Category Archives: momus

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…

a book is not a text: the noise made by people

The frontispiece for _Tristram Shandy_
Momus – a.k.a. Nick Currie, electronic folk musician, Wired columnist, and inveterate blogger – has posted an interesting short video on his blog, Click Opera. He’s teaching a class on electronic music composition & narrative for Benneton’s Fabrica in Venice. His video encourages students to listen for the environmental sounds that they can make with electronic instruments: not the sounds that they’re designed to make, but the incidental noises that they make – the clicking of keys on a Powerbook, for example – that we usually ignore as being just that, incidental. We ignore the fact that these noises are made directly by people, without the machine’s intercession.

Momus’s remarks put me in mind of something said by Jerome McGann at the Transliteracies conference in Santa Barbara last June – maybe the most important thing that was said at the conference, even if it didn’t warrant much attention at the time. What we tend to forget when talking about reading, he said, was that books – even regular old print books – are full of metadata. (Everybody was talking about metadata in June, like they were talking about XML a couple of years ago – it was the buzzword that everyone knew they needed to have an opinion about. If not, they swung the word about feverishly in the hopes of hitting something.) McGann qualified his remarks by referring to Ezra Pound’s idea of melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia – specific qualities in language that make it evocative:

. . . you can still charge words with meaning mainly in three ways, called phanopoeia, melopoeia, logopoeia. You can use a word to throw a visual image on to the reader’s imagination, or you charge it by sound, or you use groups of words to do this.

(The ABC of Reading, p.37) In other words, words aren’t always just words: when used well, they refer beyond themselves. This process of referring, McGann was claiming, is a sort of metadata, even if technologists don’t think about it this way: the way in which words are used provides the attuned reader with information about their composition beyond the meaning of the words themselves.

But thinking about McGann’s comments in terms of book design might suggest wider implications for the future of the book. Let’s take a quick excursion to the past of the book. Once it was true that you couldn’t judge a book by its cover. Fifty years ago, master book designer Jan Tschichold opined about book jackets:

A jacket is not an actual part of the book. The essential portion is the inner book, the block of pages . . . [U]nless he is a collector of book jackets as samples of graphic art, the genuine reader discards it before he begins.

(“Jacket and Wrapper,” in The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design) Tschichold’s statement seems bizarre today: nobody throws away book jackets, especially not collectors. Why? Because today we take it for granted that we judge books by their covers. The cover has been subsumed into our idea of the book: it’s a signifying part of the book. By looking at a cover, you, the prospective book-buyer, can immediately tell if a recently-published piece of fiction is meant to be capital-L Literature, Nora Roberts-style fluff, or somewhere in between. Contextual details like the cover are increasingly important.

Where does the electronic book fit into this, if at all? Apologists for the electronic book are constantly about the need for an ideal device as the be-all and end-all: when we have e-Ink or e-Paper and a well-designed device which can be unrolled like a scroll, electronic books will suddenly take off. This isn’t true, and I think it has something to do with the way people read books, something that hasn’t been taken into account by soi-disant futurists, and something like what Jerome McGann was gesturing at. A book is not a text. It’s more than a text. It’s a text and a collection of information around that text, some of which we consciously recognize and some of which we don’t.

A few days ago, I excoriated Project Gutenberg’s version of Tristram Shandy. This is why: a library of texts is not the same thing as a library of books. A quick example: download, if you wish, the plain text or HTML version of Tristram Shandy, which you can get here. Look at the opening pages of the HTML version. Recognizing that this particular book needs to be more than plain old seven-bit ASCII, they’ve included scans of the engravings that appear in the book (some by William Hogarth, like this; a nice explication of this quality of the book can be found here). What’s interesting to me about these illustrations that Project Gutenberg is how poorly done these are. These are – let’s not beat around the bush – bad scans. The contrast is off; things that should be square look rectangular. The Greek on the title page is illegible.

Let’s go back to Momus listening to the unintentional noises made by humans using machines: what we have here is the debris of another noisy computer, the noise of a key that we weren’t supposed to notice. Something about the way these scans is dated in a very particular way – half of the internet looked like this in 1997, before everyone learned to use Photoshop properly. Which is when, in fact, this particular document was constructed. In this ugliness we have, unintentionally, humanity. John Ruskin (not a name often conjured with when talking about the future) declared that one of the hallmarks of the Gothic as an architectural style was a perceived “savageness”: it was not smoothed off like his Victorian contemporaries would have liked. But “savageness”, for him, was no reproach: instead, it was a trace of the labor that went into it, a trace of the work’s humanity. Perfection, for him, was inhumane: humanity

. . . was not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them . . 

(The Stones of Venice) What we have here is, I think, something similar. While Project Gutenberg is probably ashamed of the quality of these graphics, there’s something to be appreciated here. This is a text on its way to becoming a book; it unintentionally reveals its human origins, the labor of the anonymous worker who scanned in the illustrations. It’s a step in the right direction, but there’s a great distance still to go.