The New York Times ran a front-page story yesterday about open peer review, featuring an experiment conducted by MediaCommons for The Shakespeare Quarterly using CommentPress. The article is here and the experiment itself is here. Both MediaCommons and CommentPress were born at the institute; it’s exciting to see our efforts get such prominent notice.
One of my best friends’ parents both became very ill this year. Her mother, 87, elected to have a feeding tube inserted permanently. She is confined to her bed, alone much of the time, and in constant pain, waiting for the inevitable end, which thanks to the feeding tube may be many miserable months ahead. Her father, 90, elected to enter a hospice facility where he spent his last three weeks eating yogurt, sipping the occasional last whiskey, and having long wonderful visits with his three children, their spouses and his beloved grown grandchildren. By all accounts it was a very good death.
Thinking about my friend’s parents makes we wonder why their couldn’t be a “hospice” option for publishers, many of whom — my low-end guess is at least 50% — won’t survive the transition from print to networked screens. If a publisher doesn’t have the requisite vision, desire and resources to embrace digital, what’s wrong with saying, “Gee, it’s been a great 25, 50, 100-year run. Instead of beating our heads against a wall and dying an ugly death, why don’t we go out in style.” Once this difficult decision is arrived at, it would be a matter of selling the assets that can be sold, providing staff with generous severance and really helping them to find new jobs, and then at the very end giving some wonderful parties, celebrating the end of an era. A death with integrity and dignity intact.
Please understand that I make this suggestion with huge love and respect for publishers. At their best they have played a crucial role in the complex discourse that moves society forward. Like a beloved parent, there’s no reason why they should suffer more than necessary at the end of a full and productive life.
Assuming that whatever replaces the book in the futurist landscape to come will not be called “a book,” people often ask me why I named our group The Institute for the Future of the Book. My answer has consistently been a variant of the following: while it’s true that whatever replaces the book as a crucial mechanism for moving ideas around time and space is not likely to be called “a book,” since we don’t have that word yet, “book” works better than “institute for the future of discourse” or “institute for thinking about what comes after the book.” I end my answer by suggesting that one day we’ll realize that a word describing a new-fangled object, or perhaps a word referring to a range of behaviors has come to signify the dominant media form which has in fact supplanted the book.
I’ve always assumed that day would be years or even decades off. But recently, while listening to the Flux Quartet play Morton Feldman’s First Quartet on a gently swaying barge in the east river, i suddenly recognized our first candidate — “app.” It’s not the pretty or expressive word I was hoping for, but it feels right.
The aha moment went like this . . . . while zoning in and out of the Feldman piece I started to think about the iPad that I’d been using for the past six weeks — not only for most of my reading, but for playing expressive games like my current favorite, SoundDrop, answering email, surfing the web, watching videos, and listening to music. The iPad has become the center of my media universe, much more than my computer, iPod, or iPhone have ever been. My text used to come in an object we called a book; movies came on tapes, laserdisc, and DVDs, music on records and CDs and games on cartridges and CDs. Now they are all appearing as apps of one sort or another on my iPad.
The distinction between media types was a lot more important during the analog era of the mid-twentieth cenury. In 1950 no one would confuse a novel with a movie or a song with a TV show. But today we have e-books with video sequences, and movies published with extensive text-based supplements. Is Lady Gaga a music star or video star?
While I think it will take some time to deeply understand the long-term implications of this flattening of all media types and experiences into varieties of apps, i don’t think it’s too early to suggest that “app” is on its way to linguistic hegemony.
In the past we had books, movies and songs. now they’re all being bundled into one category — apps — to be further delineated by a descriptive prefix. It’s easy to imagine today that movies will have back stories and fan elaborations available on the web and new fiction forms will explore and make use of a complex almagam of media types. the categories- books, songs, movies- meant something in the past that loses specific meaning in this fluid digital domain where each can incorproate aspects of the other. In its media agnosticism and inclusive fluidity, “app” already describes this landscape.
Consider the word “book.” On its own, “book” usually refers to a minimally defined material object, a generic container. It’s not until there’s a qualifier that we know much about what’s inside: fiction or non-fiction book, cookbook, textbook, art book, children’s book, how-to book, illustrated book, history book, religious book, and so on.
From this perspective, “app” has already arrived. Book apps, cooking apps, movie apps, game apps, productivity apps, how-to-apps, children’s apps, music apps, photography apps etc. are all available. And of course we already have the App Store which is rapidly gaining a place in public parlance.
And yes . . . . I have now gone and registered futureoftheapp.org