Category Archives: text

interface culture

Omnisio, a new Y Combinator startup, lets people grab clips from the Web and mash them up. Users can integrate video with slide presentations, and enable time-sensitive commenting in little popup bubbles layered on the video.
MediaCommons was founded partly to find a way of conducting media studies discussions at a pace more congruent with changes in the media landscape. It’s tempting to see this as part of that same narrative: crowdsourcing media commentary for the ADHD generation. For me, though, it evokes a question that Kate Pullinger raised during the research Chris and I conducted for the Arts Council. Namely: are we seeing an ineluctable decline of text on the Web? Are writers becoming multi-skilled media assemblers, masher-uppers, creators of Slideshares and videocasts and the rest? And if so, is this a bad thing?
I’ve been re-reading In The Beginning Was The Command Line, a 1999 meditation by Neal Stephenson on the paradigm shift from command line to GUI interactions in computer use. In a discussion on Disneyland, he draws a parallel between ‘Disneyfication’ and the shift from command line to GUI paradigm, and thence to an entire approach to culture:

Why are we rejecting explicit word-based interfaces, and embracing graphical or sensorial ones–a trend that accounts for the success of both Microsoft and Disney?
Part of it is simply that the world is very complicated now–much more complicated than the hunter-gatherer world that our brains evolved to cope with–and we simply can’t handle all of the details. We have to delegate. We have no choice but to trust some nameless artist at Disney or programmer at Apple or Microsoft to make a few choices for us, close off some options, and give us a conveniently packaged executive summary.
But more importantly, it comes out of the fact that, during this century, intellectualism failed, and everyone knows it. In places like Russia and Germany, the common people agreed to loosen their grip on traditional folkways, mores, and religion, and let the intellectuals run with the ball, and they screwed everything up and turned the century into an abbatoir. Those wordy intellectuals used to be merely tedious; now they seem kind of dangerous as well.
We Americans are the only ones who didn’t get creamed at some point during all of this. We are free and prosperous because we have inherited political and values systems fabricated by a particular set of eighteenth-century intellectuals who happened to get it right. But we have lost touch with those intellectuals, and with anything like intellectualism, even to the point of not reading books any more, though we are literate. We seem much more comfortable with propagating those values to future generations nonverbally, through a process of being steeped in media.

So this culture, steeped in media, emerges from intellectualism and arrives somewhere quite different. Stephenson goes on to discus the extent to which word processing programs complicate the assumed immutability of the written word, whether through system crashes, changing formats or other technical problems:

The ink stains the paper, the chisel cuts the stone, the stylus marks the clay, and something has irrevocably happened (my brother-in-law is a theologian who reads 3250-year-old cuneiform tablets–he can recognize the handwriting of particular scribes, and identify them by name). But word-processing software–particularly the sort that employs special, complex file formats–has the eldritch power to unwrite things. A small change in file formats, or a few twiddled bits, and months’ or years’ literary output can cease to exist.

For Stephenson, a skilled programmer as well as a writer, the solution is to dive into FLOSS tools, to become adept enough at the source code to escape reliance on GUIs. But what about those who do not? This is the deep anxiety that underpins the Flash-is-evil debate that pops up now and again in discussions of YouTube: when you can’t ‘View Source’ any more, how are you supposed to learn? Mashup applications like Microsoft’s Popfly give me the same nervous feeling of wielding tools that I don’t – and will never – understand.
And it’s central to the question confronting us, as the Web shifts steadily away from simple markup and largely textual interactions, toward multifaceted mashups and visual media that relegate the written word to a medium layered over the top – almost an afterthought. Stephenson is ambivalent about the pros and cons of ‘interface culture’: “perhaps the goal of all this is to make us feckless so we won’t nuke each other”, he says, but ten years on, deep in the War on Terror, it’s clear that hypermediation hasn’t erased the need for bombs so much as added webcams to their explosive noses so we can cheer along. And despite my own streak of techno-meritocracy (‘if they’ve voted it to the top then dammit, it’s the best’) I have to admit to wincing at the idea that intellectualism is so thoroughly a thing of the past.
This was meant to be a short post about how exciting it was to be able to blend video with commentary, and how promising this was for new kinds of literacy. But then I watched this anthology of Steve Ballmer videos, currently one of the most popular on the Omnisio site, and (once I stopped laughing) started thinking about the commentary over the top. What it’s for (mostly heckling), what it achieves, and how it relates to – say – the kind of skill that can produce an essay on the cultural ramifications of computer software paradigms. And it’s turned into a speculation about whether, as a writer, I’m on the verge of becoming obsolete, or at least in need of serious retraining. I don’t want this to lapse into the well-worn trope that conflates literacy with moral and civic value – but I’m unnerved by the notion of a fully post-literate world, and by the Flash applications and APIs that inhabit it.

he do the police in different voices

the cover of womans worldIn a sense, Graham Rawle‘s novel Woman’s World, just out in the United States from Counterpoint, is made for the internet. It’s the sort of thing that you expect to see on Digg or Reddit: artist spends several years cutting up old women’s magazines and laboriously constructs a 400-page novel out of the collaged shards of text. If the internet loves anything, it’s novelty, and Rawle’s work is certainly that. Every spread of the book is beautiful – here’s one chosen at random:

I show one spread, though I could as easily have shown 200 others. Rawle’s work is supremely visual, and invites the reader to appreciate in that way. In a sense, it puts off serious readings: it’s constructed from women’s magazines of the 1950s and 60s, which society accords little value to: magazines are ephemeral, fashion magazines inherently so. But such readings, inevitable as they may be, are unjust to Rawle’s book, which deserves to be read as a novel. While emphatically a work of print, the way Rawle uses text can shed light on the way we use text online.
What goes on in Woman’s World? Rawle’s raw materials suggest his subject matter: it’s a novel about clothes, specifically women’s clothes. It’s not a stretch to imagine that his working method suggested his plot: Rawle, a mail artist, uses women’s words to construct a book; his male protagonist garbs himself in women’s clothes. Clothes become language: Rawle stitches words and phrases together to make something new. (A parallel might be drawn to Georges Perec’s use of constraint in La Disparition/A Void, a work of art not because it does away with the letter e – that had been done before – but because Perec’s technique informs his narrative; the informed reader sees the novel’s themes of disappearance and loss as Perec’s method of indirectly writing about the disappearance of his parents in the Holocaust.)
It’s worth paying close attention to how the creator works. Rawle generally cuts on the phrase level, going down to the word level. Occasionally a suffix is added (-s, -ed). It’s only once in a great while that he edits inside the word. On p. 307 (below left), the eye is drawn to word “realising”, where the American spelling “realizing” has been changed to the British “realising” by pasting an s over a z. (From the spelling, Rawle seems to be mining British magazines, another reason for this word to stand out.) It’s hard not to take this as a sign pointing to to another narrative about transvestites where things end badly, Honoré de Balzac’s “Sarrasine”, a short story best known to English readers from its appearance as an appendix in Roland Barthes’s book-length reading of it, S/Z. In that book, Barthes dissected “Sarrasine” into 561 narrative units he called “lexias” in which he discovered five different codes underlying and structuring the text. Balzac’s story appears twice in S/Z: once interpolated with Barthes’s notations over 220 pages, and again in an appendix to the book, interpolated by the numerals numbering the lexias Barthes found in the story. Displayed on the page like this – an example is below right – “Sarrasine” feels like Frankenstein’s monster, constructed from numbered parts of language; a great-uncle, perhaps, of Rawle’s text. There’s at least a faint family resemblance:

p. 307 of womans worlda scan of p. 251 of s/z by roland barthes in the translation of richard miller
Just as Barthes finds structures by which to decipher what the reader experiences in “Sarrasine”, there can be found structures to decipher what the reader experiences when reading Woman’s World. At one level, there is the story – a sequence of words that could be put into a .TXT file and be exactly the same. At another level, there’s the presentation. This is something that’s hard to precisely pin down, but it’s best explained by pointing out the difference between reading a plain text version of Rawle’s story and the collaged version of the same. Try looking at Rawle’s p. 307 and my neutral typesetting of it (click on each for a better view):

p. 307 of womans worlda retypeset version of the same thing

Something is lost in my translation, though most don’t have the vocabulary to describe what that is. (Tom Phillips, no stranger to this sort of thing, gives the book a close reading in his Guardian review that suggests that such a thing is possible with a background in graphic design.) But try to read these two versions of the same page aloud and note the difference: the first full sentence in Rawle’s version has a front-loaded stress (“HE looked at her”) that isn’t apparent from the words alone. The same sentence feels choppy because it’s cut into individual words at first; it seems to speed up when it gets to “and just then found,” a whole phrase. An eye more attuned to the nuances of type is bound to notice more of these connotations; and certainly this seems conscious on Rawle’s part.
On a third level, there’s the apparent history of Rawle’s bits of text: its referentiality. Every letter of Rawle’s text clearly comes from somewhere else; sometimes he takes as many as several sentences. The original context isn’t always clear, though it can quite often be guessed. (Extended excerpts aren’t always needed to do this: sometimes a single decorative letter is enough to suggest that it originally served as an ad.) Rawle’s language is explicitly secondhand. In a sense, though, it’s no more secondhand than any other language. We use words and phrases because others have used those words and phrases before us (or, more pretentiously, we hope that others will use ours) and those words and phrases suggest our previous conversations, reading, and cultural contexts. Language carries its history with it.
(Perhaps I didn’t need to go to Barthes to point this out: one remembers the best moment in The Devil Wears Prada is a scene in which Meryl Streep, playing Anna Wintour, upbraids the movie’s idiotic anti-hero Anne Hathaway, for declaring that fashion is meaningless and that her constant demands are similarly petty and meaningless. Streep responds fluently in the language of fashion, spinning off a history of color, texture, and cut, proceeding from designer to designer, through connotations and denotations, until she reaches the nameless maker of Hathaway’s rather non-descript blue cardigan, which carries a world of associations even if worn by the unaware.)
Language is a complicated thing that we tend to take for granted. Looking at Rawle’s novel suggests how loaded simple text can be. It’s worth considering how comparatively limited reading on the Internet seems to be. Consider this text: I’m writing it in black 14 point Avenir Roman, though when it appears on the blog, my best guess is that you’ll see it in 13 point Verdana in a dark gray. That could be, of course, entirely wrong: the browser environment (and RSS readers) give viewers a great deal of freedom in defining how their text looks. But that’s a small point in comparison with the third code I find in Rawle, the referentiality of his pieces of text. For all the interlarding of scans in this post, it appears to be a seamless whole – you, the reader, have no reason for not thinking that I didn’t start at the first sentence and write furiously until I came to the last sentence, and I would be more than happy not to disabuse you of the notion. Had this piece been written as a Wikipedia article, you might have some notion of how this was created, though it’s still very difficult to visualize exactly where a Wikipedia article comes from: while the prose of a typical Wikipedia article is lumpy, it has nowhere near the eloquent texture of Rawle’s pages.
Could an electronic Woman’s World be made? Another parallel could be drawn, to Ted Nelson’s idea of transclusion, the concept of keeping quoted texts connected to their original sources. Transclusion was an early hypertext hope, though results so far have been generally disappointing; it’s not quite so easy as cutting and pasting, though Nelson’s appealingly low-tech diagrams might suggest this. There’s a way to go yet.

shifting forms of graffiti

A few weekends ago, I was returning into Manhattan from upstate New York. Coming down the FRD along the East River, we past Keith Haring’s “Crack is Wack” mural on 128th and 2nd. I remember the first time I saw it in the 80s on a family day trip into the city. The work is strikes me as quite extraordinary, even 20 years after its creation in 1986. By that time, Haring was established in the art world, having already shown at the Venice Biennale and the Whitney Biennial and had solo shows at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery and the Leo Castelli Gallery. Even though Haring was part of that contemporary/ high brow art world, he still maintained a connection to his roots of skirting the lines between public street art and illegal graffiti. “Crack is Wack” mixed of graffiti street culture, political and social messages, and high art. Although, the mural was quickly placed under the protection and jurisdiction of the City Department of Parks.
Haring took cues from graffiti, among other sources of influence, and created his own style and form. Revisiting “Crack is Wack” got me thinking about graffiti and how it has evolved of the past few decades. The funny thing about living in New York is that, after a while, you start seeing through the visual chaos of our surroundings. When you take a moment to stop and look, it is amazing what you can actually see. The things that you walk by everyday, especially stand out.
Graffiti, which had faded into the background visual noise of New York, was back on my radar screen. It was, of course, everywhere, but it had also changed since I really paid attention to it. Ben posted about a show on graffiti at the Brooklyn Museum, and that was just one aspect of how graffiti has expanded beyond the traditional notions of the form. At the institute, we spend a lot of time thinking about the evolution of media, and it seems that graffiti is no different.
graffiti_tats_cru.jpgOn a side street near Little Italy, there used to be an advertisement for the Sony PSP done by the graffiti artists Tat’s Cru. Now, the brick space has a place holder of an advertisement for these graffiti artists for hire. An interesting comment was left by a rival tagger, saying “sell out.” And then someone else left their tag over the unsolicited commentary. I love the on-going asynchronous dialogue occurring on this brick wall of this corner deli. It is not surprising that others would be upset at Tat’s Cru getting paid by advertisers for marketing. The website shows a piece that they did for BP. Working for the oil industry certainly will raise doubts to the authenticity and street credibility by purists of the form.graffiti_tats_cru2.jpg
Perhaps, the work of the Tats Cru has not branched off to the new genre of graffiti but circled back to another form. Take this painted billboard for the debut solo record by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke. The billboard appeared in Williamsburg in the weeks leading up to its release. Within moments, my initial thought that it was some hard core fan’s ode to British rock was replaced with the realization that this was paid for by a record label.graffiti_york.jpg
Referencing graffiti in advertising is nothing new. Turning actual graffiti into the advertising was the obvious next step. If graffiti is paid for and created for marketing purposes, at what point does it stop being graffiti? Has it turned into something else? Is it just a style of art using spray paint to create forms referencing hip-hop?
graffiti_blue.jpgSometime after seeing Haring work, I passed this stoop a few blocks north of Chinatown. There was another similar work by the same artist I saw in the Lower East Side, however, I couldn’t find it again.
But the work kept on reappearing. And then, I noticed another one a few blocks from the institute’s office in Brooklyn. I probably walked past it hundreds of times before stopping to notice it. You can see where someone tried to tear it off, because in fact, the figures are not drawn on the wall, but on paper. The image is then transferred to the wall. Is this cheating? Suddenly, form and material are being challenged.graffiti_red.jpg
I did stumble upon Ping Magazine, when a friend sent me another article from the site. I finally learned that these pieces were created by an artist who goes by Swoon. She gave an interview for the New York Times, and describes herself as street artist, but considers her work graffiti. More importantly, she does not talk about the legal nature or the materiality of her work, but focuses on its location in public spaces and its direction interaction with people.
Keith Haring ended up being a great starting point, because of his work is a hybrid many forms and influences, including graffiti but also things beyond it. His mural reminded me that graffiti has embodied a range of politics, material and cultures for decades. Forms of expression emerge, branch off and circle back. Subsequent generations focus on different areas, be it monetary or expressive. Today, art and advertising are often re-appropriations of each other, as forms blend into one another. Empty spaces are filled with media by both artists and advertisers. The arts organization the Wooster Collective shows how broadly the concept of street art can extended. Trying to restrict these forms to bounded definitions is marginally useful, and often futile.
In this investigation, I was surprised at what I found, and amused at how often I circled back to the question of what is graffiti? The question or process of re-seeing something itself is not that surprising, particularly in the context of our work at the institute. Although, we focus more time on textual media, many of the questions remain the same. As we witness the evolving forms of text and the book, we can learn from other forms that turn into something slightly familiar but also remarkably new.

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.

itp winter 2005 show

New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program recently had its Winter 2005 show. As always, the show was packed with numerous projects and visitors. Some of the work touched upon ideas we think about at the institute.


A few projects explored new ways to mediate New York. Leif Mangelsen and Jung Oh, in Time Scanned, created static panoramic images by stitching together slivers of digital video to document New York over time and space. Moving beyond the traditional guide book and map, the augmented reality project, DataCity looked at how we navigate New York. In this case, Shagun Singh, Jon Kirchherr and Saranont Limpananont proposed to layer contextual information on an interactive display system to enhance the experience of traveling through the city.
wasteland.jpg Saiyanthan Sriskandarajah created, The Wasteland, a digital representation of T.S. Eliot’s poem. Each letter is encoded into a binary format and then printed with a large format printer. The end result is an abstracted digital representation of a literary work.
Joshua Knowles, Adam Asarnow, Charles Pratt, and Rocio Barcia created which was a new twist to the facebook, and explored folksonomy, privacy, and social networks by asking fellow first year students to tag each other. The successful end result (students received an average of 29.4 tags) also addressed issues of internet mediated social interaction and making public the personal information of what classmates think of others.
Although, the twice a year itp shows can be a bit of an overwhelming experience, they offer a glimpse (albeit scaled down) of emerging applications of technology which are often just around the corner for mainstream use.

war on text?

Last week, there was a heated discussion on the 1600-member Yahoo Groups videoblogging list about the idea of a videobloggers launching a “war on text” — not necessarily calling for book burning, but at least promoting the use of threaded video conversations as a way of replacing text-based communication online. It began with a post to the list by Steve Watkins and led to responses such as this enthusiastic embrace of the end of using text to communicate ideas:
Audio and video are a more natural medium than text for most humans. The only reason why net content is mainly text is that it’s easier for programs to work with — audio and video are opaque as far as programs are concerned. On top of that, it’s a lot easier to treat text as hypertext, and hypertext has a viral quality.
As a text-based attack on the printed work, the “war on text” debate had a Phaedrus aura about it, especially since the vloggers seemed to be gravitating towards the idea of secondary orality originally proposed by Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy — a form of communication which is involved at least the representation of an oral exchange, but which also draws on a world defined by textual literacy. The vlogger’s debt to the written word was more explicitly acknowledged some posts, such as one by Steve Garfield that declared his work to be a “marriage of text and video.”
Over several days, the discussion veered to cover topics such as film editing, the over-mediation of existence, and the transition from analog to digital. The sophistication and passion of the discussion gave a sense of the way at least some in the video blogging community are thinking, both about the relationship between their work and text-based blogging and about the larger relationship between the written word and other forms of digitally mediated communication.
Perhaps the most radical suggestion in the entire exchange was the prediction that video itself would soon seem to be an outmoded form of communication:
in my opinion, before video will replace text, something will replace video…new technologies have already been developed that are more likely to play a large role in communications over this century… how about the one that can directly interface to the brain (new scientist reports on electroencephalography with quadriplegics able to make a wheelchair move forward, left or right)… considering the full implications of devices like this, it’s not hard to see where the real revolutions will occur in communications.
This comment implies that debates such as the “war on text” are missing the point — other forms of mediation are on the horizon that will radically change our understanding of what “communication” entails, and make the distinction between orality and literacy seem relatively miniscule. It’s an apocalyptic idea (like the idea that the internet will explode), but perhaps one worth talking about.

is nothing sacred?

A few weeks ago, Ben posted about The Bible Society of Australia‘s new “transl8tion” of the Bible into SMS–a shorthand system used primarily for sending text messages through mobile phones. Interesting to note that an organization like the Australian Bible Society, which believes the text of the Bible to be the very word of God, does not seem have a problem with the fact that the SMS version changes the voice of god from that of a wizened poet to that of a text-messaging teenager. Here’s an example:
4 god so luvd da world
I’m all for reading on cellphones and other portable devices, and I understand using a shorthand language for keying in messages, but why does the published book need to look like an electronic stenographer’s notepad? I realize that the form of the electronic “page” is changing the way we write, but I’ll be more than a little disappointed if this is the direction we are going–toward a cutesy-looking shorthand that compromises the integrity of the text for the sake of expediency. The aesthetic beauty of words is no small thing. Great writers understand this. They know how to choose words that weave visual and aural subtext into their work. Consider, for a moment, whether those subtleties translate into SMS. Imagine a text messagable Gettysburg address: 4 scor & 7 yr.z ago… Or a shrunk-to-fit Dickens: it wz d best of tImz, it wz d worst of tImz.
Are you with me when I say that they jst dun hav d powR of d orignL txt.

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.

thoughtful intertextuality

New Orleans DoubleQuotes by Charles Cameron plays with juxtaposition, cleverly pairing bits of text in ways that illuminate Katrina and all that flows from it:

Think of these paired quotes as twin thoughts dropped into the mind-pond — not so much for their own sakes as for the sake of the ripples and resonances between them. I invite you to read these DoubleQuotes one pair at a time, slowly, slowly, so that the multiples ironies and quiet nuances that have come together in the weaving of this tragedy have room to breathe.

(thanks, Bryan Alexander of Infocult)

treasuremytext: a networked SMS book

treasuremytext is a free British service that allows you to save text messages from your phone to the web on an anonymous, communal log, or “slog.” Recent messages appear in a column on the main site where they can be read by all and sundry, subscribed to by feed, and even loaded onto an iPod as plain text files. jill/txt has a transcript from about two weeks back:

trying to convince myself that there was nothing there but i still find myself thinking about you
night nimet . . . . i miss you
How about sorting that taxi out for next week? For real?
Ok smart arse when you are there then! And then i will fix your issues for you, all of them!
U have beautifull eyes
Dont ring ill b down bout halfpast babes
Me to hes just arrived txt u l8r baby
Nite nite xxx
Nite nite fat sexy bum.Txt u tomoz nite nite xxxx

Not exactly prize-winning stuff, but has a nice dreamy flow of chatter plucked out of the air. Reminds me a bit of a game I played in elementary school where you go around a circle and improvise a story in broken-off pieces. Reading the site today, the entries seem to have taken on a smuttier tone. And a good number aren’t in English. But an intriguing experiment nonetheless.
But it would be more interesting if the logs had some focus. Something like the City Chromosomes project, which is building a networked chronicle of the city of Antwerp, all by SMS.