Category Archives: book

SocialBook in Action

SocialBook is a terrific example of an emerging class of applications that might be called “[collaborative] thinking processors” as opposed to reading environments or word processors. SocialBook’s structure enables multiple perspectives to be brought to bear on a problem. It’s an exciting real-world proof of Alan Kay’s dictum that “point of view is worth 80 IQ points”

These screenshots are from classroom use, and education is an obvious starting point, but there are other experiments — with private reading groups and at also at the enterprise level (see the Voyager Japan screenshot below) which indicate that social reading is compelling across a wide spectrum of use.

Conversation inside Oroonoko in an upper level British literature survey class; 85 students divided into three sections.

oroonoko 2

Students at Hildesheim University read their way through a contemporary literary novel. Over 1750 comments by the time they finished. Students report that the commentary became an intrinsic component of the reading of the text.indigo

This frame shows students in two different classes engaging in a conversation via the public community tab. The purpose of the “community tab” is to give readers access to the wisdom of the crowd without compromising the high signal-to-noise ratio of the discussion taking place within a group of people who know each other well.


Students discussing Pedro Páramo. The entire feature-length film is divided into chapters in SocialBook. Comments can be inserted at any point.pedro paramo 2

and last, a screenshot from Japan where SocialBook was used by Voyager Japan to gather and review entries in a contest for project proposals.


this is a world of imagination & digitisation

On Thursday October 9th, National Poetry Day in the UK, 2008 if:book london is launching an exciting experiment in reading and writing, supported by Arts Council England. Over the next six months I will be working with artist and web designer Toni Lebusque, project manager and film maker Sasha Hoare and a team of inspired people to create an illuminated book online, containing the poetry of William Blake, new writing, art and song inspired by Blake’s work, and the voices of many readers as they debate some of Blake’s key concerns and their relevance in the digital age.
Why Blake? Well, just imagine what William Blake’s blog would look like. Think what this radical, visionary maker and publisher of multimedia books would have made of the web.
I came across Songs of Innocence & Experience as a teenager, before teachers could convince me he was difficult. My great grandfather was a Blake scholar, and I found reproductions of the illuminated books on my grandmother’s shelves; they soon inspired me to churn out epic poems of mythical worlds, to write them out neat in an exercise book and embellish them with crayons and felt tip pens. ‘This is a world of Imagination & Vision’ he wrote, which I took to mean, ‘Go for it!’
Blake has been an inspiration to generations of real artists too, from Allen Ginsberg to Jah Wobble, a source of Imagination and Vision to all kinds of readers, yet he’s also been colonized by the academics, judged obscure on one hand, nuts on the other.
Blake railed against the treatment of Chimney Sweepers and working Londoners locked in the mind forg’d manacles of man; he conjured up vivid images of nature enhanced by symbolism and transformed by imagination; he celebrated the importance of freedom in play for children. How would he react to London now, to the digital printshop, the sweatshop and call centre, the lack of spaces for kids to roam except online? What would Blake build in Second Life’s green and pleasant land? And what digital tools might he use to make what kind of books?
Bob Stein has talked of a new kind of curatorial role involved in the publishing of tomorrow; in his Unified Theory of Publishing he writes:

“far from becoming obsolete, publishers and editors in the networked era have a crucial role to play. The editor of the future is increasingly a producer, a role that includes signing up projects and overseeing all elements of production and distribution, and that of course includes building and nurturing communities of various demographics, size, and shape. Successful publishers will build brands around curatorial and community building know-how AND be really good at designing and developing the robust technical infrastructures that underlie a complex range of user experiences.”

I agree completely, but I’m not convinced that traditional publishing companies are best placed to take on this role. I’ve spent many years working with literature organisations like the Poetry Society and Booktrust, alongside professional workers with reader development projects in libraries and the community; our trade is the creation and execution of projects which bring writers and readers together, commissioning new work for specific settings. A good arts festival sparks conversations around the themes it explores and the events it makes happen.
The Poetry Places scheme we ran at the Poetry Society in the 1990s involved residencies, workshops, performances in all kinds of venues, and the creation of poems to be engraved into a public space, proclaimed at an event, used as signage in parks, zoos and estates…
People usually classified as ‘arts administrators’ are orchestrating interactions that are much more akin to Bob’s concept of the curator of the networked book than publishers who seem to find it hard to see much beyond a downloadable replica of their traditional product.
Songs of Imagination & Digitisation will involve working with a range of those people, commissioning new writing and art, providing incentives for new voices to submit work and for readers to give us their ideas. We will mingle film, text and image, reader response and author interviews – and once we’ve gathered enough ingredients on our blog we hope to transmute them into something that feels like a proper, substantial, networked book.
So many web projects go encyclopaedic and neverending. The book of the future will be linked to a community, open to revision and extension, but also bounded in a meaningful way, a satisfying artistic entity, porous but not pointless.
if:book kicks off this project on National Poetry Day. In the morning some of us will wander round Covent Garden and Soho, where Blake was born, and talk to people about their working lives. We’ll film them reading lines from Blake, then go and drink tea while actor Toby Jones reads us Blake poems and we respond to them in doodles, written words and conversation.
And that day the inspirational Bill Thompson will release into the wild a laptop loaded up with Blake’s work. For the next five months it will be passed from person to person, each one recording their responses, and emailing them to the blog
Over the next six month’s we’ll take a psychogeographical walk to Blake’s house in South Molton Street to discuss the city, gather at the Museum of Gardening near Hercules Buildings in Lambeth where Mr & Mrs Blake naked played Adam and Eve – allegedly. We’ll go to the Sassoon Gallery near Peckham Rye where young William saw angels in the branches of trees, and discuss the innocence and experiences of childhood then and now. We will be commissioning some writers, artists and musicians, offering eReaders and iTouches to others who contribute. We hope to build an international community of readers around our blog of the project’s progress,, including students at all levels who have Blake as a set text. We want the Songs to be a springboard into all kinds of reading.
So – Tell us what you think of this Idea; Bookmark, RSS and us; Send us your Blake related Poems, Stories, Photographs and Drawings; Together Let Us Sing Songs of Imagination & Digitisation!

a la recherche

I was on the underground making my way to the London Book Fair yesterday, hoping to stand out from the crowds of frantic publishers jostling there by carrying over my shoulder the fabulously pretentious “Proust Society of America” book bag which I bought on a trip to New York for a meeting at the Mercantine Library, but was disconcerted to notice that the man on the other side of the carriage was staring at me strangely, then eventually he lent over and said to me, “Have you read Proust?” to which I replied yes I had, most of it, but many, many years ago, at which this gentleman told me that on his retirement he had made a list of classics he hadn’t read, and In Search of Lost Time was top of it so he has since read it six times, on permanent rotation, breaking off between volumes for other novels and recently he’s been looking for a Proust close reading group, has scoured the internet for such a thing, had found the New York group but nothing like it in London; then we arrived at Holborn Station and he stepped off the train before I could ask to swap email addresses, not because I want to start a close reading Proust group, but… well, perhaps he’ll Google his way to this page, and perhaps some other London Proust lovers will too and then I can put them in touch with each other and so the Marcel Proust Underground Networked Book Group will be born.

a new voice for copyright reform

lethem184b.jpg The novelist Jonathan Lethem has been on a most unusual book tour, promoting and selling his latest novel and at the same time publicly questioning the copyright system that guarantees his livelihood. Intellectual property is a central theme in his new book, You Don’t Love Me Yet, which chronicles a struggling California rock band who, in the course of trying to compose and record a debut album, progressively lose track of who wrote their songs. Lethem has always been obsessed with laying bare his influences (he has a book of essays devoted in large part to that), but this new novel, which seems on the whole to be a slighter work than his previous two Brooklyn-based sagas, is his most direct stab to date at the complex question of originality in art.
In February Lethem published one of the better pieces that has been written lately about the adverse effects of our bloated copyright system, an essay in Harper’s entitled “The Ecstasy of Influence,” which he billed provocatively as “a plagiarism.” Lethem’s flippancy with the word is deliberate. He wants to initiate a discussion about what he sees as the ultimately paradoxical idea of owning culture. Lethem is not arguing for an abolition of copyright laws. He still wants to earn his bread as a writer. But he advocates a general relaxation of a system that has clearly grown counter to the public interest.
None of these arguments are particularly new but Lethem reposes them deftly, interweaving a diverse playlist of references and quotations from greater authorities from with the facility of a DJ. And by foregrounding the act of sampling, the essay actually enacts its central thesis: that all creativity is built on the creativity of others. We’ve talked a great deal here on if:book about the role of the writer evolving into something more like that of a curator or editor. Lethem’s essay, though hardly the first piece of writing to draw heavily from other sources, demonstrates how a curatorial method of writing does not necessarily come at the expense of a distinct authorial voice.
The Harper’s piece has made the rounds both online and off and, with the new novel, seems to have propelled Lethem, at least for the moment, into the upper ranks of copyright reform advocates. Yesterday The Washington Post ran a story on Lethem’s recent provocations. Here too is a 50-minute talk from the Authors@Google series (not surprisingly, Google is happy to lend some bandwidth to these ideas).
For some time, Cory Doctorow has been the leading voice among fiction writers for a scaling back of IP laws. It’s good now to see a novelist with more mainstream appeal stepping into the debate, with the possibility of moving it beyond the usual techno-centric channels and into the larger public sphere. I suspect Lethem’s interest will eventually move on to other things (and I don’t see him giving away free electronic versions of his books anytime soon), but for now, we’re fortunate to have his pen in the service of this cause.

moby-dick animated

Alex Itin has done it again. Here it is: “Orson Whales,” an intertextual fantasia on Moby-Dick and Orson Welles set to the savage drums of John Bonham. Each frame is a page of this edition of the Melville text, painted and photographed and strung together in iMovie.

What you’re seeing is the entire book (actually two full copies – Alex can only paint on one side of each page because of bleed-through, so to get the whole text he had to double up). Here’s some of it stacked up in the studio (this is months of work):

The soundtrack is detritus gathered from web searches, a hunt for the white whale through a sea of tangents – appropriate, really, for the great book, which is so notoriously (and gloriously) tangential.
Alex: “The soundtrack is built from searching “moby dick” on You Tube (I was looking for Orson’s Preacher from the Huston film from the fifties) I couldn’t find the preacher, but did find tons of Led Zep and drummers doing Bonzo and a little Orson……. makes for a nice Melville in the end.”
Also check out his animation, same technique, of Ulysses. Bravo, Alex! (and happy birthday)!

book as terrain

People have done all sorts of interesting things with Google maps, but this one I particularly like. Maplib lets you upload any image (the larger and higher res the better) into the Google map interface, turning the picture into a draggable, zoomable and annotatable terrain — a crude mashup tool that nonetheless suggests new spacial ways of navigating text.
I did a quick and dirty image mapping of W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” onto Breughel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” casting the shepherd as poet. Click the markers and then the details links to read the poem (hint: start with the shepherd).

As you can see, they give you the code to embed image maps on other sites. You can post comments on the individual markers right here on if:book, or if you go to the Maplib site itself you can add your own markers.
I quite like this one that someone uploaded of a southerly view of the Italian peninsula (unfortunately it seems to start larger images off-center):

And here’s an annotated Korean barbecue (yum):

a book by any other name

Predicting the future is a fool’s errand, but it comforts me to look back on the past and see that some questions are important enough to revisit in each new age. In the 1996 collection The Future of the Book, edited by Geoffrey Nunberg, there are several essays that treat the same questions that we are concerned with now: how will reading change in the digital environment? What will be the form of digital texts? What role for the author? The reader?
Dan’s recent post provoked a range of commentary that clearly illustrates the ongoing status of the debate. Despite the fact that these questions were raised, and treated, more than a decade ago—and certainly even further back, in texts I am unaware of (please make recommendations)—their answers are still unknown, which makes their relevance undiminished. The discussion is necessary, as Gary Frost pointed out, because “we do not have a vernacular beyond synthetics such as blog or Wiki or live journal or listserv.” We haven’t developed a canonical term for this idea of a digital text that includes multimedia, that accretes other text and multimedia from the activity of the network. When you are working at the edges of technology, inventing new terms of art to try and explain and market your concept, the jargon production is fever pitched. But we just haven’t been exploring this question long enough to see what odd word will stick that can serve to separate the idea of a physical book, in all its permutations, from the notion of a networked book, in its unexplored mystery. It’s a fundamental direction of our research at the Institute, and the contributions from our community of readers continues to be instructive.

carbon and silver

180px-Allie_Mae_Burroughs.jpgCarbon and Silver is a small show of Walker Evans‘ 1935-36 photographs at the UBS gallery in New York. The purpose of this exhibit is to compare printing technologies. It focuses primarily on ink-jet prints in relation to gelatin silver prints, with a small sample of books side by side with their digitally printed counterparts, revealing how lithography literally pales next to the crispness of the digital.
The show invites meditations on the “authenticity” of reproductions, especially in a medium such as photography, in itself based upon printing technology. In this show it is quite difficult to discern the original from the copy, and one questions, as Baudrillard would have it, to which point the copy has come to replace the original.
walkerevans_americanphotographs.jpg Most of the prints exhibited at the UBS belong to Evans’ body of work documenting the effect of the Great Depression on rural families for the Farm Security Administration in 1935-36. As a photographer, he was not particularly interested in producing his own prints as his main interest was to record information. These photographs were originally printed by the FSA as visual evidence reinforcing the New Deal.
Evans’ own interpretation of them appeared in American Photographs, the book that accompanied his exhibition at the Museum of Modern art (the first one-man photography show ever mounted by a major museum.) John T. Hill says in this exhibition’s catalogue that Evans “scrupulously controlled corrections of the printing plates, and using this process as an extension of his darkroom became a habit.” The interesting thing is that he understood that the book has a permanence that the exhibition does not.
Evans’ photographs have such crispness that they lend themselves to reproduction, even when the print is less than perfect. As a master of his medium he was absolutely aware of the difficulties of rendering full tonal scale in a black and white print. The ink-jet prints in this show are so remarkably close to their gelatin silver sisters that the viewer has to go back and forth from print to print in order to discern any possible difference. Evans loved the detail that an enlarged print brings out and the enlarged digital prints in this exhibition certainly do that.
Hill sums up the advantages of technology without denigrating the magnificence of the original process:

All new media affect voice and timbre. A greater tonal scale and more precise control of values are the two most significant tools offered by digital technology. The information so difficult to maintain in the dark and light ends of the scale using gelatin silver materials is now printable. Gelatin silver has been replaced by carbon black pigments laid onto archival paper. The music is the same; certain subtle notes are now heard more clearly.