Listing entries tagged with Transliteracies
the times they are a-changin' 11.14.2005, 4:18 PM
Knight Ridder Inc., the second largest newspaper conglomerate in the U.S., is under intense pressure from its more powerful investors to start selling off papers. The New York Times reports that the company is now contemplating "strategic alternatives." Consider the following in terms of what Bob is saying one post down about time. With the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and the internet, news is adopting a different time signature.
It is unclear who may want to buy Knight Ridder. Newspaper companies, though still immensely profitable, have a murky future that is clouded by a shrinking readership and weak advertising revenue, both of which are being leeched away by the Internet.
...In the six moths that ended in September, newspaper circulation nationally fell 2.6 percent daily and 3.1 percent on Sundays, the biggest decline in any comparable period since 1991, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. All in all, 45.2 million people subscribed to 1,457 reporting papers, down from a peak of 63.3 million people and 1,688 newspapers in 1984.
By comparison, 47 million people visited newspaper Web sites, about a third of United States Internet users, according to the circulation bureau.
The time it takes to read the newspaper in print -- a massive quilt, chopped up and parceled (I believe Gary Frost said something about this) -- you might say it leads to a different sort of understanding of the world around you. It seems to me that the newspapers that will last longest in print are the Sunday editions, aimed at a leisurely audience, taking stock of the week that has just ended and preparing for the one about to commence. On Sundays, the world spreads out before you in print, and perhaps you make a point of taking some time away from the computer (at least, this might be the case for hybrid monkeys like me who are more or less at home with both print and digital). The briskness of discourse on the web and in popular culture does not afford the time to engage with big ideas. Bob talks, not without irony, about "tithing to the church of big ideas." Set aside the time to engage with world-changing ideas, willfully turn away from the screen.
The persistence of the Sunday print edition, if it comes to pass, might in some way reflect this kind of tithing, this intentional slowing down.
Posted by ben vershbow at 04:18 PM
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tags: Mediated Existence , Online , Publishing, Broadcast, and the Press , Transliteracies , internet , journalism , knight_ridder , media , news , newspaper , sunday , web
it's about TIME 11.14.2005, 6:38 AM
on tuesday Tom De Zengotita came over to williamsburg to have lunch with the insitute. Tom teaches philosophy at Dalton and NYU and recently published a terrific book, Mediated, about modern media's profound effects on the human psyche and culture.
we invited Tom to lunch to discuss a new project we're thinking about — how to use the web to encourage discussion about the BIG QUESTIONS facing humanity. we'll write much more about this soon, but i couldn't wait to mention one point that Tom made that's really got me thinking.
Tom said "It's about TIME." if we are going to be serious about confronting big, first order questions, we have to be willing to put in the time to go deeply. we actually have to read the material; we have to wrestle with the ideas; we have to follow through.
this of course runs counter to our current mediated existence which favors shallow surfing over digging deep. i wonder if a sea-change is possible?
more bad news for print news 11.09.2005, 3:32 PM
These figures (scroll down) aren't pretty, but keep in mind that they convey more than a simple flight of readership. Part of it is a conscious decision by newspapers to cut out costly promotional efforts and to re-focus on core circulation. But the overall trend, and the fact that the core is likely to shrink as it grows older, can't be denied.
Things could change very suddenly if investors in the big newspaper conglomerates start demanding the sale or outright dismantling of print operations. The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday of pressure building at Knight Ridder Inc., where the more powerful shareholders, dismayed with the continued tumbling of stock values, seem to be urging things toward a reckoning, some even welcoming the idea of a hostile takeover. The Times: "...if shareholders force the sale or the dismantling of Knight Ridder, few in the newspaper industry expect the revolt to stop there."
The pre-Baby Boom generation typically subscribed to several newspapers, something that changed when the Boomers came of age. While competition with the web may be a major factor in recent upheavals, there are generational tectonics at work as well, habits formed long ago that are only now expressing themselves in the marketplace. Even if newspapers start to phase out print and focus entirely on the web, the erosion is likely to continue. It's not just the distribution model that changes, but the whole conceptual framework.
Ray, who just joined us here at the institute, was talking today about how online social networks are totally changing the way the younger generation gets its news. It's much more about the network of friends, the circulation of news from diverse sources through the collective filter, and not about your trusted daily paper. So the whole idea of a centralized news organization is shifting and perhaps dissolving.
From the L.A. Times:
Average weekday circulation of the nation's 20 biggest newspapers for the six-month period ended Sept. 30 and percentage change from a year earlier:
1. USA Today, 2,296,335, down 0.59%
2. Wall Street Journal, 2,083,660, down 1.1%
3. New York Times, 1,126,190, up 0.46%
4. Los Angeles Times, 843,432, down 3.79%
5. New York Daily News, 688,584, down 3.7%
6. Washington Post, 678,779, down 4.09%
7. New York Post, 662,681, down 1.74%
8. Chicago Tribune, 586,122, down 2.47%
9. Houston Chronicle, 521,419, down 6.01%*
10. Boston Globe, 414,225, down 8.25%
11. Arizona Republic, 411,043, down 0.54%*
12. Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., 400,092, up 0.01%
13. San Francisco Chronicle, 391,681, down 16.4%*
14. Star Tribune of Minneapolis-St. Paul, 374,528, down 0.26%
15. Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 362,426, down 8.73%
16. Philadelphia Inquirer, 357,679, down 3.16%
17. Detroit Free Press, 341,248, down 2.18%
18. Plain Dealer, Cleveland, 339,055, down 4.46%
19. Oregonian, Portland, 333,515, down 1.24%
20. San Diego Union-Tribune, 314,279, down 6.24%
pages à la carte 11.04.2005, 7:20 AM
The New York Times reports on programs being developed by both Amazon and Google that would allow readers to purchase online access to specific sections of books -- say, a single recipe from a cookbook, an individual chapter from a how-to manual, or a particular short story or poem from an anthology. Such a system would effectively "unbind" books into modular units that consumers patch into their online reading, just as iTunes blew apart the integrity of the album and made digital music all about playlists. We become scrapbook artists.
It seems Random House is in on this too, developing a micropayment model and consulting closely with the two internet giants. Pages would sell for anywhere between five and 25 cents each.
Posted by ben vershbow at 07:20 AM
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tags: Publishing, Broadcast, and the Press , Transliteracies , amazon , books , e-commerce , google , google_print , literature , media_consumption , publishing , randomhouse , reading
transliterature: can humanism transform the web? 10.25.2005, 3:03 PM
For decades now, hypertext guru Ted Nelson has slipped in and out of public awareness, often left for dead or permanently exiled in Xanadu, only to re-emerge suddenly in a wonderful burst of curmudgeonly dissent. A recent Slashdot thread discusses his latest project, or more accurately, the latest stage in his ongoing quest: transliterature, "a humanist format for re-usable documents and media," or, an alternative to the constricting protocols of the world wide web. What exactly will this new format entail? It's hard to tell. But Nelson's plea is worth heeding:
The tekkies have hijacked literature- with the best intentions, of course!-) - but now the humanists have to get it back. Nearly every form of electronic document- Word, Acrobat, HTML, XML- represents some business or ideological agenda. Many believe Word and Acrobat are out to entrap users; HTML and XML enact a very limited kind of hypertext with great internal complexity. All imitate paper and (internally) hierarchy. I propose a different document agenda: I believe we need new electronic documents which are transparent, public, principled, and freed from the traditions of hierarchy and paper. In that case they can be far more powerful, with deep and rich new interconnections and properties- able to quote dynamically from other documents and buckle sideways to other documents, such as comments or successive versions; able to present third-party links; and much more. Most urgently: if we have different document structures we can build a new copyright realm, where everything can be freely and legally quoted and remixed in any amount without negotiation.
Nelson is always given a nod as the coiner of "hypertext", but his other concepts -- "transclusion", "virtual rearrangement", "clinks," for example -- are largely dismissed, or simply unknown to most people. But elements of his thinking can be observed far and wide in some of the emerging practices -- blogging, wikis, APIs -- of what people are calling "Web 2.0", or, the web as operating system. Over the past few years, the web has transformed from an interlinked series of brochures into a massive hypertext conversation, a platform in which we are increasingly able to weave, quote and track back to other documents. This is at least in the neighborhood of what Nelson is talking about.
Granted, the microeconomy of quotation (transclusion) that Nelson envisions has not yet materialized, but that may only be because he is thinking so far ahead of his time. Staying focused on the present, it's worth taking a look at what is developing with online advertising. Keyword ads, Google's "AdSense", Amazon's web services, and even voluntary donation models like PayPal tip jars -- couldn't you say these are the humble foundations of an online micropayment economy? The explosion of electronic self-publishing has not as yet produced an equivelant commercial rigging, but with blogging now accepted as an important medium, that could soon change.
The next generation of publishing software may include a more robust infrastructure that could support some kind of quotation or cross-referencing economy. Right now, the few blogs that make money do so by encrusting themselves with ads. Advertisers will buy space if the site can demonstrate impressive traffic stats. But doesn't this all sort of skirt around the edge of what makes blogging exciting and influential? What if talented bloggers could earn money when significant portions of their writing were quoted?
You can already quote images, video and sound in the way Nelson dreams of quoting text: by loading it remotely, i.e. from another location on the internet. Of course, there is no microtransaction infrastructure in place. It's much more roughshod than that. You simply pull html from the source site, or embed the file's address in a media player, and plug it in your page. That's how I've transcluded John Ashbery reading his poem "The Tennis Court Oath" (source - ubuweb):
There's still a long way to go, but the points of contact with Nelson's theories are many. For me, it's his humanist philosophy, more than the fuzzy mechanics of his proposed system, that is most inspiring. There's a generosity, an understanding of the interdependency of form and content, that is conspicuously absent in the prevailing tekkie culture. Perhaps the thinker closest of kin to Nelson was Jef Raskin, whose work on the humane interface is founded on many of the same convictions about usability and connectedness. I also find there's a kind of poetry in Nelson's dream of a literary hypertext economy, captured not only in his writings but in his frayed, manic illustrations (transquoted here):
I think he's a kindred spirit of the institute too. Here's Nelson on electronic literature (sadly, not transquoted, just cut-and-paste):
What is literature? Literature is (among other things) the study and design of documents, their structure and connections. Therefore today's electronic documents are literature, electronic literature, and the question is what electronic literature people really need.
Electronic literature should belong to all the world, not just be hoarded by a priesthood, and it should do what people need in order to organize and present human ideas with the least difficulty in the richest possible form.
A document is not necessarily a simulation of paper. In the most general sense, a document is a package of ideas created by human minds and addressed to human minds, intended for the furtherance of those ideas and those minds. Human ideas manifest as text, connections, diagrams and more: thus how to store them and present them is a crucial issue for civilization.
The furtherance of the ideas, and the furtherance of the minds that present them and take them in, are the real objectives. And so what is important in documents is the expression, reception and re-use of ideas. Connections, annotations, and most especially re-use-- the traceable flow of content among documents and their versions-- must be our central objectives, not the simulation of paper.
Posted by ben vershbow at 03:03 PM
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tags: Transliteracies , design_curmudgeonry , digital_literature , ebooks , history_of_interactive_media , html , hypertext , internet , literature , ted_nelson , transclusion , transliterature , web , web_2.0 , xanadu
google is sued... again 10.20.2005, 8:08 AM
This time by publishers. Penguin Group USA, McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education, Simon & Schuster and John Wiley & Sons. The gripe is the same as with the Authors' Guild, which filed suit last month alleging "massive copyright infringement." Publishers fear a dangerous precedent is set by Google's scanning of books to construct what amounts to a giant card catalogue on the web. Google claims "fair use" (see rationale), again pointing out that for copyrighted works only tiny "snippets" of text are displayed around keywords (though perhaps this is not yet fully in effect - I was searching around in this book and was able to look at quite a lot).
Google calls the publishers' suit "near-sighted." And it probably is. The benefit to readers and researchers will be tremendous, as will (Google is eager to point out) the exposure for authors and publishers. But Google Print is undoubtedly an earth-shaking program. Look at the reaction in Europe, where alarm bells rung by France warned of cultural imperialism, an english-drenched web. Heads of state and culture convened and initial plans for a European digital library have been drawn up.
What the transatlantic flap makes clear is that Google's book scanning touches a deep nerve, and the argument over intellectual property, signficant though it is, distracts from a more profound human anxiety -- an anxiety about the form of culture and the shape of thoughts. If we try to grope back through the millennia, we can find find an analogy in the invention of writing.
The shift from oral to written language froze speech into stable strings that could be transmitted and stored over distance and time. This change not only affected the modes of communication, it dramatically refigured the cognitive makeup of human beings (as McLuhan, Ong and others have described). We are currently going through another such shift. The digital takes the freezing medium of text and throws it back into fluidity. Like the melting of polar ice caps, it unsettles equilibriums, changes weather patterns. It is a lot to adjust to, and we wonder if our great-great-grandchildren will literally think differently from us.
But in spite of this disorienting new fluidity, we still have print, we still have the book. And actually, Google Print in many ways affirms this since its search returns will point to print retailers and brick-and-mortar libraries. Yet the fact remains that the canon is being scanned, with implications we can't fully perceive, and future uses we can't fully predict, and so it is understandable that many are unnerved. The ice is really beginning to melt.
In Phaedrus, Plato expresses a similar anxiety about the invention of writing. He tells the tale of Theuth, an Egyptian deity who goes around spreading the new technology, and one day encounters a skeptic in King Thamus:
...you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a power opposite to that which they in fact possess. For this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it; they will not exercise their memories, but, trusting in external, foreign marks, they will not bring things to remembrance from within themselves. You have discovered a remedy not for memory, but for reminding. You offer your students the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom. They will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
As I type, I'm exhibiting wisdom without the reality. I've read Plato, but nowhere near exhaustively. Yet I can slash and weave texts on the web in seconds, throw together a blog entry and send it screeching into the commons. And with Google Print I can get the quote I need and let the rest of the book rot behind the security fence. This fluidity is dangerous because it makes connections so easy. Do we know what we are connecting?
Posted by ben vershbow at 08:08 AM
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tags: Copyright and Copyleft , Libraries, Search and the Web , Transliteracies , copyright , google , literacy , mcluhan , ong , plato , publishing , search , web
a book is not a text: the noise made by people 09.23.2005, 6:13 PM
Momus – a.k.a. Nick Currie, electronic folk musician, Wired columnist, and inveterate blogger – has posted an interesting short video on his blog, Click Opera. He's teaching a class on electronic music composition & narrative for Benneton's Fabrica in Venice. His video encourages students to listen for the environmental sounds that they can make with electronic instruments: not the sounds that they're designed to make, but the incidental noises that they make – the clicking of keys on a Powerbook, for example – that we usually ignore as being just that, incidental. We ignore the fact that these noises are made directly by people, without the machine's intercession.
Momus's remarks put me in mind of something said by Jerome McGann at the Transliteracies conference in Santa Barbara last June – maybe the most important thing that was said at the conference, even if it didn't warrant much attention at the time. What we tend to forget when talking about reading, he said, was that books – even regular old print books – are full of metadata. (Everybody was talking about metadata in June, like they were talking about XML a couple of years ago – it was the buzzword that everyone knew they needed to have an opinion about. If not, they swung the word about feverishly in the hopes of hitting something.) McGann qualified his remarks by referring to Ezra Pound's idea of melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia – specific qualities in language that make it evocative:
. . . you can still charge words with meaning mainly in three ways, called phanopoeia, melopoeia, logopoeia. You can use a word to throw a visual image on to the reader's imagination, or you charge it by sound, or you use groups of words to do this.
(The ABC of Reading, p.37) In other words, words aren't always just words: when used well, they refer beyond themselves. This process of referring, McGann was claiming, is a sort of metadata, even if technologists don't think about it this way: the way in which words are used provides the attuned reader with information about their composition beyond the meaning of the words themselves.
But thinking about McGann's comments in terms of book design might suggest wider implications for the future of the book. Let's take a quick excursion to the past of the book. Once it was true that you couldn't judge a book by its cover. Fifty years ago, master book designer Jan Tschichold opined about book jackets:
A jacket is not an actual part of the book. The essential portion is the inner book, the block of pages . . . [U]nless he is a collector of book jackets as samples of graphic art, the genuine reader discards it before he begins.
("Jacket and Wrapper," in The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design) Tschichold's statement seems bizarre today: nobody throws away book jackets, especially not collectors. Why? Because today we take it for granted that we judge books by their covers. The cover has been subsumed into our idea of the book: it's a signifying part of the book. By looking at a cover, you, the prospective book-buyer, can immediately tell if a recently-published piece of fiction is meant to be capital-L Literature, Nora Roberts-style fluff, or somewhere in between. Contextual details like the cover are increasingly important.
Where does the electronic book fit into this, if at all? Apologists for the electronic book are constantly about the need for an ideal device as the be-all and end-all: when we have e-Ink or e-Paper and a well-designed device which can be unrolled like a scroll, electronic books will suddenly take off. This isn't true, and I think it has something to do with the way people read books, something that hasn't been taken into account by soi-disant futurists, and something like what Jerome McGann was gesturing at. A book is not a text. It's more than a text. It's a text and a collection of information around that text, some of which we consciously recognize and some of which we don't.
A few days ago, I excoriated Project Gutenberg's version of Tristram Shandy. This is why: a library of texts is not the same thing as a library of books. A quick example: download, if you wish, the plain text or HTML version of Tristram Shandy, which you can get here. Look at the opening pages of the HTML version. Recognizing that this particular book needs to be more than plain old seven-bit ASCII, they've included scans of the engravings that appear in the book (some by William Hogarth, like this; a nice explication of this quality of the book can be found here). What's interesting to me about these illustrations that Project Gutenberg is how poorly done these are. These are – let's not beat around the bush – bad scans. The contrast is off; things that should be square look rectangular. The Greek on the title page is illegible.
Let's go back to Momus listening to the unintentional noises made by humans using machines: what we have here is the debris of another noisy computer, the noise of a key that we weren't supposed to notice. Something about the way these scans is dated in a very particular way – half of the internet looked like this in 1997, before everyone learned to use Photoshop properly. Which is when, in fact, this particular document was constructed. In this ugliness we have, unintentionally, humanity. John Ruskin (not a name often conjured with when talking about the future) declared that one of the hallmarks of the Gothic as an architectural style was a perceived "savageness": it was not smoothed off like his Victorian contemporaries would have liked. But "savageness", for him, was no reproach: instead, it was a trace of the labor that went into it, a trace of the work's humanity. Perfection, for him, was inhumane: humanity
. . . was not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them . .
(The Stones of Venice) What we have here is, I think, something similar. While Project Gutenberg is probably ashamed of the quality of these graphics, there's something to be appreciated here. This is a text on its way to becoming a book; it unintentionally reveals its human origins, the labor of the anonymous worker who scanned in the illustrations. It's a step in the right direction, but there's a great distance still to go.
Posted by dan visel at 06:13 PM
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tags: Transliteracies , book , design_curmudgeonry , digital_literature , ezrapound , gutenberg , jeromemcgann , johnruskin , logopoeia , mcgann , melopoeia , momus , phanopoeia , ruskin , text , tschichold
convergence sighting: the multi-channel tv screen 08.30.2005, 2:20 PM
Several new "interactive television" services are soon to arrive that offer "mosaic" views of multiple channels, drawing TV ever nearer to full adoption of the browser, windows, and aggregator paradigms of the web (more in WSJ). It seems that once television is sufficiently like the web, it will simply be the web, or one province thereof.
Posted by ben vershbow at 02:20 PM
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tags: Online , Publishing, Broadcast, and the Press , TV , Transliteracies , aggregator , broadcast , browser , cable , interactive , media , network , ondemand , technology , television , video , web , windows
the blog as a record of reading 08.22.2005, 2:11 PM
An excellent essay in last month's Common-Place, "Blogging in the Early Republic" by W. Caleb McDaniel, examines the historical antecedents of the present blogging craze, looking not to the usual suspects - world shakers like Martin Luther and Thomas Paine - but to an obscure 19th century abolitionist named Henry Clarke Wright. Wright was a prolific writer and tireless lecturer on a variety of liberal causes. He was also "an inveterate journal keeper," filling over a hundred diaries through the course of his life. And on top of that, he was an avid reader, the diaries serving as a record of his voluminous consumption. McDaniel writes:
While private, the journals were also public. Wright mailed pages and even whole volumes to his friends or read them excerpts from the diaries, and many pages were later published in his numerous books. Thus, as his biographer Lewis Perry notes, in the case of Wright, "distinctions between private and public, between diaries and published writings, meant little."
Wright's journaling habit is interesting not for any noticeable impact it had on the politics or public discourse of his day; nor (at least for our purposes) for anything particularly memorable he may have written. Nor is it interesting for the fact that he was an active journal-keeper, since the practice was widespread in his time. Wright's case is worth revisiting because it is typical -- typical not just of his time, but of ours. It tells a strikingly familiar story: the story of a reader awash in a flood of information.
Wright, in his lifetime, experienced an incredible proliferation of printed materials, especially newspapers. The print revolution begun in Germany 400 years before had suddenly gone into overdrive.
The growth of the empire of newspapers had two related effects on the practices of American readers. First, the new surplus of print meant that there was more to read. Whereas readers in the colonial period had been intensive readers of selected texts like the Bible and devotional literature, by 1850 they were extensive readers, who could browse and choose from a staggering array of reading choices. Second, the shift from deference to democratization encouraged individual readers to indulge their own preferences for particular kinds of reading, preferences that were exploited and targeted by antebellum publishers. In short, readers had more printed materials to choose from, more freedom to choose, and more printed materials that were tailored to their choices.
Wright's journaling was his way of metabolizing this deluge of print, and his story draws attention to a key aspect of blogging that is often overshadowed by the more popular narrative - that of the latter-day pamphleteer, the lone political blogger chipping away at mainstream media hegemony. The fact is that most blogs are not political. The star pundits that have risen to prominence in recent years are by no means representative of the world's roughly 15 million bloggers. Yet there is one crucial characteristic that is shared by all of them - by the knitting bloggers, the dog bloggers, the macrobiotic cooking bloggers, along with the Instapundits and Daily Koses: they are all records of reading.
The blog provides a means of processing and selecting from an overwhelming abundance of written matter, and of publishing that record, with commentary, for anyone who cares to read it. In some cases, these "readings" become influential in themselves, and multiple readers engage in conversations across blogs. But treating blogging first as a reading practice, and second as its own genre of writing, political or otherwise, is useful in forming a more complete picture of this new/old phenomenon. To be sure, today's abundance makes the surge in 18th century printing look like a light sprinkle. But the fundamental problem for readers is no different. Fortunately, blogs provide us with that much more power to record and annotate our readings in a way that can be shared with others. We return to Bob's observation that something profound is happening to our media consumption patterns.
As McDaniel puts it:
...readers, in a culture of abundant reading material, regularly seek out other readers, either by becoming writers themselves or by sharing their records of reading with others. That process, of course, requires cultural conditions that value democratic rather than deferential ideals of authority. But to explain how new habits of reading and writing develop, those cultural conditions matter as much—perhaps more—than economic or technological innovations. As Tocqueville knew, the explosion of newspapers in America was not just a result of their cheapness or their means of production, any more than the explosion of blogging is just a result of the fact that free and user-friendly software like Blogger is available. Perhaps, instead, blogging is the literate person’s new outlet for an old need. In Wright’s words, it is the need "to see more of what is going on around me." And in print cultures where there is more to see, it takes reading, writing, and association in order to see more.
Posted by ben vershbow at 02:11 PM
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tags: Publishing, Broadcast, and the Press , Transliteracies , article , blog , blogging , blogs , book , books , diary , ebook , essay , journal , journalism , media , newspaper , pamphleteer , paperless , print , reading , thomas_paine
how the web changes your reading habits 06.24.2005, 2:17 PM
An article in yesterday's Christian Science Monitor looks at two research projects currently underway in Palo Alto, California - one at Xerox PARC, the other at Stanford. Both are building tools and devising methods to improve online reading, albeit by different approaches. The PARC project is developing ScentHighlights, an "enhanced skimming" function based on keywords and the associative processes of the human brain. On paper, we highlight important passages, or attach sticky notes, to make them more readily retrievable later on when we're re-reading, studying, or compiling notes. The PARC researchers are taking this a few steps further, exploiting the unique properties (and addressing the unique challenges) of the online reading environment. With ScentHighlights, the computer observes what the reader is highlighting and selects other passages that it thinks might be relevant or useful:
We perform the conceptual highlighting by computing what conceptual keywords are related to each other via word co-occurrence and spreading activation. Spreading activation is a cognitive model developed in psychology to simulate how memory chunks and conceptual items are retrieved in our brain.
While the PARC team is focused on deepening the often fractured experience of reading online, where the amount of text is overwhelming, the Stanford project is experimenting with a method for sustained reading in an environment that can barely handle text at all: the tiny screens of cell phones and mobile devices. Using a technique called RSVP (Rapid Serial Visual Presentation), BuddyBuzz flashes words on the screen one at a time. It takes some getting used to, but apparently, readers can absorb up to 1,000 words per minute. Speed is adjustable, and the program is already set to make the tiny, natural pauses that come at commas and periods. The initial release of BuddyBuzz will syndicate stories from Reuters, CNET and a handful of popular blogs.
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.
blog reading: what's left behind 06.17.2005, 5:29 PM
The basement of the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge sells used books. There's an enormous market for used books in Cambridge, and anything interesting that winds up there tends to be immediately snapped up. The past few times I've gone to look at the fiction shelves, I've been struck by a big color-coded section in the middle that doesn't change - a dozen or so books from Jerry Jenkins &Tim LaHaye's phenomenally popular Left Behind series, a shotgun wedding of Tom Clancy and the Book of Revelation carried out over thirteen volumes (so far). About half the books on the shelf are the first volume. None of them look like they've been read. They're quite cheap.
Since the books started coming out (in 1996), there's been an almost complete absence of discussion of the books in the mainstream media, save the occasional outburst about this lack of discussion ("These books have sold 60,000,000 copies! And nobody we know reads them!"). I suspect my attitude towards the books is similar to that of many blue-state readers: we know these books are enormously popular in the middle of the country, and it's clearly our cultural/political duty to find out why . . . but flipping through the first one in the basement of the Harvard Bookstore, I'm stricken by the wooden prose. I can't read this. Also, there's the matter of time: I still haven't finished Proust. The same sort of thing seems to happen to other civic-minded would-be readers.
And then, on the Internet, Fred Clark's blog Slacktivist gallops in to save the day. For the past year and a half, Mr. Clark has been engaged in a close reading of the series, explicating the text and the issues it raises in an increasingly fundamentalist America. This project isn't a full-time project; his blog has other commentary, but once a week, he stops to analyze a few pages of Left Behind. It helps that Mr. Clark is a fine writer; his commentary is funny, personal - recollections from a Christian childhood pop up from time to time - and he has enough of a theological background to elucidate telling details and the history behind Jenkins & LaHaye's particular brand of end-times fever.
It's an admirable project as well because of the shear magnitude of it. In his first year and a half, he's made it through 105 pages, working at the rate of roughly six days a page. By my calculations, it will take him eighty more years to finish the 4900 pages of the series, though additional prequels have been declared, which will take the total up somewhere over a century. Lengthwise, he seems to be running about neck-and-neck, though it's hard to tell on the screen. This can't help but remind one of "On Exactitude in Science", the parable by Jorge Luis Borges & Adolfo Bioy Casares about the map that became the size of the territory it set out to survey. And of course, when a map gets this big, you're going to have issues with organization.
How do we start reading something like this? I was forwarded a link to the blog itself - http://slacktivist.typepad.com - and found the top entry dealing with Left Behind. Not all of Slacktivist deals with Left Behind - but enough of it does that Mr. Clark has made a separate category for it, http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/left_behind. Clicking on that gets you a single page with all of the Left Behind posts, from newest to oldest. Being interested (and a fast reader) I decided to read the whole thing. To do this, you have to start at the bottom, scroll down a little bit (these are long posts), and then scroll up to get to the next chronological post. This does become, at length, tiring.
One point that's important to remember here: the Left Behind component of Slacktivist differs from the majority of blogs in that its information is not especially time-sensitive. While there are references to ongoing current events (the Iraq war, for example, not without relevance to the text under discussion), these references don't need to be read in real time. A reader could start reading his close reading at any time without much loss. (Granted, there is the question of relevance: it would be nice if in ten years nobody remembered Left Behind, but that probably won't be the case: Clark points out Hal Lindsay's The Late Great Planet Earth from the 1970s as prefiguring the series - and, it's worth noting, it still sells frighteningly well.)
A further complication for the would-be reader: Mr. Clark's posts, while they form the spine of his creation, are not the whole of it: his writing has attracted an enormous number of comments from his readers - somewhere over thirty comments for each of his recent posts, occasionally more than sixty. These comments, as you might expect, are all over the place - some are brilliant glosses, some are from confused Left Behind followers who have stumbled in, some declare the confused Left Behind followers to be idiots, and there's the inevitable comment-spam, scourge of the blog-age. Some have fantastic archived conversations of their own. Some are referenced in later posts by Mr. Clark, and become part of the main text. It's almost impossible to read all the comments because there are so many of them; it's hard to tell from the "Comments (33)" link if the thirty-three comments are worth reading. It's also much more difficult to read the comments chronologically: some older posts are still, a year later, generating comments, becoming weird zombie conversations.
What can be done to make this a more pleasant reading experience? Because blogs keep their entries in a database, it shouldn't be that hard to make a front end webpage that displays the entries in chronological order. It also wouldn't be hard to paginate the entries so that Mr. Clark's more than 50,000 words are in more digestible chunks. I'm not sure what could be done about the comments, though. Seventy-five posts have generated 1738 comments, scattered in time. Here's a rough diagram of how everything is connected:
The bottom row of blue dots represent Mr. Clark's posts over time (from earliest to most recent). One post leads linearly to the next. The rows above represent comments: the first red row are comments on the first post (an arrow which leads to the first), which are frequent at first and then tail off. This pattern is followed by all the other comments on posts. Comments tend to influence following comments (although this isn't necessarily true). But, unless you have eagle-eyed commentators who make sure to click on every comment link every day, different comment streams will probably not be influencing each other over time. The conversation has forked, and will continue forking.
A recent study seems to indicate that the success of a blog (as measured by advertising) is directly related to the feeling of community engendered, in no small part, by the ability to comment and discuss. But that ability to comment and discuss seems to get lost with time. What's happening here might be an inherent limitation in the form of the blog: while they're not strictly time-sensitive, they end up being that way. This could perhaps be changed if there were better ways into the archives, or if notifications were sent to the author and commentators on posts as new comments were posted. But: especially when dealing with an enormous volume of comments, as is the case at Slacktivist, the dialogue becomes increasingly asynchronous as time goes on.
We don't think of physical books as having this problem because we assume that we can't directly interact with the author and don't expect to be able to do so. With electronic media, the boundaries are still unclear: we expect more.
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 remembe r, 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)
reading, without the book 04.28.2005, 1:58 PM
David Bell, a history professor at Johns Hopkins, has written a smart, well-reasoned article for The New Republic entitled "The Bookless Future," in which he ponders the changing nature of reading, writing and research in a digital world. Professor Bell and The New Republic have kindly allowed us to reproduce the article in TK3, an e-document reader. Our hope is that it will serve as a springboard for wider discussion, both of the article, and of what is needed to create the optimal electronic reading environment. The downloads are below, followed by some initial thoughts on Bell's piece. We would love to hear people's reactions..
First Download and Install the TK3 Reader
- TK3 Reader Installer WINDOWS
- TK3 Reader Installer MAC OSX (if using Internet Explorer, hold down the option-key when downloading for the Mac)
Then Download "The Bookless Future"
(when you've unzipped the book, you should be able to open it by double-clicking on its icon)
In Bell's view, the big gains so far have been in the realm of research. "Today, a scholar in South Dakota, or Shanghai, or Albania--anywhere on earth with an Internet connection--has a research library at her fingertips." A democratization has taken place, comparable only to the change unleashed by the printing press. The ease and speed of searching, comparing, and collating digital documents is similarly a great boon to scholars and students. The benefits afforded by new reading modes far outnumber the losses that opponents of the electronic book frequently lament - the tactile pleasures, the smell of musty bindings, the social environment of bookstores, the art of typography.
This will remain controversial territory for quite some time, but Bell manages to strike the right balance:
What really matters, particularly at this early stage, is not to damn or to praise the eclipse of the paper book or the digital complication of its future, but to ensure that it happens in the right way, and to minimize the risks.
Bell is also thinking what this means for writing. He recognizes the possibilities for new kinds of expression and argumentation that are only possible in the multimedia, not-exclusively-linear, environment of the computer. He cites a few examples in the Gutenberg-e series. But Bell's enthusiasm is mixed with concern for how we are being affected as readers. First there is the way we absorb content, which has been entirely transformed by hypertext and search - the "browsing" ethos. Bell warns:
Reading in this strategic, targeted manner can feel empowering. Instead of surrendering to the organizing logic of the book you are reading, you can approach it with your own questions and glean precisely what you want from it. You are the master, not some dead author. And this is precisely where the greatest dangers lie, because when reading, you should not be the master. Information is not knowledge; searching is not reading; and surrendering to the organizing logic of a book is, after all, the way one learns.
Questions of form are no less important. Bell reminds us that the digital revolution, unlike the print revolution, is not just about the book. Moveable type may have transformed the means of production for books. But in form, they remained basically the same, and were no less "readable" than their hand-copied forebears. This is not the case with digital books. Until personal computers, and later, the web, it was never assumed that we would do any serious reading on screens. But as technology advanced, we learned that computers were more than just computational tools. A big lesson of the digital revolution is that since all media can be equalized as ones and zeros, then it follows that all media can converge and dance together in a single space. The digital revolution is about this convergence. Text is just one part of it, and so far computers have proven themselves better at handling rich media like graphics, film and sound than at providing satisfactory conditions for sustained reading. This boils down to a few, very simple reasons:
1. Screen display technology is poor - it hurts the eyes, requires large amounts of energy, and cannot be read in sunlight or other such ambient light settings. Progress is being made with the development of electronic ink and cholesteric displays, and Bell hopes that these improvements will deliver us from the headache of liquid crystal displays.
2. Most electronic documents are read in vertical scrolling fields. This is probably descended from the first computer terminal reading which consisted of long batches of code, best read in a scroll, or spit out on long rolls of paper. Horizontal paging keeps words and lines in a fixed position and makes for much easier reading. But you rarely find this today. A good example is the website of the International Herald Tribune. It seems like a no-brainer that screen-based documents should be laid out in this way.
3. And finally, the device is too awkward - heavy, fragile, expensive, and overheated.
Bell recognizes these points, but overemphasizes the need for a device that is tailored exclusively for screen-reading (though he does acknowledge that it would require web-browsing capabilities). One of the reasons book reading devices have consistently failed to catch on is that they are too specialized. In digital space, media can dance together, and there is no reason to corral them off into distinct zones. People are already reading books and other documents on their PDAs, and even their cell phones (check out thread, "the ideal device"). This is not because they offer an ideal reading environment, but because they are indispensable - gadgets that you always have with you. As a consequence, people feel compelled to cram in as many uses as possible. By this logic, the cell phone and the laptop seemed destined to combine. It may end up being something roughly the size of a trade paperback - hold it vertically to read a text, or flip it on its side to watch a widescreen film or play a video game. As with media, it seems inevitable that devices, too, will eventually converge.
"finally, I have a Memex!" 02.01.2005, 3:40 PM
There's an essay worth reading in the ny times book review this past sunday by Steven Johnson about a powerful semantic desktop management and search tool recently released for Macs. The software (called DEVONthink) not only helps organize and briskly sift through readings, clippings, quotes, and one's own past writings, but assists in the mysterious mental processes that are at the heart of writing - associative trains, useful non sequiturs, serendipitous stumbles. In effect, we now have a tool resembling the Memex device described in the seminal 1945 essay, As We May Think by visionary engineer Vannevar Bush. Working with the cutting edge technologies of his day - microfilm, thermionic tubes, and punch, or "Hollerith," cards - Bush pondered how technology might help humanity to manage and make use of its vast systems of information. His recognition of the basic problem is no less relevant today: "Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing." Fast forward to 2005. Now, the holy grail of search is the Semantic Web - moving beyond the artificiality of crude content-based queries and bringing meaning, relevance, and associations into the mix.
"Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and to coin one at random, ``memex'' will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory." - Vannevar Bush
It's quite suggestive that DEVONthink's semantic search function can to an extent be trained, taking the obnoxious little puppy on Windows search toward its full potential - a sleek, truffle-tuned hound. When Johnson loads his body of work onto the computer, the hound picks up the distinctive scent of his writing, which in turn suggests affinities, similarities, and connections to other materials - truffles - that will find their way into later works.
Says Johnson on his latest blog post, which goes into much greater detail than the Times piece:
"I have pre-filtered the results by selecting quotes that interest me, and by archiving my own prose. The signal-to-noise ratio is so high because I've eliminated 99% of the noise on my own."
But it is significant that DEVONthink is not useful for searching entire books (the author's own manuscripts notwithstanding). Currently, the tool is ideal for locating chunks of text that fall within the "sweet spot" of 50-500 words. If your archives include entire book-length texts, then the honing power is diminished. DEVONthink is optimal as a clip searcher. File searching remains a frustrating enterprise.
Johnson makes note of this:
"So the proper unit for this kind of exploratory, semantic search is not the file, but rather something else, something I don't quite have a word for: a chunk or cluster of text, something close to those little quotes that I've assembled in DevonThink. If I have an eBook of Manual DeLanda's on my hard drive, and I search for "urban ecosystem" I don't want the software to tell me that an entire book is related to my query. I want the software to tell me that these five separate paragraphs from this book are relevant. Until the tools can break out those smaller units on their own, I'll still be assembling my research library by hand in DevonThink."
Another point (from the Times piece) worth highlighting here, which relates to our discussion of the networked book:
"If these tools do get adopted, will they affect the kinds of books and essays people write? I suspect they might, because they are not as helpful to narratives or linear arguments; they're associative tools ultimately. They don't do cause-and-effect as well as they do 'x reminds me of y.' So they're ideally suited for books organized around ideas rather than single narrative threads: more 'Lives of a Cell' and 'The Tipping Point' than 'Seabiscuit.'"
And what about other forms of information - images, video, sound etc.? These media will come to play a larger role in the writing process, given the ease of processing them in a PC/web context. Images and music trump language in their associative power (a controversial assertion, please debate it!), and present us with layers of meaning that are harder to dissect, certainly by machine. It is an inchoate hound to be sure.