Category Archives: Thought Experiments

the future of the institute

lately i’ve been thinking about how the institute for the future of the book should be experimental in form as well as content – an organization whose work, when appropriate, is carried out in real time in a relatively public forum. one of the key themes of our first year has been the way a network adds value to an enterprise, whether that be a thought experiment, an attempt to create a collective memory, a curated archive of best practices, or a blog that gathers and processes the world around it. i sense we are feeling our way to new methods of organizing work and distributing the results, and i want to figure out ways to make that aspect of our effort more transparent, more available to the world. this probably calls for a reevaluation of (or a re-acquaintance with) our idea of what an institute actually is, or should be.
the university-based institute arose in the age of print. scholars gathering together to make headway in a particular area of inquiry wrote papers, edited journals, held symposia and printed books of the proceedings. if books are what humans have used to move big ideas around, institutes arose to focus attention on particular big ideas and to distribute the result of that attention, mostly via print. now, as the medium shifts from printed page to networked screen, the organization and methods of “institutes” will change as well.
how they will change is what we hope to find out, and in some small way, influence. so over the next year or so we’ll be trying out a variety of different approaches to presenting our work, and new ways of facilitating debate and discussion. hopefully, we’ll draw some of you in along the way.
here’s a first try. we’ve decided (see thinking out loud) to initiate a weekly discussion at the institute where we read a book (or article or….) and then have a no-holds discussion about it — hoping to at least begin to understand some of the first order questions about what we are doing and how it fits into our perspectives on society. mostly we’re hoping to get to a place where we are regularly asking these questions in our work (whether designing software, studying the web, holding a symposium, or encouraging new publishing projects), measuring technological developments against a sense of what kind of society we’d like to live in and how a particular technology might help or hinder our getting there.
the first discussion is focused on neil postman’s “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century.” following is the audio we recorded broken into annotated chapters. we would be interested in getting people’s feedback on both form and content. (jump to the discussion)

podcast: discussing neil postman’s “building a bridge to the 18th century”

book_building_a_bridge.jpg (Annotated audio recordings of this discussion appear further down.)
On the dedication page of “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century,” Neil Postman quotes the poet Randall Jarrell:

Soon we shall know everything the 18th century didn’t know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us.

Though often failing to provide satisfying answers, Postman asks the kind of first-order questions one hears all too infrequently at a time when technology’s impact on our social, political and intellectual lives grows ever more profound. Postman has been accused of deep reactionism toward technology, and indeed, his hostility toward computers and telecommunications betrays an elitism that discredits some of his larger, and quite compelling observations.
In spite of this, Postman’s diagnosis is persuasive: that the idea of technological progress bequeathed by the Enlightenment has detached from reason and become a runaway train, that we are unquestioningly embracing new technologies that unleash massive change on our family and communal life, our democracy, and our capacity to think critically. We have stopped asking the single most important question that should be applied to all new technological innovations: does this technology solve a problem? If so, then at what cost? To whose benefit? And at whose expense?
Postman portrays the contemporary West as a culture without a narrative, littered with the shards of broken ideologies – depressed, unmotivated, and therefore uncritical of the new technologies that are foisted upon it by a rapacious capitalist system. The culprit, as he sees it, is postmodernism, which he lambasts (rather simplistically) as a corrosive intellectual trend, picking at the corpse of the Enlightenment, and instilling torpor and malaise at all levels of culture through its distrust of language and dogged refusal to accept one truth over another. This kind of thinking, Postman argues, is seductive, but it starves humans of their inspiration and sense of purpose.
To be saved, he goes on, and to build a better future, we would do well to look back to the philosophes of 18th century Europe, who, in the face of surging industrialization, defined a new idea of universal rational humanism – one that allowed for various interpretations within its fold, was rigorously suspicious of religious or any other kind of dogma, and yet gave the world a sense of moral uplift and progress. Postman does not suggest that we copy the 18th century, but rather give it careful study in order to draw inspiration for a new positive narrative, and for a reinvigoration of our critical outlook. This, Postman insists, offers us the best chance of surviving our future.
Postman’s note of alarm, if at times shrill, is nonetheless a refreshing antidote to the techno-optimism that pervades contemporary culture. And his recognition of our “crisis in narrative” – a formulation borrowed from Vaclav Havel – is dead on.
September 19: Bob, Dan, Kim, and Ben discuss Postman’s book at our new Brooklyn office (special prize if you pick out the sound of the ice cream truck passing by).
1. Bob’s preface – thoughts about how we do business at the institute (1:56) (download)

2. Ben’s first impressions – childhood under threat… Dan’s first impressions into discussion – a Clinton-era book, sets up a rather straw man caricature with the postmodernists, but society’s need for a narrative is compelling – why the Christian right has done so well… Postman seems to be assuming that progress is a law, that there is a directed narrative to history – problems with how he treats evolution. (6:43) (download)

3. Bob: Postman is much better at identifying problems than at coming up with solutions. Which is what makes him compelling. His stance is courageous. People assume with technology that just because something can be done it should be done. This is a tremendous problem – an affliction. If you could go back in time and be the inventor of the automobile, would you do it? People get angry at the responsibility this question imputes to them. How can we put these big questions at the center of our work? (13:34) (download)

4. Another big question… “An electronic community is only a simulation of a real community”? Flickr, Friendster, Howard Dean campaign? What is the vehicle for talking about this? What format is best for engaging these questions? Looking for new forms that illuminate or activate the questions. (15:43) (download)

5. Where/who are the public intellectuals today? [The ice cream truck passes by.] Strange bifurcation of the intellectual elite – many of the best-educated people most able to deal with abstraction make their living producing popular media that controls society. (10:07) (download)

6. Is capitalism the problem? Postman’s bias: written language will never be surpassed in its power to deal with abstract thought and cultivation of ideas. But we are arguably past the primacy of print. What is our attitude toward this? (9:39) (download)

7. What opportunities for reflection do different media afford? Films on DVD can be read and reread like a book – the viewer controls, rather than being controlled – a possibility for reflection not available in broadcast. What is the proper venue for discussing this? Capitalism is the 800 lb. gorilla in the room. How do we create, if not a mass agitation, then at least a mass discussion? Tie it to the larger pressing problems of the world and how they will be better addressed by certain forms of discourse and reflection. Averting ecological catastrophe as one possible narrative – an inspiring motivator that will get people moving. How do find our way back into history? (10:09) (download)

8. What should we read next as counterpoint/antidote to Postman? The Matrix – are we headed that way? (12:33) (download)

9. How do we organize new kinds of debates about technology and society? Other issues to be addressed – class, race and gender inequality. (11:26) (download)

ways of seeing, ways of writing – a conversation

The following discussion about a proposed exercise for a high school or college class began in an email exchange yesterday with Bob, Virginia Kuhn and Karl Stolley (Virginia and Karl are both teachers of rhetoric and composition and great intellectual partners of the institute). We thought it was getting interesting so we decided to slap it up here on the blog as a thought experiment. Please join in the discussion in the comment stream.
Bob Stein wrote:
karl and virginia:
this is an idea for an exercise for a high school or college class. i’m wondering if you think it would be interesting/valuable for both students and for those of us interested in understanding the relation of different media types.
*Ways of Seeing, Ways of Writing*
class is divided into four sections. one given pad and pencil. one given digital still camera. one given audio recorder. one given video camera*
the class is asked to “write” about a place (local historical site, downtown street corner, mall, supermarket, cemetary, etc. etc. )
or asked to “write” a response to a question, e.g. “was the response of the federal govt. to the rescue of New Orleans residents affected by the fact that the people needing rescue were mostly poor and black.”
each group “writes” their description of the place or answer to the question using the particular media assigned to their group.
the class reviews all responses, then each group is asked to make a synthesis piece using media captured by all groups.
*if resources aren’t a problem, it would be great if each of the groups with electronic capture devices has more than one.
Karl Stolley replies:
Hmmm…this assignment does offer interesting possibilities. But I guess I’d be interested in the rationale behind splitting the media-producing and -capturing activities between groups. On the one hand, from a teacherly point of view, it’s quite convenient. But viewed from the analogy of a cooking class, it would be like giving each group a set of ingredients plus a kitchen appliance, and then asking each group to take some of the results and make a dish out of it. I know that’s riddled with all kinds of logical holes, but I have to try and interrogate this somehow.
The thing that bothers me most about the assignment is that there is a serious disconnect between the artful choices required to both capture/produce AND compose/orchestrate, as though those activities can be discreet and separate (that disconnect is what tends to make a lot of multimedia assignments feel like the old Surrealist “exquisite corpse” drawing game; if that’s the rhetorical goal, then fine–but that’s limited to a particular kind of stance towards orchestration).
Instead, wouldn’t it be better to give students the question, and then consider which kind of media would be most effective to capture based on the rhetorical situation they’ve been confronted with, have the groups delegate that task amongst themselves? Beginning with the distribution of media before the question is putting the media/genre cart before the rhetorical horse, I think.
Bob replies:
thank you for your very thoughtful reply. before make specific comments, perhaps i should explain the origin of the idea.
ashton (girlfriend) and i try to spend as much time at her godmother’s place in sardinia as possible. one of the big draws is an island, actually a big hunk o’ dolomite – two miles long and 1500 feet high- that dominates the view from the shoreline. because tavolara’s rockface is mostly white and gray it changes color all day with the sun. (a few photos from recent vist here.) i literally can sit and watch it for hours. it’s been a dream to bring a group of artists to capture its beauty. this year i was thinking that it might be interesting to bring a writer (think someone like john mcphee), a painter, a photographer, a video artist or filmmaker, and an experimental interactive artist like mike naimark or josh portway and let them all have a go at it. my guess is that each would be inspired and the results while quite different would all get at some aspect of the beauty.
at the same time i was thinking about capturing tavolara in various media, i was thinking a lot about the increasingly nettlesome text vs. image (especially moving image) debate. i’m pretty sure the solution is not to give up words in favor of images, but rather begin to appreciate the value of all media and work toward new forms of _expression which call on different media types at different points or which merge them in useful new ways. i was also thinking about how the insitute might start to play a more active role.
thus the idea of coming up with a series of exercises that might be used in college and high school which helped students begin to understand the relative value and utility of different media types and also begin to experiment with how to use them together.
Specific comments:

Hmmm…this assignment does offer interesting possibilities. But I guess I’d be interested in the rationale behind splitting the media-producing and -capturing activities between groups. On the one hand, from a teacherly point of view, it’s quite convenient. But viewed from the analogy of a cooking class, it would be like giving each group a set of ingredients plus a kitchen appliance, and then asking each group to take some of the results and make a dish out of it. I know that’s riddled with all kinds of logical holes, but I have to try and interrogate this somehow.

i think a better kitchen analogy would be giving everyone the same ingredients (in the sense that tavolara or a question is the same ingredient) but ask one group to use a grill, one group to use a pan on a stove, one group to use only a cuisinart etc. but anyway, the pedagogical reason to get the students to use one media type is so that they can appreciate its properties on its own.

The thing that bothers me most about the assignment is that there is a serious disconnect between the artful choices required to both capture/produce AND compose/orchestrate, as though those activities can be discreet and separate (that disconnect is what tends to make a lot of multimedia assignments feel like the old Surrealist “exquisite corpse” drawing game; if that’s the rhetorical goal, then fine–but that’s limited to a particular kind of stance towards orchestration).

my instincts are that one of the problems with “multimedia” is that few of us really understand the components, that is we don’t really know what the different types can do on their own. i guess i don’t think we are so far advanced that we can conceive of a new media type which is multimedia. e.g. i don’t think people intuitively grasp how impt. sound is to a movie until it’s pointed out and they have an oppty to focus on it.

Instead, wouldn’t it be better to give students the question, and then consider which kind of media would be most effective to capture based on the rhetorical situation they’ve been confronted with, have the groups delegate that task amongst themselves? Beginning with the distribution of media before the question is putting the media/genre cart before the rhetorical horse, I think.

i’m not wedded to my schema, but it still seems like there would be some fantastic discussions in the classroom as students look at the different results and debate the advantages and disadvantages. it seems that experience would be helpful when they later start to create full multimedia projects.
and then of course there is the issue of interactivity which complicates everything exponentially.
The conversation continues in the comment stream.

Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?– me either for that matter.

book2.jpg Came across this on a web-site i’d never heard of while searching for audio samples of a sound artist i’d never heard of (Todd Dockstader) that was referenced in a copy of magazine called The Wire that i purchased for the first time.

Stacked in almost innumerable dusty piles around my room are the incoming CDs of many a publicist’s hardwork & toil. And for reasons that have more to do with esoteric alignments of the stars than any particular dislike, they often remain untouched & unheard for far, far too long. This very column is somewhat of an attempt to remedy this situation while also commenting on the sheer volume of music, especially electronic music, that continues to be released. It’s a deluge of expression via our machines, which has resulted in an inverse response of criticism, a lack of perspective, an inability to perfect the zoom-out on the overall picture of what is being produced by this wired and wireless culture. . .
tobias c. van veen in cut-up

reminded me for the 323rd time in the past several months that something profound is happening relative to the “sheer volume” of media being produced and new (online) distribution patterns. would love to start to understand the ramifications. here’s one i see in my own behavior — and you can’t imagine how painful it is to own up to this:
in 2001, 2 and 3 i made a scrapbook of things i collected on the web. i included in the scrapbook a record of all the books i read cover-to-cover. each year the number was at least 24. suddenly in 2004 the number went to ONE, and that was a graphic novel that i read in a few hours.
i’m still reading quite a bit but most of it is online and in much smaller chunks than books or even long articles. but also, with the advent of big notebook computers with dvd drives and large screens, some of my reading time has been supplanted by watching time as i’ve begun to absorb TV series (sopranos, 24, Six Feet Under) — viewing all the segments in as few sittings as possible, much like the experience of a page-turner novel.
i’m also browsing quite a bit more. when i was a teenager i went to the record store (yes, i’m that old) and would spend quite a long time choosing one or maybe two to buy. then i would bring those home and listen to them over and over and over. now i find i hardly ever have to come out of browsing mode. between, earplug, etc. etc. a scary amount of my conscious music listening can be subsumed by surfing for new sounds.
i’d like to find a way to get people to talk about their media consumption so that we can begin to understand what actually is happening, not just quantitatively, but qualitatively.
any suggestions?
(image by Gregory Vershbow)

Children and Books: Forming a World-View

When I think about the part books played (and still play) in forming my world-view, I have to think about them as tethered to a set of circumstances. It is impossible to say, for example, whether it was Gardner’s Art Through the Ages that awakened my passion for visual art, or my teacher Gretchen Whitman, who introduced the book to me and led me through it.
The book is part of a matrix that is difficult to parse. How is one’s world-view formed? Certainly books are a part of the process, but maybe they function more as “tools” then as “beings.” Insofar as they are extensions of the people or circumstances that drove us to them. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that very few of these lists are the same.
It’s interesting that nobody confesses that children’s books formed their world-view. I was profoundly influenced by the books I read when I was a child. The Little House on the Prairie series, and the Wizard of Oz still resonate with me. Dorothy and Laura Ingalls were pioneers–girl scouts, who were always prepared and never complained. They were independent, pragmatic survivors. I’m not saying this is the best collection of virtues one could strive for, but, nevertheless I recognize them in myself and think they were engendered, to some extent, by those books. Also, I must mention the fantastic strangeness of Dr. Seuss (who prepared me for surrealism), Maurice Sendack, Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Anderson.
Children’s books are there at the beginning, digging into our consciousness. The fact that children must, initially, be read to, illuminates something about how the book functions for humans. My son is 14 months old and he loves books. That is because his grandmother sat down with him when he was six months old and patiently read to him. She is a kindergarten teacher, so she is skilled at reading to children. She can do funny voices and such. My son doesn’t know how to read, he barely has a notion of what story is, but his grandmother taught him that when you open a book and turn its pages, something magical happens–characters, voices, colors–I think this has given him a vague sense of how meaning is constructed. My son understands books as objects printed with symbols that can be translated and brought to life by a skilled reader. He likes to sit and turn the pages of his books and study the images. He has a relationship with books, but he wouldn’t have that if someone hadn’t taught him. My point is, even after you learn to read, the book is still part of a complex system of relationships. It is almost a matter of chance, in some ways, which books are introduced to you and opened to you by someone.
I think people who are resistant to electronic books worry that this intimacy will be lost in a non-paper format. But clearly, it’s not the object itself, it’s the meaning brought to it by and through people. The medium won’t really change that.

An Exchange With Alan Kay

Hi Bob –
I’ve been asked questions like this several times in the past, and have never been able to come up with a satisfactory answer. I estimate that I’ve read between 15,000 and 20,000 books, with about 1/10th of these being really worthwhile, and perhaps another 1/10th or more really useful as “how not to think about it” that serve as a large field of comparative and contrasting ideas. I think a central answer to your question from me is that I would simply not have my world view if it weren’t for books, and not just a few books but the wealth of multiple perspectives that the printing press made possible and encouraged.
The most important events in my life were learning how to read fluently before school age, and having read many books by the time I got to the constricting dogmas of school learning. This allowed me to resist and to gradually build my own mind, again largely through reading. I believe this is also an important answer to much of the good that has happened in the last 400 years. It’s hard to pick 3 books that changed the world, but there is no doubt in my mind that the combination of new kinds of argumentation and many more points of view from thousands of books broke apart a lot of the rigidity of thought that has characterized most of human existence. Sorry, best I can do …
P.S. If you had to pick one for the 17th century, it would be Newton’s Principia Mathematica. I came upon this in my late 20s or early 30s and it would be my pick for the number one “amazing book” ever written. However, my course and POV were already set by the time I actually got around to buying and reading it.
Cheers, Alan
to which Bob replied:
So . . . do you think books are playing the same role today as they did 40-50 years ago when we were growing up? My instinct is no . . . but even if i’m right, i’m not sure if it is because times are different or because the media landscape has changed so dramatically.
to which Alan replied:
No [in answer to “do you think books are playing the same role today … ] and I think that much of the new technology in the 20th and 21st centuries has been used to automate old oral forms (telephone, radio, movies, TV, voice mail, etc.) and this has taken quite a bit of day to day reading and writing out of most peoples’ lives. We are wired for oral discourse and most are happy to stay there. The larger scheme of things was greatly aided by having writing be the only long distance replicable technology around for a long time — and given that only 1% in Europe in 1400 could read, it really took the printing press to spread the hard to learn and literally mind-changing technology around sufficiently.
Also, McLuhan and Postman were pretty much right: that TV, especially, is a media form that delivers a 24 hour wall to wall environment that seems total, but lacks many important message carrying (and carrier) properties that the “written symbolic” media has. So, it’s not that TV actually tells people how to think, but, as an environment, it is what people try to learn to be fluent in and adapt to, and this makes it difficult for most people to formulate non-TV kinds of thoughts (many of which have been critical to the development of the last 400 years). And TV is much easier to “learn”. In simple: if you don’t read and think for fun, you won’t be fluent enough to read and think for purpose. This is why, when asked, I advise parents to treat TV and other similar media (including computer) like a cabinet of loaded guns or liquor. Locking it up is good, but not having in the house is probably better. But, since they are avid TV watchers and non-readers themselves, this advice has no effect. I think things are getting worse in part because TV is progressively making many more bad ideas seem normal.
Cheers, Alan
…and again, later on…
Hi Bob –Your questions got me thinking about certain books over the years. I stand by my earlier claim that it was the totality of many many books that did the job on me. But, still, there were a few, especially some very early ones that got me thinking one way and not another. For example, the first adult book I read all the way through — maybe at age 4 – was my father’s copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. I originally read it because I had gotten interested in the ancient Greeks (he was quite interested). But the last part of the book contained Norse myths and these were in some cases similar to the Greek ones. This got me to realize that these were just stories and needed more than claims to back them up. This helped tremendously in resisting the Bible during later attempts to force this on me. Another early book was a long one, also my Dad’s, Breasted’s Ancient Times, maybe read at age 6 or 7. Again, I originally started reading it because I though ancient (and “lost”) civilizations were cool (and loved the different architectures, etc.). But, I started to realize that human beings are driven to similar forms under similar conditions, etc. This led me to Anthropology later on.
A Life Magazine on the Holocaust (published in 1945, but I saw in 1947 at age 7)completely horrified me, and made me afraid of adults to this day (and rightly so).This was likely one of the earliest insights and shocks that motivated my later long standing interests in helping children to think better than most adults do today. Willi Ley’s Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel around age 8 had a big effect. One memory from this book was the strange idea that you couldn’t just aim a rocket at the planet you wanted to go to, but had to create an orbit for the rocket that would cause it and the planet to meet many months in the future. I can’t quite explain why this had such a big effect on me. Science fiction, especially of Robert Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt, etc., had a huge effect, and got me to read many deeper books, like Korzybski’s Science and Sanity. To have a conversation with a professor who didn’t like grad students but did like McLuhan, I spent the better part of the summer of 67 really understanding Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media. This was one of the biggest most useful shocks I got from a book. Marvin Minsky’s Computation: Finite and Infinite Machines had a great effect on getting me to think more mathematically about computing (maybe 1968), and this led to McCarthy’s meta definition of LISP in the LISP 1.5 Manual (a book of sorts), which was the key to really inventing objects “right”. And so forth …
Cheers, Alan

Three Books That Influenced Your Worldview: The List

Yesterday I was thinking about the fact that books were the crucial element in the formation of my world view and wondered if that is the case with younger people. My guess yesterday morning was that people over 40 would easily come up with a list of books that influenced their way of looking at the world. Also – and this was probably the key idea I was testing – I assumed that when baby boomers came of age, specifc books (let’s say a dozen titles) were a crucial element in a shared cultural zeitgeist. By contrast, today I don’t see particular titles dominating the scene as they did 35 years ago.
Well . . . turns out I was pretty much wrong, at least as far as the 100+ people in my 40+ and 35- sample groups were concerned. Very few titles made it on to more than one list and I don’t see dramatic differences in the lists based on age.
One remarkable fact which you’ll notice when you look at the lists is the fantastic diversity in print culture. One can only dream that we will one day have such rich variety among works which are born digital.
This experiment of course hints at the bigger question: are books as important today in terms of forming world view as they were 35-40 years ago, and if not, what is taking their place? Most importantly: if not, what effect does the shift in dominant media have on the creation of world view?
If this gets anyone’s juices flowing, we’d love to have suggestions about how to explore these questions further.
Continue reading for the list…

Continue reading

Parsing the Behemoth: Thought Experiments

Bob talks about the book as metaphor. It is the thing that does the heavy lifting, a technology that allows us to convey our thoughts through a concrete vehicle. This site looks at how that vehicle is changing as a new electronic means of conveying written information begins to come of age.
When asked to imagine a metaphor for “the book,” we come up with something more organic, a lumbering behemoth with a hundred arms, waving anemone-like through the air to catch out particles of human discourse. The creature has some kind of hair or fur entangled with innumerable flotsam and jetsam. It is buzzing with attendant parasitical organisms, and encrusted with barnacles. To ask if the behemoth has a future is not the right question because the book, as we are picturing it in this analogy, is an immortal. The electronic incarnation of the book does not kill the old behemoth, but rather becomes part of it.
In his afterword to “the Future of the Book,” Umberto Eco noted that:
“In the history of culture it has never happened that something has killed something else, something has profoundly changed something else.” We are interested in the nature of this change as it relates to the book and its evolution.
To examine this heavy lifting device, to define and to understand this aggregate behemoth is the project of our “future of the book” blog. To begin, we have initiated a few thought experiments and put forth several questions that we hope will engender productive discourse. We welcome ideas and suggestions for future experiments.
Go to Thought Experiment #1: Three Books That Influenced Your Worldview