Author Archives: sebastian mary

extraordinary book sculpture

Brian Dettmer creates these extraordinary sculptures by amalgamating, modifying and mutating books.

Looking at these images of the physical matter of books, remixed into sculptures, I’m reminded of the process that texts are increasingly going through once digitized: amalgamated, remixed, reformed into new entities.
Dettmer’s sculptures invite us to think about deeply-held taboos around the sanctity of books as objects; a conversation that recurs – especially in the context of e-readers – around discussion of digitized text.

Recycling, reimagining, repurposing the cultural glut amidst which we currently exist feels in many ways an appropriate artistic mode for today. Is authorship really so sacred that remixed works cannot themselves be things of beauty and value? Or, like European villages dismantling local medieval chateaux to build outhouses, are we taking our cultural history so completely for granted that we’re in danger of forgetting or destroying millennia of culture in a thoughtless reappropriation of its materials for our current preoccupations?

Dettmer’s show opens April 3 at the Packer Schopf Gallery in Chicago.
(Via Boing Boing)

will the real iPod for reading stand up now please?

OK, so first of all: this isn’t an article about whether or not ebooks are a good thing. But I was thinking this morning about the now hackneyed idea that we’re moments away from an ‘iPod moment for ebooks’, and trying once again to work out why I think this is so very wrong. I’ve concluded that it’s because of the physical qualities of books. But not in the way you’d think.
No discussion of the future of the book is complete without someone saying, as if they’d thought of it first, ‘But books are tactile and sensory as well as intellectual, what about the feel and smell?’. Yeah, I like to read in the bath, I like to scribble in the margins, etc. This discussion has been extensively rehearsed, by people much smarter than me, so let’s sidestep this issue for a moment. But the physicality of books impacts on their contents, too, and it is this that makes the iPod a misleading comparison for the kind of content that might work on an e-reader.
Let’s look at books for a moment. While in the early Wild West publishing days of the 18th-century print boom works were produced in a bewildering array of formats (elephant folio, pamphlet, poster, flyer, handout along with more familiar books) in today’s mature publishing industry there is an inverse correlation between the size of the print run and the variation in the book’s dimensions. In other words, the more mass-market a book, the more likely it will be to conform to the average book dimensions: 110-135mm wide, by 178-216mm high. This is the easiest size to produce inexpensively, and sell at a price point the market will bear.
Length is determined as well, by manufacturing constraints at the top end, and the fixed overheads of printing at the bottom. Bookshops are crammed with full-length books whose contents could just as well be communicated in a short essay, or even in the title alone: I’m thinking of Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, but a glance at the self-help or business shelves of your local bookshop will show you plenty more. And yet to make economic sense they have to be padded out for publication in ‘proper’ book size. But to conclude from this (as many unwittingly do) that long-form books are necessarily the best, rather than just the most familiar, way of communicating ideas is mistaken; and to assume that this practice will transplant to e-readers, imagined as a kind of iPod for these long-form essays, is just wrong.
Look at the Web. The attention economy at its most feral. Whatever you’re writing, there is always better, more engaging, more pornographic or immediately relevant content only a click away. If I make this article too long you won’t finish it. In terms of print tradition, long-form writing is best; but online, brevity really is the soul of wit. Or, rather, the soul of not being ignored. Does this mean that – on the assumption that long-form is intrinsically good – the Web is ruining our ability to think deeply? Birkerts’ recent Atlantic article ‘Resisting the Kindle’ (see Bob’s post below) rehearses, after a fashion, some of these concerns; but a counter-perspective might argue simply that, without the physical constraints of print publishing, we are experimenting with new ways to communicate.
I read books, read blogs, I twitter compulsively. I use these different formats for different kinds of experience. I see no contradiction: what I’m getting at here is that the e-reader is being treated as though it is a viable vehicle for long-form writing, in a way that ignores the essential fact that long-form writing and reading is rooted in paper, and book manufacturing.
So, back to the ‘iPod for reading’ metaphor. Its proponents generally don’t dig deeper than ‘here is a small square device for storing and consuming lots of music’. The implication is that we can hop blithely from that to ‘here is a small square device for storing and consuming lots of text’. Regardless of stirring promises of e-books containing audio, video, fancy schmancy links and so on, the common understanding – and, indeed, the hope of the publishing industry – remains that this is a digital device for reading long-form texts. But this ignores the effect that iPods – or, more generally, mp3s – are having on how music is distributed. Once sold as albums, whether on LPs or CDs, music is increasingly sold by the micro-unit – a single song. A unit of content typically around 3 or 4 minutes long rather than 60-75 minutes.
It makes economic sense to sell LPs or CDs at a runtime of 60-odd minutes. It makes economic sense to sell books of around 80,000 words. But music for iPods can be sold song by song. So, extrapolating from this to an iPod for reading, what is the written equivalent of a single song? In a word (or 300), belles lettres.
And the Web is full of belles lettres. Now and then in my wanderings around the Web, I come across something and think ‘That’s a really important essay’. And I worry about the ability of the Web to take care of it for me: link rot always sets in eventually, Wayback Machine or no. I can’t print it all out. So how do I keep such articles? I would welcome a device designed for downloading and archiving essays I think are important, a virtual library device for the belles lettres of today.
Armed with such a device, creating playlists, mashups, collages of our favourite short works, we might become a generation of digital Montaignes, annotating and expanding our collective discourse. Blogging is already, in effect, the re-emergence of belles lettres; and while blog posts are typically written for the moment, a device that could earn the blogger a small sum (and the cachet of being considered worthy of archiving) for every essay downloaded might well inspire a renaissance in short work written for a longer lifespan.
As a device for consuming a kind of writing – long-form – developed within the constraints of physical print, e-readers are a niche product. Reading a long-form book on an e-reader is a bit like teleconferencing: it’s OK as far as it goes, but the meeting format evolved from haptic, as much as informational, constraints and still works better that way. There may be people out there who listen to entire albums, from start to finish, one at a time, on their iPods; I’m willing to bet there will a few who will enjoy slogging through long-form writings, one at a time, on a digital device. I don’t see it going mainstream. But a device for collating and archiving good, important, digital short writing? I want one.
So, please, can we forget about the handful of eccentrics who want to ruin their eyes wading through War and Peace on a tiny LCD screen. Instead, let’s bring on the real iPod for reading: something that lets me download, archive, tag annotate, share, playlist and categorise short-form works that would otherwise disappear into the link-rot mulch of yesterday’s Web. Let’s figure out a business model, an iTunes for micro-articles. Let’s take short-form digital writing seriously.
(Cross-posted from


Embarrassingly belated report on bookcamp (I’ve taken this long just to follow up on conversations). It was a delightfully un-stuffy unconference exploring bookish and net-ish tech-ish things, last Saturday, at the new Hub space in Kings Cross. I listened to Kate Hyde and Mark Johnson from HarperCollins discussing HC’s new online communities (I particularly enjoyed being able to quiz them about the community dynamics of Authonomy). Later, I heard James Bridle explain how he’d hacked together existing web-based services to set up Bookkake, a book publishing imprint in his bedroom, heard literary agents, publishers, writers, assorted digerati and mischief-makers debating whether or not writers’ salaries were doomed, and gave a talk on the tradition of the book in which I invented a word (printy) and apparently got away with it. Slideshare version of the talk to follow.
All in all it was a splendid day. Many thanks to James Bridle, Jeremy Ettinghausen, and Russell Davies for organising it, along with the mysterious PaperCamp happening upstairs, from which I heard roars of applause around every half hour.
I’ll post more thoughts arising from the day when it’s had a chance to settle a bit.

looking for lit in all the wrong places

Just came upon a Guardian piece looking at the underwhelming quality of ‘e-lit’. In my comment on the discussion I found myself reviewing a number of themes that have recurred in my if:book research over the last couple of years: the emergence of net-native storytelling, the failure of the literary establishment to detach sufficiently from aesthetic criteria overdetermined by the print form to be able to grasp the potential of the Web, and the increasing power of brand-funded patronage in digital cultural production.
So, with apologies for cross-posting, I’ve added my comment on the article (well worth reading, by the way, as is the ensuing debate) here for discussion.
In January of last year I posted on if:book an essay which argued that alternate reality games (ARGs) were the first genuinely net-native form of storytelling. This, I suggested, is because ARGs make good use of intrinsic qualities of the Web (boundlessness, fluidity, participation and so on) rather than attempting to reproduce a book-like entity within something that’s pushing in another direction.
While I’ve seen ARGs take off in many forms since then I have seen little discussion of the form within ‘literary’ circles, whether digital or otherwise, the only exception being Naomi Alderman, who is both a prizewinning novelist and a writer at London ARG studio SixToStart.
I’ve argued elsewhere on if:book that this – and other disconnects and category errors around the relationship between literature and the Web – is because the received understanding of ‘literature’ and ‘literary’ is at odds with the way the vast majority of Web users approach digital media. But even as the balance of cultural power tips ever more steeply in favour of the Web, these received ideas about what ‘literature’ is stubbornly refuse to budge.
The Web operates increasingly on an assumption that in most cases content will only be read if it is free, a fact usefully illustrated by comparing the Guardian’s declining print readership with its growing online presence and intelligent cross-marketing partnerships there (dating, a deal with LoveFilm etc). But this demand for free content removes at a stroke the writer’s and publisher’s business model, forcing a rethink of the ways we bankroll cultural production (see here and here for more on this).
But this hasn’t been taken on board by the proponents of ‘e-literature’. Much ‘e-lit’ discussion takes place within academia and grant-funded bodies, which allows a misleading focus on ‘artistic’ value in digital cultural production without taking into account the need most professional creators of fiction have to produce something that sells. This perception gap is frustratingly evident in the lack of a commercial angle in the roster of sources quoted in the article above. But meanwhile, a hugely dynamic new industry is emerging that uses participation, co-creation, multimedia and more to involve large audiences in digitally-delivered narratives. The hitch is that these narratives are inevitably brand-funded – for example Where Are The Joneses?, a semi-crowdsourced sitcom funded by Ford but genuinely entertaining in its own right; most ARGs; and a slew of other projects I know of in production.
While time will tell whether output such as WATJ has enduring value and real impact, the point here is that the discourse of ‘e-lit’ is too heavily embedded in a set of assumptions and aesthetic criteria that evolved for print literature to see what’s right in front of its nose: that ‘e-lit’ exists, but doesn’t look anything like ‘lit’. And, furthermore, that it has abandoned literature’s ostensible decoupling of artistic creation and commercial intent and become a vehicle for corporate engagement with the audiences. Is this a bad thing? Perhaps no more so than the great artistic patrons of the Middle Ages. Will it eclipse the minority pursuit of print-style creations with multimedia bolt-ons in online cultural impact? It has already done so.

wordia – new definitions of literacy?

This morning, I went to Samuel Johnson’s house (now a museum dedicated to 18th-century London) in the old City of London. Today is (or would have been) Samuel Johnson’s birthday; the occasion was the launch of Wordia, a new startup that lets users define individual words in video and upload them to the site.
(The launch invitation came, cheekily, in the form of a Times obituary for the dictionary.)
Wordia aims to create an ever-evolving ‘dictionary’ of vox-pop word definitions: “a democratic ‘visual dictionary’ […] where anyone with a video, webcam or mobile phone can define the words that matter to them in their life.” Founded by TV producer Ed Baker, the site is supported by HarperCollins, the UK’s National Literacy Trust and the Open University amongst others, and already boasts a veritable glossolalia of video’d word definitions.
It started me thinking about the relationship between dictionaries and power – who claims the right to be the determiners of ‘acceptable’ usage and definition? One of the functions of Johnson’s original dictionary was to standardize spelling – which, in Shakespeare’s era, was pretty much a free-for-all – and to enshrine ‘proper’ or ‘Standard English’ as one of the markers of those permitted to access the centers of power. At that level, a democratic dictionary is in some senses a contradiction in terms: if a dictionary is where you go to settle disputes about definition, then what happens when a ‘dictionary’ becomes the locus for those disputes?
One possible answer is that its strongest field may end up being neologism – or, to put it another way, slang. At the launch, I asked a member of Wordia’s team: aren’t you worried that the most popular area for definition will be those where language is most in flux – ie slang, obscenity and insult? (I’m thinking, amongst other things, about (NSFW link) Dan Savage’s attack on Joe Santorum through the medium of neologism…). While the avowed intent – democratizing the power to define – is a laudable one, won’t moderation be a major concern? And doesn’t that invalidate the whole exercise?
Arguably, though, Urban Dictionary has already cornered the market in this kind of demotic definition. For one thing, it has the advantage of anonymity: the submission form urbandictionary uses is a far more appealing interface for uploading foul language than Wordia’s, which requires each submission to be spoken to camera. And Wordia’s mission – at least as far as I can gather from the About pages – is more high-minded than Urban Dictionary’s brutally relativist ‘Define Your World’, and reflects instead enthusiasm for language generally and an ambition to broaden our understanding of what literacy is.
I’ll be following Wordia with interest- will they get enough videos to generate a satisfying mass of content? Are other people’s definitions of words interesting enough to browse? Time will tell. But the site reflects a general online trend away from the playful (and often base and ugly) anarchy of unmoderated chatter towards tidier, better-managed and more mainstream approaches to user-generated material. Perhaps the Web is growing up. And in any case, Wordia provides one more link between the language/power debates of the Augustan print boom, and today’s ongoing struggles to learn just how much, how little (or just how) language, power and the Web will interact to shape our culture.

now you can judge a virtual book by its cover too

Zoomii, a new virtual bookstore that uses Amazon’s prices and fulfilment, provides a nifty ‘browse’ interface that lets the viewer zoom in and out of 21,000 ‘books’ – read cover thumbnails – arranged on ‘shelves’ according to category.
It’s the most bookshop-like experience I’ve encountered online. Within seconds I’d been reminded of several books I’ve been meaning to read. And arguably the proximity of a diverse selection of titles could help strikes a blow for browsing and against the homophily that characterizes much Web browsing.
It’s debatable, though, whether this kind of heavily-mediated pseudo-serendipity, while a pleasant change from the messy Amazon experience, isn’t one metaphor too far. After all, how ‘serendipitous’ are the book thumbnails I find on its digitally-rendered ‘shelves’?
What concerns me is that, while this site provides something of the feel of browsing a bookstore, this is not only a superficial impression but reproduces the worst of the industrialized mainstream bookstores. The buying practices necessitated in order to keep a large bookstore financially viable these days have skewed the kinds of books that are deemed saleable profoundly; the redemptive promise of the Web was that the magical long tail might create markets for even those niche publications that have been edged out of mainstream publishing and book sales.
And yet (as I understand it – corrections welcome) for a book to be sold in more than one place online it must be equipped with a set of tags (ISBN, summary, thumbnail image etc) according to a metadata standard. Without these, the multiplicity of bookselling affiliate schemes, APIs and so on will not be able to carry the title, and the book will not sell. And this additional informational labor is beyond the technical and time resources of many small publishers. So while a bookstore (in its ideal, pre-Scott Pack form at least) might be imagined to carry a genuinely serendipitous mix of local publications, the manager’s choices, remainders, bestsellers and second-hand titles, this slick performance of serendipity relies on several intricate but invisible additional layers of technologization. Thus, while it gives the feeling of serendipity, the data architectures required to sustain the ‘bookstore’ metaphor push the available selection ever more towards a literary monoculture.
In an age where more books than ever are being published, perhaps this doesn’t matter. But despite the attractiveness of Zoomii as a piece of data visualization, it seems to me to point towards a worst-case combination of manual, recommendation-free browsing and industrialized depletion of diversity.

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.