Monthly Archives: January 2007 going down for repairs

This weekend we’re going to take down for repairs. It’s a good looking site (thanks Rebecca Mendez), but a second look will expose the visible marks of a system that hasn’t served our interests for a long time. So in the spirit of the housekeeping we’ve been doing since the beginning of the year (including the retreat), we’re doing a major clean-up of the site. More like an extreme makeover, actually. We’re not sure how long it will take, given the number of projects we’re still juggling.
Don’t worry! The blog is going to stay up and we’ll keep posting, and the Institute is going strong. In some ways we’re victims of our own success: we haven’t been able to keep up our own house due to the number of interesting things we’ve been putting out. We just know that it can’t be put off any longer. Things to look forward to: a site that does a better job of explaining our mission, exhibiting our projects, and highlighting our collected thoughts.

bob on the air

Yesterday Bob did a radio interview on “The Speakeasy” on WFMU, almost certainly the most interesting (and one of the few) independent radio stations in the New York area. I highly recommend giving it a listen. It’s always nice to hear Bob tell the story of the Institute and the decades of work, collaboration and experience that led up to where we are today. Things tend to get caught up in the rhythm of the day to day on the blog so here’s a nice antidote — a big picture moment.
You can get the podcast from the Speakeasy archive in either RealAudio or m3u format (which will play on iTunes or whatever your default media player is on your machine). Heads up: there are a few minutes of jazz music before the interview gets started. The whole thing’s about an hour.

give away the content and sell the thing

On my way to that rather long discussion of ARGs the other day, I fielded something Pat Kane said to me a while back about the growing importance of live gigs to the income of musicians.
So I was tickled when Paul Miller pointed me to a piece Chris Anderson blogged yesterday about the same thing. Increasingly, musicians are giving their music away for free in order to drive gig attendance – and it’s driving music reproduction companies crazy. And yet, what can they do? “The one thing that you can’t digitize and distribute with full fidelity is a live show”.
A minor synchronicity; but then I stop by here and find Gary Frost and bowerbird vigorously debating the likeliness of the digitisation of everything, and of the death of ‘the original’ as even a concept, in the context of Ben’s piece about the National Archives sellout. And then I remember that, the day before, someone sent me a spoof web page telling me to get a First Life. And I start to wonder if there’s some kind of post-digital backlash taking shape.
OK, Anderson is talking about music; it’s hard to speculate about how the manifest ‘authentic’ appeal of a time-bound, ephemeral ‘gig’ experience translates literally to the field of physical books without falling back into diaphanous stuff about tactility and marginalia and so on. But, in the light of people’s manifest willingness to pay ridiculous sums to see the ‘real’ Madonna in real time and space, is it really feasible to talk, as bowerbird does, about the coming digitisation of everything?
As far as I can see, as more digitisation progresses, authenticity is becoming big business. I think it’s worth exploring the possibilities of a split between ‘book’ as pure content, and book as ‘authentic’ object. In particular, I think it’s worth exploring the possible economics of this: the difference in approach, genesis, theory, self-justification, style and paycheque of content created for digital reproduction, and text created for tangible books. And finally, I think whoever manages to sus both has probably got it made.

apologies for relative silence

The beginning of the week was spent at the Educause conference in Atlanta where Jesse and I conducted the first public hands-on event with Sophie in which forty professors got to load it on their machines and put it through some not-terribly taxing paces. it was touch and go but Sophie performed well enough that people seem to be excited about getting a real beta version, hopefully next month. Yesterday, ben and i were at a small all-day meeting at the Getty Research Institute to discuss how a scholarly conference might be conceived differently in the era of the network — not just the “proceeding” that get published afterwards but the run-up to the meeting and the face-to-face portion as well. We brought along Trebor Scholz, Manan Ahmed and Michael Naimark, each of whom wowed me all day long with their remarkably prescient thoughts on the matter. Turns out that re-thinking conferences is remarkably similar to re-thinking books . . . the big questions all relate to re-defining long-standing rhythms and hierarchies which have been in place for a few hundred years — the role of the speaker and audience is being up-ended in ways similar to the roles of author and reader.

robinson crusoe

David Rothman over at Teleread has a very thoughtful review of a multimedia project coming out of the University of North Carolina which traces the real-world aspects of the Robinson Crusoe story. Rothman asks some very interesting questions about the possible over-use of Flash and the relationship of multimedia to text. (note: he says something very complimentary about me in the piece which makes me uncomfortable recommending it, but the questions he asks are important and very much worth considering.)

net-native stories are already here: so are the vultures

A split is under way in the culture industry at present, between ever more high-budget centrally-created and released products designed to net the ‘live experience’ ticket or product-buying punter, and new forms of distributed, Net-mediated creativity. This is evidenced throughout the culture industry; but while ARGs (alternate reality games) are a strong candidate for being understood as the ‘literary’ output of this new culture, there is little discussion of increasing attempts to transform this emerging genre straight into a vehicle for advertising. In the light of my own rather old-fashioned literary idealism, I want first to situate ARGs in the context of this split between culture-as-industry and culture-as-community, to argue the case for ARGs as participatory literature, and finally to ponder the appropriateness of leaving them to the mercies of the PR industry.
the culture industry and the new collaboration
Anti-pirating adverts have been common since video came into wide use. But the other day I saw one at the cinema that got me thinking. Rather than taking the line that copying media is a crime, it showed scenes from Apocalypto, while pointing out that such a spectacular film is much better enjoyed on a huge cinema screen. It struck me as a shrewd take: rather than making ominous noises about crime, the advert aimed to drive cinema attendance by foregrounding the format-specific benefits (darkened room, audience, popcorn, huge screen) of the cinema experience .
It reminded me of a conversation I had with musician-turned-intellectual Pat Kane. Since the advent of iTunes and the like, he said, gigging is often a musician’s main source of income. I had a look at live performance prices, and discovered that whereas in 2001 high-end tickets cost $60, in 2006 Paul McCartney (amongst others) charged $250 per ticket. The premium is for the format-specific features of the experience: the atmosphere, the ‘authenticity’, the transient moment. Everything else is downloadable.
But the catch is that you have to sell material that suits the ‘live’ immersive experience. That means all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza gigs (Madonna crucified on a mirrored cross in Rome, anyone?) and super-colossal epic ‘excitement’ films, full of special effects, chases, explosions and the like. Consider the top ten grossing films 2000-06: three Harry Potters, three Lord of the Ringses, three X-Men films, three Star Warses, three Matrix films, Spider-man, two Batmans, The Chronicles of Narnia, Day After Tomorrow, Jurassic Park 3, Terminator 3 and War of the Worlds. Alongside that there were typically at least two high-budget CGI films in the top ten each year Exciting fantasy epics are on the up, because if you produce anything else the punters are more likely to skip the cinema experience and just download it.
So the networked replicability of content drives a trend for high-budget, high-concept cultural content for which you can justifiably charge at the door. But other forms are on the up. The NYT just ran a story about M dot Strange, who brought a huge YouTube audience to his Sundance premiere. And December’s Wired called the LonelyGirl15 phenomenon on YouTube ‘The future of TV’. It’s not as if general cinema release is the only way to make your name. Sandi Thom‘s rise to fame through a series of webcasts tells the same story.
Here, we see artists who reverse the paradigm: rather than seeking to thrill a passive audience, they intrigue an active one. Rather than seeking to retain control, they farm parts of the story out. As Lonelygirl15’s story grows, each characer will get a vlog: rather than produce the whole thing themselves, the originators will work out a basic storyline and then pair writers and directors with actors and let them loose.
I don’t wish to argue here that this second paradigm of community-based participative creation is necessarily ‘better’, or that it will supplant existing cultural forms. But it is emerging rapidly as a major cultural force, and merits examination both in its own right and for clues to the operation of Net-native forms of literature.
fact or fiction? who cares?
A frequent characteristic of these kinds of networked co-creation is debate about the ‘reality’ of its products. LonelyGirl15 whipped up a storm on ARG Network while people tried to work out if she was an ARG trailhead, an advertising campaign, or a real teenager. Similarly, many have suspected Sandi Thom’s webcast story of including a layer of fiction. But this has not hurt Sandi’s career any more than it killed interest in LonelyGirl15. Built into these discussions is a sense that this (like much ambiguity) is not a bug but a feature, and is actually intrinsic to the operation of the net. After all, the promise underpinning Second Life, MUDs, messageboards and much of the Net’s traffic is radical self-reinvention beyond the bounds of one’s life and physical body. Fiction is part of Net reality.
Literary theorists have held fiction in special regard for thousands of years; if fiction is intrinsic to the ‘reality’ of the Net, what happens to storytellers? Is there a kind of literature native to the Net?
ARGs: net-native literature
Though it’s a relatively young phenomenon, and I have no doubt that other forms will emerge, the strongest candidates at present for consideration as such are ARGs (alternate reality games). Unlike PVP online games, they are at least partially written (textual), and rely heavily on participants’ collaboration through messageboards. If you’re trying to catch up, you essentially read the ‘story’ as it is ‘written’ by its participants in fora dedicated to solving them. They have a clear story, but are dependent for their unfolding on community participation – and may be changed by this participation: in 2001, Lockjaw ended prematurely when participants brought a class-action lawsuit against the fictional genetic engineering company at the heart of the story. Or perhaps it didnt – I’ve seen one reference to this event, but other attempts simply lead me deeper into a story that may or may not still be active.
Thus, like LonelyGirl15 and her ilk, ARGs also bridge fact and fiction. This is part of their pleasure, and it is pervasive: I had a Skype conversation yesterday with Ansuman Biswas, an artist who has been sucked into the now-unfolding MEIGEIST game when its creators referenced his work in the course of casting story clues. Ansuman delightedly sent me the link to the initial thread on the game at unfiction, where participants have been debating whether Ansuman exists or not. Even though I was talking to him at the time I almost found myself wondering, too.
Where ARGs as a creative form diverge from print literature (at least, from modern print literature) is in their use of pastiche, patchwork and mash-up. One of the delights of storytelling is the sense of an organising intelligence at work in a chaos of otherwise random events. ARGs provide this, but in a way appropriate to the Babel of content available on the Net. Participants know that someone is orchestrating a storyline, but that it will not unfold without the active contribution of the decoders, web-surfers, inveterate Googlers and avid readers tracking leads, clues, possible hints and unfolding events through the chaos of the Web. Rather than striving for that uber-modernist concept, ‘originality’, an ARG is predicated on the pre-existence of the rest of the Net, and works like a DJ with the content already present. In this, it has more in common with the magpie techniques of Montaigne (1533-92), or the copious ‘authoritative’ quotations of Chaucer than contemporary notions of the author-as-originator.
the PR money-shot
The downside of some ARG activity is the rapid incursions of the marketing machine into the format, and a corresponding tendency towards high-budget games with a PR money-shot. For example, I Love Bees turned out to be a trailer for Halo 2. This spills over into offline publication: Cathy’s Book, itself an interactive multimedia concept co-written by Sean Stewart, one of the puppetmasters of the 2001 ARG ‘The Beast, made headlines last year when it included product placements from Clinique. So where YouTube, myspace, webcasts and the like appear to be working in some ways to open up and democratise creative activity as a community activity, it is as yet unclear whether the same is true of ARGs. Is it acceptable for immersive fiction to be so seamlessly integrated with the needs of the advertising world? Is the idealism of Aristotle and Sidney still worth keeping? Or is such purism obsolete?
where are the artists?
Either way, this new genre represents, I believe, the first stirrings of a Net-native form of storytelling. ARGs have all the characteristics of networked cultural production: they unfold through the collaboration of a networked problem-solving community; they use multiple media, mixtures of fact and fiction, and a distributed reader/participant base. Their operation, and their susceptibility to co-opting by the marketing industry poses many questions; but the very nature of the form suggests that the way to address these is through engagement, not criticism. So, ultimately, this is a call for writers and artists interested in what the form is and could become: to situate Net writing in the context of why writers have always written, to explore its potential, and to ensure that it remains a form that belongs to us, rather than being sold back to us in darkened theatres with a bagful of memorabilia.

triangulating reality — the net at its best

Now that Hussein and Zarqawi are dead, the U.S. propoganda machine is working overtime to demonize Moqtada al-Sadr as the key obstacle to “peace in Iraq.” It’s fairly easy for them to do that since no mainstream U.S. news outlet bothers to interview him or present his ideas in any coherent fashion. Last week the Italian paper, La Repubblica published an interview with him that was not covered here. Helena Cobban (who was the first commenter in our edition of the Iraq Study Group Report), has just put up a translation on her blog. Read it to see a completely different view of the man than the one you get here. Read it to realize the power of the internet to get people working together to present a more complex view of reality than the one we get via the mainstream press. Here is Helena Cobban’s postscript to the post:

Update Saturday p.m.: Christiane just sent me a great document that’s a three-column tabulation of the Italian original, JHM’s translation, and her own. It’s a Word doc. She has picked out in red the few points where she feels JHM probably misunderstood the Italian, but says in an accompanying email that she thinks his English is far better than hers. Thanks, Christiane, and thanks again, JHM. You’re once again showing us the great information-leveraging power of the internet.

national archives sell out

This falls into the category of deeply worrying. In a move reminiscent of last year’s shady Smithsonian-Showtime deal, the U.S. National Archives has signed an agreement with to digitize millions of public domain historical records — stuff ranging from the papers of the Continental Congress to Matthew B. Brady’s Civil War photographs — and to make them available through a commercial website. They say the arrangement is non-exclusive but it’s hard to see how this is anything but a terrible deal.
Here’s a picture of the paywall:


Dan Cohen has a good run-down of why this should set off alarm bells for historians (thanks, Bowerbird, for the tip). Peter Suber has: the open access take: “The new Democratic Congress should look into this problem. It shouldn’t try to undo the Footnote deal, which is better than nothing for readers who can’t get to Washington. But it should try to swing a better deal, perhaps even funding the digitization and OA directly.” Absolutely. (Actually, they should undo it. Scrap it. Wipe it out.) Digitization should not become synonymous with privatization.
Elsewhere in mergers and acquisitions, the University of Texas Austin is the newest partner in the Google library project.

unbound – google publishing conference at NYPL

Interesting bit of media industry theater here. I’m here in the New York Public Library, one of the city’s great temples to the book, where Google has assembled representatives of the book business to undergo a kind of group massage. A pep talk for a timorous publishing industry that has only barely dipped its toes in the digital marketplace and can’t decide whether to regard Google as savior or executioner. The speaker roster is a mix of leading academic and trade publishers and diplomatic envoys from the techno-elite. Chris Anderson, Cory Doctorow, Seth Godin, Tim O’Reilly have all spoken. The 800lb. elephant in the room is of course the lawsuits brought against Google (still in the discovery phase) by the Association of American Publishers and the Authors’ Guild for their library digitization program. Doctorow and O’Reilly broached it briefly and you could feel the pulse in the room quicken. Doctorow: “We’re a cabal come over from the west coast to tell you you’re all wrong!” A ripple of laughter, acid-laced. A little while ago Michael Holdsworth of Cambridge University Press pointed to statistics that suggest that Book Search is driving up their sales… Some grumble that the publishers’ panel was a little too hand-picked.
Google’s tactic here seems simultaneously to be to reassure the publishers while instilling an undercurrent of fear. Reassure them that releasing more of their books in a greater variety of forms will lead to more sales (true) — and frightening them that the technological train is speeding off without them (also true, though I say that without the ecstatic determinism of the Google folks. Jim Gerber, Google’s main liason to the publishing world, opened the conference with a love song to Moore’s Law and the gigapixel camera, explaining that we’re within a couple decades’ reach of having a handheld device that can store all the content ever produced in human history — as if this fact alone should drive the future of publishing). The event feels more like a workshop in web marketing than a serious discussion about the future of publishing. It’s hard to swallow all the marketing speak: “maximizing digital content capabilities,” “consolidation by market niche”; a lot of talk of “users” and “consumers,” but not a whole lot about readers. Publishers certainly have a lot of catching up to do in the area of online commerce, but barely anyone here is engaging with the bigger questions of what it means to be a publisher in the network era. O’Reilly sums up the publisher’s role as “spreading the knowledge of innovators.” This is more interesting and O’Reilly is undoubtedly doing more than almost any commercial publisher to rethink the reading experience. But most of the discussion here is about a culture industry that seems more concerned with salvaging the industry part of itself than with honestly rethinking the cultural part. The last speaker just wrapped up and it’s cocktail time. More thoughts tomorrow.

the sea change is coming…

Eons ago, when the institute was just starting out, Ben and I attended a web design conference in Amsterdam where we had the good fortune to chat with Steven Pemberton about the future of the book. Pemberton’s prediction, that “the book is doomed,” was based on the assumption that screen technologies would develop as printer technologies had. When the clunky dot-matrix gave way to the high-quality laser printer, desk top publishing was born and an entire industry changed form almost overnight.
“The book, Pemberton contends, will experience a similar sea-change the moment screen technology improves enough to compete with the printed page.”
This seemed like a logical conclusion. It seemed like the screen technology innovations we were waiting for had to do with resolution and legibility. Over the last two years if:book has reported on digital ink and other innovations that seemed promising. But the fact that we were looking out for a screen technology that could “compete with the printed page,” made it difficult for us to see that the real contender was not page-like at all.
It’s interesting that we made the same assumptions about the structure of the ebook itself. Early ebook systems tried to compete with the book by duplicating conventions like the Table of Contents navigational strategy, and discreet “pages,” that have to be “turned” with the click of a mouse. (And, I’m sorry to report, most contemporary ebooks continue to cling to print book structure). We now understand that networked technologies can interface with book content to create entirely new and revolutionary delivery systems. The experiments the institute has conducted: “Gam3r Th30ry” and the “Iraq Quagmire Project” prove beyond question that the book is evolving and adapting to networked culture.
What kind of screen technology will support this new kind of book? It appears that touch-screen hardware paired with zooming interface software will be the tipping point Pemberton was anticipating. There are many examples of this emerging technology. In particular, I like Jeff Han’s experimental work (his TED presentation is below): Jeff demonstrates an “interface free” touch screen that responds to gesture and lets users navigate through a simulated 3D environment. This technology might allow very small surfaces (like the touchpads on hand-held devices) to act as portals into limitless deep space.

And that brings me around to the real reason the touchscreen zooming interface is the key to the next generation of “books.” It allows users to move into 3D networked space easily and fluently and it gets us beyond the linearity that is the hallmark and the limitation of the paper book. To come into its own, the networked book is going to require three-dimensional visualizations for both content and navigation. Here’s an example of how it might work, imagine the institute’s Iraq Study Group Report in 3D. Main authors would have nodes or “homesites” close to the book with threads connecting them to sections they authored. Co-authors/commentors might have thinner threads that extend out to their, more remotely located, sites. The 3D depiction would allow readers to see “threads” that extend out from each author to everything they have created in digital space. In other words, their entire network would be made visible. Readers could know an author’s body of work in a new way and they could begin to see how collaborative works have been understood and shaped by each contributor. It would be ultimate transparency. It would be absolutely fascinating to see a 3D visualization of other works and deeds by the Iraq Study Groups’ authors, and to “see” the interwoven network spun by Washington’s policy authors. Readers could zoom out to get a sense of each author’s connections. Imagine being able to follow various threads into territories you never would have found via other, more conventional routes. This makes me really curious about what the institute will do in Second Life. I wonder if you can make avatars that act as the nodes for all their threads? Perhaps they could go about like spiders, connecting strands to everything they touch? Hmmm.
But anyway, in my humble opinion the sea change is coming. It’s going to be three-pronged: screen technology, networked content, and 3D visualization. And it’s going to be very, very cool.