Category Archives: networked_book

two novels revisited

Near future science fiction is a reflexive art: the present embellished to the point of transformation that, in turn, influences how we envision, and eventually create our future. It is not accurate—far from it—but there is power in determining the vocabulary we use to discuss a future that seems possible, or even probable. I read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash in 2000 and thought it was a great read back then. I was twenty-five, the internet was tanking, but the online games were going strong and the Metaverse seemed so close. The Metaverse is an avatar inhabited digital world—the Internet on ‘roids—with extremely high levels of interactivity enabled by the combination of vast computing power, 3-D tracking gloves (think Minority Report), directional headphones, and wraparound goggles that project a fully immersive experience in front of your eyes. This is the technophilic dream: a place where physicality matters less than the ability to manipulate the code. If you control the code, you can make your avatar do just about anything.

Now, five years later, I’ve reread Snow Crash. It continues to be relevant. The depiction of a fractured, corporatized society and of the gulf between rich and poor are more true now than they were five years ago. But there is a special resonance with one idea in particular: the Metaverse. The Metaverse is what many people dream the Internet will eventually become. The Metaverse is, as much as anything, a place to hang out. It’s also a place to buy ‘space’ to build a house, a place for ads to be thrown at you while you are ‘goggled in,’ a place for people to trade information. In 2000, in reality, you would have a blog and chat with your friends on AIM. It didn’t have the same presence as an avatar in the Metaverse, where facial features can communicate as much information as the voice transmission. Even games, like Everquest, didn’t have the same culture as the Metaverse, because they were games, with goals and advancement based on game rules. But now we have Second Life. Second Life isn’t about that—it is a social place. No goals. See and be seen. Make your avatar look the way you want. Buy and build. Sell and produce your own digital culture. Share pictures. Share your life. This is closer to the Metaverse than ever, but I hope that doesn’t mean we’ll get corporate franchise burbclaves as well. Well, at least any more than there already are.

I also reread The Diamond Age. This is a story about society in the age of nanotech and the power of traditional values in an environment of post-materialism. When everything is possible through nanotech, humanity retreats to fortresses of bygone tradition to give life structure and meaning. In the post-nation-state society described in the book, humans live in “phyles,” groups of people with like thoughts and values bound together by will and rules of society. Phyles are separated from each other by geography, wealth, and status; phyle borders are vigorously protected by visible and invisible defenders. This separation of groups by ideology seems especially pertinent in light of the continuing divergence of political affiliation in the US. We live in a politically bifurcated society; it is not difficult to draw parallels between the Red state/Blue state distinction, and the phyles of New Atlantis, Hindustani, and the Celestial Kingdom.
The story focuses on a girl, Nell, and her book, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. The Primer is her guide through a difficult and dangerous life. Her Primer is scientifically advanced enough that it would, if we had it today, appear to be magic. The Primer is aware of its surroundings, and aware of the girl’s position in the surroundings. It is capable of determining relationships and decorating them with the trappings of ‘story’. The Primer narrates the story using the voice of a distant actor, who is on call, connected through the media system (again, the Internet but so much more). The Primer answers any questions Nell asks, expounds and expands on any part of the story she is curious about until she fully satisfies her curiosity. It is a perpetually self-improving, self-generating networked storybook, with one important key: it requires a real human’s input to narrate the words that appear on the page. Without a human voice behind it, it doesn’t have enough emotion to hold a person’s interest. Even in a world of lighter than air buildings and nanosite generated islands, tech can’t figure out how to make a non-human voice convey delicate emotion.
There are common threads in the two novels that are crystal clear. Stephenson illluminates the near future with an ambivalent light. Society is fragile and prone to collapse. The network is likely to be monopolized and overrun with advertising. The social fabric, instead of being interwoven with multiethnic thread, will simply be a geographic patchwork of walled enclaves competing with each other. Corporations (minus governments) will be the ultimate rulers of the world—not just the economic part of it, but the cultural part as well. This is a future I don’t want to live in. And here is where Stephenson is doing us a service: by writing the narrative that leads to this future, he is giving us signs so that we can work against its development. Ultimately, his novels are about the power of human will to work through and above technology to forge meaning and relationships. And that’s a lesson that will always be relevant.

interactive books are closer than we think

The other day, Ben’s recent post on the “Novel Twists” and the “exquisite corpse” got us talking for a minute or two, on some children books loosely based on the “exquisite corpse.” The conversation got me reminiscing about other forms of children’s books that pushed the conventions of the book while remaining within confines of the printed page. In retrospect, as we gain clarity on the present and near future of digital books, I appreciate how for years, authors felt a need to overcome the limitations of the print book. While these books are not digital they do add interactivity to the experience, by both exploring interfaces and giving over some control to the reader.
Here is a quick run down of a few examples. (The format takes a cue from Ben’s post on the networked book.)
Mix and Match
Based on the idea of the “exquisite corpse,” these spiral bound books allow readers to combine various pages to creating their own images. In this example, the reader invents new dinosaurs, complete with remixed names. The spiral binding encourages the idea of ever turning pages. Thus, this non-linear book is not designed to be read front to back, but rather it is designed to be played with.
Pop – Up Book
My earliest memory of a pop-up book was from “Star Wars,” this gem from the late 70s is still available on ebay. Mark Hiner, a self-described “Paper Engineer” has build a great website on pop-up books, showing samples, an historical overview of pop-up books, as well as, instructions on creating your own. Pop-Up Books break the conventions of the static two dimensional page. Although, they still read linearly, pop-up books break into three dimensions, and add interactivity by including tabs to pull which create movement in a pop-up figure.
Choose Your Adventure
These pre-cursors to hyper-linked fiction were a big fad when they were first published in the late 70s and early 80s. In these books, readers are presented with the opportunity to chose the direction of the narrative. After a situation is described over a few pages, the reader is offered paths in a forking narrative. Each choice had a different page number, and the reader went to the correct page and proceeded with his selected narrative. I spent many hours reading and re-reading books from this classic series. In what was most likely my first attempt to “game the system” I recall finding an “ending” I liked, and working backwards to figure out how to get there. Reading in this way also lead to my first experience at reading a book backwards.
I have many memories of reading these kinds of books. Print books of this nature, however, are inevitably regulated to the realm of children. As I grew older and my reading became more “sophisticated,” the books I read stopped including these innovative features. In the case of fiction, pictures and illustrations were also eventually eliminated. Although, I do understand the idea that at times, visuals can become a crutch, which allow authors to become lazy with their writing. I must further admit that I was pleased to see visual representations of handwriting and letters from a “hangman” game included in David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, a “serious” work of fiction. They were used sparingly and appropriately. Perhaps, the author felt these breaks in formalism were allowed as a special case because the book’s narrator is a thirteen year old boy.
I find it wonderfully ironic that we can look at these books for children for insight on the transition from printed page to screen, even-though these examples are still bounded by the technology of paper. By reflecting upon spiral binding, 3D pages, and hyper-linked pages, we are informed as we move further into the digital. What will the result be as mix and match books closer towards the original Surrealist game, where readers can include their own “parts?” How will pop-up books evolve with the integration of sound and video? Which hyper-linked fiction work, foreshadowed by Choose Your Adventure books, will become the first New York Times best seller?

google scholar

Google announced a new change to Google Scholar to improve the results of a search. The results can now be ordered by a confluence of citations, date of publication, and keyword relevance, instead of just the latter. From the Official Google Blog:

It’s not just a plain sort by date, but rather we try to rank recent papers the way researchers do, by looking at the prominence of the author’s and journal’s previous papers, how many citations it already has, when it was written, and so on. Look for the new link on the upper right for “Recent articles” — or switch to “All articles” for the full list.

Another feature, which I wasn’t aware of, is the “group of X”, located just at the end of the line. It points to papers that are very similar in topic. Researchers can use this feature to delve deeper into a topic, as opposed to skipping across the surface of a topic. This reflects the deep user-centered thinking that went into the design of the results, which is broken down in more detail here.
Though many professors lament the use of Google as students first and last research resource, the continual improvements of Google Scholar and the Google Book project (when combined with access rights afforded by a university library) provide an increasingly potent research environment. Google Scholar, by displaying the citation count, provides a significant piece of secondary data that improves decision making dramatically compared to unguided topic searches in the library. By selecting uncredited quotations and searching for them in Google Book project, students can get information on the primary text, read a little of the additional context, and decide whether or not to procure the book from the library. I feel like I’m overselling Google, but my real point has nothing to do with any specific corporation. The real point is: in the future, all the value is in the network.

an overview on the future of the book

The peer reviewed online journal, First Monday, has a interesting article entitled, “The Processed Book.” Joseph Esposito looks at how the book will change once it is placed in a network. He covers a lot of territory from the future role of the author to the perceived ownership of text and ideas to new economic models for publishing this kind of content.
One great thing about the piece is that he uses the essay itself to demonstrate his ideas of a text in a network. That is, he encourages people to augment the reading of the article with the Internet, in this case, by looking up historic and literary references in his writing. Further, the article is an updating of an earlier article he wrote for First Monday. The end result is that we can witness the evolution of text within the network while we read about it. More posting on some of the details of his ideas are coming.