The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Kanye West, media cyborg – MacDara Conroy § Kanye West, media cyborg / 2017-01-18 10:53:08
Inventing a game – MacDara Conroy § Inventing a game / 2017-01-18 10:52:33
Losing my religion | Mathew Lowry § Stock and flow / 2016-07-11 08:26:59
Facebook is wrong, text is deathless – Sitegreek !nfotech § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2016-06-20 16:42:52

A new class of content for a new class of device

Let’s do this.

I want to talk about the iPad, but I’m going to start by talking about vlogs.

You know: videoblogs!

Rewind to 2005. Maybe your 2005 was different from mine, but I was working at an internet-centric cable TV network, and the world seemed to be saying one thing really loud: The revolution is here. We’ve got cheap cameras and cheap distribution. The era of the indie “web show” has arrived. Let a thousand videoblogs bloom!

Then they didn’t. Not really. Today the gear is even cheaper—HD Flipcams for like twelve bucks, right?—but we’ve got basically three web shows: Rocketboom, Epic Fu, and The Guild. (That’s cruel shorthand; if you are currently producing and/or starring in some other web show, I’m sorry. My argument demands ruthlessness.)

What happened?

Well, the web happened. YouTube happened. It turns out we weren’t wrong about the tools; we were wrong about the forms. We didn’t get a crisp catalog of indie web shows; we got a sprawling database of disconnected video clips.

Today on the web, on YouTube, a show just sort of dissolves into that database. To avoid that fate, it needs to be buoyed by big media; it needs to surf on the scarcity of TV time. A show needs a marketing budget to insist on its coherence. (Also, Hulu.)

None of this is a bad thing! I love the web-as-database; I love the wacky YouTube ecosystem. It’s like we grew a rainforest overnight.

But the point is, the web kinda hates bounded, holistic work. The web likes bits and pieces, cross-references and recommendations, fragments and tabs. Oh, and the web loves the fact that you’re reading this post in Google Reader.

Hold that thought.

Back in the day, when I was first getting to know my iPhone, I was surprised at how truly un-web-like it was. On the iPhone, you do one thing at a time and that one thing takes up the whole screen. Like nothing on the web, the iPhone is full-bleed.

You know what my favorite iPhone apps are? No joke: it’s stuff like this. Nobody’s made the multimedia manga or living-text novel of my dreams, so I’ve settled for The Wheels on the Bus. But it turns out that some of the stuff they’re doing with these kids’ apps—the way they’re mashing media and interactions together—is really slick.

And now this new device takes the iPhone’s virtues and scales them up—plus, no text messages while you’re reading. So more than anything else, the iPad looks to me like a focus machine. And it looks, therefore, like such an opportunity for storytelling, and for innovation around storytelling. It looks like an opportunity to make the Myst of 2010. (I don’t mean that literally. I only mean: wow, remember Myst? Remember how it was an utterly new kind of thing?)

Apple is great at inventing new devices, but it bums me out that they seem so content to fill those devices with the same same old stuff: TV shows, movies, music, and books. Books… in ePub format?

Apple: you did not invent a magical and revolutionary device so we could read books in ePub format.

Think about what the iPad really is! It’s the greatest canvas for media ever invented. It’s colorful, tactile, powerful, and programmable. It can display literally anything you can imagine; it can add sound and music; and it can feel you touching it. It’s light and (we are led to believe) comfortable in the hands. The Platonic Form of the Perfect Canvas is out there somewhere—it’s probably flexible… and it probably has a camera—but the iPad is, like, a really amazingly good shadow of that form. And this is just the first one!

So, we’re gonna use the Perfect Canvas to… watch TV shows?

Seriously: ePub?

Now, connect the dots. For all its power and flexibility, the web is really bad at presenting bounded, holistic work in a focused, immersive way. This is why web shows never worked. The web is bad at containers. The web is bad at frames.

Jeez, if only we had a frame.


So, to finish up: I think the young Hayao Miyazakis and Mark Z. Danielewskis and Edward Goreys of this world ought to be learning Objective-C—or at least making some new friends. Because this new device gives us the power and flexibility to realize a whole new class of crazy vision—and it puts that vision in a frame.

In five years, the coolest stuff on the iPad shouldn’t be Spider-Man 5, Ke$ha’s third album, or the ePub version of Annabel Scheme. If that’s all we’ve got, it will mean that Apple succeeded at inventing a new class of device… but we failed at inventing a new class of content.

In five years, the coolest stuff on the iPad should be… jeez, you know, I think it should be art.


I love the way Stephen Fry talks about it, too:

“It is SO SIMPLE. It is basically a highly responsive capacitative piece of glass with solid state memory and an IPS display. Just as a book is basically paper bound together in a portable form factor. The simplicity is what allows everyone, us, software developers, content providers and accessory manufacturers to pour themselves into it, to remake it according to the limits of their imagination.”

Not too long ago I was talking to a coworker about an awesome class I took in college (~10 years ago) called Hypermedia Fiction. I was wondering aloud where all of that artistic energy, creativity and exploration went. Seems like there’s very little of that left on the web nowadays, or maybe it’s just drowned out by all the other content. Programming still feels like a very intimidating barrier that holds back many artists. We need to start teaching the basics to non-programmers and especially to young kids who (I think) have the most potential to innovate.

I’m curious about iPad, like anyone. But take a look beyond the gloss and glee: is this software platform open or proprietary? (It’s even more closed than MS). Will you be able to run Google Voice (or any other app you create or like) on it? Is this a platform for participatory culture and democracy, or for something else? Read what the Free Software Foundation has to say about iPad before we wax too poetical.

I do wish both the iPhone and the iPad were more open, of course! But I don’t think their relative closed-ness is a deal-breaker, at least not in the context I’m talking about, which is not “general computing” but rather the potential to make beautiful, innovative media.

Hey Robin, I think it’s time to dust off your speculations about iTunes LP or enhanced albums or whatever they’re called. This got zero mention at the talk but I think that maybe there is room in there for truly great storytelling innovation and it’s CSS and HTML, so less need for Objective C learning.

I agree completely and have been pushing people to look at it as one of the best ways forward.

Ha ha, you know, I didn’t even quite connect those dots myself. Great point.

As an iPhone (and now iPad) developer with a publishing background, I agree that the iPhone and iPad are a great canvas for creating a new form of content. I don’t think we’ve seen this new form of content produced yet, but, like any other technology, a few will likely lead breakthroughs that allow us to find the optimum way to use these incredible frames (hopefully without getting stuck in a local-minima as we explore options).

@Mindy – Programming is increasingly less of a barrier – artists and programmers can work collaboratively, wider-use technologies (HTML5, CSS3, etc…) are options for developing, and UI paradigms are shifting (“how do I best use this thing?”) generating new understanding.

@Smag – The iPad can use open, web powered applications like the iPhone. Google Voice just launched their optimized web interface and it works really well. This new form of content will probably become apparent with this frame (i.e, iPad), but won’t be contained by it (specially if web based).

I’m really excited with the potential this new frame presents to us – even if it does not become a commercial success as big as the iPhone – and will actively be exploring the possibilities.

I know it’s a tenet of Geekdom that open always beats closed. But I’d encourage you to think about the iPad β€” most Apple products, really β€” as a consumer appliance. There are millions of us who like and use and sometimes grow to love this stuff because “it just works.” And that’s because Steve Jobs insists on focusing on and refining the user experience.

Robin, I think you’re tilling a rich field in exploring the relationship between the web and “bounded, holistic work.” I’d argue that one main reason for that is that algorithmic search is the only real compass we have for navigating this rain forest. The problem is not the web’s capacity to accept and display such work, but about sorting through enough dross to find them. It’s filter failure. It’s why the future belongs to the curators (or needs to).

Jason Lanier has important things to say about the relationship of individual human beings and technology; think about his contentions when you read Robin’s observation: “the web likes bits and pieces, cross-references and recommendations, fragments and tabs. Oh, and the web loves the fact that you’re read ing this post in Google Reader.”

Doubtless. the iPad is going to work best and most for consuming media, not creating it β€” but I see no reason to suspect it won’t display whatever it is you want to create on your open system.

P.S. Kevin Kelly: it’s not all one book.


Jim Wells says…

“If You Build It, They Will Come.”
Didn’t Apple “revolutionize” the digital music age with iTunes, iPod etc? Who knows what will happen. Personally, I think it’s just a first generation of something big…I won’t buy the first or perhaps even the second generation of the iPad….

As soon as I saw the first tweet informing me of the iPad, my immediate reaction was exactly as you had described – interactive stories. But better. In the palm of your hand like a real book. Not on a laptop operated with a mouse, or on a desktop monitor or on a tiny iPhone or Touch screen. Sure the latter works fine but art needs a bigger space to be truly appreciated. Just ask Bill Watterson πŸ˜‰

I’m just debating if I should get the iPad now for development/testing purposes or wait for a 2nd gen version.

So my friend’s company has just come out of stealth mode:

I definitely think this is a step in the direction you are pushing for, if only a limited, incremental one. Interesting that they have chosen textbooks as an area where we need real improvement in digital content delivery; this seems like a smart choice to me as an entry point.

Ooh cool! Makes a lot of sense.

I was thinking about your panel discussion at Hacks and Hackers the whole time we were watching it being unveiled. I think you’re absolutely right: this device has the potential to be the most important container/canvas/frame to come along in a long time.

Really meaty post. So much that could be said or responded to but that’s not really necessary. I think, as you have said, content is the key thing. So many things haven’t been done. The tools are cheap enough, we just need some good examples to light the way and I think it could take off. Film, animation, code writing and other content creators are needed to make it work. This is a great opportunity for those who want to aggregate and create stories that will engage.

Great post. Loving what sites like and are doing. This is definitely the future – deeper emotional connections and more long form, interesting content.

Makes me laugh when people moan about what the iPad can’t do. Just like they said the iPod was just an mp3 player. Wait until you’ve picked one up and used one before judging. Then wait for a new era of storytelling and innovation. Here’s a taster of what we could see….

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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