Monthly Archives: September 2007


Moby Dick Chapter 55 or 9200 times E”, 2004, graphite on hemp paper, 11 x 9″
In one of those odd, blogospheric delayed reactions, I just came across (via Information Aesthetics, via Kottke) a fabulous exhibit that took place this past March by an artist named Justin Quinn, who does beautiful, mysterious work with text. Quinn’s Moby-Dick series is made up of obsessively detailed prints and graphite drawings composed entirely of the letter E. Each E corresponds to a letter in a chapter of Melville’s book, so each piece is composed of literally thousands of characters. The effect is almost that of a mosaic or a concrete poem. This series was shown at MMGalleries in San Francisco and has since moved elsewhere (Miami possibly?), but there are still a number of images online (also here). Quinn explains his obsession with E:

The distance between reading and seeing has been an ongoing interest for me. Since 1998 I have been exploring this space through the use of letterforms, and have used the letter E as my primary starting point for the last two years. Since E is often found at the top of vision charts, I questioned what I saw as a familiar hierarchy. Was this letter more important than other letters? E is, after all, the most commonly used letter in the English language, it denotes a natural number (2.71828), and has a visual presence that interests me greatly. In my research E has become a surrogate for all letters in the alphabet. It now replaces the other letters and becomes a universal letter (or Letter), and a string of Es now becomes a generic language (or Language). This substitution denies written words their use as legible signifiers, allowing language to become a vacant parallel Language -? a basis for visual manufacture.
After months of compiling Es into abstract compositions through various systemic arrangements, I started recognizing my studio time as a quasi-monastic experience. There was something sublime about both the compositions that I was making and the solitude in which they were made. It was as if I were translating some great text like a subliterate medieval scribe would have years ago – ?with no direct understanding of the source material. The next logical step was to find a source. Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick, a story rich in theology, philosophy, and psychosis provides me with a roadmap for my work, but also with a series of underlying narratives. My drawings, prints, and collages continue to speak of language and the transferal of information, but now as a conduit to Melville’s sublime narratives.

Gazing at these for a while (digital reproductions of course… and on my browser… and brought to my attention through technology blogs), I couldn’t help but start to draw some connections between Quinn’s work and computers. There’s plenty of digital artwork and visualization programs that render text into complex visual formations, sometimes with the intention of discovering new meanings and relationships, other times purely to play with form. Every now and then, someone manages to achieve both. This is a detail from Brad Paley’s rendering of Gamer Theory through his program Text Arc:
Others can be beautiful to handle, but are ultimately opaque, like Ben Fry’s “Valence”:
These two images are from another work submitted to our Gamer Theory visualization gallery, a map of nouns and verbs in Wark’s text (first is full, second is a detail). It’s pretty, but basically meaningless.
Quinn’s work is also difficult to penetrate, but something about it holds my attention. I’m not sure how aware Quinn is of the digital work being done today, but viewing his pieces against the contemporary technological backdrop, and his own self-described feeling of being the “subliterate medieval scribe” as he makes his minute articulations, my mind runs off in a number of directions. Seeing that his work is in a way “pixelated” – ?his Es a “basis for visual manufacture” – ?I imagine him as a sort of human computer – ?a monastic machine – ?processing (or intuiting) the text by infintessimal degrees through his own inner algorithm.
After all, a computer’s work is “subliterate.” Algorithms must be designed with intelligence, but the actual running of the program is physical, mindless. Viewed this way, Quinn’s work is like a dive into the mania of operations usually carried out with blazing speed by microprocessors. This is not to diminish it, or to call it cold and mechanical. Rather I’m pondering whether there is perhaps a spiritual dimension to the repetitive, sub-rational activities of our machines, which, if transposed to human scale, can become a sort of devotional exercise, like the routines of Buddhist monks, endlessly painting and carving Chinese characters in order to empty their minds (other links between monks and computers here and here).
What’s particularly evocative to me about the work, however, is how it treads the line between that meditative quality and the obsessive. There is something frightening about them (or about any kind of fanatically detailed artwork, or about computers for that matter), like the reams of psychotic babble typed out ceaselessly by Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.” Or is it Ahab’s vengeance algorithm we’re seeing, running on overdrive until the machine (or ship) crashes?
In the end, Quinn’s images are mysterious, his algorithm inscrutable, although my mind immediately goes to work trying to link up Melville’s themes and images to those endless strings of Es.
Here’s that first image again with a quote from the source text that seemed to me to connect. Chapter 55, “Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales”:
Moby Dick Chapter 55 or 9200 times E”, 2004, graphite on hemp paper, 11 x 9″
But these manifold mistakes in depicting the whale are not so very surprising after all. Consider! Most of the scientific drawings have been taken from the stranded fish; and these are about as correct as a drawing of a wrecked ship, with broken back, would correctly represent the noble animal itself in all its undashed pride of hull and spars. Though elephants have stood for their full-lengths, the living Leviathan has never yet fairly floated himself for his portrait. The living whale, in his full majesty and significance, is only to be seen at sea in unfathomable waters; and afloat the vast bulk of him is out of sight, like a launched line-of-battle ship; and out of that element it is a thing eternally impossible for mortal man to hoist him bodily into the air, so as to preserve all his mighty swells and undulations.
This one is of chapter 71, “The Jeroboam’s Story” (I spoke briefly on the phone with one of the curators who told me that Quinn had explained this as an inverted halo, reflecting the anti-Christ-like character described in the chapter – ?I almost see an aerial view of a whale cutting through water):
Moby Dick Chapter 71 or 9,814 times E”, 2006, mixed media, 11 x 15″
…but straightway upon the ship’s getting out of sight of land, his insanity broke out in a freshet. He announced himself as the archangel Gabriel, and commanded the captain to jump overboard. He published his manifesto, whereby he set himself forth as the deliverer of the isles of the sea and vicar-general of all Oceanica. The unflinching earnestness with which he declared these things; – the dark, daring play of his sleepless, excited imagination, and all the preternatural terrors of real delirium, united to invest this Gabriel in the minds of the majority of the ignorant crew, with an atmosphere of sacredness. Moreover, they were afraid of him. As such a man, however, was not of much practical use in the ship, especially as he refused to work except when he pleased, the incredulous captain would fain have been rid of him; but apprised that that individual’s intention was to land him in the first convenient port, the archangel forthwith opened all his seals and vials – devoting the ship and all hands to unconditional perdition, in case this intention was carried out. So strongly did he work upon his disciples among the crew, that at last in a body they went to the captain and told him if Gabriel was sent from the ship, not a man of them would remain.

cellphone fiction in japan

japcellnovel.jpg Peter Brantley points to an interesting WSJ piece (free) on the explosion of Japanese cellphone fiction. These are works, often the length of novels, composed specifically for consumption via the phone’s tiny screen. In some cases, they are even written on the phone. Stories are written in terse, unadorned language, in chunks crafted specifically to fit on a single mobile screen. Dialog is favored heavily over narrative description, and from the short excerpts I’ve read, the aim seems to be to conjure cinematic imagery with the greatest economy of words. The WSJ reproduces this passage from Satomi Nakamura’s “To Love You Again”:

Kin Kon Kan Kon (sound of school bell ringing)
The school bell rang
“Sigh. We’re missing class”
She said with an annoyed expression.

This novel clocks in at 200 pages, and was written entirely with Nakamura’s thumb!
About seven years ago, some of these works started making their way into print, initially through self-publishing websites like Maho i-Land. But the popularity of mobile novels soon caught the attention of mainstream publishers and numerous titles have been made into bona fide hits in print, some selling into the millions, with film adaptations, the whole bit.
But if any industry lesson can be taken from this mini case study of Japanese cellphone fic, it’s not the potential for crossover into print, but that emergent electronic literary forms will most likely find their economic model in services and subscriptions rather than in the sale of copies. The WSJ article suggests that the mobile lit genre exploded in Japan in no small part due to recent changes in service options from cellular providers.

About three years ago, phone companies began offering high-speed mobile Internet and affordable flat-rate plans for transmitting data. Users could then access the Internet as much as they wanted to for less than $50 a month.
The now-bustling Maho i-Land has six million members, and the number of mobile novels on its site has jumped, to more than a million today from about 300,000 before the flat-rate plans cut phone bills in half. According to industrywide data cited by Japan’s largest cellphone operator NTT DoCoMo Inc., sales from mobile-book and comic-book services are expected to more than double, to more than $200 million from about $90 million last year.

This would suggest that at least part of the reason cellphone novels haven’t taken off here in the States is the comparatively impoverished service we get from our mobile providers, and the often extortionist rates we pay. True, the mobile lit genre was already a phenomenon there before the rejiggering of service plans, which suggests there were preexisting cultural conditions that led to the emergence of the form: readers’ already well developed appetites for serial comics perhaps, or the peculiar intensity of keitai fetishism. In other words, improved telcom services in the States wouldn’t necessarily translate into a proliferation of cellphone novels, but other mobile media services would undoubtedly start to flourish. Broadband internet access is also pathetically slow in the US compared to countries in Europe and East Asia – ?the Japanese get service eight to 30 times faster than what we get over here. What other new media forms are being stifled by the crappiness of our connections?

the googlization of everything: a public writing begins

We’re very excited to announce that Siva’s new Google book site, produced and hosted by the Institute, is now live! In addition to being the seed of what will likely be a very important book, I’ll bet that over time this will become one of the best Google-focused blogs on the Web.
The Googlization of Everything: How One Company is Disrupting Culture, Commerce, and Community… and Why We Should Worry.
The book:

…a critical interpretation of the actions and intentions behind the cultural behemoth that is Google, Inc. The book will answer three key questions: What does the world look like through the lens of Google?; How is Google’s ubiquity affecting the production and dissemination of knowledge?; and how has the corporation altered the rules and practices that govern other companies, institutions, and states?

The experiment:

I have never tried to write a book this way. Few have. Writing has been a lonely, selfish pursuit for my so far. I tend to wall myself off from the world (and my loved ones) for days at a time in fits and spurts when I get into a writing groove. I don’t shave. I order pizza. I grumble. I ignore emails from my mother.
I tend to comb through and revise every sentence five or six times (although I am not sure that actually shows up in the quality of my prose). Only when I am sure that I have not embarrassed myself (or when the editor calls to threaten me with a cancelled contract – whichever comes first) do I show anyone what I have written. Now, this is not an uncommon process. Closed composition is the default among writers. We go to great lengths to develop trusted networks of readers and other writers with whom we can workshop – or as I prefer to call it because it’s what the jazz musicians do, woodshed our work.
Well, I am going to do my best to woodshed in public. As I compose bits and pieces of work, I will post them here. They might be very brief bits. They might never make it into the manuscript. But they will be up here for you to rip up or smooth over.
That’s the thing. For a number of years now I have made my bones in the intellectual world trumpeting the virtues of openness and the values of connectivity. I was an early proponent of applying “open source” models to scholarship, journalism, and lots of other things.
And, more to the point: One of my key concerns with Google is that it is a black box. Something that means so much to us reveals so little of itself.
So I would be a hypocrite if I wrote this book any other way. This book will not be a black box.

from booktrust to books of the future

I’m delighted to be joining the team at the Institute. I’m not an academic but a deviser and manager of projects to promote creative reading, so thinking and doing go together for me. As Director of Booktrust for seven years and of the Poetry Society before that, I’ve been particularly interested in finding new ways to bring readers and writers together. At the Poetry Society we ran a scheme that put poets to work in community settings, opening up access to their work but also providing each writer with new networks of communication, communities of readers and sources of inspiration. Booktrust runs the amazing Bookstart scheme which gives books to babies and small children, seeding a love of words and pictures before literacy blooms. The web has become a vital tool in promoting all kinds of reading and one Booktrust site well worth exploring is STORY, the campaign to keep short fiction alive and thriving; it’s an ideal form to read online.
But I’ve been struck recently by how so much reading promotion cuts literature off from other media, as if anyone still lives solely in a ‘world of books’. We all exist in a multiculture now, and there’s a need to look much harder at how we connect ideas gleaned from tv, websites, books and real life conversations to patch together our personal stances and narratives.
Conventional publishers and their authors wonder how they’ll survive as industries converge and users generate. Working with if:book I’m keen to look hard at different means to bring quality writing – and in particular fiction – to new audiences, so that writers can afford to eat and readers can savour genuinely compelling writing on-line.
When I’ve told colleagues about my move from Booktrust to exploring the future of the book, I’ve had howls of outrage and alarm from some unexpected sources. People who spend their days at a computer and evenings watching TV screens are horrified that I might be out to deprive them of the pleasure of their paperbacks. Readers cling on tight to their tomes as if literature and stationary were inseparable; meanwhile the digital world has stretched the definition of book to include laptops and social networks. So in the era of MacBooks and FaceBook, what does the (paper)book represent to people? It’s a constant in the flux of change; something worth concentrating on and keeping afterwards. Of course plenty of fiction and non-fiction published is transient crap, but research shows that people find it hard to throw away a piece of print if it’s perfect bound.
So a future book should be using all the opportunities that new media affords, but without breathlessness. The kind of pointless interactivity that the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman complained about at this year’s Edinburgh TV Festival really isn’t good enough. Whether we consume it via an e-reader, a mobile, laptop or a document printed on demand, a future book will need to be worth sticking with, the product of some serious thought and time, a carefully constructed whole. It will be rendered using the extended palette of multimedia possibilities open to makers, may be a team effort or the work of a solo author, may incorporate space for reader response and links to other sites, may use a range of delivery methods, be porous and evolving, but if it doesn’t have the integrity and quality we expect from literature then something far more important than the nostalgic musty smell of old paperbacks will have been lost.
Where do literature and stories fit in our lives? That’s the question I’ve always been most interested in. The answer changes all the time, and that’s why the work of the Institute for the Future of the Book seems to me so important.

books and the man, part III: the new patronage

In the first ‘Books and the man’ post I took the example of Alexander Pope to argue that the idea of ‘high’ literature is inseparable from economic conditions that enable a writer to turn himself into a brand and sell copyrighted material to his readership. In this post I want to look at what happens to creative work in a medium whose very nature militates against copyright.
The internet encourages artists to give stuff away for free, and to capitalise (somehow) on abundance and reproducibility. Ben’s recent roundup of copyright-related readings quotes Jeff Jarvis to this effect: “It has taken 13 years of internet history for media companies to learn that, to give up the idea that they control something scarce they can charge consumers for.” So the answer, says Jay Rosen, is advertising: “Advertising tied to search means open gates for all users”. But while this works just fine for regularly-updated information-type content, how are works of imagination to be funded? As media professor Tim Jackson pointed out some years ago in Towards A New Media Aesthetic, the infinite reproducibility of content on the web threatens the livelihood of artists and writers to a degree that critics such as Keen believe will bring about the collapse of civilization as we know it.
Keen’s wrong. There were artists before there was copyright, and there will be afterwards. Leaving aside my speculations about experiments such as Meta-Markets, cultural forms are starting to emerge online that make use of the internet’s mutability, endlessness, unreliability and infinitely-reproducible nature. But they’re not ‘high art’, in the sense that Pope pioneered. Rather, they hark back to an earlier period of literature when aristocratic patronage was the norm, and there was little distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art except in the sense of being calibrated to the tastes of the target audience.
I’ve written here previously about the ways in which alternate reality gaming is the first genuinely net-native storytelling form. I complained that this exciting form was emerging and was already being colonised by the advertising industry, through sponsorship and similar. Where and how, I wondered, would the ‘independent’ ARGs emerge?
I’d like to eat my words. Calling for ‘independent’ ARGs invoked the perspective of those cultural assumptions of ‘independence’ that both created and were created by the scarcity business model of copyright. In doing so, I ignored the fact that the internet doesn’t use a scarcity model – and hence that the concept of ‘independence’ doesn’t work in the same way. And internet users don’t seem to care that much about it.
I asked Perplex City creator Dan Hon whether he thought there was a bias, or any qualitative difference, between ‘independent’ and sponsored ARGs. He told me that ARG enthusiasts don’t reall care: “It’s normally the execution of the game that will have the most impact.”
So for enthusiasts of the internet’s first native storytelling form, the issue of whether corporate sponsorship is acceptable (an idea which would beanathema to anyone raised in the modernist tradition of authorship) is completely meaningless. If anything, Dan reckons ‘independence’ counts against you: “There absolutely isn’t any value-laden bias towards indie-ARGs – in fact, if anything there’s a negative bias against them. Many players […] are quite happy to give warnings that the indie args are liable to spontaneously implode just because the people behind them are “too indie”. A quick nose around the ‘ARGs with Potential’ section on the Unfiction boards turns up enough ‘This looks like a dodgy indie affair’ style remarks to back up this statement.
So while the arts world “was divided between shock and hilarity” when Fay Weldon got jewellers Bulgari to pay an undisclosed amount for frequent mentions in a 2001 novel, there are no anxieties in the ARG community about seeing advertising converge with the arts. Perhaps one could argue that ARGers are typically computer gaming enthusiasts too, and if they can cope with expensive Playstation games they can cope with Playstation-sponsored stories.
But. Take a look at Where Are The Joneses?, a collaboratively-written, professionally-filmed and Creative Commons-licenced online sitcom devised by former Channel 4 new media schemer David Bausola. Not an ARG; but a near-perfect instance of bottom-up culture. Written by its community, quality-checked by the production team, funny, absorbing, released on open licence – and an advert for Ford Motors.
If you catch him in an expansive mood, David will tell you that the marketing industry will survive only if it stops trying to influence culture and just starts making it. The flip side of that is that vested interests will, increasingly, explicitly find their way into creative works produced online. And, in my view, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
A glance at some of the scions of the pre-eighteenth-century canon gives a hint at the role that aristocratic patronage played in the arts. To hear some of the anti-internet rearguard speak, one might think that To Penshurst was written independently of the relation between Sir Robert Sidney and Ben Jonson; one might think that the arts has always been unsullied by power; that the encroachment of the the latter (in the form of commerce) on the former is a sign of our imminent cultural disintegration.
But contrary to Keen’s assertion that the mechanisms of copyright are indispensable to cultural dynamism, the English cultural renaissance that gave us Shakespeare, Bacon, Sidney, Donne, Marvell et al was largely driven by aristocratic patronage. Copyright hadn’t been invented yet. And if the world of art and culture is to survive in a post-copyright environment, it may be time to look furthe back in the past than the eighteenth century, and re-examine previous models. Which means looking again at patronage, which in turn, today, makes a strong case for embracing the advert. With the distinctions between brand patronage and creative culture already collapsing, it may be time for artists to wake up to the power they could wield by embracing and negotiating with the vested interests of corporate sponsors. If they do, the result may yet be a digital Renaissance.

commentpress in the classroom 2

There are a couple of nice classroom implementations of CommentPress that I wanted to share, one that we set up by request, another done independently.
1. The first is an edition of Dante’s Inferno (Longfellow translation) for a literature seminar at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, “The Seven Deadly Sins,” taught by Trevor Dodge.
2. The second is “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” a seminal text in the history of computing by J.C.R. Licklider for a Harvard History of Science course, “Introduction to the History of Software and Networks”. This was brought to my attention by the teacher, Christopher Kelty, a professor of anthropology at Rice University, who is teaching this term at Harvard.
It’s still early in the semester but you can already see a substantial amount of discussion unfolding on both sites (be sure to use the “Browse Comments” navigation on the right sidebar to get a sense of where in the document discussion is happening, and who is participating). Kelty in particular encourages other knowledgeable readers from around the Web to make use of the Licklider text.

the new promiscuity

A couple more small items for the “content is free, networks are valuable” meme… these w/r/t television. First, this LA Times piece on CBS’s “new internet strategy”:

The idea is to let their online material be promiscuous: Instead of limiting their shows and other online video to, the network is letting them couple with any website that people might visit.
“CBS is all about open, nonexclusive, multiple partnerships,” said Quincy Smith, president of CBS Interactive.

A big part of this strategy is building an “audience network,” and to this end the newly revamped CBS site provides a variety of fora – ?message boards, wikis, and user-generated media galleries – ?to try to capture some of the energy of its various fan communities. It’s a fine line to tread, since fan culture is almost by definition self-organizing and thrives on a sort of semi-autonomy. But perhaps this only because the broadcasters have hitherto kept their distance (the occasional self-defeating lawsuit notwithstanding). It’s an interesting (and somewhat yucky) question, and one that applies well beyond TV: to what extent can community be branded?
Compare this with NBC’s more retentive move toward quasi-openness, post-iTunes, with NBC Direct, a service that offers free downloads of shows with auto-destruct DRM that wipes files after a week. I don’t think either network’s got it yet, but these are interesting experiments to watch.
In light of this, it’s worth revisiting Mark Pesce’s 2005 talk, “Piracy is Good?”, available here on Google Video.


A few good readings to inject into recent conversation here about a post-copyright world (1, 2, 3), and in light of the death of Times Select and the ripple effect that is likely to have across the Web. First, a two-year-old post by Jeff Jarvis, “Who Wants to Own Content?”, ruminating on the supreme value of trust and conversation in a post-scarcity publishing ecology:

But in this new age, you don’t want to own the content or the pipe that delivers it. You want to participate in what people want to do on their own. You don’t want to extract value. You want to add value. You don’t want to build walls or fences or gardens to keep people from doing what they want to do without you. You want to enable them to do it. You want to join in.
And once you get your head around that, you will see that you can grow so much bigger so much faster with so much less cost and risk.
So don’t own the content. Help people make and find and remake and recommend and save the content they want. Don’t own the distribution. Gain the trust of the people to help them use whatever distribution and medium they like to find what they want.
In these new economics, you want to stand back and interfere and restrict as little as possible. You want to reduce costs to the minimum. You want to join in wherever you are welcome.
So in the content world, it is better help enable and be part of fluid networks of content than it is to create and own content…It is better to find new efficiencies than new blockbusters…It is better to gather than create…It is better to share trust than to horde it.

Whatever the media business models of tomorrow may be, they will almost certainly not revolve around owning content. It will be about, as Jay Rosen says in his Times Select obit, “weaving yourself into the Web”:

…that’s the decision in Web court the New York Times is accepting. Consent decree with the open web. Dismisses all courses of action against Google. Times agrees to drop Times Select, which was a barrier to Google – ?and the blogosphere – ?working the right way.
The decision says you can try to charge, and some people will pay, but there is more money and a brighter future in the open flow of Web traffic, a lot of which is coming sideways into your content stack because Google sends tons of users in that way, not through your pearly gates of news, also called a home page. RSS sends stuff from the middle of the stack out.
When every barrier you create to their participation with your product weakens your revenue stream, which is tied to openness, you’re in the world of the consent decree. Advertising tied to search means open gates for all users. It means link rot cut to zero, playing for the long haul in Web memory and more blogs because they are Web-sticky.

Now back to Jarvis, who in a new post predicts among other things that the Times’ decision will likely be the first domino in a chain of paywall demolitions: Wall Street Journal, Economist, Financial Times. He picks up the thread from his older piece:

It’s the relationship that is valuable. It’s the relationship that is profitable, not the control of the content or the distribution. That is the essential media moral of the internet story. It has taken 13 years of internet history for media companies to learn that, to give up the idea that they control something scarce they can charge consumers for, but they’ve finally learned it. That is the lesson of the death of TimesSelect.