Category Archives: gamertheory

tab, tab, tab

“a navigational widget for switching between documents” (Wikipedia)

Tab is a simple word, but one that’s hard to pin down. It’s the first word that begins with “t” in the Oxford English Dictionary, but the OED admits that it’s not sure where the word originally comes from. Such a basic word has taken on a number of meanings over time: tabs that stick out of things or clothing, tabs as a control surface on an airplane. Colorful slang tabs: cats, cigarettes, girls (in Australia, obsolete?), old women, a dose of LSD. There’s almost certainly a “tab” key on the keyboard in front of you, a holdover from the typewriter. And another new usage is probably in front of you right now: the tabs that are used in computer interfaces. The OED is not helpful for this, but Wikipedia comes in handy, suggesting that the tabs that we see in software today can be traced back to IBM’s Common User Access guidelines, published in 1987. The tabbed browser goes back to 1994 according to the page on tabbed document interfaces, but didn’t reach the masses until Opera came out in 2000. Other web browsers soon followed, and now tabs are inescapable.
I’ve been thinking about my use of tabs, and in particular the way they’ve been affecting my reading behavior online. For the past year or so, my web browser has generally has around twenty tabs open, randomly arranged in three windows. I’m aided and abetted by some plugin to my browser that reopens it with the tabs it had when it was closed. There’s no real design in this: most of these pages are things that I’ve been meaning to deal with in some fashion, to read or to respond to in some way. In practice, this doesn’t happen: I’ve had at least four of my tabs open for most of the summer, hoping that some day I’ll get around to reading them. Soon, maybe. From time to time, I’ll have an organizational fit and move things over to, but it doesn’t happen as often as it should. As long as I don’t have thirty pages open, I feel that I’m reasonably on top of things. Safari crashes once in a while and resets things to zero, but I can usually pick up where I left off.
Even without tabs in my browser, concurrent reading seems the dominant reading behavior on computers. This is likely to grow more complex: my Bloglines account keeps me reading 180 different feeds from blogs around the web. Perhaps this doesn’t seem mind-boggling because we’re used to multitasking computers. Like most computer users, I’m constantly switching back and forth between my web browser, my email program, and whatever else I have open. All the messages in my email inbox don’t seem that dissimilar from the open tabs in my browser; my inbox is more of a mess than my browser. Some day I will clean up this virtual mess; for now, I will think about what it means to inhabit such a pigsty of reading.
What does it do? It becomes, like any behavior given enough time, normal. Nor is it a behavior that’s limited to reading online: I could make a pile of a dozen books that I’m in the middle of reading. I am, alas, easily distracted. Some of these books have been interrupted in their reading for so long that I’ll probably wind up starting over again – I have absolutely no memory of where I was in Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz when I set it aside last March to read something shorter. I do, I think, make it through most things eventually. It’s rare, however, that I finish a book without the interruption of another book; it’s rarer still that I finish a book without doing some sort of web reading while I’m reading it. Have I always been this way? Probably to some extent, though it certainly seems possible that using the web has fragmented my print reading. Certainly it’s not quite the same thing as the private utopia that Sven Birkerts, in The Gutenberg Elegies and elsewhere, has posited as the space inhabited by the reader of the print book. It’s the loss of this space – rather than the loss of the print book as an object – that Birkerts was concerned about. He might have a point there.
If something’s changed in the world of reading, it might be defined as a loss of linearity. Before the fall, people started reading books at the beginning, and kept on until they got to the end. Texts were read in series. Now, for better or for worse, we read things – books, texts, web pages – in parallel.

* * * * *

“7. tab.

1. A ‘tab’ (small square) of paper soaked in LSD acid.
2. A hard, long-distance march done with kit. Common in the Army and especially British SAS.
3. The place in Australia to bet. Totaliser Agency Board (TAB). Similar to Off Track Betting (OTB), but handle’s sports betting aswell.

1. ‘You got any tab’s left.’
2. ‘We’ve still got a longtime left on this tab.’
3. ‘Let’s go to the TAB and lay down a few bets.’

by Diego Jul 29, 2003.” (

In thinking about the problem of what’s happening to reading now, it might be useful to go back a century, to the dawn of Cubism in painting. Braque and Picasso shattered the tradition of perspective, with its single vanishing point, in their attempts to paint subjects from multiple perspectives simultaneously. This was an enormous shift: what could be described under the rubric “painting” at the end of the twentieth century was extremely different from what a painting was at the start of the twentieth century. When perspective had been destroyed as a necessary concept in painting, the doors of what was admissible as visual arts were opened much wider.
In 1959, Brion Gysin was referring to this moment of rupture when he declared that writing was fifty years behind painting. Gysin made this argument while presenting the cut-up technique for generating texts, which reworked existing text to create something new. The cut-up technique wasn’t new: Tristan Tzara and the Dada poets had used it in the 1920s. Certainly fiction and poetry had been influenced by the breakdown of perspective in the visual arts: one of the hallmarks of High Modernism is a preoccupation with the fragmented. But Gysin did have a point and still does: the idea of literature that existed then was heavily dependent on the central concept of linearity. Many people haven’t adjusted to it: as Momus notes, there’s something reactionary in the cries for Dickens that have amplified in the past few years, a desire to skip what happened in the twentieth century, to go back to some bucolic ideal of the Victorian where A was A.
But what did happen? It’s hard to dispense with the linear in text: one letter follows the next, one word follows the next, one line follows the next, one page follows the next. There’s oral precedent: we can only say one word at a time. Aurally, things are different. When you go out into the street, you may hear many voices at once. It’s the feeling that the Futurist Umberto Boccioni tried to capture in his 1911 painting La strada entra nella casa, the street enters the house:


scrabrrrrraanng.low.jpgThe leader of the Futurists was F. T. Marinetti, a poet, novelist, and manifesto-writer. At about the same time that Boccioni was painting streets entering the house, Marinetti was experimenting with parole in libertà (“words in freedom”), poetry made from words thrown about the page, poetry composed with type, lines, and the occasional drawing. Stéfane Mallarmé and Guillaume Apollinaire had experimented with placing words all over the page before him, but Marinetti innovated in his simultaneità, simultaneity. It’s impossible to read this poem in any definitive way: what order should these words and phrases be read in? The impression that Marinetti seemed to be trying to provoke was of a lot of people yelling at the same time, though the title of his poem suggests that it’s meant to be a letter that a gunner at the front sent back to his lover. But Marinetti’s mark-making doesn’t represent the words that the gunner says: instead, the words present the sounds that the gunner hears.
Marinetti came to a bad end: his enthusiasm for the excitement of modern life became love of the violence of war – as evidenced by the poem above – and he fell in with Mussolini and Fascism. The history of non-linearity in writing drops out at this point in history; probably in 1959 Gyson was unaware of Marinetti’s work.
hopscotch34SMALL.jpgBut in the 1960s there was a veritable explosion of non-linearity. Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch, published in 1963, is the best known novel to play with the form: Hopscotch presents one story when the first 56 chapters are read straight through, and another, slightly different story when the chapters are interleaved by the reader with the “expendable chapters” at the end of the book. This process is repeated in miniature in chapter 34 of the book, where the main character is reading an old novel and thinking about what he’s reading at the same time. (Click the image at left to see a readable version of a spread from this chapter.) Lines from the old novel are interleaved with Horacio’s thoughts as he’s reading, effectively presenting two different points of view at the same time. It’s more or less unreadable if you’re reading line by line; you have to skip lines and read the chapter twice, and it’s very hard to keep your place, as the two narratives constantly interpenetrate.
At about the same time following the example of Marinetti and others, concrete poetry took off in the poetry world. There are plenty of similar experiments in other media: Andy Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls (1966) which presents two films side by side comes to mind. (A snippet can be viewed here.) Lou Reed was probably thinking of Chelsea Girls when he composed “The Murder Mystery”, a track from 1968 by the Velvet Underground. Ostensibly this song presents a story split into two halves, intoned by different members of the band into the left and right channels. With headphones, it can be deciphered as a narrative; played out loud, you can hear people talking, but you can’t understand what’s being said.

p 13 of house mother normal - click to enlarge

The experimental British novelist B. S. Johnson tried to achieve the same simultaneity in his novel House Mother Normal (1971), which presents the goings-on of a nursing home inhabited by residents with various degrees of consciousness and an abusive House Mother supervising them. Johnson presents nine narratives, each twenty pages long; each takes place simultaneously and at the same rate, so that the events on page 13 (shown above; click to enlarge) effectively happen nine times over, presented by nine different views. What’s actually happening in the time covered by House Mother Normal becomes more clear as the reader reads more of the narratives: no one consciousness is enough to present it. It’s an interesting presentation – like a musical score for text – and it works particularly well to humanely describing subjects who are not as mentally capable as we might expect narrators to be. But Johnson couldn’t entirely manage to escape the essentially linearity of text. What he’s found, as the monstrous House Mother explains at the end, when Johnson allows her to break character, is a way to create “a diagram of certain aspects of the inside of his skull” – perspective turned inside out.

* * * * *

“tab, sb. 5 Typewriting and Computing. [Abbrev. of TABULATOR b., TABULAR a., etc.] A tabulator (key); a tabular stop, used to preset the movement of the carriage, cursor, etc., under the direction of the tabulator.” (Oxford English Dictionary)

The TAB key is on the computer keyboard because it was on the typewriter keyboard. When you press the TAB key on a typewriter, the carriage advances forward. TAB does that on a computer sometimes – when you’re editing text, maybe – but this use of tabbing forward in text has never really felt at home on a computer, and it increasingly seems lost in the new digital world. Start typing paragraphs in Microsoft Word and it will automatically indent text for you. Pressing TAB to try to indent a new paragraph in a text editing window in a browser – a blog comment field, for example – and your cursor will move to some other text window or a button. TAB now moves between things, rather than advancing forward. Text on computers works in parallel rather than in series.
The Unfortunates (1969) is B. S. Johnson’s most notorious novel, if, perhaps, not the most widely read. It’s a book-in-a-box. It’s not the first novel to come in a box – Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1, published in 1962, beat him by a few years, and was astoundingly translated from French to English as well. Composition No. 1 is a fairly standard detective story, which happens to have been broken up into pages which can be read in any order. One learns that crime is confusing and that in the end we don’t know anything about anything, which makes it an unsatisfying book. Johnson’s book is a bit more complex. Rather than dissociated pages, it’s a collection of little pamphlets, a couple of pages long each; it can’t be read in any order, as there’s a first and a last pamphlet that are to be read first and last. The narrative that emerges is of a sportswriter who’s covering a soccer match in a city he hasn’t been to in years; the last time he was there was with a friend who died of cancer. (Johnson erred on the side of the morbid.) The pamphlets are scattered memories of the past, a past that can’t be recovered or reconstructed. Cancer is senseless; a linear narrative, Johnson is suggesting, could only pretend to reason with it. Thus texts that can never fully be in sequence because there is no sequence.
There’s something here that’s similar, I think, to one of the issues that came up during the Gamer Theory experiment. Gamer Theory, as presented online, had an interface that suggested a deck of cards; the table of contents presented the chapters in such as way that one might be led to believe that one could start reading the book anywhere. This was not actually the case: McKenzie Wark’s book, despite its aphoristic style, does contain a linear argument which proceeds through the chapters. Though it did look like a deck of cards, it was not made to be shuffled like a deck of cards. In a sense, it was an old-fashioned book. But what it found online were new-style readers: readers who pick through the book to find things they were interested in, rather than readers who read the book through, attentive to the arc of its argument. Readers like me, who keep tabs open forever.
This isn’t, for what it’s worth, a flaw specific to Gamer Theory: this seems to be an issue with most texts designed for electronic reading. Almost all assume that they’re the only text being read – you could trace this back to CD-ROMs, if not further – as if the text were being read in a kiosk. (An interesting exception might be games, if you want to see games as texts, though I’ll leave that as an argument for the reader to make.) The choose-your-own-adventure model of hypertext suffers from this as well; though Hopscotch is often pointed to as a predecessor to hypertext, Cortázar’s book isn’t so much a garden of forking paths as two texts meant to be read in parallel.
I’m not suggesting that the serial nature of Gamer Theory is a flaw in either it as a book or it as an experiment, but it does give one pause. Could a book like Gamer Theory be constructed that’s not dependent upon a linear argument? A book designed to be read in tabs, in parallel with other texts? A book designed for the way we read now? There’s precedent, if we look in the right places: consider Wittgenstein, for example. The great work of Wittgenstein’s early philosophy, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, is structured in a numbered outline, carefully leading the reader down the path of his argument. Wittgenstein’s other great work is the Philosophical Investigations, takes the form of a series of sections. The sections are numbered but this is more for ease of reference than anything else; each is relatively self-contained. Each is designed to be read in isolation, but taken together they present a broad field of argument. The lack of rigorous structure in the Philosophical Investigations compared to the Tractatus doesn’t mean that the later work is simpler; it’s a more complex, nuanced argument. Reading in parallel doesn’t need to be a dumbed-down version of sequential reading, as we might imagine it to be: there are more possibilities.

monkeybook 2: an evening with brad paley

monkeytownsketch.jpg Monkeybook is an occasional series of new media evenings hosted by the Institute for the Future of the Book at Monkeytown, Brooklyn’s premier video art venue. For our second event, we are thrilled to present brilliant interaction designer, friend and collaborator W. Bradford Paley, who will be giving a live tour of his work on four screens. Next Monday, May 7. New Yorkers, save the date!
Brad is one of those rare individuals: an artist who is also a world-class programmer. His work focuses on making elegant, intuitive visualizations of complex data, in projects ranging from TextArc, a dazzling visual concordance of a text (a version of which was presented with the new Gamer Theory edition), to a wireless handheld device used by traders at the New York Stock Exchange to keep up with the blitz of transactions. It’s a crucial area of experimentation that addresses one of the fundamental problems of our time: how to make sense of too much information. And in a field frequently characterized by empty visual titillation, Brad’s designs evince a rare lucidity and usefulness. They convey meaning beautifully – and beauty meaningfully.
Brad is always inspiring when talking about his stuff, which is going to look absolutely stunning in the Monkeytown space. If you’re in the area, be sure not to miss this. For those of you who don’t know it, Monkeytown is unique among film venues in New York — an intimate room with a gigantic screen on each of its four walls, low comfy sofas and fantastic food. A strange and special place. If you think you can come, be sure to make a reservation ASAP as seating will be tight.
More info here.
(Monkeybook 1)

gamer theory 2.0

…is officially live! Check it out. Spread the word.
I want to draw special attention to the Gamer Theory TextArc in the visualization gallery – a graphical rendering of the book that reveals (quite beautifully) some of the text’s underlying structures.
Gamer Arc detail
TextArc was created by Brad Paley, a brilliant interaction designer based in New York. A few weeks ago, he and Ken Wark came over to the Institute to play around with the Gamer Theory in TextArc on a wall display:
Ken jotted down some of his thoughts on the experience: “Brad put it up on the screen and it was like seeing a diagram of my own writing brain…” Read more here (then scroll down partway).
starting bottom-left, counter-clockwise: Ken, Brad, Eddie, Bob
More thoughts about all of this to come. I’ve spent the past two days running around like a madman at the Digital Library Federation Spring Forum in Pasadena, presenting our work (MediaCommons in particular), ducking in and out of sessions, chatting with interesting folks, and pounding away at the Gamer site — inserting footnote links, writing copy, generally polishing. I’m looking forward to regrouping in New York and processing all of this.
Thanks, Florian Brody for the photos.
Oh, and here is the “official” press/blogosphere release. Circulate freely:
The Institute for the Future of the Book is pleased to announce a new edition of the “networked book” Gamer Theory by McKenzie Wark. Last year, the Institute published a draft of Wark’s path-breaking critical study of video games in an experimental web format designed to bring readers into conversation around a work in progress. In the months that followed, hundreds of comments poured in from gamers, students, scholars, artists and the generally curious, at times turning into a full-blown conversation in the manuscript’s margins. Based on the many thoughtful contributions he received, Wark revised the book and has now published a print edition through Harvard University Press, which contains an edited selection of comments from the original website. In conjunction with the Harvard release, the Institute for the Future of the Book has launched a new Creative Commons-licensed, social web edition of Gamer Theory, along with a gallery of data visualizations of the text submitted by leading interaction designers, artists and hackers. This constellation of formats — read, read/write, visualize — offers the reader multiple ways of discovering and building upon Gamer Theory. A multi-mediated approach to the book in the digital age.
More about the book:
Ever get the feeling that life’s a game with changing rules and no clear sides, one you are compelled to play yet cannot win? Welcome to gamespace. Gamespace is where and how we live today. It is everywhere and nowhere: the main chance, the best shot, the big leagues, the only game in town. In a world thus configured, McKenzie Wark contends, digital computer games are the emergent cultural form of the times. Where others argue obsessively over violence in games, Wark approaches them as a utopian version of the world in which we actually live. Playing against the machine on a game console, we enjoy the only truly level playing field–where we get ahead on our strengths or not at all.
Gamer Theory uncovers the significance of games in the gap between the near-perfection of actual games and the highly imperfect gamespace of everyday life in the rat race of free-market society. The book depicts a world becoming an inescapable series of less and less perfect games. This world gives rise to a new persona. In place of the subject or citizen stands the gamer. As all previous such personae had their breviaries and manuals, Gamer Theory seeks to offer guidance for thinking within this new character. Neither a strategy guide nor a cheat sheet for improving one’s score or skills, the book is instead a primer in thinking about a world made over as a gamespace, recast as an imperfect copy of the game.
The Institute for the Future of the Book is a small New York-based think tank dedicated to inventing new forms of discourse for the network age. Other recent publishing experiments include an annotated online edition of the Iraq Study Group Report (with Lapham’s Quarterly), Without Gods: Toward a History of Disbelief (with Mitchell Stephens, NYU), and MediaCommons, a digital scholarly network in media studies. Read the Institute’s blog, if:book. Inquiries: curator [at] futureofthebook [dot] org
McKenzie Wark teaches media and cultural studies at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College in New York City. He is the author of several books, most recently A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard University Press) and Dispositions (Salt Publishing).

gamer theory 2.0 (beta)

The new Gamer Theory site is up, though for the next 24 hours we’re considering it beta. It’s all pretty much there except for some last bits and pieces (pop-up textual notes, a few explanatory materials, one or two pieces for the visualization gallery, miscellaneous tweaks). By all means start poking around and posting comments.
The project now has a portal page that links you to the constitutent parts: the Harvard print edition, two networked web editions (1.1 and 2.0), a discussion forum, and, newest of all, a gallery of text visualizations including a customized version of Brad Paley’s “TextArc” and a fascinating prototype of a progam called “FeatureLens” from the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland. We’ll make a much bigger announcement about this tomorrow. For now, consider the site softly launched.

monkeys typing

Things are quiet here except for the soft patter of keyboards as we type/code/tweak away at Gamer Theory 2.0. The site goes live first thing Monday, at which point normal levels of conversation should resume. (Meanwhile, peaking out the window, it appears that spring has finally decided to arrive. Hallelujah!)

gamer theory update

Gamer Theory 2.0 is nearly there, we’re just taking a few extra few days to apply the finishing touches and to get a few last visualizations mounted in the gallery. The print edition from Harvard is available now.
For those of you in the city, there’s a great Gamer Theory event planned for tonight at the New School followed by drinks in Brooklyn at Barcade — a bar (as the name suggests) fitted out as a retro video game arcade (have a pint and play a round of Rampage, Gauntlet or Frogger). Here’s more info:
what: McKenzie Wark will present, and lead a discussion of his new book Gamer Theory (Harvard University Press). Jaeho Kang (Sociology, The New School for Social Reseach) will act as the respondent.
where: Wolff Conference Room, 2nd floor, 65 5th avenue (between 14th and 13th streets)
when: 6-8PM, Wednesday 18th April 2007
then: drinks & games at Barcade, 388 Union Ave Williamsburg (L train to Lorrimer st, take Union exit)

gamer theory 2.0 – visualize this!

Call for participation: Visualize This!
WARGAM.jpg How can we ‘see’ a written text? Do you have a new way of visualizing writing on the screen? If so, then McKenzie Wark and the Institute for the Future of the Book have a challenge for you. We want you to visualize McKenzie’s new book, Gamer Theory.
Version 1 of Gamer Theory was presented by the Institute for the Future of the Book as a ‘networked book’, open to comments from readers. McKenzie used these comments to write version 2, which will be published in April by Harvard University Press. With the new version we want to extend this exploration of the book in the digital age, and we want you to be part of it.
All you have to do is register, download the v2 text, make a visualization of it (preferably of the whole text though you can also focus on a single part), and upload it to our server with a short explanation of how you did it.
All visualizations will be presented in a gallery on the new Gamer Theory site. Some contributions may be specially featured. All entries will receive a free copy of the printed book (until we run out).
By “visualization” we mean some graphical representation of the text that uses computation to discover new meanings and patterns and enables forms of reading that print can’t support. Some examples that have inspired us:

Understand that this is just a loose guideline. Feel encouraged to break the rules, hack the definition, show us something we hadn’t yet imagined.
All visualizations, like the web version of the text, will be Creative Commons licensed (Attribution-NonCommercial). You have the option of making your code available under this license as well or keeping it to yourself. We encourage you to share the source code of your visualization so that others can learn from your work and build on it. In this spirt, we’ve asked experienced hackers to provide code samples and resources to get you started (these will be made available on the upload page).
Gamer 2.0 will launch around April 18th in synch with the Harvard edition. Deadline for entries is Wednesday, April 11th.
Read GAM3R 7H30RY 1.1.
Download/upload page (registration required):