Category Archives: media

the indeterminate dvd

On a clear day, Guy Maddin might be my favorite living film maker. He’s not to everyone’s taste (The Heart of the World, complete on YouTube, is a good litmus test), and I won’t attempt to convert the unbelievers. But anyone who would decide that Knut Hamsun’s Pan should be a Vaseline-lensed movie set on an ostrich farm inside the earth (Twilight of the Ice Nymphs) or who is making a movie about Raymond Roussel with John Ashbery can’t expect me to be rational and objective about what they do. Regardless of my sympathies, his work is formally interesting, and I think it bears scrutiny if we’re interested in how artistic forms change with technology.
While not entirely uncommercial, Maddin’s films set out to take filmmaking apart to its component pieces. Much of his work mines the aesthetic of the silent era of film making, particularly the German Expressionists, with grainy, high-contrast imagery, prominent use of intertitles, and grandly theatrical acting. Watching Maddin’s work reminds us that the form we know as the feature film is very much a constructed form, and we, as its audience have learned to read it. This is something we generally forget – the feature film has been around longer than just about anyone has been alive, and it’s as much a part of our mental furniture as the novel or the poem. But this wasn’t always so – in his autobiography, Luis Buñuel recalls watching early films in Spain:

In addition to the traditional piano player, each theatre in Saragossa was equipped with its explicador, or narrator, who stood next to the screen and ‘explained’ the action to the audience. ‘Count Hugo sees his wife go by on the arm of another man,’ he would declaim. ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, you will see how he opens the drawer of his desk and takes out a revolver to assassinate his unfaithful wife!’

It’s hard to imagine today, but when the cinema was in its infancy, it was such a new and unusual narrative form that most spectators had difficulty understanding what was happening. Now we’re so used to film language, to the elements of montage, to both simultaneous and successive action, to flashbacks, that our comprehension is automatic; but in the early years, the public had a hard time deciphering this new pictorial grammar. They needed an explicador to guide them from scene to scene.

I’ll never forget, for example, everyone’s terror when we saw our first zoom. There on the screen was a head coming closer and closer, growing larger and larger. We simply couldn’t understand that the camera was moving nearer to the head, or that because of trick photography (as in Méliès’s films), the head only appeared to grow larger. All we saw was a head coming toward us, swelling hideously out of all proportion. Like Saint Thomas the Apostle, we believed in the reality of what we saw.

(My Last Sigh, trans. Abigail Israel, p. 32–33.) Maddin has resurrected this idea of the explicador in his most recent films, a loose biographical trilogy about his youth in Winnipeg – Cowards Bend the Knee (about, roughly: ice hockey; beauty parlors; abortion clinics: Sarah Palin avant la lettre); Brand Upon the Brain! (orphanages; young detectives; gender confusion); and My Winnipeg (sleepwalking; urban development; nostalgia). Brand Upon the Brain! is the most ambitious of the three: for the release of this film last year, Maddin mounted a theatrical production, where musicians provided a live soundtrack, foley artists reproduced the film’s sound effects, and an interlocutor narrated the film.
Watching the film this way is a disorienting experience: the audience sees the film and is drawn into the suspension of disbelief elicited by film. But between the audience and the screen are those creating the sounds that are part of the experience: while on the screen the audience sees a man going up the stairs, the audience can’t avoid seeing the foley artists who are making the noises of the man going up the stairs. The Russian Formalists would have called this estrangement.
Brand Upon the Brain! has just been released on DVD by Criterion; watching it in this form is a very different sort of experience. Of necessity, it’s a reduction of the richness of sensory experience of watching a live production. (Watching a movie on DVD rather than with an audience in a theater is always a different experience. In a theater, we are part of an audience and should behave in a certain way: generally, we don’t shout at the screen, or answer telephones in the midst of things, for example, because we are conscious that we’re part of an audience and have been socialized to behave properly.) One can’t fault Maddin or the Criterion Collection for this: movies are, of course, supposed to make money, not everyone could go to the live performances, and sometimes, Russian Formalists be damned, we don’t want to think about estrangement so much as we want to watch a movie.
But it’s still worth watching Brand Upon the Brain! on DVD. In a nod to the film’s original production, the DVD contains eight different soundtracks – three different narrators recorded in a studio, and five different narrators recorded in live performances in New York. The film thus viewed can be very different – as a sample, here’s a scene from near the beginning with three different narrators. First is the default choice, Guy Maddin recorded in a studio:

then John Ashbery, again recorded live:

then Isabella Rossellini, recorded live:

What the viewer sees is the same; but even though the narrators say the same things, what the viewer hears is very different. Maddin sounds bored and dismissive of his imagined biography; Ashbery sounds like your crazy uncle; Rossellini sounds like she’s been brought in from some wildly different film, possibly a European imagining of things are in Canada. It’s worth emphasizing that the music and sound effects in these three clips are different, as they’ve been recorded live in the Rossellini and Ashbery performances.
This DVD is an odd artifact: the film that it presents is in a sense indeterminate, presenting multiple possible films. It’s a trick that I’ve never seen exploited before, which is strange: multiple soundtracks for a film have been possible since the Laserdisc appeared thirty years ago. This particular aspect of the DVD is not new; it’s just something that it’s taken artists a long time to explore. It’s odd, really, that at a point in time when more movies are viewed on DVD than in theaters more films aren’t targeted as specifically to that viewing environment. It’s also striking to me how slowly technology changes. Criterion’s Brand Upon the Brain! could effectively have been released on Laserdisc: granted, DVDs are more convenient than Laserdiscs, but there’s nothing tremendously different in the possibilities for presentation. Blu-Ray, the designated successor to the DVD, promises a Java support, enabling more complex features, though no one seems particularly excited about a new physical format for movies, and I imagine that it will be years before anyone does anything interesting with this. Technology doesn’t wait for our ability to work constructively with it.

a safe haven for fan culture

The Organization for Transformative Works is a new “nonprofit organization established by fans to serve the interests of fans by providing access to and preserving the history of fanworks and fan culture in its myriad forms.”
Interestingly, the OTW defines itself -? and by implication, fan culture in general -? as a “predominately female community.” The board of directors is made up of a distinguished and, diverging from fan culture norms, non-anonymous group of women academics spanning film studies, english, interaction design and law, and chaired by the bestselling fantasy author Naomi Novik (J.K. Rowling is not a member). In comments on his website, Ethan Zuckerman points out that

…it’s important to understand the definition of “fan culture” – media fandom, fanfic and vidding, a culture that’s predominantly female, though not exclusively so. I see this statement in OTW’s values as a reflection on the fact that politically-focused remixing of videos has received a great deal of attention from legal and media activists (Lessig, for instance) in recent years. Some women who’ve been involved with remixing television and movie clips for decades, producing sophisticated works often with incredibly primitive tools, are understandably pissed off that a new generation of political activists are being credited with “inventing the remix”.

In a nod to Virginia Woolf, next summer the OTW will launch “An Archive of One’s Own,” a space dedicated to the preservation and legal protection of fan-made works:

An Archive Of Our Own’s first goal is to create a new open-source software package to allow fans to host their own robust, full-featured archives, which can support even an archive on a very large scale of hundreds of thousands of stories and has the social networking features to make it easier for fans to connect to one another through their work.
Our second goal is to use this software to provide a noncommercial and nonprofit central hosting place for fanfiction and other transformative fanworks, where these can be sheltered by the advocacy of the OTW and take advantage of the OTW’s work in articulating the case for the legality and social value of these works.

OTW will also publish an academic journal and a public wiki devoted to fandom and fan culture history. All looks very promising.

a problem

A screaming comes across the sky: the familiar roar of the growing Media Event, gathering power as it leaves the launchpad – the shootings at Virginia Tech – behind it. It has happened before, and it will happen again, and we know exactly how it will work: cover stories and TV coverage of Seung-Hui Cho will proliferate for the next few weeks, while journalists try furiously to get to the bottom of what caused this, feeling out the endless ramifications.
I don’t have any noteworthy opinions on Cho. I am, however, interested in the news cycle and how it impacts the way we think about the world we live in. This is something brought home last week by this post from Wonkette, which points out that 160 people were killed in Iraq at roughly the same time as the Virginia Tech massacre. The tone is crass, but I think it’s on target: estimates that 700 people died in Iraq last week, over twenty times the number killed in Virginia. That’s not a ratio reflected by coverage in the American media: looking at the front pages of The New York Times for the past week, I find seven stories on Cho, two on deaths in Iraq. It’s a strange and problematic disparity when you think about it. While it’s difficult to predict where and when the next school shooting will occur, there’s a high probability that a similarly high number of people will die in Iraq in the coming week. Predictability doesn’t translate into preventability, but there’s some correlation: we can still do something about Iraq.
The media is very good at reporting on sharply punctuated events (the death of Anna Nicole Smith; the rise and fall of Sanjaya; French politics when there’s an election happening). The news cycle feeds on novelty. I’m sure in the weeks to come we’ll learn more than we ever wanted to about the sad life of Cho. The media’s not very good at reporting on things that go on for a long time: as the war in Iraq grinds past its fourth anniversary, it’s hard for anyone to get excited about what’s happening there, no matter how horrific they are. Any number of similar long-standing issues are similarly poorly served: when was the last time you heard about what’s going on in New Orleans? Afghanistan? post-tsunami Indonesia?
This becomes an if:book issue simply because temporality has become such an enormous part of the way we deal with electronic media. The past few years have witnessed the ascendency of blog-based writing online; when we read blogs, we tend to read the most recent posts, to look at what’s new. This works very well for targeting certain sorts of problems: a snippy post at Boing Boing about some perceived wrong will target thousands of would-be hackers’ wrath. But we don’t seem to have a good way to deal with big, lasting problems that aren’t changing quickly, in part because the media forms that we have to use are so strongly time-based. Historically, this is a space in which books have functioned: consider the role of Thomas Paine’s pamphlets or Uncle Tom’s Cabin in fomenting past wars. An open-ended question: how can this be done in today’s media environment? Are the forms we have good enough? Or do we not know how to use them?

networked journalism in action

An excellent piece in the LA Times this weekend looks at how Josh Marshall’s little Talking Points Memo blog network led the journalistic charge that helped bring the US attorneys scandal to light. As the article details, TPM’s persistent muckraking was also instrumental in bringing national attention to the 2002 racial gaffe that cost Trent Lott his Senate leadership, to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandals, and to the initially underappreciated public opposition to Bush’s plan to privatize social security. Truly a force to be reckoned with. And most important, it was all achieved through sustained collaboration with its readership:

The bloggers used the usual tools of good journalists everywhere — determination, insight, ingenuity — plus a powerful new force that was not available to reporters until blogging came along: the ability to communicate almost instantaneously with readers via the Internet and to deputize those readers as editorial researchers, in effect multiplying the reporting power by an order of magnitude.
In December, Josh Marshall, who owns and runs TPM , posted a short item linking to a news report in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about the firing of the U.S. attorney for that state. Marshall later followed up, adding that several U.S. attorneys were apparently being replaced and asked his 100,000 or so daily readers to write in if they knew anything about U.S. attorneys being fired in their areas.
For the two months that followed, Talking Points Memo and one of its sister sites, TPM Muckraker, accumulated evidence from around the country on who the axed prosecutors were, and why politics might be behind the firings. The cause was taken up among Democrats in Congress. One senior Justice Department official has resigned, and Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales is now in the media crosshairs.

This is precisely what Jeff Jarvis means by “networked journalism“: a more nuanced notion than “citizens journalism” in that it doesn’t insist on a strict distinction between professional and amateur. The emphasis instead is on a productive blurring of that boundary through collaboration and distribution of labor. There’s no doubt that what we’re seeing here is a democratization of the journalistic process, but this bottom-up movement doesn’t mean the end of hierarchy. Marshall and his small staff are clearly the leaders here, a new breed of editors coordinating complex chains of effort.

time out and some of what went into it

A remaindered link that I keep forgetting to post. A couple of weeks back, Time Out London ran a nice little “future of books” feature that makes mention of the Institute. A good chunk of it focuses on On Demand Books, the Espresso book machine and the evolution of print, but it also manages to delve a bit into networked territory, looking at Penguin’s wiki novel project and including a few remarks from me about the yuckiness of e-book hardware and the social aspects of text. Leading up to the article, I had some nice conversations over email and phone with the writer Jessica Winter, most of which of course had no hope of fitting into a ~1300-word piece. And as tends to be the case, the more interesting stuff ended up on the cutting room floor. So I thought I’d take advantage of our laxer space restrictions and throw up for any who are interested some of that conversation.
(Questions are in bold. Please excuse rambliness.)
The other day I was having an interesting conversation with a book editor in which we were trying to determine whether a book is more like a table or a computer; i.e., is a book a really good piece of technology in its present form, or does it need constant rethinking and upgrades, or is it both? Another way of asking this question: Will the regular paper-and-glue book go the way of the stone tablet and the codex, or will it continue to coexist with digital versions? (Sorry, you must get asked this question all the time…)
We keep coming back to this question is because it’s such a tricky one. The simple answer is yes.
The more complicated answer…
When folks at the Institute talk about “the book,” we’re really more interested in the role the book historically has played in our civilization — that is, as the primary vehicle humans use for moving around ideas. In this sense, it seems pretty certain that the future of the book, or to put it more awkwardly, the future of intellectual discourse, is shifting inexorably from printed pages to networked screens.
Predicting hardware is a tougher and ultimately less interesting pursuit. I guess you could say we’re agnostic: unsure about the survival or non-survival of the paper-and-glue book as we are about the success or failure of the latest e-book reading device to hit the market. Still, there’s this strong impulse to try to guess which forms will prevail and which will go extinct. But if you look at the history of media you find that things usually aren’t so clear cut.
It’s actually quite seldom the case that one form flat out replaces another. Far more often the two forms go on existing together, affecting and changing one other in a variety of ways. Photography didn’t kill painting as many predicted it would. Instead it caused a crisis that led to Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism. TV didn’t kill radio but it did usurp radio’s place at the center of the culture and changed the sorts of programming that it made sense for radio to deliver. So far the Internet hasn’t killed TV but there’s no question that it’s bringing about a radical shift in both the production and consumption of television, blurring the line between the two.
The Internet probably won’t kill off books either but it will almost certainly affect what sorts of books get produced, and on the ways in which we read and write them. It’s happening already. Books that look and feel much the same way today as they looked and felt 30 years ago are now almost invariably written on computers with word processing applications, and increasingly, researched or even written on the Web.
Certain things that we used to think of as books — encyclopedias, atlases, phone directories, catalogs — have already been reinvented, and in some cases merged. Other sorts of works, particularly long-form narratives, seem to have a more durable relationship with the printed word. But even here, our relationship with these books is changing as we become more accustomed to new networked forms. Continuous partial attention. Porous boundaries between documents and media. Social and participatory forms of reading. Writing in public. All these things change the very idea of reading and writing, so when you resume an offline mode of doing these things, your perceptions and way of thinking have likely changed.
(A side note. I think this experience of passage back and forth between off and online forms, between analog and digital, is itself significant and for people in our generation, with our general background, is probably the defining state of being. We’re neither immigrant or native. Or to dip into another analogical pot, we’re amphibians.)
As time and technology progress and we move with increasing fluidity between print and digital, we may come to better appreciate the unique affordances of the print book. Looked at one way, the book is an outmoded technology. It lacks the interactivity and interconnectedness of networked communication and is extremely limited in scope when compared with the practically boundless universe of texts and media that exists online. But you could also see this boundedness is its greatest virtue — the focus and structure it brings, enabling sustained thought and contemplation and private intellectual growth. Not to mention archival stability. In these ways the book is a technology that would be hard to improve upon.
John Updike has said that books represent “an encounter, in silence, of two minds.” Does that hold true now, or will it continue to as we continue to rethink the means of production (both technological and intellectual) of books? What are the advantages and disadvantages of a networked book over a book traditionally conceived in that “silent encounter”?
I think I partly answered this question in the last round. But again, as with media forms, so too with ways of reading. Updike is talking about a certain kind of reading, the kind that is best suited to the sorts of things he writes: novels, short stories and criticism. But it would be a mistake to apply this as a universal principle for all books, especially books that are intended as much, if not more, as a jumping off point for discussion as for that silent encounter.
Perhaps the biggest change being brought about by new networked forms of communication is the redefinition of the place of the individual in relation to the collective. The present publishing system very much favors the individual, both in the culture of reverence that surrounds authors and in the intellectual property system that upholds their status as professionals. Updike is at the top of this particular heap and so naturally he defends it as though it were the inviolable natural order.
Digital communication radically clashes with this order: by divorcing intellectual property from physical property (a marriage that has long enabled the culture industry to do business) and by re-situating textual communication in the network, connecting authors and readers in startling ways that rearrange the traditional hiearchies.
What do you think of print-on-demand technology like the Espresso machine? One quibble that I have with it, and it’s probably a lost cause, is that it seems part of the death of browsing (which is otherwise hastened by the demise of the independent bookstore and the rise of the “drive-through” library); opportunities for a chance encounter with a book seem to be lessened. Just curious–has the Institute addressed the importance of browsing at all?
The serendipity of physical browsing would indeed be unfortunate to lose, and there may be some ways of replicating it online. North Carolina State University uses software called Endeca for their online catalog where you pull up a record of a book and you can look at what else is next to it on the physical shelf. But generally speaking browsing in the network age is becoming a social affair. Behavior-derived algorithms are one approach — Amazon’s collaborative filtering system, based on the aggregate clickstreams and purchasing patterns of its customers, is very useful and getting better all the time. Then there’s social bookmarking. There, taxonomy becomes social, serendipity not just a chance encounter with a book or document, but with another reader, or group of readers.
And some other scattered remarks about conversation and the persistent need for editors:
Blogging, comments, message boards, etc… In some ways, the document as a whole is just the seed for the responses. It’s pointing toward a different kind of writing that is more dialogical, and we haven’t really figured it out yet. We don’t yet know how to manage and represent complex conversations in an electronic environment. From a chat room to a discussion forum to a comment stream in a blog post, even to an e-mail thread or a multiparty instant-messaging conversation–it’s just a list of remarks, a linear transcript that flattens the discussion’s spirals, loops and pretzels into a single straight line. In other words, the minute the conversation becomes complex, we become unable to make that complexity readable.
We’ve talked about setting up shop in Second Life and doing an experiment there in modeling conversations. But I’m more interested in finding some way of expanding two-dimensional interfaces into 2.5. We don’t yet know how to represent conversations on a screen once it crosses a certain threshold of complexity.
People gauge comment counts as a measure of the social success of a piece of writing or a video clip. If you look at Huffington Post, you’ll see posts that have 500 comments. Once it gets to that level, it’s sort of impenetrable. It makes the role of filters, of editors and curators–people who can make sound selections–more crucial than ever.
Until recently, publishing existed as a bottleneck model with certain material barriers to publishing. The ability to overleap those barriers was concentrated in a few bottlenecks, with editorial filters to choose what actually got out there. Those material barriers are no longer there; there’s still an enormous digital divide, but for the 1 billion or so people who are connected, those barriers are incredibly low. There’s suddenly a super-abundance of information with no gatekeeper; instead of a bottleneck, we have a deluge. The act of filtering and selecting it down becomes incredibly important. The function that editors serve in the current context will be need to be updated and expanded.

belgian news sites don cloak of invisibility

In an act of stunning shortsightedness, a consortium of 19 Belgian newspapers has sued and won a case against Google for copyright infringement in its News Search engine. Google must now remove all links, images and cached pages of these sites from its database or else face fines. Similar lawsuits from other European papers are likely to follow soon.
The main beef in the case (all explained in greater detail here) is Google’s practice of deep linking to specific articles, which bypasses ads on the newspapers’ home pages and reduces revenue. This and Google’s caching of full articles for search purposes, copies that the newspapers contend could be monetized through a pay-for-retrieval service. Echoes of the Book Search lawsuits on this side of the Atlantic…
What the Belgians are in fact doing is rendering their papers invisible to a potentially global audience. Instead of lashing out against what is essentially a free advertising service, why not rethink your own ad structure to account for the fact that more and more readers today are coming through search engines and not your front page? While you’re at it, rethink the whole idea of a front page. Or better yet, join forces with other newspapers, form your own federated search service and beat Google at its own game.

under the influence

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting (and free) piece on a new class of individuals — filters, recommenders, editors, curators, call them what you will — that is becoming increasingly influential in directing attention traffic across the Web. The article focuses primarily on top link hounds at user-filtered news sites like Digg, Reddit and the newly reborn Netscape, sites whose aggregate tastemaking muscle has caught the attention of marketers and product placers, who have made various efforts to buy influence through elaborate vote-rigging schemes and good old-fashioned payola. The article also makes mention of some notable solo filtering acts including a regular stop of mine,, a video archive operated by a young Canadian named Jeff Hoard. At the end of the piece there’s a list with links of other important “influencers.”
While I was reading this I kept thinking of Time Magazine’s “The Person of the Year is You”, which caused a minor stir last December with its cover containing a little mirror in a YouTube-like screen. On one level the piece was simple trend-spotting, a comment on the phenomenon (undoubtedly reaching new heights in ’06) of social media production. But it could also be read as a thinly camouflaged corporate memo announcing big media’s awakening to the potentially enormous profits of an ad-based media network in which the users do all the work of filtering. And it’s precisely the sorts of “influencers” in this WSJ piece that are the “you” on which they are hoping to capitalize. The “you” that convinced Google that $1.8 billion was a price worth paying for YouTube, or Rupert Murdoch a half billion for MySpace (I would have liked to have heard more in the article about the way this phenomenon is playing out on these two sites through the video “channels” and friend networks).
It all adds up to a pretty astonishing redefinition of what “the media” is. The front page, the lead story, the primetime lineup — all in constant renegotiation, constantly rearranged. Yet still in so many ways dependent on the established sources for the materials to be filtered (and probably in the future for personal income, as is already beginning). Feeders and filterers. The new media ecology doesn’t destroy the old one, it absorbs it into a new relationship.

the end of media industries

Imagine a world without publishers, broadcasters or record labels. Imagine the complex infrastructure, large distribution networks, massive advertising campaigns, and multi-million signing contracts provided by the media incumbents all gone from our society. What would our culture look like? Will the music stop? Will pens dry up?
I would hope not, but I recently read Siva Vaidhyanathan’s book, The Anarchist in the Library, and I encountered a curious quote from Time Warner CEO, Richard Parsons:

This is a very profound moment historically. This isn’t just about a bunch of kids stealing music. It’s an assault on everything that constitutes cultural expression of our society. If we fail to protect and preserve out intellectual property system, the culture will atrophy. And the corporations wont be the only ones hurt. Artists will have no incentive to create. Worst-case scenario: the country will end up in a sort of Cultural Dark Age.

The idea that “artists will have no incentive to create” without corporations’ monetary promise goes against everything we know about the creative mind. Through out human history, self-expression has existed under the extreme conditions, for little or no gain; if anything, self-expression has flourished under the most unrewarding conditions. Now we that the Internet provides a medium to share information, people will create.
A fundamental misunderstanding in the relationship between media industry and the artist has produced an environment that has led the industry to believe that they are the reason for creative output, not just a beneficiary. However, the Internet is bringing the power of production and distribution to the user. And if production and distribution — which are where historically media companies made their money — can be handled by users, then what will be left for the media companies? With the surge in content, will media companies need to become filters and editors? If not, then what is there?
The current media model depends on controlling the flow of information, and as information becomes harder to control their power will diminish. On the internet we see strong communities building around very specific niches. As these communities get stronger, they will become harder to compete with. I believe that these niches will develop into the next generation media companies. These will be the companies that the large media companies will need to compete with.
The challenges that the current media companies face remind me of what happened to AT&T in the 1990s. After being broken up into “baby-bells”, AT&T was left providing only long distance. It was just a matter of time before the “baby-bells” began eating away at AT&T’s business from below, and there was little AT&T could do about it.
I think Richard Parsons’ quote shows a misunderstanding not only in the reason why people share information, but also in the direction of new technologies. For that reason I do not have much hope for the current media companies to adjust. Their only hope is to change and change represents their demise.

blogging restructures consciousness?

The following story suggests that it does. Last month, Chris Bowers of the progressive political blog MyDD, underwent a small existential crisis brought on by a ham-fisted report on public television about political blogging that bungled a number of basic facts, including Bowers’ very existence on the MyDD masthead. The result was a rare moment of introspection in an otherwise hyper-extroverted medium:

…I admit that the past three years of blogging have altered me in some rather dramatic ways that do, in fact, begin to call very existence into question. I am not referring to the ways that blogging has caused a career change, granted me political and media access that I still find shocking, almost entirely ended my participation in old social circles and presented me with new ones, allowed me to work from home, or otherwise had an impact on the day to day activities of my life. Instead, I am actually referring to an important way in which blogging has altered my very consciousness. After two and a half years of virtually non-stop blogging, my perception of myself as a distinct individual has dramatically waned. My interior monologue has virtually disappeared. I no longer have aesthetic-based epiphanies, and I almost never concern myself with examining internal passions or emotions anymore. Blogging has not just changed the activities in which I engage–the activities in which I engage in order to be a successful blogger have profoundly altered the way my mind operates and the way I conceptualize my agency in relation to others. In effect, I do not exist in the same way I once existed.

First off, I’m reminded of something Sebastian Mary was saying last month about moving beyond the idea of “authorship” and the economic and political models that undergird it (the print publishing industry, academia etc.) toward genuinely new forms of writing for the electronic landscape. “My hunch,” she says, “is that things are going two ways: writers as orchestrators of mass creativity, or writers as wielders of a new rhetoric.” Little is understood about what the collapse of today’s publishing systems would actually mean or look like, and even less about the actual experience of the new writing — that is, the new states of mind and modes of vision that are only beginning to be cracked open through the exploration of new forms. Bowers, as a spokesman for the new rhetoric (or at least one fledgeling branch of it) shines a small light on this murky area.
OngReading.jpg This also brings me back to Bob’s recent excursion into Walter Ong territory, talking about the possibility of a shift, through new networked forms of creativity, back toward something resembling the collectivity of oral cultures. Bowers and his blog might suggest the beginnings of a case study. Is this muting of the interior monologue, this waning sense of self as a “distinct individual,” the product of a kind of communication that is at once written and oral — both individualistic and collective?
Ong called the invention of writing the “technologizing of the word,” a process that fundamentally restructures human consciousness. In this history of literacy, the spoken word is something that wells up directly from the human unconscious, whereas written language is expressed through artificial (i.e. human-made) frameworks, systems of “consciously contrived, articulable rules.” These rules (and their runes) create a scaffold for the brain, which, now able to engage with complex ideas in contemplative solitude as opposed to interlocution, begins to conceive of itself as an individual entity rather than as part of a collective. Literate cultures are thus cognitively different than oral ones.
Bowers’ confession suggests that this progression is being, if not reversed, then at least confused.
The kind of communication that he and his fellow rhetoriticians have been orchestrating in recent years in the blogosphere — not to mention parallel developments elsewhere with wikis, message boards, social media, games and other inchoate forms that feel as much like public spaces as documents — has a speed and plasticity that approaches oral communication. A blog post isn’t so much a finished opus as a lump of clay that readers and other bloggers collectively shape through comments and discussion. Are these new technologies of the word (and beyond the word) restructuring consciousness?
Bowers concludes:

We political bloggers have spilled a great deal of ink on analytical, meta-blogosphere commentaries, and on how we would like to se the political process be reformed. I think we can do an equally great service–both to politics and to blogging–by spilling a little more ink on ourselves.


During three different conversations during the holidays people told me “i’m reading more now, not less.” referring not to books, but rather time spent surfing the net and reading email. Given my interest in the “future of the book” i think people say this sort of thing to me somewhat guiltily, trying to cover for the unstated concern that all reading might not be equal. I’m not even close to wanting to make a value judgement in this regard, but the following quote from yesterday’s NY Times article suggests that for those of us living in the world of near infinite media choice, the social role of the (print) book has undergone a dramatic transformation.

PRINCETON, N.J., Dec. 29 — Logan Fox can’t quite pinpoint the moment when movies and television shows replaced books as the cultural topics people liked to talk about over dinner, at cocktail parties, at work. He does know that at Micawber Books, his 26-year-old independent bookstore here that is to close for good in March, his own employees prefer to come in every morning and gossip about “Survivor” or “that fashion reality show” whose title he can’t quite place.

BUT HAS IT? My guess is that this change started more than 75 years ago with the ascendancy of broadcast media, movies, radio and tv, rather than with the rise of the net. My further guess is that if he had listened carefully 26 years ago when he opened the store, Logan Fox would have overheard discussions about movies and tv-shows in perhaps the same proportions as today. If anything is different today, I think it’s the atomization of choice. When i talk with friends, most of whom swim in the vast media ocean, we often have trouble finding something that all of us have watched, listened to or read. This seems to be the more signficant shift with potentially profound implications for society going forward.