Category Archives: blog

if:book london… tomorrow the stars

We’ve now launched a website for if:book london, the British iteration of the Institute, at, and that links both to this blog and one which will focus on UK activities and in particular our work with the literature sector following a very positive reception by Arts Council England to the report by Mary and I: read:write – digital possibilities for literature and the imminent launch of another report, digital livings, how new media writers do, can and could make their way in the world , commissioned by the Institute of Creative Technologies at De Montfort University. We will be making both reports available to download as soon as possible.
I think this if:book blog is wonderful, stimulating, challenging, brilliant – and so somewhat daunting to post on. It has a strong sense of itself and, tell me if you disagree, but it doesn’t feel right to me to start bombarding this space with discussion of very specific issues to do with the UK literary scene and the organisations which work around it. Which isn’t to say that some posts shouldn’t appear in both places.
One reason I’m hesitant about writing here is uncertainty about who I’m talking to.
I would love to know more about if:book readers and wonder if some might be prepared to step forward and tell us briefly about themselves and why they keep an eye on this place.
I would love to see an anthology of if:book’s best bits, in print on page or screen. People have been writing serious, lengthy essays here, some of which quickly stimulate much attention, others drift by unnoticed like leaves in the blogflow and deserve fuller consideration.
Meanwhile Sara Lloyd, Head of digital publishing at Pan Macmillan in the UK quotes if:book in a fascinating book publishers manifesto for the 21st century. You can download it from It’s more evidence that the future of the book may be arriving shortly in the NOW and, having led the way up to this point, now is a good moment for the Institute to reflect further on what role(s) it wishes to play in a rapidly changing landscape, whether it should be looking much further ahead for next big futurethings or focusing on specific interventions in distribution and creation in the digital here and now.
However on the ‘it’ll-never-catch-on’ front, Doctor Who, Britain’s favourite time traveller, is trapped on a gigantic planet-sized library on BBC 1 this week. Electronic librarians oversee rows of very conventional looking dusty tomes and death lurks in the shadows. The Doctor has already told us how, despite all the advances in technology, future life forms still love nothing better than the smell and feel of a proper old book. No sign of the great grandchildren of Kindle here yet then, but it is only episode one. More next week!

commentpress update

Since we launched Holy of Holies last year, we’ve made a lot of progress with the paragraph-level commenting system we’ve been building on top of WordPress. We’ve taken to calling it “Commentpress,” and until we get significant pushback (or a great alternative suggestion), we’re sticking with it. This is a pre-announcement to say that we’re pursuing plans to open it up as a plugin for WordPress in March (middle to end of the month).
The original instantiation was put together very quickly over the course of a week and was the dictionary definition of a hack. Still, we knew we had something that was worthwhile from the feedback we received, and we were excited to figure out the next step for Commentpress. That was almost two months ago. In that time, we’ve launched three other sites in Commentpress (1 2 3). Each new installation has seen additions and refinements to the Commentpress functionality. But we haven’t released it.
Why the delay? It’s not because we are reluctant to let it go. No, it’s just that we feel a responsibility to present a project that is ready for the community to act upon. And that means taking a good crack at it ourselves: we want to have a minimum level of ease of use in the installation, a little documentation, and a code package that looks like something constructed by humans rather than something that crawled out from the primordial ooze. That will take a little time due to all the other projects and launches we’ve got throughout the spring. We’re also spending time trying to figure out how to manage an open-source project. Since we’ve never really done it before, suggestions, case studies, horror stories, and revealing of miracles are welcome.
Thanks for your patience, and we’ll keep you informed. going down for repairs

This weekend we’re going to take down for repairs. It’s a good looking site (thanks Rebecca Mendez), but a second look will expose the visible marks of a system that hasn’t served our interests for a long time. So in the spirit of the housekeeping we’ve been doing since the beginning of the year (including the retreat), we’re doing a major clean-up of the site. More like an extreme makeover, actually. We’re not sure how long it will take, given the number of projects we’re still juggling.
Don’t worry! The blog is going to stay up and we’ll keep posting, and the Institute is going strong. In some ways we’re victims of our own success: we haven’t been able to keep up our own house due to the number of interesting things we’ve been putting out. We just know that it can’t be put off any longer. Things to look forward to: a site that does a better job of explaining our mission, exhibiting our projects, and highlighting our collected thoughts.

reflections on the hyperlinked.society conference

Last week, Dan and I attended the hyperlinked.society conference hosted at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication. An impressive collection of panelists and audience members gathered to discuss issues that are emerging as we place more value onto hyperlinks. Here are a few reflections on what was covered at the one day conference.
David Weinberger made a good framing statement when he noted that links are the architecture of the web. Through technologies, such as Google Page Rank, linking is not only a conduit to information, but it is also now a way of adding value to another site. People noted the tension between not wanting to link to a site they disagreed with (for example, an opposing political site) which would increase its value in ranking criteria and with the idea that linking to other ideas a fundamental purpose of the web. Currently, links are binary, on or off. Context for the link is given by textual descriptions given around the link. (For example, I like to read this blog.) Many suggestions were offered to give the link context, through color, icon or tags within the code of the link to show agreement or disagreement with the contents of the link. Jesse discusses overlapping issues in his recent post on the semantic wiki. Standards can be developed to achieve this, however we must be take care to anticipate the gaming of any new ways of linking. Otherwise, these new links will became another casualty of the web, as seen with through the misuse of meta tags. Meta tags were key words included in HTML code of pages to assist search engines on determining the contains of the site. However, massive misuse of these keywords rendered meta-tags useless, and Google was one of the first, if not the first, search engine to completely ignore meta-tags. Similar gaming is bound to occur with adding layers of meaning to links, and must be considered carefully in the creation of new web conventions, lest these links will join meta-tags as footnote in HTML reference books.
Another shift I observed, was an increase in citing real quantifiable data be it from both market and academic research on people’s web use. As Saul Hansell pointed out, the data which is able to be collected is only a slice of reality, however these snapshots are still useful in gaining understand how people are using new media. The work of Lada Adamic (whose work we like to refer to in ifbook) on mapping the communication between political blogs will be increasingly important in understand online relationships. She also showed more recent work on representing how information flows and spreads through the blogosphere.
Some of the work by presented by mapmakers and cartographers showed examples of using data to describe voting patterns as well as cyberspace. Meaningful maps of cyberspace are particularly difficult to create because as Martin Dodge noted, we want to compress hundreds of thousands of dimensions into two or three dimensions. Maps are representations of data, at first they were purely geographic, but eventually things such as weather patterns and economic trends have been overlaid onto their geographic locations. In the context of hyperlinks, I look forward to using these digital maps as an interface to the data underlaying these representations. Beyond voting patterns (and privacy issues aside,) linking these maps to deeper information on related demographic and socio-economic data and trends seems like the logical next step.
I was also surprised at what was not mentioned or barely mentioned. Net neutrality and copyright were each only raised once, each time by an audience members’ question. Ethan Zuckerman gave an interesting anecdote that the Global Voices project became an advocate for the Creative Commons license because they found it to be a powerful tool to support their effort to support bloggers in the developing world. Further, in the final panel of moderators, they mentioned that privacy, policy, tracking received less attention then expected. On that note, I’ll close with two questions that lingered in my mind, as I left Philadelphia for home. I hope that they will be addressed in the near future, as the importance of hyperlinking grows in our lives.
1. How will we deal with link rot and their ephemeral nature of link?
Broken links and archiving links will become increasing important as the number of links along with our dependence on them grow in parallel.
2. Who owns our links?
As we put more and more of ourselves, our relationships and our links on commercial websites, it is important to reflect upon what are the implications when we are at the same time giving ownership of these links over to Yahoo via flickr and News Corp via

wikipedia as civic duty

beppe-grillo.jpgNumber 14 on Technorati’s listings of the most popular blogs is Beppe Grillo. Who’s Beppe Grillo? He’s an immensely popular Italian political satirist, roughly the Italian Jon Stewart. Grillo has been hellbent on exposing corruption in the political system there, and has emerged as a major force in the ongoing elections there. While he happily and effectively skewers just about everybody involved in the Italian political process, Dario Fo, currently running for mayor of Milan under the refreshing slogan “I am not a moderate” manages to receive Grillo’s endorsement.

Grillo’s use of new media makes sense: he has effectively been banned from Italian television. While he performs around the country, his blog – which is also offered in English just as deadpan and full of bold-faced phrases as the Italian – has become one of his major vehicles. It’s proven astonishingly popular, as his Technorati ranking reveals.

His latest post (in English or Italian) is particularly interesting. (It’s also drawn a great deal of debate: note the 1044 comments – at this writing – on the Italian version.) Grillo’s been pushing the Wikipedia for a while; here, he suggests to his public that they should, in the name of transparency, have a go at revising the Wikipedia entry on Silvio Berlusconi.

un piccolo berlusconiBerlusconi is an apt target. He is, of course, the right-wing prime minister of Italy as well as its richest citizen, and at one point or another, he’s had his fingers in a lot of pies of dubious legality. In the five years that he’s been in power, he’s been systematically rewriting Italian laws standing in his way – laws against, for example, media monopolies. Berlusconi effectively controls most Italian television: it’s a fair guess that he has something to do with Grillo’s ban from Italian television. Indirectly, he’s probably responsible for Grillo turning to new media: Berlusconi doesn’t yet own the internet.

Or the Wikipedia. Grillo brilliantly posits the editing of the Wikipedia as a civic duty. This is consonant with Grillo’s general attitude: he’s also been advocating environmental responsibility, for example. The public editing Berlusconi’s biography seems apt: famously, during the 2001 election, Berlusconi sent out a 200-page biography to every mailbox in Italy which breathlessly chronicled his rise from a singer on cruise ships to the owner of most of Italy. This vanity press biography presented itself as being neutral and objective. Grillo doesn’t buy it: history, he argues, should be written and rewritten by the masses. While Wikipedia claims to strive for a neutral point of view, its real value lies in its capacity to be rewritten by anyone.

How has Grillo’s suggestion played out? Wikipedia has evidently been swamped by “BeppeGrillati” attempting to modify Berlusconi’s biography. The Italian Wikipedia has declared “una edit war” and put a temporary lock on editing the page. From an administrative point of view, this seems understandable; for what it’s worth, there’s a similar, if less stringent, stricture on the English page for Mr. Bush. But this can’t help but feel like a betrayal of Wikipedia’s principals. Editing the Wikipedia should be a civic duty.

without gods: an experiment

without gods screenshot.jpg Just in time for the holidays, a little god-free fun…
The institute is pleased to announce the launch of Without Gods, a new blog by New York University journalism professor and media historian Mitchell Stephens that will serve as a public workshop and forum for the writing of his latest book. Mitch, whose previous works include A History of News and the rise of the image the fall of the word, is in the early stages of writing a narrative history of atheism, to be published in 2007 by Carroll and Graf. The book will tell the story of the human struggle to live without gods, focusing on those individuals, “from Greek philosophers to Romantic poets to formerly Islamic novelists,” who have undertaken the cause of atheism – “a cause that promises no heavenly reward.”
Without Gods will be a place for Mitch to think out loud and begin a substantive exchange with readers. Our hope is that the conversation will be joined, that ideas will be challenged, facts corrected, queries and probes answered; that lively and intelligent discussion will ensue. As Mitch says: “We expect that the book’s acknowledgements will eventually include a number of individuals best known to me by email address.”
Without Gods is the first in a series of blogs the institute is hosting to challenge the traditional relationship between authors and readers, to learn how the network might more directly inform the usually solitary business of authorship. We are interested to see how a partial exposure of the writing process might affect the eventual finished book, and at the same time to gently undermine the notion that a book can ever be entirely finished. We invite you to read Without Gods, to spread the word, and to take part in this experiment.

IT IN place: muybridge meets typographic man

Alex Itin, friend and former institute artist-in-residence, continues to reinvent the blog as an art form over at IT IN place. Lately, Alex has been experimenting with that much-maligned motif of the early web, the animated GIF. Above: “My Bridge of Words.”

writing in the open

Mitch Stephens, NYU professor, was here for lunch today. when Ben and I met with him about a month ago about the academic bloggers/public intellectuals project, Mitch mentioned he had just signed a contract with Carroll & Graf to write a book on the history of atheism. today’s lunch was to follow up a suggestion we made that he might consider starting a blog to parallel the research and writing of the book. i’m delighted to report that Mitch has enthusiastically taken up the idea. sometime in the next few weeks we’ll launch a new blog, tentatively called Only Sky (shortened from the lyric of john lennon’s Imagine “. . . Above us only sky”). it will be an experiment to see whether blogging can be useful to the process of writing a book. i expect Mitch will be thinking out loud and asking all sorts of interesting questions. i also think that readers will likely provide important insight as well as ask their own fascinating questions which will in turn suggest fruitful directions of inquiry. stay tuned.

marjane satrapi on times select

The first panel of Marjane Satrapis blog for the NYTimesEveryone (and that includes us) has spent a lot of time complaining about Times Select, the paid online access to the New York Times editorial content. As I still subscribe to the paper version & thus get free access, I haven’t complained so much. One thing that seems not to have been noticed in the debate is that Times Select coverage isn’t exactly the same as the print version: increasingly, they’ve been creating dedicated web content which wouldn’t work on the paper version at all. The most notable web-only content so far has been that they’ve given Marjane Satrapi, her own blog, titled An Iranian in Paris. Satrapi’s a Persian graphic novelist; her Persepolis beautifully illustrates her experience growing up in Iran before, during, and after the revolution.

Her blog’s worth a look – get someone else’s account info, if you don’t have an account. It reminds me not a little of the blog of Alex Itin, our artist in perpetual residence, who continues to fill his blog with pictures, some moving, with occasional dollops of text. Satrapi’s work here feels astonishingly human and casual, thanks in no small part to the handwriting fonts used for the text. It’s interesting to me that they’ve chosen to put this on the web: it’s decidedly paper-based art. But the Web lets her be a bit more expansive than her usual black and white work: consider this image, where she seems to have scanned her passport, than drawn over its image, which would be difficult with electronic technology.

She’s posted three (extended) entries so far, and the Times has given no indication of how long they intend to keep this up – or, really, any explanation of what they’re trying to do here – leading one to hope that this is an open-ended series. Is this worth shelling out money for Times Select? Maybe not by itself. But if they keep providing this sort of web-dedicated content, naysayers might think about reconsidering.

it seems to be happening before our eyes

it looks like one hundred years from now history may record that 2005 was the year that big (news) media gave way to the individual voice. the intersection of the ny times/judy miller debacle with the increasing influence of the blogosphere has made us conscious of the major change taking place — RIGHT NOW.
congressman john conyers wrote today that “I find I learn more reading Arianna, Murray Waas and Lawrence O’Donnell than the New York Times or Washington Post.”