Monthly Archives: April 2008

a Sophie workshop — spread the word

Two weeks ago the Instittue for Multimedia Literacy (IML) at USC held a ceremony for the first graduating class of students with honors in multimedia scholarship. two of the students wrote their theses in Sophie. Based on their experience, Holly Willis, the IML director, decided to sponsor a 4-day workshop for scholars who want to use Sophie. there are ten slots which carry a $1,000 honorarium. i’ll be at the workshop, along with my colleague Holladay Penick. please pass the word to anyone you think might be interested. and also, please feel encouraged to ask me any questions about the appropriateness of a particular project to Sophie. (see an earlier post this week for a description of how Sophie differs from presentation apps like Powerpoint or Keynote)
Deadline for proposals: May 12, 2008
The Institute for Multimedia Literacy is pleased to announce a workshop for faculty and graduate students to create multimedia projects with Sophie, an easy-to-use free software application developed by the Institute for the Future of the Book and presented by USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Sophie allows users to design interactive texts that incorporate images, video and sound, and it deploys creative formats for analysis, annotation and citation.
Participants will engage in a hands-on workshop May 27 – 30, 2008, with the goal of creating a scholarly project; they will then be free to use the IML labs with support staff during the summer to continue work on the project; and they will be invited to present their completed projects at a showcase event in August. Participants will receive an honorarium of $1,000 for their participation in the workshop.
Sophie is described by the Institute for the Future of the Book as “software for writing and reading rich media documents in a networked environment.” Sophie’s goal is to encourage multimedia authoring and, in the process, “to redefine the notion of a book or ‘academic paper’ to include both rich media and mechanisms for reader feedback and conversation in dynamic margins.”
Successful proposals will be based on an existing paper or body of research; they will articulate how media elements will enhance or transform the paper; and they will indicate a desire to dedicate a full week to the project during the workshop.
Those interested are invited to submit a proposal that includes the following:
Name and affiliation
Paper/project title and brief description
Sophie project description: what do you imagine doing with Sophie?
Why is this an interesting project to translate into an interactive, media-rich, extensible and/or networked format?
What assets (images, video, sound) do you have ready to use?
Please submit proposals by email to Holly Willis, Director of Academic Programs, Institute for Multimedia Literacy
Deadline for proposals is 5:00 p.m., Monday, May 12, 2008. Participants will be notified on Friday, May 16, 2008. Questions? Holly Willis: 213-743-2937.
About the Institute for Multimedia Literacy: The IML is an organized research unit within USC’s School of Cinematic Arts dedicated to developing educational programs and conducting research on the changing nature of literacy in a networked culture. The IML’s educational programs promote effective and expressive communication and scholarly production through the use of multiple media applications and tools. The IML also supports faculty research that seeks to transform discipline-based scholarship.

fail again fail better have fun

A new research paper by Bruce Mason and Sue Thomas on A Million Penguins, the controversial wiki novel created last year by Penguin Books makes fascinating reading.
It includes amongst other delights an analysis of the activities of the contributor known as YellowBanana and whether s/he was vandal, genius or troll, and the report concludes:
“The final product itself, now frozen in time, is more akin to something produced by the wild,untrammelled creativity of the folk imagination. The contributors to A Million Penguins, like the
ordinary folk of Bakhtin’s carnivals, have produced something excessive. It is rude, chaotic, grotesque, sporadically brilliant, anti-authoritarian and, in places, devastatingly funny. As a cultural text it is unique, and it demonstrates the tremendous potential of this form to provide a stimulating social setting for writing, editing and publishing. The contributors may not have written one single novel but they did create something quite remarkable, an outstanding body of work that can be found both in the main sections as well as through the dramas and conversations lacing the backstage pages. And they had a damned good time while doing so.
As the user Crtrue writes.
“Hi hi hi hi hi!
Seriously. This is going to fail horribly. It’s still fun.””
Read more at:

Sophie vs. Powerpoint and Keynote

Longtime visitors to if:book have heard about Sophie, the reading/writing environment we’ve been working on since the inception of the institute in 2004. Version 1.0 of Sophie was quietly released last month. We’ll make a number of Sophie-related posts over the next few months, starting with todays’ which attempts to distinguish Sophie’s feature-set from presentation apps such as Powerpoint or Keynote.
Here is a list of four key features which distinguish Sophie from Powerpoint and Keynote.
[note: PowerPoint and Keynote include a lot of features -? e.g. geometric primitives, transitions or layout tools which make it easier to design the graphic look of a page. however Sophie’s distinguishing features go way beyond manipulating appearance to the affordance of new classes of functionality.
flowing text
since they are entirely page-based, neither Powerpoint or Keynote are useful if an argument needs to be sustained over several pages. when scholars try to use presentation software for “papers” they find that their arguments must of necessity be reduced to bullet point format. Additionally Sophie takes the concept of flowing text well beyond what traditional word processors can do. Sophie allows for completely separate flows to exist on the same page thus enabling bi-lingual editions or texts with commentaries.
neither Powerpoint or Keynote have the ability create time-based events. here are just a few ways that users might employ timelines in a Sophie document
• create narrated slide-shows which combine audio and illustrations (images or video); this could have huge implications for distance learning modules
• textual commentary tracks which explicate an audio or video presentation (e.g. the close-reading of a piece of music or film).
• sub-titling of video. useful in it’s own right, but also could be the basis of interesting language-learning modules where students are asked to provide English subtitles for a Spanish film or vice versa.
• just-in-time linking which presents hyper-links to a web-page or to other elements in a Sophie doc at specific times -? overlayed on a video or just popping up on a page.

embedding remote objects

one of the substantial problems with multimedia, even in the present period of faster pipes, is that audio and video files are huge. this is particularly a problem for students who often shift from machine to machine (classroom, library, home or dorm room). sophie potentially solves this problem by permitting the “big” media to be left on a central server but embedded in the sophie file as if it were “in the book.” this will be even more powerful as archives of rich media are developed (by professors, academic departments, commercial firms (such as publishers, J-Stor, Art-Stor, etc.) for the use of students. the NEH recently gave us a grant to develop a search gateway within Sophie into the Internet Archive. When completed, a user will be able to search the audio and video holdings of the Internet Archive, choose a file, open it in Sophie, choose IN and OUT points and embed that clip in a Sophie document without the actual audio or video content ever needing to actually be downloaded into the Sophie document.
networked dynamic comment fields
none of the presentation apps allow “readers” to carry on a conversation about the contents of the document from within the document itself. all our experiments so far suggest that this has huge implications for scholarly discourse at all levels from course modules to mechanisms of peer review and the transformation of academic papers into “places” where conversations occur.

stories and places

I found this new site, set up by Brighton based journalist and writer William Shaw, to be a nice example of an online fiction that actually gets you reading rather than admiring it awhile and then glazing over or clicking away. A clean page, simple navigation and, most importantly, words that hook. Knock on the door and take a look.
Last year Shaw created another inspired piece: 41 Places, a city-wide artwork of 41 true stories, installed in the place where they happened – stories of people who live, work and play in Brighton, narrative non-fiction miniatures become something between a giant work of art, scattered through the city, and a treasure hunt of stories. The narratives were collected by Shaw between September 2006 and April 2007 and designed and installed by Richard Wölfstrome, John Easterby and Tom Snell.

floing again

“While businesses based on the sale of paper may or may not be in crisis, those of us with a wider responsibility for ensuring our literary culture thrives have wonderful new tools with which to encourage participation and communication.
The curse of vanity presses can be replaced with free online opportunities to put your words in the public realm and means for the best to be spotted.
Collaborative writing and book sharing sites are democratising the way we share ideas and stories.
“Running small creative teams dealing with quality communications, working across different media platforms; social entrepreneurs finding cost effective means to change lives; experimenters with words and audiences using an art form which has been personalised for centuries, creating a virtual world in the user’s imagination – we are ahead of the game.”
This is an extract from AND YES I SAID YES I WILL YES, a white paper by the FLO consortium of ‘Friendly Literature Organisations’ in the UK, which was launched recently at the London Book Fair. I put up a link here to the first draft, but it’s now been revised so do take a look.
I’d be interested to know if literature organisations in the USA face similar challenges and how they are tackling them.

tomorrow and tomorrow

The future has only been a topic of interest for a relatively short while.
For most of time the future was likely to be pretty much like the past except we’d be dead then and replaced by replica offspring – same job, same village, same stories. Utopia was in heaven not a century hence and the gods were our time lords. When exactly did we start to picture fantastical possibilities to come? I grew up in a generation where everyone looked to space travel and videophones around the corner with excitement and trepidation. Tomorrow’s World was a BBC TV show where bizarre prototype inventions were revealed and we prepared to live on capsule meals and drift around our (bookshelfless) spacepods in smooth lycra jump suits.

Now we don’t expect to wait for new gizmos. The Millennium celebration led to more futuregazing of the glibbest kind. Everywhere were teams of youngsters singing hymns to a harmonious, multicultural, tolerant tomorrow. Then 9/11. And in 2008 the whole planet is fretting as a new day suddenly dawns of rising food prices and sea levels. Tomorrow has come after all rather suddenly and it isn’t smiling.
In this context The Book of the Future sounds like some superheroic accoutrement, nostalgically space aged, something Batman keeps tucked down his utility belt, a magical entity that might just help to save the planet: a bleeping symbol of meaning and quality in a chaotic, cruel world.
O, all powerful Internet, come to my aid! I’m in need of further reading on the history of the future.
All suggestions welcome.

interface culture

Omnisio, a new Y Combinator startup, lets people grab clips from the Web and mash them up. Users can integrate video with slide presentations, and enable time-sensitive commenting in little popup bubbles layered on the video.
MediaCommons was founded partly to find a way of conducting media studies discussions at a pace more congruent with changes in the media landscape. It’s tempting to see this as part of that same narrative: crowdsourcing media commentary for the ADHD generation. For me, though, it evokes a question that Kate Pullinger raised during the research Chris and I conducted for the Arts Council. Namely: are we seeing an ineluctable decline of text on the Web? Are writers becoming multi-skilled media assemblers, masher-uppers, creators of Slideshares and videocasts and the rest? And if so, is this a bad thing?
I’ve been re-reading In The Beginning Was The Command Line, a 1999 meditation by Neal Stephenson on the paradigm shift from command line to GUI interactions in computer use. In a discussion on Disneyland, he draws a parallel between ‘Disneyfication’ and the shift from command line to GUI paradigm, and thence to an entire approach to culture:

Why are we rejecting explicit word-based interfaces, and embracing graphical or sensorial ones–a trend that accounts for the success of both Microsoft and Disney?
Part of it is simply that the world is very complicated now–much more complicated than the hunter-gatherer world that our brains evolved to cope with–and we simply can’t handle all of the details. We have to delegate. We have no choice but to trust some nameless artist at Disney or programmer at Apple or Microsoft to make a few choices for us, close off some options, and give us a conveniently packaged executive summary.
But more importantly, it comes out of the fact that, during this century, intellectualism failed, and everyone knows it. In places like Russia and Germany, the common people agreed to loosen their grip on traditional folkways, mores, and religion, and let the intellectuals run with the ball, and they screwed everything up and turned the century into an abbatoir. Those wordy intellectuals used to be merely tedious; now they seem kind of dangerous as well.
We Americans are the only ones who didn’t get creamed at some point during all of this. We are free and prosperous because we have inherited political and values systems fabricated by a particular set of eighteenth-century intellectuals who happened to get it right. But we have lost touch with those intellectuals, and with anything like intellectualism, even to the point of not reading books any more, though we are literate. We seem much more comfortable with propagating those values to future generations nonverbally, through a process of being steeped in media.

So this culture, steeped in media, emerges from intellectualism and arrives somewhere quite different. Stephenson goes on to discus the extent to which word processing programs complicate the assumed immutability of the written word, whether through system crashes, changing formats or other technical problems:

The ink stains the paper, the chisel cuts the stone, the stylus marks the clay, and something has irrevocably happened (my brother-in-law is a theologian who reads 3250-year-old cuneiform tablets–he can recognize the handwriting of particular scribes, and identify them by name). But word-processing software–particularly the sort that employs special, complex file formats–has the eldritch power to unwrite things. A small change in file formats, or a few twiddled bits, and months’ or years’ literary output can cease to exist.

For Stephenson, a skilled programmer as well as a writer, the solution is to dive into FLOSS tools, to become adept enough at the source code to escape reliance on GUIs. But what about those who do not? This is the deep anxiety that underpins the Flash-is-evil debate that pops up now and again in discussions of YouTube: when you can’t ‘View Source’ any more, how are you supposed to learn? Mashup applications like Microsoft’s Popfly give me the same nervous feeling of wielding tools that I don’t – and will never – understand.
And it’s central to the question confronting us, as the Web shifts steadily away from simple markup and largely textual interactions, toward multifaceted mashups and visual media that relegate the written word to a medium layered over the top – almost an afterthought. Stephenson is ambivalent about the pros and cons of ‘interface culture’: “perhaps the goal of all this is to make us feckless so we won’t nuke each other”, he says, but ten years on, deep in the War on Terror, it’s clear that hypermediation hasn’t erased the need for bombs so much as added webcams to their explosive noses so we can cheer along. And despite my own streak of techno-meritocracy (‘if they’ve voted it to the top then dammit, it’s the best’) I have to admit to wincing at the idea that intellectualism is so thoroughly a thing of the past.
This was meant to be a short post about how exciting it was to be able to blend video with commentary, and how promising this was for new kinds of literacy. But then I watched this anthology of Steve Ballmer videos, currently one of the most popular on the Omnisio site, and (once I stopped laughing) started thinking about the commentary over the top. What it’s for (mostly heckling), what it achieves, and how it relates to – say – the kind of skill that can produce an essay on the cultural ramifications of computer software paradigms. And it’s turned into a speculation about whether, as a writer, I’m on the verge of becoming obsolete, or at least in need of serious retraining. I don’t want this to lapse into the well-worn trope that conflates literacy with moral and civic value – but I’m unnerved by the notion of a fully post-literate world, and by the Flash applications and APIs that inhabit it.

a new blog format avoids the tyranny of chronology

Sebastian Mary and i were talking last week about the need to re-conceive the format of if:book so that interesting posts which initiate lively discussions don’t get pushed to the bottom. a few days later i met with Rene Daalder who showed me his new site, Space Collective which is a gorgeous and brilliant re-thinking of the blog. click on “new posts” and notice how you can view them by “Recently Active, Most Popular, Newest First, and Most Active.” Also notice the elegant way individual posts emerge from the pack when you click on one of them. Please, if you know of other sites which are exploring new directions for the blog, please put the URL into a comment on this post.

a return to orality

I’ve been making my way through Robert Bringhurst’s The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology, which came out a couple years ago in Canada, but which is now getting an American release from Counterpoint. Bringhurst is probably best known to the readers of this site as the author of The Elements of Typographic Style, though he’s well-known as a poet and translator of Native American languages in Canada. This book is a collection of essays looking broadly at oral, written, and visual language and culture through an ecological lens, a viewpoint not dissimilar to the gatherings of wood s lot, the work of his fellow Canadian Mark Woods.
Much of The Tree of Meaning looks at Native American literature of the Pacific Northwest and how that was gathered by the followers of Franz Boas who gathered and disseminated native stories in songs. I know painfully little about anthropology; perhaps that’s why Bringhurst’s words on the problems inherent in transcribing oral literature seem evocative:

It is true that writing changes literature. It changes it, first of all, by leaving things out. A transcript of an oral poem never captures the fullness of a living performance tradition. And this is where writers become more deviant still. As they take their own dictation, they begin to try to use the resources of writing to patch up the holes and mend the tears they cannot help but make in the fabric of literature as they slip from the oral tradition.

(p. 178 in “The Humanity of Speaking: The Place of the Individual in the Making of Oral Culture”.) The idea of the printed word as being what’s left behind isn’t one we commonly think about, but it instinctively makes sense – perhaps more than ever in a world where a book can be simmered down to a text file constrained to the 127 ASCII characters. Looking to return closer to the original poetry, Bringhurst investigates John R. Swanton‘s typographic transcriptions of Haida myth and finds that document to be more complex than we commonly give it credit for:

The typescript, like the photograph, filters and compresses features of reality. We have to learn to read it – and I don’t just mean we have to learn the language. Learning to read transcriptions of oral literatures is something like learning to read historical photographs. The depth and the color, the sounds and the smells, the coughing and spitting, and a lot of the rest of the nitty-gritty is missing. Through informed imagination, much of that can be restored. And it’s like learning to read music. The point is not just to grasp the grammar and the syntax but to envision, and maybe re-create, a genuine performance.

The typescript looks at first to be plain prose, which is a form designed to minimize the outward individuality of any human voice. Almost no one speaks in genuine prose, but the form is often used – by journalists, linguists, and court reporters alike – for transcriptions. The typographic form we associate with prose makes speakers look like writers.

Swanton went looking for what he couldn’t see, and his typewritten texts are the result. I went looking, in the typescript, for what I couldn’t hear: the oral art, the form and meaning hidden in the flattened landscape of the page.

(p. 188 in the same essay.) He reproduces a portion of the typescript, demonstrating his point:

illustration from p189 from the tree of meaning

There’s a lot to think about here, especially now. Each technology in its own way dictates a Procrustean bed, though we’re often not attuned to what the constraints of our technology are. The high-bandwidth networked screen creates possibilities: more can be passed along in the transmission of stories than was before. But constraints dictate form: we know how to read the print book perhaps because that extra information has been sheered away. Learning to read electronically may be complicated.


You’ve probably noticed that things have been relatively quiet around here lately. I haven’t been on vacation or anything like that. Rather I’ve been figuring out the future, not of the book, but of me. After much personal consideration, and discussion with the group here, I’ve decided that now’s the time for me to move on from the Institute after three and a half fantastic years. I’ll still be a part of the general Institute community, and will continue posting here periodically, but as of now my leadership, management and production roles will be phased out. I’m not yet sure where I’m headed next.
It’s surreal looking back on the beginning of this place, and of this blog. I came to this work as sort of a blank slate, a liberal arts refugee (to borrow a term of Dan’s), a theater major a couple of years out of college with practically no knowledge or experience in the field of new media and the Web, but deeply interested in the questions we were asking, and I suppose blessed with a naiveté that enabled me to jump headlong into new territory without knowing what the hell I was doing. There’s an old rabbinical adage from somewhere: “do first, understand later.” Not that I fully understand now, but I’ve definitely learned a thing or two.
This blog has been a deeply rewarding, at times agonizing place of discovery for me, a way of educating myself publicly. I thank everyone who has taken the time to read my thoughts, ramblings and observations here, and especially those who have weighed in in the comment stream, which is where so much of the thinking gets refined, corrected and improved. Finally, I thank my colleagues past and present who have been so smart, so challenging and, above all, so different from me, which is what has always made this such an interesting place.
I plan to continue in this field (whatever you call it – ?publishing, new media, web stuff…), and also to pursue other interests that have reawakened during my time here (namely that most unmediated of art forms, live theater). It may be a little while before I settle on my next big project. I welcome any ideas and advice.
Lest I get too elegaic, I’ll stop there. More regular posting should resume before too long.