Monthly Archives: April 2007

it’s multimedia, jim, but not as we know it

I spent yesterday evening in a visitors’ centre for a country that doesn’t exist. Kymaerica is a parallel universe with its own artefacts, stories, history and geography, roughly coexistent with this world (the ‘linear’ world) but not identical to it.
The central space for exploring Kymaerican history and heritage is online, but it erupts into the ‘linear’ world here and there. There is a permanent installation in Paris, Illinois; there are now five plaques in the UK: during the London exhibition there was a bus tour around Kymaerican sites corresponding with Central London.
The creator of this Borghesian experience is Eames Demetrios, designer, writer, filmmaker and Kymaerica’s ‘geographer-at-large’. I was struck by the parallels between his work, and some aspects of alternate reality gaming (ARGing), which I’ve argued here recently represents the emergence of a new genre of genuinely Web-native fiction (see Ben’s post below about World Without Oil for recent if:book discussion of this form). Though Kymaerica is presented as a piece of art, and alternate reality gaming generally thinks of itself more as entertainment, they have much in common. And this provides some intriguing insights into how, when thinking about the relationships in storytelling between form and content, the nature of the Web requires a radical rethinking of what fiction is. So my apologies in advance for the way this first attempt to do just that has turned into a longish post.
Eames calls what he does ‘three-dimensional storytelling’. I want to call the genre of which I believe that Kymaerica and ARGs are both instances ‘multimedia storytelling’. ‘Storytelling’, as opposed to ‘fiction’, because the notion of fiction belongs with the print book and is arguably inseparable from a series of relatively recent conventions around suspension of disbelief. And genuinely ‘multimedia’ in the sense that it uses multiple delivery mechanisms online but is not confined to the Web – indeed, is most successful when it escapes its boundaries.
People have been telling stories since the first humans sat round a culture. Narratives are fundamental to how we make sense of our world. But the print industry is such that otherwise highly-educated publishers, writers and so on talk as if no-one knew anything about works of the imagination before the novel appeared, along with the category of ‘fiction’ and all the cognitive conventions that entails. Why is this?
The novel is one delivery mechanism for storytelling, that emerged under specific social and cultural conditions. The economic, cultural and social structures created by and creating the novel hold up the commodification of individual imaginations (the convention of ‘original’ work, the idea of ‘great’ authors and so on) as their ideological and idealised centrepiece. The novel was for a long time the crown jewel of the literate culture industry. But it remains only one way of telling stories. And part of its conventions derive from the nature of the book as physical object: boundedness, fixity, authorship.
Meanwhile, many of us live now in a networked, post-industrial era, where many of the things that seemed so certain to a Dickens or Trollope no longer seem as reliable. And, perhaps fittingly, we have a new delivery mechanism for content. But unlike the book, which is bounded, fixed, authored, the Web is boundless, mutable, multi-authored and deeply unreliable. So the conception of singly-authored ‘fiction’ may not work any more. Hence I prefer the term ‘storytelling’: it is older than ‘fiction’, and less complicit in the conceptual framework that produced the novel. And as Ben has just suggested, the Web in many ways recalls oral storytelling much more than modern conceptions of fiction.
I also want to be clear about what I mean by ‘multimedia’, as the word is often used in contexts that replicate much of the print era’s mindset and as such, at a fundamental, misunderstand something about the Web. On the basis of experiments in this form to date, Multimedia fiction’ evokes something digital but book-like: bounded, authored, fixed like a book, just with extra visual stimuli and maybe some superficially interactive bells and whistles. I have yet to come across a piece, in this sense, of ‘multimedia fiction’ that’s as compelling as a book.
But the Web isn’t a book. Its formal nature is radically different. It’s boundless, mutable, multi-authored. So if the concrete physical form and economic conditions of a book’s production make certain demands of a story, and reciprocally shape its reading public, then what equivalent demands do the Web make?
Gamer Theory and Mediacommons demonstrate the potential for a ‘networked book’ to become a site of conversation, networked debate and dynamic exploration. But these are discursive rather than imaginative works. If the generic markers of a novel are fairly recognisable, what are the equivalent markers of a networked story? Drawing out the parallels between Kymaerica and an ARG, I want to suggest a concept of ‘multimedia storytelling’ characterised by the following qualities:
1) fragmentation,
2) a rebalancing of authorship with collaboration, and
3) a dissolution of the boundary between fact and fiction, and attendant replacement of ‘suspension of disbelief’ with play.
Web reading tends towards entropy. You go looking for statistics on the Bornean rainforest and find yourself reading the blog of someone who collects orang utan coffee mugs. Anyone doing sustained research on the Web needs a well-developed ability to navigate countless digressions, and derive coherence from the sea of chatter. And multimedia storytelling mimics this reading practice. The reader’s activity consists not in turning pages but in following clues, leads, associative echos and lateral leaps, and reconstructing sense from the fragments. It is pleasurable precisely because it offers a souped-up, pre-authored and more rewarding (because fantastic) version of the usual site-hopping experience. A typical ARG may include many different websites along with emails, IM chats, live action and other media. Part of the pleasure is derived from an experience that requires the ‘reader’ to sift through a fragmented body of information and reassemble the story.
Kymaerica is not fragmented across the Web like an ARG: the bulk of the story archive is available through the eponymous site. But the offline, physical traces of its story can be found in Texas, Illinois, London, Oxfordshire and elsewheres. And the story itself is deliberately fragmented. The way Eames explains it, he has the entire history of this world worked out in detail, but deliberately only reveals tiny parts of it through supposedly ‘factual’ tools such as plaques, guides and the kinds of snippet you might find in a museum dealing with the ‘real’ or factual world. “I always want to hint at something that’s just out of reach,” he told me. “It’s like writing a novel so you can publish a haiku.”
So just as an ARG offers fragments of the story for the players to reconstitute, for Eames it’s up to the audience to join the dots. This fragmented delivery then requires a radical rebalancing of the relationship between the author and the reader.
Whereas the relationship between a print author and a novel reader might be characterised as serial imaginative monogamy, the relationship between multimedia storytelling and its readers is fragmented, multiple, polyamorous, mutable. Again, this mimics the multiplicity, interactivity and mutability of Web reading, along with its greater reliance on user-generated content. ARG stories play out in time and, while the core story is worked out in advance, are highly improvisatory on the edges. Players work together on fora, or even – as in WWO – write additional imaginative content for the story. Interaction with characters in the story may take place in real time, either in the flesh or by IM or email; mistakes may generate whole new storylines; the players collaborate to solve puzzles and progress the story.
Eames’ three-dimensional storytelling remains similarly improvisatory. The back story is worked out ahead of schedule; but every conversation he has with others expands the story further, and needs to be incorporated into the archives. He’s keen to get the world well enough established to invite others to contribute material to the archives. And the experience is highly absorbing, even for the initially sceptical: in Paris, Illinois, the local townsfolk now hold a Kymaerican Spelling Bee as part of the town’s annual festival. Neither ARGs nor Kymaerica have entirely abandoned the notion of sustained authorship, as in different ways Ficlets or the Million Penguins wiki experiment attempt to do. Rather, it has been resituated in a context where the reader or listener has been recast as something more like a player. The story is a game; the game structure already exists; but the game is not there until it is played.
The replacement of ‘reading’ or ‘listening’ with ‘playing’ is the final characteristic I associate with multimedia storytelling, and is inseparable from the existence of Web stories in a network rather than a bounded artefact, whether print book or CD-ROM. A networked story is porous at the edges, inviting participation, comment and contribution; this renders the notion of ‘suspension of disbelief’ useless.
The first books represented a revered source of ancient authority: the Bible, the classical philosophers, the theologians. And even when telling stories, books provide a conceptual proscenium arch. Opening the covers of a book, like seeing the lights go down in a theatre, conveys a clear signal to begin your ‘suspension of disbelief’. But the Web gives no such clear signals. The Web is all that is not authoritative: it is a white noise of opinion, bias, speculation, argument and debate. Story, in essence. Even the facts on the Web are more like narratives than any reliable truth. The Web won’t tell you which sites you can take seriously and which not; there are no boundary markers between suspending disbelief and taking things literally. Instead of establishing clear conventions for which books are to be taken as ‘authoritative’ and read literally, and which to be treated as pure imagination, the Web invites the reader to half-believe everything all the time, and believe nothing at the same time. To play a game of ‘What if this were true’?
Again, multimedia storytelling mimics this experience. Is this site in-game, or just the product of some crazy people? Was there really a Great Dangaroo Flood on Old Compton St? It uses familiar tools conventionally used to communicate ‘real world’ information: email, IM, the semiotic register of tourist guides, plaques, visitors’ centres. It hands the responsibility for deciding on when to suspend disbelief back to the individual. And in doing so, it transforms this from ‘suspension of disbelief’ to an active choice: to a kind of performed imaginative participation best described as ‘play’.
Multimedia stories are not ‘read’: they are played. And unlike a suspension of disbelief, which contains within itself the assumption that we will afterwards revert to a condition of lucid rationality, play has a tendency to overspill its boundaries. The Parisian Embassy in Illinois is beginning to have a reciprocal effect on its surroundings: a street in the town has been renamed in line with Kymaerican history. The Florida authority responsible for historic sites has received at least one complaint about Kymaerican plaques, which they sensibly just said were not their responsibility. Take away the proscenium arch and fact and fiction begin dancing in ways that either exhilarate or terrify you.
Reports of the death of the novel are greatly exaggerated. Multimedia storytelling in the form I’ve just tried to outline does not compete with the novel, for reasons which I hope I’ve made clear. But the Web as storytelling medium deserves better than misguided attempts either to claim its ascendancy over previous forms, or else to force it to deliver against ideas of ‘fiction’ that do not reflect its nature. The interlocking qualities of fragmentation, collaboration and boundlessness mimic the experiences of reading on the Web and require a different kind of participation than ‘reading’. Suspension of disbelief becomes deliberately-performed play, collaborative reconstruction of the story is essential to the experience, and an ongoing improvisatory dance takes place between author and readership.

benevolent conspiracy

“Fuel prices jumped this week, led by gasoline which gained over a dollar a gallon on average. Oil distributors pointed to several “renegotiated” delivery contracts as proof that a long-rumored shortfall in the supply of U.S. oil has finally arrived. Oil producers were tight-lipped about the adjusted contracts, and as I write this it’s still unclear how extensive the shortfall will turn out to be.”
And thus the stage is set for World Without Oil, the social consciousness-raising ARG (alternate reality game) launched today by Jane McGonigal and associates. I’m already in flagrant violation of the “this is not a game” convention that governs all ARGs, but since this something I and others here at the Institute aim to follow closely in the coming weeks and months, we’ll have to treat the curtain between fact and fiction as semi-transparent.
From the perspective of our research here, I’m deeply intrigued because the ARG is an entirely net-native storytelling genre, employing forms as diverse and scattered as the media landscape we live in today. ARGs don’t rely on a specific software application, game system or OS, rather they treat the entire Internet as their platform. Players typically employ a whole battery of information technologies — email, chat, blogs, search engines, message boards, wikis, social media sites, cell phones — in pursuit of an elusive narrative thread.
The story is usually spun through cryptic clues and half-disclosures, one bread crumb at a time, by the game’s authors, or “puppetmasters.” To have any hope of success, players must work together, sharing clues and pooling information as they go. The whole point is to make the story into a group obsession — to mobilize players into problem-solving collectives where they can debate and test different hypotheses as a smart mob. It’s sort of like surfing an alternate version of the net, using all the social search tactics of the real one.
Of course, the net is a murky territory, full of conspiracy theories, identity traps and misinformation. ARGs take this uncertainty and make it their idiom. The game (remember, it’s not a game) might involve websites that to the casual observer look perfectly real — a corporate home page, a personal blog — but that are in fact a part of the fiction. ARGs use the playbook of spammers, phishers and social reality hackers like the Yes Men to create a fictional universe that blends seamlessly with the real.
But we’re not just talking about an alternate net here, we’re talking about an alternative world. ARGs frequently assign tasks that pull players away from their computers and propel them into their physical environment (the phenomenally popular I Love Bees had people running all over San Francisco answering pay phones). This couldn’t be more unlike the whole Second Life phenomenon (which, as you may have noticed, we’ve barely covered here). Instead of building a one-to-one simulacrum of the actual world (yeah yeah, you can fly, big whoop), this takes the actual world and tilts it — reinterprets it. There’s imagination happening here.
World Without Oil takes this in a new direction. McGonigal has been talking for some time now about using ARGs for more than just pure play. She believes they could be harnessed to solve real world problems (for more about this, read this recent long piece in SF Weekly by Eliza Strickland). Hence the premise of oil shocks. The WWO website was set up by ten friends who met in the chaos of the Denver Airport during the blizzards this past December. During that time, they bonded and got to talking about citizen journalism and the potential of the web for organizing masses of people to deal with crises without having to rely solely on big media and big government. A weird tip about an impending oil crisis on April 30th got their paranoid wheels turning and they decided to set up a central hub for netizens to send reportage and personal testimonies about life during the shocks. Today is April 30 and lo and behold: the shocks have arrived!
The idea is to collectively imagine a reality that could very likely come to pass, and to share information and ideas — alternative energy innovations, new forms of transport, new forms of community — that could help us get through it. It’s an opportunity for self-reeducation and perhaps the forging of some real-world relationships. There’s even a page for teachers to guide students through this collaborative hallucination, and to learn something about energy geopolitics as they do it.
As an entry to the serious games movement, this has to be one of the most innovative efforts out there. But I find myself wondering whether simply getting everyone to report from their corner of the crisis — postcards from the apocalypse –will be enough to create a full-blown ARG phenomenon. Is this participatory in quite the right way? While I ecstatically applaud the intention here of repurposing a form that to date has been employed mainly as a viral marketing tool (the first ARG was built around Spielberg’s “A.I.” in 2001), I worry that the WWO construct seems to have been shorn of most of the usual mystery elements — the codes, clues and crumbs — that make ARGs so addictive. There’s a whiff of homework here, something perhaps a little too earnest, that could prevent it from gaining traction. I sincerely hope I’m wrong.
Still, even if this fails to take off, I think this is an important milestone and will be important to study as it unfolds. WWO suggests what could be the ideal dystopian form for the cultural moment: a mode of storytelling that taps directly into the present human condition of networked information blitz and tries to channel it toward real-world awareness, or even action. The ARG adopts tactics long employed in military war games and conflict exercises and turns them (at least potentially) toward grassroots activism. WWO is trying to rouse, as Sebastian Mary put it in a previous post, our “democratic imagination. In SF Weekly piece I link to above, McGonigal puts it this way:

“When you start projecting that out to bigger scales, that’s when these games start to look like a real way to achieve, if not world peace, then some kind of world-benevolent conspiracy, where we feel like we are all playing the same game.”

children_of_men_poster-764466.jpg Many people I know loved the film “Children of Men” by Alfonso Cuarón because they felt that it showed them, with the cutting clarity of allegory, the way the world really is. The premise, that the human race has lost the ability to reproduce itself (a dying world, without children, slowly self-destructing), was of course implausible, but all the same it felt like a layer was being peeled away to reveal a terrible truth. Probably the most unsettling moment for me was the lights rose at the end and we exited the theater into the street. Everything looked different, fragile, like something awful was being hidden just beneath the surface. But the feeling soon faded and I filed the experience away: “Children of Men”; a brilliant film; one of the year’s best; shamefully overlooked at the Oscars.
What would “Children of Men” look like as an ARG? What would a networked tactic bring to this story? Would it be simply dispatches from a dying world, or could we do something more constructive? Could the darkened theater and the streets outside somehow be merged?
Our first stories were oral stories. When we were children our parents read to us aloud stories that we listened to over and over again until they were embedded in our unconscious. We knew the stories inside and out, backwards and forwards. Reading became a ritual of call and response: a physical act. In the classroom too, teachers read aloud to us. We knew the stories inside and out, backwards and forwards. Call and response. At recess we ran out into the playground and re-eanacted the stories — replayed them, spun new ones. Those early experiences hearken back to earlier cultures — oral, pre-literate ones where the word was less the realm of contemplation and more the realm of action. ARGs seem to tap into this power of the oral story — the spark of the imagination and then the dash, together, into the playground.

gamer theory 2.0

…is officially live! Check it out. Spread the word.
I want to draw special attention to the Gamer Theory TextArc in the visualization gallery – a graphical rendering of the book that reveals (quite beautifully) some of the text’s underlying structures.
Gamer Arc detail
TextArc was created by Brad Paley, a brilliant interaction designer based in New York. A few weeks ago, he and Ken Wark came over to the Institute to play around with the Gamer Theory in TextArc on a wall display:
Ken jotted down some of his thoughts on the experience: “Brad put it up on the screen and it was like seeing a diagram of my own writing brain…” Read more here (then scroll down partway).
starting bottom-left, counter-clockwise: Ken, Brad, Eddie, Bob
More thoughts about all of this to come. I’ve spent the past two days running around like a madman at the Digital Library Federation Spring Forum in Pasadena, presenting our work (MediaCommons in particular), ducking in and out of sessions, chatting with interesting folks, and pounding away at the Gamer site — inserting footnote links, writing copy, generally polishing. I’m looking forward to regrouping in New York and processing all of this.
Thanks, Florian Brody for the photos.
Oh, and here is the “official” press/blogosphere release. Circulate freely:
The Institute for the Future of the Book is pleased to announce a new edition of the “networked book” Gamer Theory by McKenzie Wark. Last year, the Institute published a draft of Wark’s path-breaking critical study of video games in an experimental web format designed to bring readers into conversation around a work in progress. In the months that followed, hundreds of comments poured in from gamers, students, scholars, artists and the generally curious, at times turning into a full-blown conversation in the manuscript’s margins. Based on the many thoughtful contributions he received, Wark revised the book and has now published a print edition through Harvard University Press, which contains an edited selection of comments from the original website. In conjunction with the Harvard release, the Institute for the Future of the Book has launched a new Creative Commons-licensed, social web edition of Gamer Theory, along with a gallery of data visualizations of the text submitted by leading interaction designers, artists and hackers. This constellation of formats — read, read/write, visualize — offers the reader multiple ways of discovering and building upon Gamer Theory. A multi-mediated approach to the book in the digital age.
More about the book:
Ever get the feeling that life’s a game with changing rules and no clear sides, one you are compelled to play yet cannot win? Welcome to gamespace. Gamespace is where and how we live today. It is everywhere and nowhere: the main chance, the best shot, the big leagues, the only game in town. In a world thus configured, McKenzie Wark contends, digital computer games are the emergent cultural form of the times. Where others argue obsessively over violence in games, Wark approaches them as a utopian version of the world in which we actually live. Playing against the machine on a game console, we enjoy the only truly level playing field–where we get ahead on our strengths or not at all.
Gamer Theory uncovers the significance of games in the gap between the near-perfection of actual games and the highly imperfect gamespace of everyday life in the rat race of free-market society. The book depicts a world becoming an inescapable series of less and less perfect games. This world gives rise to a new persona. In place of the subject or citizen stands the gamer. As all previous such personae had their breviaries and manuals, Gamer Theory seeks to offer guidance for thinking within this new character. Neither a strategy guide nor a cheat sheet for improving one’s score or skills, the book is instead a primer in thinking about a world made over as a gamespace, recast as an imperfect copy of the game.
The Institute for the Future of the Book is a small New York-based think tank dedicated to inventing new forms of discourse for the network age. Other recent publishing experiments include an annotated online edition of the Iraq Study Group Report (with Lapham’s Quarterly), Without Gods: Toward a History of Disbelief (with Mitchell Stephens, NYU), and MediaCommons, a digital scholarly network in media studies. Read the Institute’s blog, if:book. Inquiries: curator [at] futureofthebook [dot] org
McKenzie Wark teaches media and cultural studies at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College in New York City. He is the author of several books, most recently A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard University Press) and Dispositions (Salt Publishing).

a problem

A screaming comes across the sky: the familiar roar of the growing Media Event, gathering power as it leaves the launchpad – the shootings at Virginia Tech – behind it. It has happened before, and it will happen again, and we know exactly how it will work: cover stories and TV coverage of Seung-Hui Cho will proliferate for the next few weeks, while journalists try furiously to get to the bottom of what caused this, feeling out the endless ramifications.
I don’t have any noteworthy opinions on Cho. I am, however, interested in the news cycle and how it impacts the way we think about the world we live in. This is something brought home last week by this post from Wonkette, which points out that 160 people were killed in Iraq at roughly the same time as the Virginia Tech massacre. The tone is crass, but I think it’s on target: estimates that 700 people died in Iraq last week, over twenty times the number killed in Virginia. That’s not a ratio reflected by coverage in the American media: looking at the front pages of The New York Times for the past week, I find seven stories on Cho, two on deaths in Iraq. It’s a strange and problematic disparity when you think about it. While it’s difficult to predict where and when the next school shooting will occur, there’s a high probability that a similarly high number of people will die in Iraq in the coming week. Predictability doesn’t translate into preventability, but there’s some correlation: we can still do something about Iraq.
The media is very good at reporting on sharply punctuated events (the death of Anna Nicole Smith; the rise and fall of Sanjaya; French politics when there’s an election happening). The news cycle feeds on novelty. I’m sure in the weeks to come we’ll learn more than we ever wanted to about the sad life of Cho. The media’s not very good at reporting on things that go on for a long time: as the war in Iraq grinds past its fourth anniversary, it’s hard for anyone to get excited about what’s happening there, no matter how horrific they are. Any number of similar long-standing issues are similarly poorly served: when was the last time you heard about what’s going on in New Orleans? Afghanistan? post-tsunami Indonesia?
This becomes an if:book issue simply because temporality has become such an enormous part of the way we deal with electronic media. The past few years have witnessed the ascendency of blog-based writing online; when we read blogs, we tend to read the most recent posts, to look at what’s new. This works very well for targeting certain sorts of problems: a snippy post at Boing Boing about some perceived wrong will target thousands of would-be hackers’ wrath. But we don’t seem to have a good way to deal with big, lasting problems that aren’t changing quickly, in part because the media forms that we have to use are so strongly time-based. Historically, this is a space in which books have functioned: consider the role of Thomas Paine’s pamphlets or Uncle Tom’s Cabin in fomenting past wars. An open-ended question: how can this be done in today’s media environment? Are the forms we have good enough? Or do we not know how to use them?

gamer theory 2.0 (beta)

The new Gamer Theory site is up, though for the next 24 hours we’re considering it beta. It’s all pretty much there except for some last bits and pieces (pop-up textual notes, a few explanatory materials, one or two pieces for the visualization gallery, miscellaneous tweaks). By all means start poking around and posting comments.
The project now has a portal page that links you to the constitutent parts: the Harvard print edition, two networked web editions (1.1 and 2.0), a discussion forum, and, newest of all, a gallery of text visualizations including a customized version of Brad Paley’s “TextArc” and a fascinating prototype of a progam called “FeatureLens” from the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland. We’ll make a much bigger announcement about this tomorrow. For now, consider the site softly launched.

monkeys typing

Things are quiet here except for the soft patter of keyboards as we type/code/tweak away at Gamer Theory 2.0. The site goes live first thing Monday, at which point normal levels of conversation should resume. (Meanwhile, peaking out the window, it appears that spring has finally decided to arrive. Hallelujah!)

sophie blog and tutorial

We’ve just started a blog for Sophie. The first entry shows Sophie running on an emulator for the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child aka/$100 laptop machine). The second announces the first Sophie tutorial which you can download from here.

gamer theory update

Gamer Theory 2.0 is nearly there, we’re just taking a few extra few days to apply the finishing touches and to get a few last visualizations mounted in the gallery. The print edition from Harvard is available now.
For those of you in the city, there’s a great Gamer Theory event planned for tonight at the New School followed by drinks in Brooklyn at Barcade — a bar (as the name suggests) fitted out as a retro video game arcade (have a pint and play a round of Rampage, Gauntlet or Frogger). Here’s more info:
what: McKenzie Wark will present, and lead a discussion of his new book Gamer Theory (Harvard University Press). Jaeho Kang (Sociology, The New School for Social Reseach) will act as the respondent.
where: Wolff Conference Room, 2nd floor, 65 5th avenue (between 14th and 13th streets)
when: 6-8PM, Wednesday 18th April 2007
then: drinks & games at Barcade, 388 Union Ave Williamsburg (L train to Lorrimer st, take Union exit)

samizdat express

In his latest NY Times column, Edward Rothstein meditates on the vastness of the public domain and the pleasures of skimming it in simple digital editions prepared by B+R Samizdat Express. Since 1993 B+R, run by Barbara and Richard Seltzer of West Roxbury, Massachusetts, has been selling bundles of plain text (ASCII) digital literature scooped from Project Gutenberg and arranged by theme, genre or period into anthologies — first on floppy disc, and now on CD-ROM and DVD. It’s all stuff you can get for free by grazing the web’s various public domain repositories, but B+R have done the work of harvesting and sorting and they’ll ship these multi-shelf-spanning chunks to you for the price of a single print volume. Browse through nearly 200 book collections they’ve assembled so far and you’ll find packages ranging from “Anthropology and Myth” ($19), “Works of Guy de Maupassant” ($12), or “The American Revolution and Early Republic as witnessed by Mercy Warren and Others” ($19). Some works are provided in audio through text-to-voice conversion software.
As Rothstein notes, the bare-bones formatting and sheer volume of the anthologies makes these works hard to digest, but there’s no doubt B+R provides a valuable service, especially for people in places where books are scarce and net access unreliable. All in all, it’s an e-book advocate’s playground but more of a hallucinogenic head trip for the average reader — a way to sample vastness. It does make one’s wheels start to turn, though, on what other elucidating layers could be built on top of the vast murk of the digital library.

report on democratization and the networked public sphere

I was at the “Democratization and the Networked Public Sphere” panel on Friday night in a room full of flagrantly well-read attendees. But it was the panelists who shone. They fully grasped the challenges facing the network as it emerges as the newest theater in the political and social struggle for a democratic society. It was the best panel I’ve seen in a long time, with a full spectrum of views represented: Ethan Zuckerman self-deprecatingly described himself as “one of those evil capitalists,” whose stance clearly reflected the values of market liberalism. On the opposite side, Trebor Scholz raised a red flag in warning against the spectre of capitalism that hovers over the ‘user-generated content’ movement. In between (literally—she sat between them), Danah Boyd spoke eloquently about the characteristics of a networked social space, and the problems traditional social interaction models face when superimposed on the network.
Danah spoke first, contrasting the characteristics of online and offline public spaces, and continuing on to describe the need for public space at a time when we seem obsessed with privacy. The problem with limiting ourselves to discussions of privacy, she said, is that we forget that public space only exists when we are using it. She then went on to talk about her travels and encounters with the isolation of exurban life—empty sidewalks, the physical distances separating teens from their social peers, the privatization of social space (malls). Her point was that with all this privacy and private space, the public space is being neglected. What is important though is to recognize how networked spaces are becoming a space for public life. Even more important: these new public spaces are under threat as much as the real life publics that have been stripped away by suburban isolation.
Ethan Zuckerman began with a presentation of the now infamous 1984 Mac ad, remixed to star Hillary Clinton. He then pointed out that a strikingly similar remix had been made in 2004 by the media artist Astrubal, featuring Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Zuckerman was excited because it pointed to the power of the remix, and the network as an alternative vector for dissent in a regime with a highly controlled press. While the ad is a deadly serious matter in Tunisia, in America it is just smear. The Hillary ad seems to be a turning point in media representations on the network in the US. Zuckerman asserted that 21st century political campaigns will be different than 20th century campaigns precisely because of the power of citizen generated media combined with the distributive power of the network.
Trebor Scholz warned that unbridled enthusiasm for user-generated content may mask an undercurrent of capitalist exploitation, even though most rhetoric about user-generated content proposes exactly the opposite. In most descriptions, user-generated content is an act of personal expression, and has value as such: Scholz referenced Yochai Benkler’s notion that people gain agency as they express themselves as speakers, and that this characteristic may transfer to the real world, encouraging a politically active citizenry. But Trebor’s main point was that the majority of time spent on self-expression finds its way onto a small number of sites—YouTube and MySpace in particular. He had some staggering numbers for MySpace: 12% of all time spent online in America is dedicated to MySpace alone. The dirty secret is that someone owns MySpace, and it isn’t the content producers. It’s Rupert Murdoch. Google, of course, owns YouTube. And therein lies the crux of Trebor’s argument: someone else is getting rich off a user’s personal expression, and the creators cannot claim ownership of their own work. They produce content that nets only social capital, while the owners take in millions of dollars.
It’s a tricky point to make, since Boyd noted that most producers are using these services expressly to gain social capital—monetary concerns don’t enter the equation. I have a vague sense of discomfort in taking a stance that is ultimately patronizing to producers, saying “You shouldn’t do this for fear of enriching someone else.” But I can’t get away from the idea that Trebor is right —users are locked in to a site by their social ties, and the companies hold a great deal of power over them. Further, that power is not just social but also legal: the companies own the content.
On the other hand, users have a great deal of power over the companies, a fact made plain by the recent protest against the ‘News Feed’ feature added to Facebook. The feature caused a huge uproar in the Facebook community and a call for boycotting Facebook spread—ironically—using the News Feed feature. Facebook removed the feature. responded by allowing users to control what went in the feeds. [updated 4.17.07. thanks to andrew s.]
This discussion spun off into another one: what does it mean that 700,000 users found it in their willpower to protest a feature on Facebook, when only a portion of those would be as active in any other public sphere? Boyd claims that this is a signal that networked public spaces are a viable arena for public participation. Zuckerman would agree—the network can activate a community response in the real world. Dissidents working against repressive governments have used the network to amplify their voices and illuminate the plight of people and nations ignored by the mainstream media. This is reason for optimism. In America we’ve recently seen national and regional politics embracing networked spaces (see Obama in MySpace). Let’s hope they do so in good faith, and also embrace the spirit of openness and collaboration that is an essential part of the network.
I have hope, but I am also circumspect. The networked public space can serve the needs of a democracy, but it can also devolve into venality. There is a difference between using the network to further human freedom and the lesson that I take away from the Facebook uprising. What happened on Facebook is not a triumph of a civil polity; it’s more like the plaintive cry in a theater when the projector breaks. Public outcry over a trivial action doesn’t improve our democracy—it just shows how far into triviality we have fallen.
Ethan Zuckerman’s follow up to the event
Trebor’s presentation and follow up to the event