Monthly Archives: May 2005

poetry off the page

Poetry was originally intended as oral/aural medium. It was language as song, performed for an audience practiced in the art of listening. The way a poem looked on the page was relatively meaningless until the advent of print technologies. Now, as digital media makes it possible for poets to publish their work as audio tracks, we may see poetry begin a natural migration back to its traditional form–performance art.
A good place to find some of these aural treats, try PennSound, an ongoing project at the University of Pennsylvania, committed to producing new audio recordings and preserving existing audio archives of poets performing their work. According to the PENNsound Manifesto, every project on its database “must be free and downloadable.” Sounds good to me, I visited the archive and downloaded Tracie Morris’ From Slave Sho to Video aka Black but Beautiful, which was performed at the Whitney Museum’s 2002 Biennial Exhibit.

Tracie’s work is extremely hard to come by, so I was thrilled when I found this. I can’t think of a better artist to represent the off-the-page digital instinct. Tracie’s poem uses broken and remixed language–so ubiquitous in our media saturated atmosphere–to present a conflicted inner dialogue about racial identity and cultural conceptions (or misconceptions) of beauty.

easy listening?

After several decades of near-unbroken consolidation of radio broadcasters, the spoken word is enjoying a much needed renaissance driven by satellite radio and podcasting. Audio books too – the much-maligned little nephew of book publishing – have undergone an unprecedented boom, driven by faster internet connections, online retailers devoted exclusively to audio (most notably Audible), and the ubiquity of portable mp3 players that can hold hundreds, even thousands, of hours of audio. For a society of multitaskers, this is undoubtedly a good thing, but the debate rages as to whether listening to a book can in any way compare to reading it with one’s eyes. The NY Times ran a story yesterday about the new craze in auditory reading, and about the stigma that is frequently attached to audio books:

Some critics are dismayed at the migration to audio books. The virtue of reading, they say, lies in the communion between writer and reader, the ability to pause, to reread a sentence, and yes, read it out loud – to yourself. Listeners are opting for convenience, they say, at the expense of engaging the mind and imagination as only real reading can.

Or, as Harold Bloom (quoted in the Times piece) puts it:

Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear. You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.

Scott Esposito over at Conversational Reading agrees. He insists that listening does not equal reading, end of story.
But I would not be so quick to dismiss audio books. They are admittedly a different kind of reading – a subset of visual reading – but important and potentially enriching nonetheless. EaseReader_screen1.gif For many – the blind, the visually impaired, the learning disabled – people for whom visual reading is either impossible or an agonizing trial – this subset of reading is reading. Dolphin, a British software developer, makes EaseReader, an ebook reader for PCs that “combines electronic text with pre-recorded audio.” As you listen, it pages through the book, highlighting the text that is being spoken, and allowing you to jump around, pinpointing passages – re-listening – with incredible precision. For the millions with reading disabilities, this could provide the accessibility of audio without sacrficing close reading of the visual page. Pearson, the biggest educational publisher in America, just announced a strategic partnership with Audible to produce downloadable audio study guides, and perhaps eventually, entire textbooks. In a recent press release, they maintain that:

There is compelling research that identifies 30% of our population as auditory learners. By coupling this research with the growing popularity of downloadable audio, we believe these study guides can make a significant difference in student performance by accommodating diverse learning and life styles. Students today want the option to be untethered from traditional modes of learning. This product line fills a much-needed gap in learning content for a mobile and multitasking generation.

And what about these multitaskers? – the principal target of derision by literary purists.. Few would argue that you can fully engage with a book while simultaneously scooping out a gutter or paying bills. But there are plenty of activities that, while requiring the full involvement of the body, otherwise leave the mind to drift. I read most of my books in the traditional way – with hands and eyes – and for me, this is undoubtedly the fullest, richest kind of engagement. But with audio books, I’m able to read at other, less sedentary, times. When I was little, I listened to books on tape while building Lego cities or Brio trains. I listened over and over to the unabridged “Secret Garden,” “Three Children and It” and the Paddington Bear stories. I also read print books – tons of them – but these trance-like experiences of slowly absorbing the story while moving one’s hands – this was tremendously valuable. And since I listened to them repeatedly, I would argue that I knew those stories better than if I had read them once with my eyes and then shelved the book. You could say that books on tape helped me make the transition from being read to by my parents and becoming a fully independent reader.
Nowadays, I like to run, and for me, the thing that makes running hardest is not the demands it makes on my legs or respiratory system, but rather the way that it fails to occupy my brain. The mind revolts – the customary patter of thoughts, large and small, becomes a kind of torture. Unless you can slow your mind down, it’s impossible to stop thinking: “when is this going to end?” “has it only been eight minutes?!” “why didn’t I just watch TV?”… Sometimes, you can get your mind to behave and sort of synch up with the steadiness of the breathing. It helps to run in a beautiful place. But this isn’t always possible, especially when you live in a big city and a treadmill in a gym is your only option. Lately I’ve been listening to books on an iPod. Not only has it made exercise feel less like a chore, it’s allowing me to absorb “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson – a charming popular history of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago that I never would have had time to read otherwise. While running, I’m a totally captive audience, and the rhythm of the body and the breath actually turns off the rotating critical knives that so frequently hijack my visual reading experience. As I move, the White City is slowly erected in my mind’s eye. If I miss a bit, I simply reread, er, rewind.
Audio books can also be a boon to people who spend a lot of time cooped up in cars. My grandmother is constantly zigzagging all over the northeast United States in her Subaru, and with audio books she’s able to use this time productively. Over the past year, she’s absorbed half a dozen books on the founding period of the American republic. Now I can’t get her to stop talking about Alexander Hamilton and Dolly Madison. For a natural lifelong learner like my grandmother, audio books have yielded great rewards.

self-destructing books

In January I bought my first ebook (ISBN: B0000E68Z2), which is published by Wiley. I have one copy on my laptop and a backup on my external harddrive. Last week, I downloaded and installed Adobe Professional (writer 6.0) from our company network (Norwegian School of Management, BI) – during the installation some files from the Adobe version that I downloaded and installed when I bought the ebook (from UK) were deleted. Since then, I have not been able to access my ebook – I have tried to get help from our computer staff but they have not been able to help me.
Adobe thinks that I’m using another computer, while I’m not – and it didn’t help to activate the computer through some Adobe DRM Activator stuff. Now I have spent at least 10 hours trying to access my ebook – hope you can help…

Boing Boing points to this story illustrating the fundamental flaws of digital rights management (DRM) – about a Norwegian prof who paid $172 for an ebook on Amazon UK only to have it turn to unreadable code jibberish after updating his Acrobat software. He made several pleas for help – to Acrobat, to Wiley (the publisher), and to Amazon. All were in vain. It turns out that after reading the story in Boing Boing (in the past 24 hours, I guess), Wiley finally sent a replacement copy. But the problem of built-in obsolescence in ebooks goes unaddressed.
I’m convinced that encrypting single “copies” is lunacy. For everything we gain with electronic texts – search, multimedia, connection to the network etc. – we lose much in the way of permanence and tactility. DRM software only makes the loss more painful. Publishers need to get away from the idea of selling “copies” and start experimenting with charging for access to a library of titles. You pay for the service, not for the copy. Digital books are immaterial – so the idea of the “copy” has to be revised.
Another example of old thinking with new media is the New York Public Library’s ebook collection. That “copies” of electronic titles are set to expire after 21 days is not surprising. The “copy” is “returned” automatically and you sweep the expired file like a husk into the trash. What’s incredible is that the library only allows one “copy” to be checked out a time, entirely defeating one of the primary virtues of electronic books: they can always be in circulation. Clearly terrified by the implications of the new medium (or of the retribution of publishers), the NYPL keeps ebooks on an even tighter tether than they do their print books. As a result, they’ve set up a service that’s too frustrating to use. They should rethink this idea of the single “copy” and save everyone the “quote” marks.

devices converge

nokia_770_internet_tablet2.jpg Nokia is preparing to release the Internet Tablet, a handheld, Linux-based device with wireless web browsing capability and a variety of multimedia options (video, audio, internet radio). $350 is the asking price. Problems seem to be that it doesn’t come with a lot of memory, and that it doesn’t support Microsoft media formats. But it edges a little closer to the “can I take it into bed with me?” criterion. We’ll see if any interesting e-reading formats are developed for it. Most likely just a footnote on the way to something better.
Mentioned here in Wired. Here with the Linux angle. Pros and cons laid out here.

the city writes its book

chicagoalleycrimemap.jpg, the best use of Google Maps I’ve seen to date, has been making the web rounds over the past week. It generates maps using information scraped from Citizen ICAM, a public portal to the Chicago Police Department’s database of reported crime. You can view by type of crime, street, date, police district, location type (i.e. alley, ATM, residence etc.), or a map of the whole city.
This is the latest in a series of living documents that have sprung up recently – web spaces tied by a thousand strings to real, physical places. I can imagine chicagocrime being integrated into a larger Chicago area web hub, or aggregator. Ideally, these hubs (see here and here) will combine the conviviality of the blog, the utility of craigslist, the diversity of Flickr or ourmedia, and the collective vigilance of citizen journalism. Other recently launched intitiatives of note are Bayosphere (“…of, by and for the Bay Area) and (“twin cities: all day, all night”). The more people participate, the truer the picture of that place at that time. Are we moving past the primacy of the editor? Or will editors prove more important than ever before?

academic publishers get snippety with Google

Last Friday, the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) sent Google a long letter expressing concern over what might amount to “systematic infringement of copyright on a massive scale” in its library project. BusinessWeek reports. The AAUP letter can be read here. Much of it asks Google to clarify its position on a number of points – to provide, as it were, the fine print on Google Print. Here’s a great item:

Snippet is used so consistently in describing Google Print for Libraries that it’s taking on the status of a technical term, and thus requires a specific definition. How long is a “snippet?”

Google defends its mass digitization project on the grounds of “fair use” (Section 107 of the US Copyright Act). In other words, it asserts the right to copy copyrighted materials and make them browseable on the web for research purposes as long as they restrict the amount that can be seen for free. Any commercial use of the text will take place only in the context of a publisher agreement. Publishers have the right to opt out, and apparently a couple already have, though most are holding their breath and waiting to see if they might be able to profit from Google’s project. The tricky question is, can a book that has been withheld from the publisher program be included in the library program?
You could say that the web is one enormous copying machine. And so fair use questions are more important than ever before. Will Google be the juggernaut that breaks down the door into a more permissive fair use era for all? Or will they use their power to establish an exclusive, Google-only, fair use zone, and set up a cartel with publishers? Or will a few well aimed law suits sink the project before it gets off the ground?

got a minute?

Submit 1-minute low bandwidth narrative films to the 60 Second Story Competition, adminstered and judged by an interesting gathering of electronic writers, bloggers and publishers (including some of the folks at Grand Text Auto and Spineless Books). Stories must be submitted under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 License. It’s also worth mentioning that the contest is itself an entrant in another contest: the Contagious Media Showdown. The most contagious site (i.e. the one with the most hits in a three week period) wins. As of this writing, 60 Second Stories ranks 18th.
“Many digital cameras and webcams allow you to take one minute of video and audio at resolutions suitable for the web. With all the mindless fluff, commercial hoohah, and charlatanism on the web, we deserve a few minutes of story, do we not? Why haven’t you done this already? Tell us a story.”
Could prove to be a pretty contagious little concept – stories small enough to sneeze. I hereby infect you with it..
Also, read how Mozilla is getting its fans to spread the word about Firefox through viral video.

a big bang theory for media

Future generations, living comfortably as digital natives, may look back on the twentieth century as the big bang moment in the history of media. The big bang theory, by now a household concept in the annals of cosmology, speculates that the universe began some 13 or 14 billion years ago in a massive explosion of matter from an original, super-dense, super-heated singularity. 240px-Universe_expansion.png What does this have to do with twentieth century media? More than you might think. Industrialization and the development of telecommunications resulted in the centralization of communication forms into a kind of super-dense, super-heated singularity of their own: the mass media. Its power to drive a consumer economy through advertising, and blanket entire populations with messages and imagery has been so impressive, so all-consuming, that in a very short time it has come to seem all but inevitable.
But much to mass media’s surprise (and horror), the singularity has exploded. With the web barely a decade old, it looks like the reign of mass media is turning out to have been only a brief interlude between a pre-electrified world, and a vastly uncertain digital horizon. Generations for whom radio and television were wondrous novelties assumed a passive posture, letting the transmission waves wash over them. But subsequent ages, reared in the super-heated forge of the mass media, have grown increasingly impatient with the paleolithic norms of the TV network, the daily newspaper, the cineplex, and the publishing conglomerate. They want more diversity, more choice, more mobility, and more opportunity to contribute in the very forms the media taught them. Totally decentralized, the internet is a different kind of animal, and since it can absorb and copy basically any kind of media, it is perceived by Big Media as fundamentally hostile to its interests. Consequently, they are doing everything in their power to preserve the models that worked so well for them when the universe was still young and galaxies (chains, affiliates, imprints) were still within their grasp: suing file-sharing services, going after DVD pirates, and slapping all sorts of nasty DRM (digital rights management) on the little downloadable content they are tentatively trying to sell. But in the end, it’s a losing battle. Trying to hold still in a swiftly expanding cosmos will prove at first uncomfortable (as it is now) and eventually impossible. The universe is moving outward. Later, we’ll tell our grandchildren what it was like to watch the big bang and the brief, brilliant age of the mass media.
The Wall Street Journal ran a free web feature today – “How Old Media Can Survive In a New World” – examining the crisis facing mass media, asking influential observers in each industry what might be done to adapt to the decentralized laws of the web and how to profit from media that has no physical dimension. It serves as a nice snapshot of the explosion in its current phase.