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Paper anniversary

Today is my one-year anniversary of writing for Snarkmarket.

I should say — my anniversary of writing as an author, because I was the unofficial commenter-in-chief long before that. Snarkmarket was the first blog I read; it inspired me to start my own, which (being even nerdier than Matt and Robin) I bestowed with the German pun Short Schrift; and I think it also helped me to realize that the problems I’d been thinking about in philosophy and literature and politics and elsewhere revolved around problems in media — and for me, specifically, media that had something to do with writing.

It’s been really cool, to use the parlance of our times. When I describe Snarkmarket to people who’ve never read it (especially if they’ve never read a blog), I say that the three of us – a journalist, an academic, and a media producer (does anyone know exactly what to call Robin?) write about how these three fields and everything they touch (which is everything) change — with all of us writing about everything, under the assumption that one important change is the redefinition of intellectual/professional boundaries.

Now, I like the indefinite tense on “change,” because Snarkmarket has always been tense-agnostic; we all write about the past, present, and future. If I skew towards the past, Robin towards the future, and Matt towards the present — I’m not completely sure that we do, but that’s what you might predict — it all somehow becomes quite coherent.

I think the root of that coherence may be that Matt, Robin, and I are all in love with writing, in all of its forms.

I deliberately give “writing” a very broad meaning, both materially and conceptually — which is nevertheless a very literal meaning. It’s not an accident that in my entry for “photography” in the New Liberal arts, I define it even more literally as “the writing/recording of light.” It bothers me when otherwise intelligent people implicitly limit writing to either handwriting or print, the writing that fills up books or fills out our signature. It’s not true. Writing — and reading — are everywhere, in almost every medium. It’s not even worth listing them all. We’re saturated in literacy.

The assumption that usually goes along with this reductive view of writing — setting aside ritual genuflections before the ghost of Gutenberg and his machine — is that reading and writing are essentially ahistorical, almost natural, assumed parts of the educated order, at least for moderns like us, while other technologies are unnatural interruptions of this order. Or, that once key technologies are discovered/invented – e.g., script, the alphabet, the codex, or print – their history stops, and they proceed along, virtually unchanged, until the present.

I once heard Marilyn Frye, a philosophy professor at Michigan State, describe this as the point-to-point view of history. In 1865, Lincoln abolished slavery; in 1920, the 19th Amendment guaranteed women the franchise — and after each event, nothing else happened, at least to women or black people in the United States. Ditto, Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type in 1439, after which, nothing else happened, writing no longer has a history.

For instance — and I don’t want to unfairly pick on something tossed off during an interview, but here we are — Brian Joseph Davis, interviewing Michael Turner for The Globe and Mail, flatly asserts that the book “is stalled out, in terms of technology, at 1500 AD, and sociologically at around 1930.” See Jason Kottke’s post, “Books have stalled,” where he quite rightly asks what these dates might mean.

On the technology side, Davis is just flatly wrong. I’d invite him to operate an incunabula letterpress — set the type, prepare the pages, swab the ink, and crank the mechanical lever page by page — and then visit a contemporary industrial press before he felt tempted to say something so silly again. (If he’s only talking about the codex form of the book, and not the means of production, then he actually needs to run back over a millennium — and even then, the size and shape and composition of books has steadily changed over those 500+ years too.)

We also don’t print on parchment anymore. Gutenberg did print a bunch of bibles in paper, but it was cloth paper — the fancy stuff we print our resumés on now — not the kind of paper we use today. Davis should read a few 19th-century histories and manuals of papermaking — they’re free on Google Books — just to realize what a technological triumph it was to create usable paper out of wood-pulp. You can’t just smash up some trees — it’s a chemical process that’s as complicated as creating and developing photographic film, a breakthrough that happened around the same time (the two are actually related.) Turning that into an industrial production that could make enough paper to print books and newspapers and everything else in the nineteenth century was another breakthrough.

This is what the industrial revolution did for us, folks. It wasn’t all child labor and car parts. It changed the way we made and consumed culture.

For the last 500 years, ours has been a culture of paper. But the East had paper for centuries before, and what we call paper completely changed a little more than a century ago. It’s convenient if you want to either attack or defend book culture to paint it as unchanged by the passage of time, but it just isn’t so.

Add in all of the cataloguing and distribution technology developed in the twentieth century, shifts in marketing, the rise of chain retail and online booksellers – the kind of stuff that Ted Striphas writes about in The Late Age of Print — and it’s clear that there wasn’t just one revolution (Gutenberg’s) that made the past and another (digital media) that’s making the present and future. We are dealing with a long, intersecting history of multiple media, each of which are heterogeneous, that is ongoing.

Anyways, that is the past, and the present. I hope you will stay with us for the future. So far, I’ve loved this show. I can’t wait to see what next.

Unintentional Simultaneous Coda (from Matthew Battles, writing about something quite different):

Of course there is intention and purpose in the system, Smail allows, but it’s personal, limited in space and time, not a case of grand, scheming ideological structure.

What’s in this for me? Well, it’s a handy and inspiring way to think about the rise of writing in general, and of specific letterforms, as memes facing selection pressures that change with dips and explosions in media, genres, and social and cultural forms. So there’s a retrospective use, helping to understand the existence of stuff like serifs and dotted i’s thrive while eths and thorns and a host of scribal abbreviations die out. And prospectively, it help enrich my sense of the future of reading and writing—mostly by reminding me that it will be decided by no business plan or venture capitalist, but by all of us getting in there, using and breaking the new tools, and making new things and experiences with them.

Absolutely. Now all we have to do is get there.


Wonderful, Tim. It’s been equally exciting watching you take our esoteric, humble little blog and sharpen and elevate it, for however many years you’ve been a part of it.

As an aside, I just want to say that I think “nerdiest Snarkmarket blogger” would be a hard-fought and inconclusive battle.

Tim Carmody says…

Oh, yeah, I thought that was obvious — “even nerdier than Matt or Robin” is clearly hyperbole of the first order.

Love this:

“Writing — and read­ing — are everywhere, in almost every medium. It’s not even worth listing them all. We’re saturated in literacy.”

Reminds of Dennis Baron’s “From Pencils to Pixels…” which had a formative influence on me years ago when I first read it. I have my freshman comp students read it every semester, and it seems to make them aware that they highly textual, despite the insistence of the generations that preceded them telling them they are not.

From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technology

“Elevate” is the right word (from Matt, up above). Bigger ideas, deeper context. Thanks, Tim.

Two things. First, this line sorta blew my mind: “Snark­mar­ket was the first blog I read.” Now you’ve got me thinking about the first blog I read… what was it? Jay Rosen’s PressThink? Instapundit? Talking Points Memo v0.1? Wow.

Second, I’m curious: How has writing here changed the way you write elsewhere (e.g. for academic purposes)—if at all? How have the different spheres, the different “publics,” interacted inside your head—again, if at all?

Tim Carmody says…

1) It might be fairer to say, “Snarkmarket was the first blog I followed.” That’s the sense of “read” I meant. I doubt it was the very first blog I had ever seen. But it could have been.

2) A lot of the effects of Snarkmarket writing were probably first felt on Short Schrift; I don’t know if I could really identify how my writing has changed just over the last year. (The last month, that’s different.)

But, including writing for Short Schrift, Snarkmarket has affected my style and content in a few ways. I think I wrote last year that Snarkmarket made me as interested in the future as I had been in the past. It definitely made me more interested in “media,” which I then proceeded to define somewhat more broadly thanks to folks like Ezra Pound, Friedrich Kittler, Harold Innis, and Marshall McLuhan.

But in terms of style and audience, it hasn’t invented too much out of whole cloth (I’m sure there’s a Robin Sloan or Matt Thompson pastiche that I’ve got in my repertoire that I didn’t before), but has encouraged me to be less afraid of some of my tendencies.

For instance, last year I gave a paper at MLA about being a dad. Blogging made me much less afraid to bring my personal life to an academic context. I wrote an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Ed last summer that I was able to turn into a futurist parable, EPIC 2014 style. I probably would have played that safer.

And my style in parts of my dissertation, where I break from academese — it’s not actually Snarkmarket, but Nietzsche and McLuhan and Derrida and Kittler and (he’s always there somewhere) Bill Watterson — I might have censored, or convinced myself to censor. Instead, I’ve opted for the striking formulation, putting my language 150% above full conviction.

Also, feedback has been and continues to be awesome. From seeing which posts catch on, which get tweeted and forwarded and linked to, which quotes people pull, I have a better sense of how to grab a generally interested audience by the shoulders and say, “take a look — this is awesome. You should know about it.” And I think that ethos of not assuming but showing importance (not through proof but descripton) I probably learned from you guys.

Congratulations Tim! It was very exciting when you got attached to the masthead, and it’s been very fun getting to know you regularly through Snarkmarket.

I love this meditation on the continuous technology of paper and the contrast with typical point-to-point histories. I’m all for necessary compression and shorthand when it comes to discussing history, but something is lost when the compression artefacts are treated as data in an argument or a development process. It reminds me of something I was thinking about at a recent talk Peter Norvig gave at Berkeley about the uses of AI in helping us progress knowledge. At 3:23 in the video I linked, he gave a very shorthand history of physics and specifically says, “This is the process of theory formation. Here’s a guy, we’ll call him Isaac . . .you can apply [his] model to make predictions and do the kind of things we did at my former job at NASA . .so it’s great that that approach works, of course it took a couple thousand years before we got sombody who was smart enough to come up with a model like that, so we’d like a process where we can iterate a little faster, we want a more agile theory development then having to wait all the way from Aristotle to Newton to get those kinds of advances.” At 53:35 I asked him about applications of AI research to extracting models from Google Scholar, but I deliberately phrased my question to point out that there were quite a few iterations between Aristotle and Newton, most famously Kepler and Galileo. It’s one thing to sweep the tiny curves and turns of science history under the rug when you want a big picture and some hooks to hang basic concepts on. David Politzer, a 2004 physics Nobel Laureate said during his speech, “We want to bring our students as quickly as possible to the frontier of current understanding. From this perspective, the actual history, which involves many variants and many missteps, is a only a hindrance. And the neat, linear progress, as outlined by the sequence of gleaming gems recognized by Nobel prizes, is a useful fiction. But a fiction it is. The truth is often far more complicated.”
The same could be said of any major technology’s history. I think better approximations of that complicated truth can’t be so blissfully ignored when you’re actually trying to reproduce the process in an AI–or make sweeping conclusions about how science should be done, or how technology marches.

Wonderful anniversary post, Tim. I hope Year Two’s is twice as good.

Your digression on writing and technologies brings to mind something I learned just last week, at my ripening age, on a visit to Florence. Maybe everybody else knows this, but I was stunned to learn (and then realize the obviousness of) this fact: Michelangelo’s unchallenged mastery of the art world was undone because he wouldn’t embrace new technology: oil paints and canvas.

To him, painting *was* murals and frescoes. He saw some of the early oil works on canvas and even blessed the technique mildly as being good enough to stir some emotion in women and children. According to the guide I was reading, though, his attitude was something like “real men paint walls.”

But oil-on-canvas meant something very important: painting went mobile. Works of art could be shipped around, shared, compared. The average art viewer probably saw her exposure to different works multiplied many times.

Oh, and about the same time Michelangelo was working on the Sistine Chapel, another Florentine did make the move to the new technology: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

I, for one, did not know this. Oil paint as insurgent new technology!—driving social changes around media the like of which we now associate with, say, the web. How cool.

Tim’s right: things have never not been changing.

Accord­ing to the guide I was read­ing, though, his atti­tude was some­thing like “real men paint walls.”

I knew about his devotion to fresco and marble, but I didn’t really think of it phrased thusly. I have this beautiful image of a Charlton Heston-esque Michelangelo grunting and shouting this while he punches through his apprentice’s canvas doodlings.

But why was there this innovation then? Was there some new method of weaving? Or was it that Leonardo mixed up the good paint?

I keep meaning to read The Agony and The Ecstacy, the book is supposed to be much more than the movie.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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