Monthly Archives: June 2008

dailylit experiments with public reading via twitter

I made a passing mention of email-me-chunks-of-book-to-read service DailyLitin my recent-ish post on writing less. Though I’ve not tried it, it’s been picking up some press lately as a way to get your reading done via the network.
The latest news is that DailyLit is experimenting with public and participative reading via Twitter. Texts on offer include Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
A little look around indicates that the Twitter element – slightly to my disappointment – neither involves abridging the text savagely for hyper-truncated delivery, or else delivering the unabridged text 140 characters at a time. Readers sign up for Twitter updates, which then alert them whenever a new instalment of the book goes up on DailyLit. This they can then discuss in related fora. So rather than proposing literature especially for Twitter, DailyLit is using Twitter much as many bloggers do: for status updates that drive readers to a webpage elsewhere.
Doctorow’s book at present has 300 followers (nearly double the following of Pride and Prejudice…). There’s not much uptake in the fora at present. But overall it’s a timely experiment in networked, cross-platform public reading, and will no doubt have much to teach us as we prepare for the Golden Notebook public reading project.

lulu for magazines?

A new project by HP Labs aims to make print-on-demand magazine publishing available to everyone. MagCloud uses a similar model toLulu for books, or Moo for stickers and cards: upload your digital content here and we’ll deal with fulfillment.
In his post introducing MagCloud, founder Derek Powazek makes the point that well over 50% of most magazines never make it to a buyer – that the distribution shelves are merely a rest-stop between the printer’s warehouse and the recycling plant. Between sustainability concerns and economic ones, a print on demand model seems a logical step for the ever-more-fragmented magazine market.
So will the days of Xeroxed ‘distros’ soon be behind us forever? It’s hard to tell – it’s still in beta at the moment, and publisher accounts are invite-only. Key to success will be how slick, user-friendly, customizable and adaptable the publishing tools are – or whether it’s a matter of getting a PDF designed somewhere else and treating MagCloud like a slightly complicated printer. Then the magazines on offer for purchase are fairly sparse, and the interface for browsing before you buy is unwieldy. I’d like to see ways of embedding a Cafepress-style link into other webspaces, so as to give ezines and small magazines an easy channel to retail a print version. I’d also like to see and also more tools for users/readers to review magazines published through the site.
But it seems churlish to snipe too much – it’s very early days, and the idea has considerable potential as a tool for leveraging the Web to service very small interest groups.
(Link via Booktwo)

if:book review 3 – privacy and net neutrality

My last review post covered the debates around digitization of public domain archives, especially with reference to Google. Key to these debates are questions of access: who gets how much, what to, how is this controlled, and who by? And who benefits? Though Google is mentioned with disturbing frequency any ttime someone worries about privacy and ownership of data, the debate is much wider. So this piece takes a look at some related issues.
If concerns for privacy and freedom of speech usually refer to state interference, net neutrality often points the other way: towards private corporations remaking the Web in their image. Clearly this is frequently (as recent coverage of the ongoing Viacom/Google spat points out) about attempts to ringfence pre-Web approaches to copyright. But space is limited, so I haven’t tried to cover DRM and copyright in depth here.
Net neutrality: who owns the pipes?
Ben’s November 2005 post about net neutrality was the first if:book article on the topic. It picked up an article by Doc Searls about the dangers of the Web being hijacked by major telcos, and explored some of the parallels between the failure of two-way radio and the potential erosion of a multidirectional Web. A second post on December looked at the possibility that redrafted telco regulations could help the creeping transformation of the Web from a read/write medium towards a broadcast-only model.
Reports of Google’s decision to serve a neutered service in China in response to Chinese governmental restrictions prompted a remarkable January 2006 article from Benthat ranged across net neutrality, privacy, censorship, and the utopian ideals of the Web. Very much worth a look. Ray picked up the theme again in February. The same month, we reported on Lessig’s gloomy prognostications for the read/write web, drawing out the relationship between net neutrality and copyright. And in May, a handful of people protested against the net neutrality bill; in June, Congress passed the amended telcos bill, roundly condemned by this blog. But net neutrality seems these days to be of more concern to telcos than to individuals: a recent IPDemocracy post gives an indication of the extent to which the issue is a hot topic to carriers (which have an economic interest) and states (which have a political one), but of little interest to everyday internet users.

Privacy: who owns your (meta)data?

Of all the past posts on privacy, the three strongest are arguably Ben’s three posts on ‘The book is reading you’, parts 1, 2 and 3, published between January and March 2006 – especially the third.
The first looks at the privacy implications of technologies that track your clickstreams across digitized archives such as Google and Amazon.
The second discusses Google’s acquisition of Writely: would web-based word processing extend Google’s domain of searchable private material even beyond email inboxes to individuals’ private documents? (I have to say, from the vantage point of 2008 it is not clear that adoption of web-based office tools has been as overwhelming as some anticipated in those heady years of web2.0 fever. The view from here is a little more measured; Google Docs, as Writely is now called, is one tool among many but has none of the uncontested dominance of the search engine. But the post marks a key moment in the imperial expansion of the Google machine into ever new territories.)
The third is a wide-ranging essay that covers net neutrality, copyright, software licensing and Google issues. One paragraph is worth quoting in full, as it’s remained central to many of the Institute’s concerns:

Though print will always offer inimitable pleasures, the social life of media is moving to the network. That’s why we here at if:book care so much about issues, tangential as they may seem to the future of the book, like network neutrality, copyright and privacy. These issues are of great concern because they make up the environment for the future of reading and writing. We believe that a free, neutral network, a progressive intellectual property system, and robust safeguards for privacy are essential conditions for an enlightened digital age.

In the runup to these posts, we also covered Yahoo!’s purchase of, the launch of the Open Rights Group, Siva Vaidhyanathan’s sobering thoughts on Google, privacy and privatization (still very much worth a read) – and amongst other things a string of digitization deals between Google and public archives (see my previous review post).
The issue of privacy is not just a narrative of one corporation’s info-expansionism. The issue of freedom of expression around the world collided with that of Google when it was revealed in January 06 that Google had decided to comply with the Chinese government’s insistence on restrictive search terms within China, somewhat dampening the cred Google received for saying no when Cheney requested government access to citizens’ Google search records.
In March, Jesse wrote about identity management in the age of search engines. Though the app he mentioned does not seem to have gained much traction, the issues are still relevant. In April, Ben drew together a string of net neutrality and privacy posts for a hefty post about the disturbing confluence of deregulated Web infrastructures and privatised info-accumulation taking place online.
One final theme that deserves a mention is that of Flash and other read-only media. Where the ‘View Source’ command enables the curious to review the code behind any HTML site, Flash and its kin, while making the Web infinitely richer and in some ways more accessible, has also exacted a price in transparency and interoperability across platforms. This has been discussed periodically, as here in October 2006, and again in March 2008.

new ways with words

I’m delighted to announce that we’ve received a grant of £93,000 from the Esmee Fairbairn Trust to help us “explore how new media can be used to generate active reading, creative writing and fresh enthusiasm for literature amongst young people”. In collaboration with teachers and writers, we’ll be creating a library of materials for schools made in CommentPress and Sophie, running workshops and building on the success of our recent project FOUND, funded by Booktrust. Actor and writer Toby Jones (currently playing Karl Rove in Oliver Stone’s W), worked with me and a class of twelve year olds in inner city Birmingham who found themselves immersed in the story of a lost child whose personality was, unbeknownst to them, being created by themselves. You can read a full account on the bookfutures blog which if:book london is developing for its projects and work with literature organisations in the UK.

The Golden Notebook -? readers wanted

if:book readers may remember my excited post from last October when Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize. I had coincidentally re-read The Golden Notebook over the summer and when I realized that none of my younger colleagues had read it, or even knew anyone of their generation who had read it, I started musing about the possibilities of having readers from two generations reading it together, commenting publicly in the margins in something like CommentPress.
I mentioned this idea to Antonia Byatt of the British Arts Council only to find that she, by coincidence, had also just re-read the book over the summer. Antonia was intrigued by the idea and eight months later we have a grant from the Arts Council and a deal with Harper Collins that will make this a reality. In mid-October 3-5 readers will begin reading The Golden Notebook and carry out a conversation in the margins. The site will be open and the rest of us will be able to follow their reading and participate in a related public forum.
Who do you think should be the readers? The book is perhaps best known for its role in the beginning of the women’s liberation movements of the 1970s but it also confronts complex issues of race and the political fall-out from the ideological collapse of the soviet union. The original idea was to invite women from different generations, but we’re open to other ideas.
Please, tell us who you would like to see as the designated readers. We’re interested in general categories but also in specific recommendations. You can even nominate yourself. [The Arts Council grant includes a generous honorarium for each of the readers.]
By the way we’re working with a fantastic group in London, apt, to build a completely new CommentPress-like application that should be much better for reading both the text and the comments.

google, digitization and archives: despatches from if:book

In discussing with other Institute folks how to go about reviewing four year’s worth of blog posts, I’ve felt torn at times. Should I cherry-pick ‘thinky’ posts that discuss a particular topic in depth, or draw out narratives from strings of posts each of which is not, in itself, a literary gem but which cumulatively form the bedrock of the blog? But I thought about it, and realised that you can’t really have one without the other.
Fair use, digitization, public domain, archiving, the role of libraries and cultural heritage are intricately interconnected. But the name that connects all these issues over the last few years has been Google. The Institute has covered Google’s incursions into digitization of libraries (amongst other things) in a way that has explored many of these issues – and raised questions that are as urgent as ever. Is it okay to privatize vast swathes of our common cultural heritage? What are the privacy issues around technology that tracks online reading? Where now for copyright, fair use and scholarly research?
In-depth coverage of Google and digitization has helped to draw out many of the issues central to this blog. Thus, in drawing forth the narrative of if:book’s Google coverage is, by extension, to watch a political and cultural stance emerging. So in this post I’ve tried to have my cake and eat it – to trace a story, and to give a sense of the depth of thought going into that story’s discussion.
In order to keep things manageable, I’ve kept this post to a largely Google-centric focus. Further reviews covering copyright-related posts, and general discussion of libraries and technology will follow.
2004-5: Google rampages through libraries, annoys Europe, gains rivals
In December 2004, if:book’s first post about Google’s digitization of libraries gave the numbers for the University of Michigan project.
In February 2005, the head of France’s national libraries raised a battle cry against the Anglo-centricity implicit in Google’s plans to digitize libraries. The company’s seemingly relentless advance brought Europe out in force to find ways of forming non-Google coalitions for digitization.
In August, Google halted book scans for a few months to appease publishers angry at encroachments on their copyright. But this was clearly not enough, as in October 2005, Google was sued (again) by a string of publishers for massive copyright infringement. However, undeterred either by European hostility or legal challenges, the same month the company made moves to expand Google Print into Europe. Also in October 2005, Yahoo! launched the Open Content Alliance, which was joined by Microsoft around the same time. Later the same month, a Wired article put the case for authors in favor of Google’s searchable online archive.
In November 2005 Google announced that from here on in Google Print would be known as Google Book Search, as the ‘Print’ reference perhaps struck too close to home for publishers. The same month, Ben savaged Google Print’s ‘public domain’ efforts – then recanted (a little) later that month.
In December 2005 Google’s digitization was still hot news – the Institute did a radio show/podcast with Open Source on the topic, and covered the Google Book Search debate at the American Bar Association. (In fact, most of that month’s posts are dedicated to Google and digitization and are too numerous to do justice to here).
2006: Digitization spreads
By 2006, digitization and digital archives – with attendant debates – are spreading. From January through March, three posts – ‘The book is reading you’ parts 1, 2 and 3 looked at privacy, networked books, fair use, downloading and copyright around Google Book Search. Also in March, a further post discussed Google and Amazon’s incursions into publishing.
In April, the Smithsonian cut a deal with Showtime making the media company a preferential media partner for documentaries using Smithsonian resources. Jesse analyzed the implications for open research.
In June, the Library of Congress and partners launched a project to make vintage newspapers available online. Google Book Search, meanwhile, was tweaked to reassure publishers that the new dedicated search page was not, in fact, a library. The same month, Ben responded thoughtfully in June 2006 to a French book attacking Google, and by extension America, for cultural imperialism. The debate continued with a follow-up post in July.
In August, Google announceddownloadable PDF versions of many of its public-domain books. Then, in August, the publication of Google’s contract with UCAL’s library prompted some debate the same month. In October we reported on Microsoft’s growing book digitization list, and some criticism of the same from Brewster Kahle. The same month, we reported that the Dutch government is pouring millions into a vast public digitization program.
In December, Microsoft launched its (clunkier) version of Google Books, Microsoft Live Book Search.

2007: Google is the environment

In January, former Netscape player Rich Skrenta crowned Google king of the ‘third age of computing’: ‘Google is the environment’, he declared. Meanwhile, having seemingly forgotten 2005’s tussles, the company hosted a publishing conference at the New York Public Library. In February the company signed another digitization deal, this time with Princeton; in August, this institution was joined by Cornell, and the Economist compared Google’s databases to the banking system of the information age. The following month, Siva’s first Monday podcast discussed the Googlization of libraries.
By now, while Google remains a theme, commercial digitization of public-domain archives is a far broader issue. In January, the US National Archives cut a digitization deal with Footnote, effectively paywalling digital access to a slew of public-domain documents; in August, a deal followd with Amazon for commercial distribution of its film archive. The same month, two major audiovisual archiving projects launched.
In May, Ben speculated about whether some ‘People’s Card Catalog’ could be devised to rival Google’s gated archive. The Open Archive launched in July, to mixed reviews – the same month that the ongoing back-and-forth between the Institute and academic Siva Vaidyanathan bore fruit. Siva’s networked writing project, The Googlization Of Everything, was announced (this would be launched in September). Then, in August, we covered an excellent piece by Paul Duguid discussing the shortcomings of Google’s digitization efforts.
In October, several major American libraries refused digitization deals with Google. By November, Google and digitization had found its way into the New Yorker; the same month the Library of Congress put out a call for e-literature links to be archived.

2008: All quiet?

In January we reported that LibraryThing interfaces with the British Library, and in March on the launch of an API for Google Books. Siva’s book found a print publisher the same month.
But if Google coverage has been slighter this year, that’s not to suggest a happy ending to the story. Microsoft abandoned its book scanning project in mid-May of this year, raising questions about the viability of the Open Content Alliance. It would seem as though Skrenta was right. The Googlization of Everything continues, less challenged than ever.

we’re on our way back

The period of extreme introspection is winding down. As you’ve seen over the last few days Sebastian Mary has embarked on a review of if:book’s first four years. This will unfold over the next few weeks and will prepare the way for a re-design of the site intended both to encourage a lot more reader participation and also to free us from the chronological tyranny of the traditional blog format, which cuts off so many conversations just as they start to get interesting.
There’s a ton of interesting things to tell you about. I’ll be posting a lot in the next few weeks.

fantasy author’s site hosts fan-created wiki encyclopedia

In marked contrast to J K Rowling, whose battles against the publication of a fan-created Potter encyclopedia we’ve covered here, fantasy author Naomi Novik‘s website hosts a wiki in which fans of her writing help to co-create an encyclopedic guide to her Temeraire novels. It’s no coincidence that Novik is one of a handful of fanfic writers who’ve made the transition to publication as ‘original’ authors. She also chairs the Organization for Transformative Works, an archive dedicated to fanfic or ‘transformative’ work.
Novik’s approach reflects a growing recognition by many in the content industries that mass audience engagement with a given fictional world is can deliver benefits worth that outweigh any perceived losses due to copyright infringement by ‘derivative’ work. Echoing the tacit truce between the manga industry and its participatory fan culture (covered here last November), Novik’s explicit welcoming of fan participation in her fictional universes points towards a model of authorship that goes beyond a crude protectionism of the supposed privileged position of ‘author’ towards a recognition that, while creativity and participation are in some senses intrinsic to the read/write Web, not all creators are created equal – nor wish to be.
While a simplistic egalitarianism would propose that participatory media flatten all creative hierarchies, the reality is that many are content to engage with and develop a pre-existing fiction, and have no desire to originate such. Beyond recognising this fact, the challenge for post-Web2.0 writers is to evolve structures that reflect and support this relationship, without simply inscribing the originator/participator split as a cast-in-stone digital-era reworking of the author/reader dyad.

virtual pop-up book in papervision

Ecodazoo is a beautifully-animated if slightly inscrutable site created in Papervision, a real-time 3D engine for Flash. Scrolling around the page takes you to a series of animated ‘pop-up books’ that tell vaguely eco-educational stories.
It’s pretty, even if it’s unclear who it’s aimed at. The heavy ‘book’ styling made me think though. Will the children of the future only experience pop-up books in animated form, onscreen? Or would the pop-up book conceit only have resonance for those raised on the paper versions?
To put it another way, would an animated ‘book’ enchant or simply baffle an adult raised since infancy on screen-based reading? If so, the many well-meaning attempts to transpose codex-like qualities into the digital realm ultimately serve only to comfort those dwindling generations (of which, at 29, I’m probably the last) for whom in early years print took precedence over digital text.