Monthly Archives: March 2008

on writing less

Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parceque je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” Pascal, Lettres provinciales, 16, Dec.14,1656.
pick me up cow
I used to co-edit Pick Me Up, a cult London digital newsletter. After some years perfecting the flamboyant and self-congratulatory prose style that wins points as an Oxford undergrad, it was a whole new aesthetic. Minimal design, lots of white space. Keep the language plain, tell the story in simple words. We’d pass articles back and forth, ruthlessly prune one anothers’ words for anything too flash. I quickly stopped being precious about ‘my’ words: the aim was to make the language invisible.
Here’s my favorite ever Pick Me Up story.
Back then (we went our separate ways around 2 years ago), we were just-underground: our stories regularly hijacked by broadsheets and advertising campaigns. But since then the writing register I learned there has proliferated. It’s become the hip corporate copywriting style: Howies, Innocent Smoothies, any Web2.0 startup’s ‘About Us’ page.
Looking back, my involvement with Pick Me Up was the point where I started to think hard about the unique qualities of writing for the Web. But while plain language has become the bedrock of corporate communications, especially online, the ‘literary’ register resists its incursions. Wordsworth’s efforts notwithstanding, short sentences, plain language, and simple structure signify simple-mindedness. Discussing Japanese mobile phone fiction, Jane Sullivan writes in The Age

What’s the downside? Quality control, apparently. So far the mobile phone format has meant that the style of writing is generally unadventurous -? short, simple sentences, lots of dialogue, pauses to indicate thought -? and the stories themselves are hackneyed tales of romance.

I think it was Nietzsche who said that difficulty is often mistaken for greatness in a writer, because readers mistake their own pride at deciphering a text for an inherent profundity within it. Never mind that Pascal’s bon mot has been attributed to writers as long-gone and canonical as Cicero; forget brevity being the soul of wit; simplicity indicates poor quality.
Similarly. It’s become an article of faith in web design that any content below the fold (ie requiring a visitor to scroll down) will attract dramatically fewer viewings; this reflects a well-founded pragmatism oriented toward the need to hook a reader straight away. But few of the ‘literary’ webspaces I’ve come across in my research over the last few months pay much attention to this principle. I’ve lost count of the number of blog ‘novels’ I’ve come across, glanced through, bookmarked with every intention of returning for a closer read, and then forgotten. Part of the problem, again and again, is that I’m confronted with thousands of words of Arial ten-point and a scroll bar – along with the long sentences, elaborate structures and rich vocabulary that for many are the marker of literary quality. The net result is that these literary webspaces field a prose style and layout that – while it might make perfectly decent print reading – provides a sucky user experience.
My literacy credentials are more than respectable. I’m happy plowing my way through thorny texts – in the right form. But with billions of pages on the Web clamoring for attention, I get irritated with those that insist, however noble and literary their intentions, on making that most basic online error of loading too much text into one place. While the idea of savoring a sprawling, muscular Jamesian sentence in the wifi-free zone of the subway delights me, the idea of being asked to do so online fills me with horror.
Whatever you may think of the actual story, the first episode in Pengin’s WeTellStories experiment, The 21 Steps, suggests a growing recognition of the need to adapt storytelling modes online. It’s a decent balance of Web-native visualization and textual storytelling. The reader doesn’t have to deal with more than 20 or so words per click, 40-50 per ‘chapter’. The whole thing takes 5-10 minutes to read. This, in my view, is about where Web storytelling needs to be pitched.
Penguin’s production is an all-singing, all-dancing multimedia experince produced by an ARG studio. But simpler, text-based offerings are if anything more subject to the brutal need to edit for the Web reader’s attention span. Dickens’ chapter length was constrained in many cases by magazine serialization; now that delivers daily bite-sized email or RSS doses of books to subscribers, will this affect the way future storytellers shape their work?
There is no disputing the fact that the Web is not the most comfortable medium for long-form reading (see Ian Bogost’s cracking article, and the ensuing discussion, for more on this). And the social media boom is spearheading a change in written language toward a simpler, plainer, more demotic register. So does this mean we are – over two centuries after Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads proposed a new literature embracing ‘the language of ordinary men’ – finally abandoning the privileging of prosiness as a marker of cultural quality? How does this square with the equation, so often taken for granted, between long-form writing and cultural virtue? Does it signify a cultural decline? Or is this just another kind of literacy, a new register for the emerging high priests of our evolving discourse to master and manipulate?
Either way, it’s hard to escape the fact that today we read, online, across multiple platforms including but not limited to a textual one. And yet, like a filmmaker grimly trying to observe the Aristotelian unities, many writers obstinately struggle to popularize material on the Web that is profoundly unsuited to being read there. I look forward to seeing more storytellers who embrace not only good writing but also the basic principles of good Web design – especially the one about not writing too much.
As a final note: I’m aware of the irony of my having just written a thousand words on brevity. My posts at if:book are the sole exception I make to general Web writing rule of 3 short paragraphs maximum; I have mixed feelings about making the exception. But for the sake of keeping it to a thousand I’ll save that discussion for another time.

against reading

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
          all this fiddle.
     Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
          discovers in
     it after all, a place for the genuine.
          Hands that can grasp, eyes
          that can dilate, hair that can rise
               if it must, these things are important not because a

I picked up Mikita Brottman’s The Solitary Vice: Against Reading from the shelf of the St. Mark’s bookstore hoping that it was a different book than it turned out to be. After needlessly explaining the innuendo in her title, Brottman starts out with a promising premise: she’s tired of the piety that reading is good for you. I am too: I’d like somebody to explain exactly why reading is good for you. We’re prepared from youth (Fahrenheit 451, firmly entrenched in the high school canon) to defend against the enemies of literacy who’d like nothing more than to burn our books in the name of the future. These barbarians haven’t yet arrived. Like the battalion guarding the frontier in Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe, it’s possible that we’re guarding nothing while life slips away. Somebody, in the name of contrariness if nothing else, should be making the argument against reading.

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
          they are
     useful. When they become so derivative as to become
     the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
          do not admire what
          we cannot understand: the bat
               holding on upside down or in quest of something to

Brottman’s not that contrarian; perhaps it’s foolish to seek such a champion in the written word. She’s not arguing against reading; instead, she’s arguing against reading novels. Her book is something of an inversion of Sven Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies, a book not about the impending demise of print books so much as about how the novel shapes character, an argument he moves into the territory of memoir in his more recent My Sky Blue Trades and Reading Life. The predictable arguments are brought into play: Socrates wasn’t sure about poets. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey shows up on cue to demonstrate how novels set up unrealistic expectations for the real world. The novel blinds people to the real world; the solitary act of reading makes the reader less social. Books read in school are boring; the classics are moldy and old and the worlds they depict often bear little resemblance to our own. Reading novels won’t make you a better person. Probably Hitler read books.

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
          wolf under
     a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
          that feels a flea, the base

     ball fan, the statistician—
          nor is it valid
               to discriminate against “business documents and

What best to do? Like Birkerts, Brottman trots out her reading history that it might serve as an exemplar for our redemption. “A man’s work,” remarked Camus, “is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” Brottman finds one of those images in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, which led her down the garden path of true-life tell-alls, eventually to find heaven in true crime tales. From these, Brottman reasons, we can learn more than from all the Gothic fiction every written. She might be right. We should read what we like: to the pure, all things are pure, and nuggets of truth can be found in the garbage of celebrities. “Life is worth while,” Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts writes before he gives up, “for it is full of dreams and peace, gentleness and ecstasy, and faith that burns like a clear white flame on a grim dark altar.”

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make
          a distinction
     however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
          result is not poetry,
     nor till the poets among us can be
          “literalists of
          the imagination”— above
               insolence and triviality and can present

My problem with Brottman’s argument is that it’s not a particularly difficult one to make. Critics worry about a general vogue for memoirs rather than fiction; journalists worry about fiction sold as memoir. It’s no longer daring to claim that a film can be just as rich as the written word. The staid gray pages of The New York Times regularly review video games. Maybe the New Criterion‘s still fighting these battles – I haven’t checked lately – but my sense is that Brottman’s tilting at windmills.

for inspection, ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them,”
          shall we have
     it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
     the raw material of poetry in
          all its rawness and
          that which is on the other hand
               genuine, you are interested in poetry.

Not much poetry is cited in Brottman’s twenty-page bibliography, but the omission of Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” (grotesquely interpolated with my text) surprises me. Moore’s cross-examination of her art says more in less space than The Solitary Vice; it’s not, perhaps, a fair fight, but this is, after all, the Internet. “Poetry” begs to be re-made: now more than ever, the value of reading needs to be interrogated. Brottman’s book doesn’t quite get there; we still have Moore.

the big book of TED

At TED 2008, visual cartographers David Sibbet and Kevin Richards produced over 700 spontaneous sketches of the keynote presenters’ ideas, using Autodesk visualization tools. These sketches have now been turned into The BIGVIZ, a downloadable 200-page interactive ebook.
Parts of it are rather gnomic without reference to the talks that inspired them; but it’s a fascinating glimpse into the way ideas mutate as they are filtered through different forms.

this is a game. no really, it is

looking for headless
This morning, I received an envelope through the post. It contained two chapters of a pulp murder mystery, along with an invitation to a private gathering with the same title as the booklets: Looking For Headless. The gathering will take place in an anonymous City of London complex of rooms for hire by the hour.
It feels like the rabbit hole for a promising ARG. The accompanying letter describes how Georges Bataille formed a secret society, Acéphale, in 1938. Now, in 2008, two Swedish artists have discovered a Bahamas-based offshore company named Headless, which they have been investigating for the last year. At the meeting, I presume, I and the other invitees (whoever they are) will learn more.
A key characteristic of an ARG is the convention ‘This Is Not A Game’. Puppetmasters work to sustain the illusion that the game’s elements are part of the ‘real’ world – that’s a real person who emailed you, this is a real corporate website. Though players know the game is a game, there’s stil a thrill at the edges: should I phone that company, is it in-game, will I just get some confused receptionist? What’s real, who is complicit? But here the program is running backwards. Headless is, in fact, real. Owned by the Sovereign Trust Gibraltar. Little other information is available. Goldin+Senneby, the artist duo behind the project, state that they are interested in business as fiction, and in acts of withdrawal perpetrated through corporate structures.
ARG-like, the edge is ambiguous. The art-world jargon the artists use to discuss the project feels – perhaps deliberately – like yet another act of withdrawal. The two chapters of ‘Looking for Headless’ I received contain real transcripts of real detective reports, use the real names of real people, are authored by a real person – John Barlow . Though he has never met the people who commissioned him to work on this project, Barlow has scripted himself into the story. But parts of it are pure fiction. Reading the first two chapters of Looking for Headless is unnerving: which parts of this happened, and which did Barlow invent? In a story about the shadowy realm of offshore tax management, it is hard to be certain. Have the meeting’s invitees, as – it is implied – the reincarnation of Acéphale – Headless – been incorporated into a game, an art project, a work of fiction, or something altogether more sinister?
Today, Barlow left for Nassau, Bahamas to continue his investigation of Headless. He’ll be blogging his experiences here. It is not clear whether he will be blogging factual accounts, or embroidered ones. Or if, caught between pervasive, digitally-mediated self-narration and an emerging sphere of digital storytelling whose core insistence is that a game is not a game, we have lost the ability to tell the difference.

from work to text

I spent the weekend before last at the Center for Book Arts as part of their Fine Press Publishing Seminar for Emerging Writers. There I was taught to set type; not, perhaps, exactly what you’d expect from someone writing for a blog devoted to new technology. Robert Bringhurst, speaking about typography a couple years back, noted that one of typography’s virtues in the modern world is its status as a “mature technology”; as such, it can serve as a useful measuring stick for those emerging. A chance to think, again, about how books are made: a return to the roots of publishing technology might well illuminate the way we think about the present and future of the book.

*     *     *     *     *

I’ve been involved with various aspects of making books – from writing to production – for just over a decade now. In a sense, this isn’t very long – all the books I’ve ever been involved with have gone through a computer – but it’s long enough to note how changes in technology affect the way that books are made. Technology’s changed rapidly over the last decade; I know that my ability to think through them has barely kept up. An arbitrary chronology, then, of my personal history with publishing technology.
The first book I was involved in was Let’s Go Ireland 1998, for which I served as an associate editor in the summer of 1999. At that point, Let’s Go researcher/writers were sent to the field with a copious supply of lined paper and a two copies of the previous year’s book; they cut one copy up and glued it to sheets of paper with hand-written changes, which were then mailed back to the office in Cambridge. A great deal of the associate editor’s job was to type in the changes to the previous years’ book; if you were lucky, typists could be hired to take care of that dirty work. I was not, it goes without saying, a very good typist; my mind tended to drift unless I were re-editing the text. A lot of bad jokes found their way into the book; waves of further editing combed some of them out and let others in. The final text printed that fall bore some resemblance to what the researcher had written, but it was as much a product of the various editors who worked on the book.
The next summer I found myself back at Let’s Go; for lack of anything better to do and a misguided personal masochism I became the Production Manager, which meant (at that point in time) that I oversaw the computer network and the typesetting of the series. Let’s Go, at that point, was a weirdly forward-looking publishing venture in that the books were entirely edited and typeset before they were handed over to St. Martin’s Press for printing and distribution. Because everything was done on an extremely tight schedule – books were constructed from start to finish over the course of a summer – editors were forced to edit in the program used for layout, Adobe FrameMaker, an application intended for creating industrial documentation. (This isn’t, it’s worth pointing out, the way most of the publishing industry works.) That summer, we began a program to give about half the researchers laptops – clunky beige beasts with almost no battery life – to work on; I believe they did their editing on Microsoft Word and mailed 3.5” disks back to the office, where the editors would convert them to Frame. A change happened there: those books were, in a sense, born digital. The translation of handwriting into text in a computer no longer happened. A word was typed in, transferred from computer to computer, shifted around on screen, and, if kept, sent to press, the same word, maybe.
Something ineffable was lost with the omission of the typist: to go from writing on paper to words on a screen, the word on the page has to travel through the eye of the typist, the brain, and down to the hand. The passage through the brain of the typist is an interesting one because it’s not necessarily perfect: the typist might simply let the word through, or improve the wording. Or the typist make a mistake – which did happen frequently. All travel guides are littered with mistakes; often mistakes were not the fault of a researcher’s inattentiveness or an editor’s mendaciousness but a typist’s poor transliteration. That was the argument I made the next year I applied to work at Let’s Go; a friend and I applied to research and edit the Rome book in Rome, rather then sending copy back to the office. Less transmissions, we argued, meant less mistakes. The argument was successful, and Christina and I spent the summer in Rome, writing directly in FrameMaker, editing each other’s work, and producing a book that we had almost exclusive control over, for better or worse.
It’s roughly that model which has become the dominant paradigm for most writing and publishing now: it’s rare that writing doesn’t start on a computer. The Internet (and, to a lesser extent, print-on-demand publishing services) mean that you can be your own publisher; you can edit yourself, if you feel the need. The layers that text needed to be sent through to be published have been flattened. There are good points to this and bad; in retrospect, the book we produced, full of scarcely disguised contempt for the backpackers we were ostensibly writing for, was nothing if not self-indulgent. An editor’s eye wouldn’t have hurt.

*     *     *     *     *

And so after a not inconsequential amount of time spent laying out books, I finally got around to learning to set type. (I don’t know that my backwardness is that unusual: with a copy of Quark or InDesign, you don’t actually need to know much of an education in graphic design to make a book.) Learning to set type is something self-consciously old-fashioned: it’s a technology that’s been replaced for all practical purposes. But looking at the world of metal type through the lens of current technology reveals things that may well have been hidden when it was dominant.
While it was suggested that the participants in the Emerging Writing Seminar might want to typeset their own Emerging Writing, I didn’t think any of my writing was worth setting in metal, so I set out to typeset some of Gertrude Stein. I’ve been making my way through her work lately, one of those over-obvious discoveries that you don’t make until too late, and I thought it would be interesting to lay out a few paragraphs of her writing. Stein’s writing is interesting to me because it forces the reader to slow down: it demands to be read aloud. There’s also a particular look to Stein’s work on a page: it has a concrete uniformness on the page that makes it recognizable as hers even when the words are illegible. Typesetting, I though, might be an interesting way to think through it, so I set myself to typeset a few paragraphs from “Orta or One Dancing”, her prose portrait of Isadora Duncan.
Typesetting, it turns out, is hard work: standing over a case of type and pulling out type to set in a compositing stick is exhausting in a way that a day of typing and clicking at a computer is not. A computer is, of course, designed to be a labor-saving device; still, it struck me as odd that the labor saved would be so emphatically physical. Choosing to work with Stein’s words didn’t make this any easier, as anyone with any sense might have foreseen: participles and repetitions blur together. Typesetting means that the text has to be copied out letter by letter: the typesetter looks at the manuscript, sees the next letter, pulls the piece of type out of the case, adds it to the line in the compositing stick. Mistakes are harder to correct than on a computer: as each line needs to be individually set, words in the wrong place mean that everything needs to be physically reshuffled. With the computer, we’ve become dependent upon copying and pasting: we take this for granted now, but it’s a relatively recent ability.
There’s no end of ways to go wrong with manual typesetting. With a computer, you type a word and it appears on a screen; with lead type, you add a word, and look at it to see if it appears correct in its backward state. Eventually you proof it on a press; individual pieces of type may be defective and need to be replaced. Lowercase bs are easily confused with ds when they’re mirrored in lead. Type can be put in upside-down; different fonts may have been mixed in the case of type you’re using. Spacing needs to be thought about: if your line of type doesn’t have exactly enough lead in it to fill it, letters may be wobbly. Ink needs attention. Paper width needs attention. After only four days of instruction, I’m sure I don’t know half of the other things that might go wrong. And at the end of it all, there’s the clean up: returning each letter to its precise place, a menial task that takes surprisingly long.
We think about precisely none of these things when using a computer. To an extent, this is great: we can think about the words and not worry about how they’re getting on the page. It’s a precocious world: you can type out a sentence and never have to think about it again. But there’s something appealing about a more altricial model, the luxury of spending two days with two paragraphs, even if it is two days of bumbling – one never spends that kind of time with a text any more. A degree of slowness is forced upon even the best manual typesetter: every letter must be considered, eye to brain to hand. With so much manual labor, it’s no surprise that there so many editorial layers existed: it’s a lot of work to fix a mistake in lead type. Last-minute revision isn’t something to be encouraged; when a manuscript arrived in the typesetter’s hands, it needs to be thoroughly finished.
Letterpress is the beginning of mechanical reproduction, but it’s still laughably inefficient: it’s still intimately connected to human labor. There’s a clue here, perhaps, to the long association between printers and progressive labor movements. A certain sense of compulsion comes from looking at a page of letterset type that doesn’t quite come, for me, from looking at something that’s photoset (as just about everything in print is now) or on a screen. It’s a sense of the physical work that went into it: somebody had to ink up a press and make those impressions on that sheet of paper. I’m not sure this is necessarily a universal reaction, although it is the same sort of response that I have when looking at something well painted knowing how hard it is to manipulate paint from my own experience. (I’m not arguing, of course, that technique by itself is an absolute indicator of value: a more uncharitable essayist could make the argument could be made that letterpress functions socially as a sort of scrapbooking for the blue states.) Maybe it’s a distrust of abstractions on my part: a website that looks like an enormous amount of work has been put into it may just as easily have stolen its content entirely from the real producers. There’s a comparable amount of work that goes into non-letterpressed text, but it’s invisible: a PDF file sent to Taiwan comes back as cartons of real books; back office workers labor for weeks or months to produce a website. In comparison, metal typesetting has a solidity to it: the knowledge that every letter has been individually handled, which is somehow comforting.

*     *     *     *     *

Nostalgia ineluctably works its way into any argument of this sort, and once it’s in it’s hard to pull it out. There’s something disappointing to me in both arguments blindly singing the praises of the unstoppable march of technology and those complaining that things used to be better; you see exactly this dichotomy in some of the comments this blog attracts. (Pynchon: “She had heard all about excluded middles; they were bad shit, to be avoided; and how had it ever happened here, with the chances once so good for diversity?”) A certain tension between past and present, between work and text, might be what’s needed.

major news: IFB and NYU libraries to collaborate

A couple of weeks ago, I alluded to a new institutional partnership that’s been in the works for some time. Well I’m thrilled to officially announce that the we are joining forces with the NYU Division of Libraries!
From Carol A. Mandel, dean of the NYU Libraries. “IFB is a thought leader in the future of scholarly communication. We will work together to develop new software and new options that faculty can use to publish, review, share, and collaborate at NYU and in the larger academic community.”
Read the full press release: NYU Libraries & Institute for the Future of the Book Announce Partnership to Develop Tools for Digital Scholarly Research
A basic breakdown of what this means:
-? NYU is now our technical home. All IFB sites are running out of there with IT support from the NYU Libraries’ top-notch team.
-? Bob, Dan and I will serve as visiting scholars at NYU.
-? With recently secured NEH digital humanities start-up funding (along with other monies yet to be raised), we will work with the NYU digital library team, headed by James Bullen, to develop social networking tools and infrastructure for MediaCommons. This will serve as applied research for digital tools and frameworks that NYU is presently developing.
-? We will work with NYU librarians, with the digital library team, and with Monica McCormick, the Libraries’ program officer for digital scholarly publishing, to create forums for collaboration and to develop specific projects and digital initiatives with NYU faculty, and possibly NYU Press.
Needless to say, we’re tremendously excited about this partnership. Things are still being set up but expect more news in the weeks and months ahead.

a serious shot at screen reading

Another new online magazine: Triple Canopy (noted by Ed Park). Unlike Issue and Rosa B. this isn’t a design magazine – although the content is very interesting – but like them, it’s a serious attempt to construct a new kind of magazine for the screen-reading environment. While Rosa B.‘s design uses the affordances of dynamic layering, Issue concentrates on reader annotation, Triple Canopy simply does away with the scroll bar.
Removing the scroll bar is an obvious idea for improving screen reading that’s only rarely implemented: when you read text with a scroll bar (like this blog), the reader is forced to remove their concentration from the text to scroll down and then to find where the reading left off. It’s something we’re all quite used to, but that doesn’t mean it’s an advantageous reading behavior; we put up with because we rarely have a choice. Triple Canopy reverts from the scroll bar to the paged model of the codex book: if you click on the “+” sign to the right of the page, a new page slides in. It’s obvious where to resume reading. The text itself is well-cared for: it’s presented in columns of legible width, another lesson of print design that’s too often ignored in the online world. Worth noting as well is the way that images are integrated into some of the texts; again, there’s a clear and understood model for how reading works. Video can be slotted into some of the pieces without causing a disturbance or overwhelming: it appears on a page by itself, meant to be the primary focus of attention.
It’s not entirely perfect: while the “+” sign always advances a page, “–” sometimes goes back a page and sometimes goes to the previous article (if clicked on the first page of the article). I wish clicking the “triplecanopy” at the bottom took you back to the issue’s table of contents and not the magazine’s front page. Because the site’s made in HTML, the design breaks if you increase or decrease the font size in your browser. And the Powerpoint-style wipe when the pages change quickly grows tiresome. But these are minor quibbles with a design that’s overwhelmingly successful. I’ll be curious to see if this is sustainable over more issues.

first of penguin’s interactive fictions up

Ben posted a few weeks back about an intriguing new interactive project in the pipeline from Penguin. WeTellStories, produced for Penguin by ARG studio SixToStart is now out in the open. Comprising six stories based on Penguin Classics, released one a week for the next six weeks, WeTellStories aims to create born-digital riffs on classic books.
I played through (‘read’ doesn’t quite describe it) the first of these earlier today: The 21 Steps by Charles Cumming, based on Buchan’s classic thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps. The 21 Steps is told through narrative bubbles that pop up as the story picks its way across a Google Earth-like satellite map, and describes the experience of a man suddenly caught up in sinister events that he can’t seem to escape.
Penguin WeTellStories screengrab
Overall the experience works. The writing is spare enough to keep the pacing high, vital when the other umpteen billion pages I could possibly be surfing are all clamoring for my attention. The dot moving across the map creates a sense of movement forward (as well as some frustration as it crawls between narrative points), and the Google Earth styling is familiar enough as a reading environment for me to focus on enjoying the story rather than diverting too much energy to decoding peripheral material. The interface is simple and tactile in ways that advance the story without distracting from its development, either by offering diverging routes through it or overloading the central ‘chase’ narrative with multimedia clutter. And the satnav pictures add a pleasurable feeling of recognition (‘Look! There’s my house!’) to offset an essentially far-fetched story.
For a single-visit online story experience, it was nearly too long: I found myself checking how many instalments I still had to get through. The ending was somewhat anticlimactic. And though WeTellStories has been rumored to have ARG elements, and is produced by an ARG studio, I did a hunt around for potential ARG-style ‘further reading’ rabbit holes and found nothing. So either it’s too subtle for a journeywoman ARG fan like me, or the overarching ‘game’ element really is just the invitation to follow all six stories and then answer some questions to win a prize.
If so, I’ll be disappointed. But it’s early days still, and there may be more up SixToStart’s sleeve than I’ve seen so far. It’s encouraging to see ‘traditional’ publishers exploring inventive ways of riffing on their swollen backlists’ cachet and immeasurably rich narrative wealth. And The 21 Steps comes closer than most ‘authored’ digital fictions I’ve encountered to achieving some harmony between narrative and delivery mechanism. So though I’m being nitpicky, the project so far hints at the possiblity that we’re beginning to see online creative work that’s finding ways of marrying the Web’s fragmented, kinetic megalomania with the discipline needed for a gripping story.

expressive processing: post-game analysis begins

So Noah’s just wrapped up the blog peer review of his manuscript in progress, and is currently debating whether to post the final, unfinished chapter. He’s also just received the blind peer reviews from MIT Press and is in the process of comparing them with the online discussion. That’ll all be written up soon, we’re still discussing format.
Meanwhile, Ian Bogost (the noted game designer, critic and professor) started an interesting thread a couple of weeks back on the troubles of reading Expressive Processing, and by extension, any long-form text or argument, on the Web:

The peer review part of the project seems to be going splendidly. But here’s a problem, at least for me: I’m having considerable trouble reading the book online. A book, unlike a blog, is a lengthy, sustained argument with examples and supporting materials. A book is textual, of course, and it can thus be serialized easily into a set of blog posts. But that doesn’t make the blog posts legible as a book…
…in their drive to move textual matter online, creators of online books and journals have not thought enough about the materiality of specific print media forms. This includes both the physicality of the artifacts themselves (I violently dogear and mark up my print matter) and the contexts in which people read them (I need to concentrate and avoid distraction when reading scholarship). These factors extend beyond scholarship too: the same could be said of newspapers and magazines, which arguably read much more casually and serendipitously in print form than they do in online form.
I’ve often considered Bolter and Grusin’s term “remediation” to be a derogatory one. Borrowing and refashioning the conventions of one medium in another opens the risk ignoring what unremediated features are lost. The web has still not done much more than move text (or images, or video) into a new distribution channel. Digitizing and uploading analog material is easy and has immediate, significant impact: web, iPod, YouTube. We’ve prized simple solutions because they are cheap and easy, but they are also insufficient. In the case of books and journal articles, to offer a PDF or print version of the online matter is to equivocate. And the fashionable alternative, a metaverse-like 3D web of the sort to which Second Life points, strikes me as a dismal sidestepping of the question.

so when are you going to retire?: a book in process about age, work and identity

I want to give a shout out to a wonderful new project by a dear friend of ours. So When Are You Going to Retire? is -? or will be, or is in the process of becoming -? a book exploring questions of age, work and identity through the stories of people over 80 who continue, against the odds, to work for a living. As of very recently, the author, Ashton Applewhite, has begun documenting her research on a very attractive new weblog, and is inviting readers, writers and experts in the field to join her in conversations and story sharing that hopefully will shape the book’s development. In an email, Ashton explained to me why she’s doing this:

I’m a generalist writing about a broad topic: people in their 80s and 90s who are still in the workforce, and what we can learn from them. Following on the Institute’s work with Siva and Mitchell Stephens, I’m excited about using the blog as a mechanism for thinking out loud as I go through my material, formulate the themes of the book, and write the proposal. I think that ongoing feedback from experts (gerontologists, social scientists, demographers, etc.) and discerning readers will sharpen and inform my thinking -? in other words, that the network will help me build a better book. I also think i’ll end up with a valuable platform for leveraging and disseminating my work over the long run -? one that could radically revise conventional notions of shelf life. Cutting Loose, my book about women and divorce (HarperCollins, 1997) is still in print; imagine what sales would look like if it were at the hub of an ongoing social network, and what a rich site that would be?

Though this isn’t an officially Institute-sponsored project, we’ve done a fair bit of kibbitzing from the sidelines on the conceptual layout of the site and on general strategies for writing it (this being Ashton’s first foray into blogging). We’re also brainstorming with Ashton on that most crucial of issues: building an audience. Most of our networked book projects have been on technology or media-related subjects that naturally appeal to online readerships and get picked up easily in the blogospheric grapevine. Ashton’s book doesn’t have such an obviously built-in wired constituency, although its potential readership is far broader and more diverse than that of any of the works we’ve published. I imagine it will be a gradual, word of mouth kind of thing.
So check out Ashton’s rich and inviting site, join the conversation, and spread the word to anyone you know who might be interested. If you know of any specific sites or online communities that Ashton might want to connect with, let her know through the “email me” link near the top of her site. There’s already quite a lot to delve into since Ashton’s been blogging under the radar for the past several months, cutting her teeth on the form and piling up some wonderful stories (many of which you can listen to in audio). Help start building this network, and this book.