Listing entries tagged with print
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friday musings on the literary 03.07.2008, 5:07 PM
Faber chief executive Stephen Page's article in yesterday's Guardian outlines some straightforward ways of taking advantage of social media, on-demand business models and so on in the interests of sustaining Faber into the 21st century. Push out content that brings people back to your core product; build communities; leverage print on demand. All fairly basic stuff.
But the comments are intriguing. Granted, Comment Is Free for some reason attracts exceptionally bellicose commenters; but even so the juxtaposition of Faber, a bastion of traditional highbrow literature, with its associations of TS Eliot and the 'aristocracy of culture', with the digital space, has prompted howls of derision entirely out of proportion to the relatively moderate statements in Page's piece.
The idea of using the Web - which, notwithstanding its roots in the military, has a strong bottom-up ideology - to further good old-fashioned 'high culture' is horrifying to one commenter: "Why must *YOU* be the one to create that additional content, when heretofore that content has been (relatively) independently produced? Because you need to control opinion and dictate what the reading public is told about?". To another, Page's attempts to harness the Web for old-fashioned publishing is doomed, because the internet's culture of sharing - via Project Gutenberg and elsewhere - will eventually mean that all books are free.
It seems as though the great commenting public wants it all ways. Faber is an intellectually-snobbish establishment and must give way before the bottom-up populism of digital content. Publishing should keep its grubby corporate hands off the purity of the internet's gift economy. Serious books are found only in independent booksellers. 'Serious writers' use the Web nowadays. The print book is doomed anyway. The print book will always exist. And so on.
What strikes me is that all these points are being muddled and thrown at the same article - often with little discernible reference to the thrust of the piece - because 'quality writing' is a cultural space where different kinds of internet use overlap. The Web is both a means of publishing content, and also a means of promoting content published in other media. But in the discourse of books and the internet the two are often talked about in the same breath, connected - or separated - by debates about quality, democracy and so on.
Page laments about the rise of the mass market, and the burying of 'serious' writing 'under a pile of celebrity biography, cookery and misery memoir'. But the ideology of 'the literary' - gestured at in Page's resolutely highbrow stance - is firmly connected to the tradition of print. Page does not envision a culture mediated solely through the Web, but rather a avision of 'global communities' finding niche interests and sourcing the books that nourish them, cheating the mass market of its final victory over 'serious' culture:
I am not an advocate of the life led online, but as broadband reaches all generations, genders and income brackets, so this will develop usefully. It won't be all of life but it must be a place where niche interests can develop, robbing the mass market of a portion of its control. Literature can thrive in these places.
So publishers must harness the great power of online networks through enriching reader experience. We must provide content that can be searched and browsed, and create extra materials - interviews, podcasts and the like. We mustn't be afraid of inviting readers to be involved. Beyond online retailing, publishers can now build powerful online places to showcase their books through their own and others' websites and build communities around their own areas of particular interest and do so with writers.
'Literature' here evokes a well-rooted (if not always clearly-defined) ideology. When I say 'literary' I mean things fitting a loose cluster of - sometimes self-contradictory - ideas including, but not limited to:
the importance of traceable authorship
the value of 'proper' language
the idea that some kinds of writing are better than others
that some kinds of publishing are better than others
that there is a hierarchy of literary quality
And so on. If examined too closely, these ideas tend to complicate and undermine one another, always just beyond the grasp. But they endure. And they remain close to the core of why many people write. Write, as an intransitive verb (Barthes), because another component of the ideology of 'literary' is that it's a broadcast-only model. If you don't believe me, check out any writers' community and see how much keener would-be Authors are to post their own work than to critique or review that of others. 'Literary' works talk to one another, across generations, but authors talk to readers and readers don't - or at least have never been expected - to talk back. (Feel free, by the way, to roll your own version of this nexus, or to disagree with mine. One of the reasons it's so pervasive as a set of ideas is because it's so damn slippery.)
Recently, in our Arts Council research, Chris and I have interviewed writers, magazines, publishers and proponents of countless other types of literary activity. And it's clear that the writerly world uses the Web in two distinct ways. Firstly, it is - as Page's article describes - an effective way of promoting or streamlining literary activity that is not intrinsically digital. A good example might be the way in which online zines function as a front-line filter for new writing - as it were the widest-mesh filter for literary quality - and for many is often the first taste of publishing.
People use the Web to share work, peer-review their writing, promote activities, sell books and find others with the same interests. But this activity happens almost always with reference to the ideology of the literary - in particular, to the aspirational associations of broadcast-only, hard-copy-printed, selected-and-paid-for-and-edited-by-someone-else-and-hopefully-bought-and-read-by-the-public publication. For those submitting to such magazines, the hope is that they will move up the literary food chain, get published in better known journals, and perhaps - the holy grail - finally after decades of grim and impecunious slogging, be anthologized by Faber.
But while the majority of 'literary' activity online is of this sort, defined always implicitly in relation to the painful journey towards selection for the ultimate validation of print publication, the vast majority of writing online is not. For starters, most of it doesn't self-identify as 'creative': it's informational, discursive, conversational and ephemeral. Then the Web encourages collaborative writing, interrogating the idea of individual voice. Fan fiction, with its lack of interest in 'originality', peer-to-peer social structures and cheerfully hedonic attitude interrogates the idea of 'originality'. Collaborative writing technologies interrogate the idea of authorship; 1337 interrogates 'proper' writing. I have yet to find a collaborative writing platform (try Protagonize, 1000000monkeys or ficlets if you like) that's produced a story I want to reread for its own sake. Ben has written recently on how 'boring' he finds hypertext. The skittish and innovation-hungry blogosphere, while increasingly a source of books is not in terms of the output most natural to it 'literary' in any sense that bears any relation to tradition of such. And when stories are told in a form that makes best use of the internet's boundless, unreliable, multi-platform qualities - think of an alternate reality game - this bears little resemblance to anything that could be assessed in such terms either.
I'm aware that all this could easily be read either as a dismissal of the cultural value of the Web, or else as a call to the world of literature to get back in its box. But I mean neither of those things. What I do want to suggest, though, is that it's not enough to murmur soothingly about how Web is a young form, and that it'll take a while for 'great writers' to emerge. Rather, it strikes me that the ideology of 'the literary' - including that of 'great writers' - is profoundly bound to the physical form of books, and to pretend otherwise is to misunderstand the Web.
Obviously plenty of print books have no literary value. But the ideology of 'literary' is inseparable from print. Authorship is necessary and value-laden at least partly because with no authorship there's no copyright, and no-one gets paid. The novel packs a massive cultural punch - but arguably 60,000 words just happens to make a book that is long enough to sell for a decent price but short enough to turn out reasonably cheaply. Challenge authorship, remove formal constraints - or create new ones: as O'Reilly's guides to creating appealing web content will tell you, your online readership is more likely to lose interest if asked to scroll below the fold. Will the forms stay the same? My money says they won't. And hence much of what's reified as 'literary', online, ceases to carry much weight.
So net-savvy proponents of 'literary' stuff aren't trying to use the Web as a delivery mechanism. Why would you, when there are so many other things it's useful for? Tom Chivers, live poetry promoter and organizer of the London Word Festival, estimates that he spends a third to half of his time as a promoter on online community-building activities. But the 'literary' stuff that he's organizing happens elsewhere; his online activity is vital to promoting his work, but is not the work itself. Similarly, I spent a fascinating hour or so this afternoon talking to Joe Dunthorne, who told me that he was spurred to complete his novel Submarine by the enthusiastic popular response that first drafts of the initial material generated on writers' community ABCTales - an intriguingly twenty-first century way to find the validation you need to push your writing career forward. Tom and Joe are both in their twenties, passionate about writing and confidently net-native. Both use the Web in a way that supports their literary interests. But neither sees the Web as a suitable format for 'final' publication.
This isn't to suggest that there's no room for 'the literary' online. Finding new writers; building a community to peer-review drafts; promoting work; pushing out content to draw people back to a publisher's site to buy books. All these make sense, and present huge opportunities for savvy players. But - and here I realise that this all may be just a (rather lengthy) footnote to Ben's recent piece on Hypertextopia - to attempt to transplant the ideology of the literary onto the Web will fail unless it is done with reference to the print culture that produced it. Otherwise the work will, by literary standards, be judged second-rate, while by geek standards it'll seem top-down, limited and static. Or just boring.
I'll be interested to see how Faber approaches online community-building. Done well, here's no reason why it shouldn't help shift books. But while it might help shift books, or be used to reproduce or share books, the Web is fundamentally other to the philosophy that produces books. Anyone serious about using the Web on its own terms as a delivery mechanism for artistic material needs to abandon print-determined criteria for evaluating quality - literary values - and investigate what the medium is really good for.
10 types of publication 12.07.2007, 2:42 PM
In my other life, in the world of web startups, I often have to contend with people who are steadfastly convinced that everyone lives in the technical future. In this world, everyone blogs, knows what an RSS feed does, has an opinion on Yahoo! Pipes, and will be able to tell me why this list of characterizations of 'the technical future' is already obsolete. And yet Chris, in his introductory post as if:book's co-director, remarks on 'how so much reading promotion cuts literature off from other media, as if anyone still lives solely in a 'world of books'.
This strange inability of two worlds to acknowledge one another reminds me of a classic geek joke:
As Chris pointed out, we all exist in a world of multiple media outlets, which cross-fertilise vigoriously. But what have analog and digital to say about one another? At the first if:book:group meeting in London, Kate Pullinger remarked on how despite writing both print and digital fiction, her last print novel barely even mentioned the internet. Noga Applebaum pointed out how she's devoted an entire PhD thesis to the overwhelmingly negative portrayals of technology in children's fiction. Digital technology seems to appear in analog media only in cursory, fantastical or critical portrayals. Meanwhile, the 'content' of analog media is absorbed (digitized) into this brave new world, whose capacity for infinite reproducibility creates exciting new opportunities to see text in motion while causing a kerfuffle with its touted potential irreversibly to disrupt the established modus vivendi.
The relation between the worlds appears strangely asymmetrical. Print is at best a source of 'content', a sweet and outmoded 'original', sometimes a fetish. Even the lexicon reinforces this.
In a recent meeting, someone spotted me doodling, captured some doodle with his 'analog to digital converter' (ie a camera phone), and mailed it around. But what is it called if this image, thus digitized, is rendered in paper again? Is there a word for that? 'Analogized' doesn't sound right (though I'm going to stick with it for the moment, faute de mieux).
The lack of a functioning concept of 'analogization' implies that we don't need one, that there are 10 ways of publishing: those exploring, or eventually destined for digitization, and those destined for the scrap heap - or at best an obscure warehouse on the outskirts of asprawling megalopolis.
But is this true?
Geeks have a solid history of taking internet references back out into meatspace (pleasingly, the title of the above graphic, from the wonderful xkcd.com, is 'in_ur_reality.png'). But it takes truly mass adoption of the internet to turn re-analogization of internet culture from being a nerdy in-joke to something you might see at Hallowe'en on the New York subway:
Rebecca Lossin, in a thoughtful comment on Chris' recent post about Blake, remarks on "...something that while acknowledged by champions of electronic formats, is not dealt with very thoroughly. Books still seem more important than blogs. Big books seem even more important than little books." Books, especially big books, are still associated with authority, thanks - she continues - to "...an extremely important aspect of reading: the acculturated reader."
"The acculturated reader" sums succinctly what I was gesturing at when I posted about a messageboardful of average internet users debating the cultural significance of bookshelves. These readers, acculturated to the nexus of significations traditionally ascribed to physical books, navigate these significations in daily life but are additionally literate in internet discourse. Unlike many commentators on the apparent binary in play here, they see no competition or contradiction at all.
My introductory post on this blog was about how, as an aspiring (print) writer, I fell accidentally in love with the internet. As I explored the medium, my interest in print publication waned, and my suspicion grew that for a writer who wants her writing to change the world, there are more effective, instant-gratification - and digital - media out there that scratch the verbal itch without requiring the writer to receive 1,005,678 rejection letters and starve in obscurity for decades first (well, not the rejection letters anyway).
But since cocking that snook at the slow-moving world of print, I've spent the year pondering the relation between analog and digital writing. And I've concluded that there are more than 10 ways of publishing; that they are not in opposition to one another; and that a new generation of 'acculturated readers' is emerging that takes on board both the cultural significance of books and also the affordances of the internet, uses each tactically according to the kinds of writing/reading each facilitates best, and is beginning to explore the movement of content not just from analog to digital but also back to analog again.
So here's a beautiful example of a symbiosis of print and digital media, come full circle. BibliOdyssey is a gloriously eccentric blog dedicated to obscure, intriguing, unusual or visually stunning print art. Today I learned that the pick of BibliOdyssey is to be published as a physical book.
This trajectory - books that originate in blogs - pulls away from the narrative of ineluctable digitization that preoccupies much of the debate around the relation between print and the internet. Of course, it's not new (remember Jessica Cutler?). But the BibliOdyssey book narrative is especially delicious (should that be del.icio.us?), as the material in the book consists of print images that were digitized, uploaded into scores of obscure online archives, collected by the mysterious PK on the BibliOdyssey blog and then re-analogized as a book. It's an anthology of content that has come on a strange journey from print, through digitization and back to print again. So it's possible to observe these images in multiple cultural contexts and investigate the response of 'the acculturated reader' in each. The question is: what does the material gain or lose in which medium?
The post-bit atom fascination of an 'original', a rare object, is powerful. But once digitized and uploaded into public-access archives (however byzantine, in practice, these are to navigate) this layer of interest is stripped, and value must be found elsewhere. Quirkiness; novelty; art-historical interest; the fleeting delight of stumbling upon something visually stunning whilst idly browsing. But the infinite reproducibility of the image means that it's only of transactional value in a momentary, conversational sense: I send you that link to an amusing engraving, and our relationship is strengthened if you grasp why I sent that particular one and respond in kind.
The overall value of the blog, then, is in its function as dense repository of links that can be used thus. So what is the value of the images again once re-analogized? In the case of BibliOdyssey, it's a beautiful coffee-table book, delightful in itself and that archly foregrounds its status as hip-to-the-internets.
Perhaps, a century down the line, when climate change has killed off the internet and we're all living in candlelit huts, it'll be a scarce and precious resource hinting at times gone by. But however the future pans out, right now it's both evidence of the dialogic relation of analog and digital media, and also a palimpsest offering glimpses of the shifting signification of cultural content when published in different forms. Texts, images or collections of such aren't just sitting there waiting to be digitized: once digitized, they take on new life, and increasingly creep back out into the analog world to glue captions to your cats.
cooking the books 11.08.2007, 11:44 AM
I've been digging through old episodes of Black Books, a relatively little-known comedy series from the UK's Channel 4. The show is set in a second-hand bookshop, run by Bernard Black, a chainsmoking, alcoholic Irishman (Dylan Moran) who shuts the shop at strange hours, swears at customers and becomes enraged when people actually want to buy his books.
It started me thinking about something Nick Currie said at the second Really Modern Library meeting. We were talking about mass digitization and the apparently growing appeal of 'the original', the 'real thing'. The feel of a printed page; the smell of a first edition and so on. He mentioned a previous riff of his about 'the post-bit atom' - the one last piece of any analog cultural object that can't be digitized - and which, in an age of mass digitisation, becomes fetishized to precisely the degree that the digitized object becomes a commodity.
So Black Books struck me as (besides being horribly funny) strangely poignant. While acerbic, in many ways it's full of nostalgia for a kind of independent bookshop that's rapidly disappearing. Bernard Black would be considerably less endearing if he was my only chance of getting the book I wanted; but that in the age of Amazon and Waterstone's, he represents a post-bit atom of bibliophilia, and as such is ripe for fetishization.
the paper e-book 06.29.2007, 8:40 AM
Manolis Kelaidis, a designer at the Royal College of Art in London, has found a way to make printed pages digitally interactive. His "blueBook" prototype is a paper book with circuits embedded in each page and with text printed with conductive ink. When you touch a "linked" word on the page and your finger completes a circuit, sending a signal to a processor in the back cover which communicates by Bluetooth with a nearby computer, bringing up information on the screen.
(image from booktwo.org)
I've heard from a number of people that Kelaidis brought down the house last week at O'Reilly's "Tools of Change for Publishing" conference in San Jose. Andrea Laue, who blogs at jusTaText, did a nice write-up:
He asked the audience if, upon encountering an obscure reference or foreign word on the page of a book, we would appreciate the option of touching the word on the page and being taken (on our PC) to an online resource that would identify or define the unfamiliar word. Then he made it happen. Standing O.
Yes, he had a printed and bound book which communicated with his laptop. He simply touched the page, and the laptop reacted. It brought up pictures of the Mona Lisa. It translated Chinese. It played a piece of music. Kelaidis suggested that a library of such books might cross-refer, i.e. touching a section in one book might change the colors of the spines of related books on your shelves. Imagine.
So there you have it. A networked book - in print. Amazing.
It's not surprising to hear that the O'Reilly crowd, filled with anxious publishers, was ecstatic about the blueBook. Here was tangible proof that print can be meaningfully integrated with the digital world without sacrificing its essential formal qualities: the love child of the printed book and the companion CD-ROM. And since so much of the worry in publishing is really about the crumbling of business models and only secondarily about the essential nature of books or publishing, it was no doubt reassuring to imagine something like the blueBook as the digital book of the future: a physical object that can be reliably bought and sold (and which, with all those conductors, circuits and processors involved, would be exceedingly difficult to copy).
Kelaidis' invention definitely sounds wonderful, but is it a plausible vision of things to come? I suppose electronic paper of all kinds, pulp and polymer, will inevitably get better and cheaper over time. How transient and historically contingent is our attachment to paper? There's a compelling argument to be made (Gary Frost makes it, and we frequently debate it around the table here) that, in spite of all the new possibilities opened up by digital technologies, the paper book is a unique ergonomic fit for the human hand and mind, and, moreover, that its "bounded" nature allows for a kind of reading that people will want to keep distinct from the more fragmentary and multi-directional forms of reading we do on computers and online. (That's certainly my personal reading strategy these days.) Perhaps, with something like the blueBook, it would be possible to have the best of both worlds.
But what about accessibility? What about trees? By the time e-paper is a practical reality, will attachment to print have definitively ebbed? Will we be used to a greater degree of interactivity (the ability not only to link text but to copy, edit and recombine it, and to mix it directly, on the "page," with other media) than even the blueBook can provide?
Subsequent thought:A discussion about this on an email list I subscribe to reminded me of the intellectual traps that I and many others fall into when speculating about future technologies: the horse race (which technology will win?), the either/or question. What do I really think? The future of the book is not monolithic but rather a multiplicity of things - the futures of the book - and I expect (and hope) that well-crafted hyrbrid works like Kelaidis' will be among those futures./thought
We just found out that next week Kelaidis will be spending a full day at the Institute so we'll be able to sift through some of these questions in person.
printing out the web 04.10.2007, 12:01 AM
That's what Hewlett-Packard is hoping to do. The NYT explains.
HP recently acquired a small online photo-printing company named Tabblo, which has been developing software that will automatically reformat any web page, in any layout, to be easily printable. HP's goal is to use this technology to create a browser plugin, as ubiquitous as Flash and Java, that could become "the printing engine of the web." Let's hope, for the sake of the world's forests, that a decent electronic reader comes out first.
(Thanks, Peter Brantley.)
not just websites 03.27.2007, 6:43 PM
At a meeting of the Interaction Designer's Association (IxDA) one of the audience members, during the Q&A, asked "Why are we all making websites?"
What a fantastic question. We primarily consider the digital at the Institute, and the way that discourse is changing as it is presented on screen and in the network. But the question made me reevaluate why a website is the form I immediately think of for any new project. I realized that I have a strong predilection for websites because I love the web, and I know what I'm doing when it comes to sites. But that doesn't mean a site is always the right form for every project. It prompted me to reconsider two things: the benefit of Sophie books, and the position of print in light of the network, and what transformations we can make to the printed page.
First, the Sophie book. It's not a website, but it is part of the network. During the development and testing of a shared, networked book, we discovered that there a particular feeling of intimacy associated with sharing Sophie book. Maybe it's our own perspective on Sophie that created the sensation, but sharing a Sophie book was not like giving out a url. It had more meaning than that. The web seemed like a wide-open parade ground compared to the cabin-like warmth of reading a Sophie book across the table from Ben. Sophie books have borders, and there was a sense of boundedness that even tightly designed websites lack. I'm not sure where this leads yet, but it's a wonderfully humane aspect of the networked book that we haven't had a chance to see until now.
On to print. One idea for print that I find fascinating, though deeply problematic, is the combination of an evolving digital text with print-on-demand (POD) in a series of rapidly versioned print runs. A huge issue comes up right away: there is potentially disastrous tension between a static text (the printed version) and the evolving digital version. Printing a text that changes frequently will leave people with different versions. When we talked about this at the Institute, the concern around the table was that any printed version would be out of date as soon as the toner hit the page. And, since a book is supposed to engender conversation, this book, with radical differences between versions, would actually work against that purpose. But I actually think this is a benefit from our point of view—it emphasizes the value of the ongoing conversation in a medium that can support it (digital), and highlights the limitations of a printed text. At the same time it provides a permanent and tangible record of a moment in time. I think there is value in that, like recording a live concert. It's only a nascent idea for an experiment, but I think it will help us find the fulcrum point between print and the network.
As a rider, there is a design element with every document (digital or print) that makes the most of the originating process and creates a beautiful final product. So a short, but difficult question: What is the ideal form for a rapidly versioned document?
transmitting live from cambridge: wikimania 2006 08.04.2006, 1:29 PM
I'm at the Wikimania 2006 conference at Harvard Law School, from where I'll be posting over the course of the three-day conference (schedule). The big news so far (as has already been reported in a number of blogs) came from this morning's plenary address by Jimmy Wales, when he announced that Wikipedia content was going to be included in the Hundred Dollar Laptop. Exactly what "Wikipedia content" means isn't clear to me at the moment – Wikipedia content that's not on a network loses a great deal of its power – but I'm sure details will filter out soon.
This move is obvious enough, perhaps, but there are interesting ramifications of this. Some of these were brought out during the audience question period during the next panel that I attended, in which Alex Halavis talked about issues of evaluating Wikipedia's topical coverage, and Jim Giles, the writer of the Nature study comparing the Wikipedia & the Encyclopædia Britannica. The subtext of both was the problem of authority and how it's perceived. We measure the Wikipedia against five hundred years of English-language print culture, which the Encyclopædia Britannica represents to many. What happens when the Wikipedia is set loose in a culture that has no print or literary tradition? The Wikipedia might assume immense cultural importance. The obvious point of comparison is the Bible. One of the major forces behind creating Unicode – and fonts to support the languages used in the developing world – is SIL, founded with the aim of printing the Bible in every language on Earth. It will be interesting to see if Wikipedia gets as far.