM
Scholarship in the Digital Age
This morning’s presentations got me thinking more about the narrative of the future—the multilayered, accreted story style that John Seely Brown referred to. How is that story going to be told and received? Will the novel become the dinosaur of alphabetic literacy?
Is the new book going to be a game, conversation, multi-layered, multi-authored, highly mutable and never-ending story? Assuming that the story is a conceptual device the culture uses to deconstruct reality, to make meaning, and to create, in some cases, a kind of anthem to rally around, what happens when our traditional narrative structures are replaced? If the single author, plot-driven novel is not the form of the future, then what do you get when you ask a million gamer/authors to shape an epic on the fly? What happens to our perception of reality if our stories are unstable, mutable, and open source?