Category Archives: evolution

physical books and networks

won_image.jpg The Times yesterday ran a pretty decent article, “Digital Publishing Is Scrambling the Industry’s Rules”, discussing some recent experiments in book publishing online. One we’ve discussed here previously, Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks, which is available as both a hefty 500-page brick from Yale University Press and in free PDF chapter downloads. There’s also a corresponding readers’ wiki for collective annotation and discussion of the text online. It was an adventurous move for an academic press, though they could have done a better job of integrating the text with the discussion (it would have been fantastic to do something like GAM3R 7H30RY with Benkler’s book).
Also discussed is the new Mark Danielewski novel. His first book, House of Leaves, was published by Pantheon in 2000 after circulating informally on the web among a growing cult readership. His sophmore effort, due out in September, has also racked up some pre-publication mileage, but in a more controlled experiment. According to the Times, the book “will include hundreds of margin notes listing moments in history suggested online by fans of his work who have added hundreds of annotations, some of which are to be published in the physical book’s margins.” Annotations were submitted through an online forum on Danielewski’s web site, a forum that does not include a version of the text (though apparently 60 “digital galleys” were distributed to an inner circle of devoted readers).
The Times piece ends with an interesting quote from Danielewski, who, despite his roots in networked samizdat, is still ultimately focused on the book as a carefully crafted physical reading experience:

Mr. Danielewski said that the physical book would persist as long as authors figure out ways to stretch the format in new ways. “Only Revolutions,” he pointed out, tracks the experiences of two intersecting characters, whose narratives begin at different ends of the book, requiring readers to turn it upside down every eight pages to get both of their stories. “As excited as I am by technology, I’m ultimately creating a book that can’t exist online,” he said. “The experience of starting at either end of the book and feeling the space close between the characters until you’re exactly at the halfway point is not something you could experience online. I think that’s the bar that the Internet is driving towards: how to further emphasize what is different and exceptional about books.”

Fragmented as our reading habits (and lives) have become, there’s a persistent impulse, especially in fiction, toward the linear. Danielewski is probably right that the new networked modes of reading and writing might serve to buttress rather than unravel the old ways. Playing with the straight line (twisting it, braiding it, chopping it) is the writer’s art, and a front-to-end vessel like the book is a compelling restraint in which to work. This made me think of Anna Karenina, which is practically two novels braided together, the central characters, Anna and Levin, meeting just once, and then only glancingly.
I prefer to think of the networked book not as a replacement for print but as a parallel. What’s particularly interesting is how the two can inform one another, how a physical book can end up being changed and charged by its journey through a networked process. This certainly will be the case for the two books in progress the Institute is currently hosting, Mitch Stephens’ history of atheism and Ken Wark’s critical theory of video games. Though the books will eventually be “cooked” by a print publisher — Carroll & Graf, in Mitch’s case, and a university press (possibly Harvard or MIT), in Ken’s — they will almost certainly end up different for their having been networkshopped. Situating the book’s formative phase in the network can further boost the voltage between the covers.
chimp.jpg An analogy. The more we learn about the evolution of biological life, the more we understand that the origin of species seldom follows a linear path. There’s a good deal of hybridization, random mutation, and general mixing. A paper recently published in Nature hypothesizes that the genetic link between humans and chimpanzees is at least a million years more recent than had previously been thought based on fossil evidence. The implication is that, for millennia, proto-chimps and proto-humans were interbreeding in a torrid cross-species affair.
Eventually, species become distinct (or extinct), but for long stretches it’s a story of hybridity. And so with media. Things are not necessarily replaced, but rather changed. Photography unleashed Impressionism from the paint brush; television, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s new book argues, acted as a foil for the postmodern American novel. The blog and the news aggregator may not kill the newspaper, but they will undoubtedly change it. And so the book. You see that glint in the chimp’s eye? A period of interbreeding has commenced.

defining the networked book: a few thoughts and a list

The networked book, as an idea and as a term, has gained currency of late. A few weeks ago, Farrar Straus and Giroux launched Pulse , an adventurous marketing experiment in which they are syndicating the complete text of a new nonfiction title in blog, RSS and email. Their web developers called it, quite independently it seems, a networked book. Next week (drum roll), the institute will launch McKenzie Wark’s “GAM3R 7H30RY,” an online version of a book in progress designed to generate a critical networked discussion about video games. And, of course, the July release of Sophie is fast approaching, so soon we’ll all be making networked books.


The institue will launch McKenzie Wark’s GAM3R 7H30RY Version 1.1 on Monday, May 15

The discussion following Pulse highlighted some interesting issues and made us think hard about precisely what it is we mean by “networked book.” Last spring, Kim White (who was the first to posit the idea of networked books) wrote a paper for the Computers and Writing Online conference that developed the idea a little further, based on our experience with the Gates Memory Project, where we tried to create a collaborative networked document of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Gates using popular social software tools like Flickr and Kim later adapted parts of this paper as a first stab at a Wikipedia article. This was a good start.
We thought it might be useful, however, in light of recent discussion and upcoming ventures, to try to focus the definition a little bit more — to create some useful boundaries for thinking this through while holding on to some of the ambiguity. After a quick back-and-forth, we came up with the following capsule definition: “a networked book is an open book designed to be written, edited and read in a networked environment.”
Ok. Hardly Samuel Johnson, I know, but it at least begins to lay down some basic criteria. Open. Designed for the network. Still vague, but moving in a good direction. Yet already I feel like adding to the list of verbs “annotated” — taking notes inside a text is something we take for granted in print but is still quite rare in electronic documents. A networked book should allow for some kind of reader feedback within its structure. I would also add “compiled,” or “assembled,” to account for books composed of various remote parts — either freestanding assets on distant databases, or sections of text and media “transcluded” from other documents. And what about readers having conversations inside the book, or across books? Is that covered by “read in a networked environment”? — the book in a peer-to-peer ecology? Also, I’d want to add that a networked book is not a static object but something that evolves over time. Not an intersection of atoms, but an intersection of intentions. All right, so this is a little complicated.
It’s also possible that defining the networked book as a new species within the genus “book” sows the seeds of its own eventual obsolescence, bound, as we may well be, toward a post-book future. But that strikes me as too deterministic. As Dan rightly observed in his recent post on learning to read Wikipedia, the history of media (or anything for that matter) is rarely a direct line of succession — of this replacing that, and so on. As with the evolution of biological life, things tend to mutate and split into parallel trajectories. The book as the principal mode of discourse and cultural ideal of intellectual achievement may indeed be headed for gradual decline, but we believe the network has the potential to keep it in play far longer than the techno-determinists might think.
But enough with the theory and on to the practice. To further this discussion, I’ve compiled a quick-and-dirty list of projects currently out in the wild that seem to be reasonable candidates for networked bookdom. The list is intentionally small and ridden with gaps, the point being not to create a comprehensive catalogue, but to get a conversation going and collect other examples (submitted by you) of networked books, real or imaginary.

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Everyone here at the institute agrees that Wikipedia is a networked book par excellence. A vast, interwoven compendium of popular knowledge, never fixed, always changing, recording within its bounds each and every stage of its growth and all the discussions of its collaborative producers. Linked outward to the web in millions of directions and highly visible on all the popular search indexes, Wikipedia is a city-like book, or a vast network of shanties. If you consider all its various iterations in 229 different languages it resembles more a pan-global tradition, or something approaching a real-life Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And it is only five years in the making.
But already we begin to run into problems. Though we are all comfortable with the idea of Wikipedia as a networked book, there is significant discord when it comes to Flickr, MySpace, Live Journal, YouTube and practically every other social software, media-sharing community. Why? Is it simply a bias in favor of the textual? Or because Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia — is more closely identified with an existing genre of book? Is it because Wikipedia seems to have an over-arching vision (free, anyone can edit it, neutral point of view etc.) and something approaching a coherent editorial sensibility (albeit an aggregate one), whereas the other sites just mentioned are simply repositories, ultimately shapeless and filled with come what may? This raises yet more questions. Does a networked book require an editor? A vision? A direction? Coherence? And what about the blogosphere? Or the world wide web itself? Tim O’Reilly recently called the www one enormous ebook, with Google and Yahoo as the infinitely mutable tables of contents.
Ok. So already we’ve opened a pretty big can of worms (Wikipedia tends to have that effect). But before delving further (and hopefully we can really get this going in the comments), I’ll briefly list just a few more experiments.
>>> Code v.2 by Larry Lessig
From the site:

“Lawrence Lessig first published Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace in 1999. After five years in print and five years of changes in law, technology, and the context in which they reside, Code needs an update. But rather than do this alone, Professor Lessig is using this wiki to open the editing process to all, to draw upon the creativity and knowledge of the community. This is an online, collaborative book update; a first of its kind.
“Once the project nears completion, Professor Lessig will take the contents of this wiki and ready it for publication.”

Recently discussed here, there is the new book by Yochai Benkler, another intellectual property heavyweight:
>>> The Wealth of Networks
Yale University Press has set up a wiki for readers to write collective summaries and commentaries on the book. PDFs of each chapter are available for free. The verdict? A networked book, but not a well executed one. By keeping the wiki and the text separate, the publisher has placed unnecessary obstacles in the reader’s path and diminished the book’s chances of success as an organic online entity.
>>> Our very own GAM3R 7H30RY
On Monday, the institute will launch its most ambitious networked book experiment to date, putting an entire draft of McKenzie Wark’s new book online in a compelling interface designed to gather reader feedback. The book will be matched by a series of free-fire discussion zones, and readers will have the option of syndicating the book over a period of nine weeks.
>>> The afore-mentioned Pulse by Robert Frenay.
Again, definitely a networked book, but frustratingly so. In print, the book is nearly 600 pages long, yet they’ve chosen to serialize it a couple pages at a time. It will take readers until November to make their way through the book in this fashion — clearly not at all the way Frenay crafted it to be read. Plus, some dubious linking made not by the author but by a hired “linkologist” only serves to underscore the superficiality of the effort. A bold experiment in viral marketing, but judging by the near absence of reader activity on the site, not a very contagious one. The lesson I would draw is that a networked book ought to be networked for its own sake, not to bolster a print commodity (though these ends are not necessarily incompatible).
>>> The Quicksilver Wiki (formerly the Metaweb)
A community site devoted to collectively annotating and supplementing Neal Stephenson’s novel “Quicksilver.” Currently at work on over 1,000 articles. The actual novel does not appear to be available on-site.
>>> Finnegans Wiki
A complete version of James Joyce’s demanding masterpiece, the entire text placed in a wiki for reader annotation.
>>> There’s a host of other literary portals, many dating back to the early days of the web: Decameron Web, the William Blake Archive, the Walt Whitman Archive, the Rossetti Archive, and countless others (fill in this list and tell us what you think).
Lastly, here’s a list of book blogs — not blogs about books in general, but blogs devoted to the writing and/or discussion of a particular book, by that book’s author. These may not be networked books in themselves, but they merit study as a new mode of writing within the network. The interesting thing is that these sites are designed to gather material, generate discussion, and build a community of readers around an eventual book. But in so doing, they gently undermine the conventional notion of the book as a crystallized object and begin to reinvent it as an ongoing process: an evolving artifact at the center of a conversation.
Here are some I’ve come across (please supplement). Interestingly, three of these are by current or former editors of Wired. At this point, they tend to be about techie subjects:
>>> An exception is Without Gods: Toward a History of Disbelief by Mitchell Stephens (another institute project).

“The blog I am writing here, with the connivance of The Institute for the Future of the Book, is an experiment. Our thought is that my book on the history of atheism (eventually to be published by Carroll and Graf) will benefit from an online discussion as the book is being written. Our hope is that the conversation will be joined: ideas challenged, facts corrected, queries answered; that lively and intelligent discussion will ensue. And we have an additional thought: that the web might realize some smidgen of benefit through the airing of this process.”

>>> Searchblog
John Battelle’s daily thoughts on the business and technology of web search, originally set up as a research tool for his now-published book on Google, The Search.
>>> The Long Tail
Similar concept, “a public diary on the way to a book” chronicling “the shift from mass markets to millions of niches.” By current Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson.
>>> Darknet
JD Lasica’s blog on his book about Hollywood’s war against amateur digital filmmakers.
>>> The Technium
Former Wired editor Kevin Kelly is working through ideas for a book:

“As I write I will post here. The purpose of this site is to turn my posts into a conversation. I will be uploading my half-thoughts, notes, self-arguments, early drafts and responses to others’ postings as a way for me to figure out what I actually think.”

>>> End of Cyberspace by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Pang has some interesting thoughts on blogs as research tools:

“This begins to move you to a model of scholarly performance in which the value resides not exclusively in the finished, published work, but is distributed across a number of usually non-competitive media. If I ever do publish a book on the end of cyberspace, I seriously doubt that anyone who’s encountered the blog will think, “Well, I can read the notes, I don’t need to read the book.” The final product is more like the last chapter of a mystery. You want to know how it comes out.
“It could ultimately point to a somewhat different model for both doing and evaluating scholarship: one that depends a little less on peer-reviewed papers and monographs, and more upon your ability to develop and maintain a piece of intellectual territory, and attract others to it– to build an interested, thoughtful audience.”


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This turned out much longer than I’d intended, and yet there’s a lot left to discuss. One question worth mulling over is whether the networked book is really a new idea at all. Don’t all books exist over time within social networks, “linked” to countless other texts? What about the Talmud, the Jewish compendium of law and exigesis where core texts are surrounded on the page by layers of commentary? Is this a networked book? Or could something as prosaic as a phone book chained to a phone booth be considered a networked book?
In our discussions, we have focused overwhelmingly on electronic books within digital networks because we are convinced that this is a major direction in which the book is (or should be) heading. But this is not to imply that the networked book is born in a vacuum. Naturally, it exists in a continuum. And just as our concept of the analog was not fully formed until we had the digital to hold it up against, perhaps our idea of the book contains some as yet undiscovered dimensions that will be revealed by investigating the networked book.

learning to read

Two Girls Reading in a Garden by RenoirSomebody interviewed Bob for a documentary a few months ago. I don’t remember who this was, because I was in the other room busy with something else, but I was half-listening to what was being discussed: how the book is changing, what precisely the Institute does, in short, what we discuss from day to day on this blog. One statement captured my ear: Bob offhandedly declared that “we don’t really know how to read Wikipedia yet”. I made a note of it at the time; since then I’ve been periodically pulling his statement out at idle moments and rolling it over and over in my mind like a pebble in my pocket, trying to decide exactly what it could mean.

There’s something appealing to me about the flatness of the statement: “We don’t really know how to read Wikipedia yet.” It’s obvious but revelatory: the reason that we find the Wikipedia frustrating is that we need to learn how to read it. (By we I mean the reading public as a whole. Perhaps you have; judging from the arguments that fly back and forth, it would seem that the majority of us haven’t.) The problem is, of course, that so few people actually bother to state this sort of thing directly and then to unpack the repercussions of it.

What’s there to learn in reading the Wikipedia? Let’s start with a sample sentence from the entry on Marcel Proust:

In addition to the grief that attended his mother’s death, Proust’s life changed due to a very large inheritance (in today’s terms, a principal of about $6 million, with a monthly income of about $15,000).

Criticizing the Wikipedia for being poorly written is like shooting fish in a barrel, but bear with my lack of sportsmanship for a second. Imagine that you found the above sentence in a printed reference work. A printed reference book that seems to be written in the voice of a sixth grade student deeply interested in matters financial might worry you. It would worry me. It’s worried many critics of the Wikipedia, who point out that this clearly isn’t the sort of manicured prose we’re used to reading in books and magazines.

But this prose is also conceptually different. A Wikipedia article is not constructed in the same way that a magazine article is written. Nor is the content of a Wikipedia article at one particular instant in time – content that has probably been different, and might certainly change – analogous to the content of a print magazine article, which is always, from the moment of printing, exactly the same. If we are to keep using the Wikipedia, we’ll have to get used to the solecisms endemic there; we’ll also need to readjust they way we give credence to media. (Right now I’m going to tiptoe around the issue of text and authority, which is of course an enormous can of worms that I’d prefer not to open right now.) But there’s a reason that the above quotation shouldn’t be that worrying: it’s entirely possible, and increasingly probable as time goes on, that when you click the link above, you won’t be able to find the sentence I quoted.

This faith in the long run isn’t an easy thing, however. When we read Wikipedia we tend to apply to it the standards of judgment that we would apply to a book or magazine, and it often fails by these standards, as might be expected. When we’re judging Wikipedia this way, we presuppose that we know what it is formally: that it’s the same sort of thing as the texts we know. This seems arrogant: why should we assume that we already know how to read something that clearly behaves differently from the text we’re used to? We shouldn’t, though we do: it’s a human response to compare something new to something we already know, but often when we do this, we miss major formal differences.

Horseless Carriage Land, 1961This isn’t the best way to read something new. It’s akin to the “horseless carriage” analogy that Ben’s used: when you think of a car as a carriage without a horse, you miss whatever it is that makes a car special. But there’s a problem with that metaphor, in that it carries with it ideas of displacement. Evolution is often perceived as being transformative: one thing turns into, and is then replaced by, another, as the horse was replaced by the car for purposes of transportation. But it’s usually more of a splitting: there’s a new species as well as the old species from which it sprung. The old species may go extinct, or it may not. To finish that example: we still have horses.

Figuratively, what’s happened with the Wikipedia is that a new species of text has arisen and we’re still wondering why it won’t eat the apples we’re proffering it. The Wikipedia hasn’t replaced print encyclopedias; in all probability, the two will coexist for a while. But I don’t think we yet know how to read Wikipedia. We judge it by what we’re used to, and everyone loses. Were you to judge a car by a horse’s attributes, you wouldn’t expect to have an oil crisis in a century.

Perhaps a useful way to think about this: a few paragraphs of Proust, found on a trip through In Search of Lost Time with Bob’s statement bouncing around my head. The Guermantes Way, the third part of the book, feels like the longest: much of this volume is about failing to recognize how things really are. Proust’s hapless narrator alternately recognizes his own mistakes of judgment and makes new ones for six hundred pages, with occasional flashes of insight, like this reflection:

Thieves in the Night by Fromentin. . . . There was a time when people recognized things easily when they were depicted by Fromentin and failed to recognize them at all when they were painted by Renoir.

Today people of taste tell us that Renoir is a great eighteenth-century painter. But when they say this they forget Time, and that it took a great deal of time, even in the middle of the nineteenth century, for Renoir to be hailed as a great artist. To gain this sort of recognition, an original painter or an original writer follows the path of the occultist. His painting or his prose acts upon us like a course of treatment that is not always agreeable. When it is over, the practitioner says to us, “Now look.” And at this point the world (which was not created once and for all, but as often as an original artist is born) appears utterly different from the one we knew, but perfectly clear. Women pass in the street, different from those we used to see, because they are Renoirs, the same Renoirs we once refused to see as women. The carriages are also Renoirs, and the water, and the sky: we want to go for a walk in a forest like the one that, when we first saw it, was anything but a forest – more like a tapestry, for instance, with innumerable shades of color but lacking precisely the colors appropriate to forests. Such is the new and perishable universe that has just been created. It will last until the next geological catastrophe unleashed by a new painter or writer with an original view of the world.

(The Guermantes Way, pp.323–325, trans. Mark Treharne.) There’s an obvious comparison to be made here, which I won’t belabor. Wikipedia isn’t Renoir, and its entry for poor Eugène Fromentin, whose paintings are probably better left forgotten, is cribbed from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica. But like the gallery-goers who needed to learn to look at Renoir, we need to learn to read Wikipedia, to read it as a new form that certainly inherits some traits from what we’re used to reading, but one that differs in fundamental ways. That’s a process that’s going to take time.

the age of amphibians

momus.jpg Momus is a Scottish pop musician, based in Berlin, who writes smart and original things about art and technology. He blogs a wonderful blog called Click Opera — some of the best reading on the web. He wears an eye patch. And he is currently doing a stint as an “unreliable tour guide” at the Whitney Biennial, roving through the galleries, sneaking up behind museum-goers with a bullhorn.
A couple of weeks ago, Dan had the bright idea of inviting Momus — seeing as he is currently captive in New York and interested, like us, in the human migration from analog to digital — to visit the institute. Knowing almost nothing about who we are or what we do, he bravely accepted the offer and came over to Brooklyn on one of the Whitney’s dark days and lunched at our table on the customary menu of falafel and babaganoush. Yesterday, he blogged some thoughts about our meeting.
Early on, as happens with most guests, Momus asked something along the lines of: “so what do you mean by ‘future of the book?'” Always an interesting moment, in a generally blue-sky, thinky endeavor such as ours, when you’re forced to pin down some specifics (though in other areas, like Sophie, it’s all about specifics). “Well,” (some clearing of throats) “what we mean is…” “Well, you see, the thing you have to understand is…” …and once again we launch into a conversation that seems to lap at the edges of our table with tide-like regularity. Overheard:
“Well, we don’t mean books in the literal sense…”
“The book at its most essential: an instrument for moving big ideas.”
“A sustained chunk of thought.”
And so it goes… In the end, though, it seems that Momus figured out what we were up to, picking up on our obsession with the relationship between books and conversation:

It seems they’re assuming that the book itself is already over, and that it will survive now as a metaphor for intelligent conversation in networks.

It’s always interesting (and helpful) to hear our operation described by an outside observer. Momus grasped (though I don’t think totally agreed with) how the idea of “the book” might be a useful tool for posing some big questions about where we’re headed — a metaphorical vessel for charting a sea of unknowns. And yet also a concrete form that is being reinvented.
Another choice tidbit from Momus’ report — the hapless traveler’s first encounter with the institute:

I found myself in a kitchen overlooking the sandy back courtyard of a plain clapperboard building on North 7th Street. There were about six men sitting around a kidney-shaped table. One of them was older than the others and looked like a delicate Vulcan. “I expect you’re wondering why you’re here?” he said. “Yes, I’ve been very trusting,” I replied, wondering if I was about to be held hostage by a resistance movement of some kind.
Well, it turned out that the Vulcan was none other than Bob Stein, who founded the amazing Voyager multi-media company, the reference for intelligent CD-ROM publishing in the 90s.

He took this lovely picture of the office:
Interestingly, Momus splices his thoughts on us with some musings on “blooks” (books that began as blogs), commenting on the recently announced winners of‘s annual Blooker Prize:

What is a blook? It’s a blog that turns into a book, the way, in evolution, mammals went back into the sea and became fish again. Except they didn’t really do that, although undoubtedly some of us still enjoy a good swim.

And expanding upon this in a comment further down:

…the cunning thing about the concept of the blook is that it posits the book as coming after the blog, not before it, as some evolutionist of media forms would probably do. In this reading, blogs are the past of the book, not its future.

To be that evolutionist for a moment, the “blook” is indeed a curious species, falling somewhere under the genus “networked book,” but at the same time resisting cozy classification, wriggling off the taxonomic hook by virtue of its seemingly regressive character: moving from bits back to atoms; live continuous feedback back to inert bindings and glue. I suspect that “the blook” will be looked back upon as an intriguing artifact of a transitional period, a time when the great apes began sprouting gills.
If we are in fact becoming “post-book,” might this be a regression? A return to an aquatic state of culture, free-flowing and gradually accreting like oral tradition, away from the solid land of paper, print and books? Are we living, then, in an age of amphibians? Hopping in and out of the water, equally at home in both? Is the blog that tentative dip in the water and the blook the return to terra firma?
But I thought the theory of evolution had broken free of this kind of directionality: the Enlightenment idea of progress, the great chain gang of being. Isn’t it all just a long meander, full of forks, leaps and mutations? And so isn’t the future of the book also its past? Might we move beyond the book and yet also stay with it, whether as some defined form or an actual thing in our (webbed) hands? No progress, no regress, just one long continuous motion? Sounds sort of like a conversation…

malcom gladwell on the social life of paper.

I’m going to devote a series of posts to some (mostly online) texts that have been useful in my teaching and thinking about new media, textuality, and print technologies over the past few years. To start, I’d like to resurrect a three-year old New Yorker piece by Malcom Gladwell called “The Social Life Of Paper,” which distills the arguments of Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper’s book The Myth of the Paperless Office.
Gladwell (like Sellen and Harper) is interested in whether or not giving up paper entirely is practical or even possible. He suggests that for some tasks, paper remains the “killer app;” attempts to digitize such tasks might actually make them more difficult to do. His most compelling example, in the opening paragraph of his article, is the work of the air traffic controller:

On a busy day, a typical air-traffic controller might be in charge of as many as twenty-five airplanes at a time–some ascending, some descending, each at a different altitude and travelling at a different speed. He peers at a large, monochromatic radar console, tracking the movement of tiny tagged blips moving slowly across the screen. He talks to the sector where a plane is headed, and talks to the pilots passing through his sector, and talks to the other controllers about any new traffic on the horizon. And, as a controller juggles all those planes overhead, he scribbles notes on little pieces of paper, moving them around on his desk as he does. Air-traffic control depends on computers and radar. It also depends, heavily, on paper and ink.

Gladwell goes on to make the point that this while kind of reliance on bit of paper drives productivity-managers crazy, anyone who tries to change the way that an air traffic controller works is overlooking a simple fact: the strips of paper supply a stream of “cues” that mesh beautifully with the cognitive labor of the air traffic controller; they are, Gladwell says, “physical manifestations of what goes on inside his head.”
Expanding on this example, Gladwell goes on to argue that while computers are excellent at storing information — much better than the file cabinet with its paper documents — they are often less useful for collaborative work and for the sort of intellectual tasks that are facilitated by piles of paper one can shuffle, rearrange, edit and discard on one’s desk.
“The problem that paper solves,” he writes, “is the problem that most concerns us today, which is how to support knowledge work. In fretting over paper, we have been tripped up by a historical accident of innovation, confused by the assumption that the most important invention is always the most recent. Had the computer come first — and paper second — no one would raise an eyebrow at the flight strips cluttering our air-traffic-control centers.”
This is a pretty strong statement, and I find the logic both seductive and a bit flawed. I’m seduced because I too have piles of paper all over the place, and I’d like to think that these are not simply bits of dead tree, but instead artifacts intrinsic to knowledge work. But I’m skeptical because I think it’s safe to assume that standard cognitive processes can change from generation to generation; for example, those who are growing up using ichat and texting are less likely to think of bits and scraps of paper as representative of cognitive immediacy in the same way I do.
When I’ve taught this essay, I usually also assign Sven Birkets’ Into the Electronic Millenium, a text which argues (in a somewhat Lamarckian way) that electronic mediation is pretty much rewiring our brains in a way that makes it impossible for computer-mediated youth to process information in the same way as their elders. Most of them will agree with both Gladwell and Birkets — yes, there will always be a need for paper because our brain will always process certain things certain ways, but also yes, digital technologies are changing the way that our brain works. My job is to get them to see that those two concepts contradict one another. Birkets espouses a peculiar and curmudgeonly sort of technological determinism. Gladwell, on the other hand, with his focus on an embodied way of knowing, flips the equation and wonders how best to get technology to work FOR us, instead of thinking how technology might work ON us.
I can see why my students are drawn to both arguments: even though I don’t essentially agree with either essay, I often catch myself falling into Birket’s trap of extreme technological determinism — or alternately, thinking, like Gladwell, that because a certain way of doing things seems optimal it must be the “natural” way to do it.