September 6, 2009
The Xerox Moment
Joni Evans's memoir-ish essay nicely connects the late Mad Men-era (in her case, of publishing, not advertising) to the digital present by way of an archaeology of office technology. It's the intermediate transformations she registers that are more interesting, and maybe - arguably - more significant:
The Xerox machine meant that suddenly, not one manuscript was submitted to one publisher, but that 10 copies went to 10 publishers simultaneously. The first publisher to claim the book won, cutting a six-week process to six days or sometimes six hours.
Agents soon realized that they could auction books to publishers and not settle for the first bid. Knopf would bid against Putnam, Simon & Schuster would bid against Random House, and so on. The fax machine accelerated the process of signing contracts, and beamed manuscripts overseas for worldwide auctions.
Our lives changed. Agents descended on our formerly humble authors, empowering the new literary lions with Hollywood-like contracts and making us dizzy with new rules.
We were all drunk on the new attention. We hired public relations firms, sought Barbara Walters interviews and romanced the “Today” show. The heads of the B. Dalton/Waldenbooks/Borders/Barnes & Noble chains now sat next to John Updike at dinner tables at booksellers’ conventions.
It's nice, too, that the essay begins where her career does, in the early 1970s; an older observer would see the tech and cultural changes she inherited, the fleet of typewriters, rolodexes, and mimeographs, and the institution of "the manuscript girl," as the rupture, not the origin. The mood she establishes isn't so much nostalgia for a lost Eden as the excitement (coupled with dread) of an industry that was always living in the future.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture
August 30, 2009
Your Future Portaphone
He hasn't posted a ton lately, and really, going after mobile phones is low-hanging fruit, but I was still delighted with today's look at portable phones (from a 1976 book titled Future Facts). It includes this quote:
For a while at least, the portaphone will remain a business tool or luxury item. In time, however, portaphones will get smaller and cheaper, just as transistor radios have.
First: "portaphones!" When did we stop applying multisyllabic prefixes to words? Probably around the same time "port-a" became uniquely associated with outdoor toilets.
Second: today, we would almost certainly have to reverse that analogy: "Over time, transistor radios became smaller and cheaper, just as celullar phones have today." I consider this a sign of the analogy's intrinsic merit.
Last: it's easy to look at old predictions of the future with awe at what they get right and glee at what they get wrong. But this should be taken seriously as symptoms. They show how the past dreamed itself, and indeed, how it dreamed the present, in all of its possibilities and constraints, into being.
File under: Gleeful Miscellany, Object Culture, Technosnark
August 25, 2009
Fake Steve Jobs explains his non-thinking behind the new Apple tablet:
I started with the big questions. What is a tablet? Who will use it? And for what? If the tablet were a tree, what kind of tree would it be? And what of the word tablet itself? Ta is a Sanskrit root, for "gift." Blet is Proto-Indo-European meaning "to be perfect while lacking usefulness." Will you write on a tablet, or just read from it? Or will you just buy it and put it on your desk and look at it a lot and never use it at all? Or will you maybe carry it around and put on the table in restaurants to show the other humanoids in your tribe that you are more advanced and wealthy than they are, and they should fear you because you have powerful magic that they do not understand? You see what I mean? What is the anthropology here? And what about the ergonomics? Can you mount it on a wall? Will it have a shiny surface so that Macolytes can adore themselves as they use it in public? (Yes. It must.) The tablet must look and feel not like something that was made by man -- it must feel otherworldly, as if God himself made it and handed it to you.
August 20, 2009
How The iPod Changed The Way We Read
Since I slid this claim in at the end of a long post with a lot of literary theory, you might have missed it:
When the media landscape changes, we actually begin to SEE things differently, even (or ESPECIALLY) things that haven't changed at all.
This is the reason why the iPod didn't just change the way we listen to music - and later, look at pictures or movies or play video games. It changed the way we read.
And (because I couldn't help my ever-qualifying self):
(As did movies, television, video games, and many, many other things.)
(The big one I Ieft out in this list was mobile phones, but since the iPod and the smartphone wound up being convergent/complementary technologies, I think they're more arguably part of the same story.)
Let me try to spell out point by point how I think the iPod - or more precisely, the evolution of the iPod - changed reading.
- Design Matters. The iPod elevated the level of aesthetic pleasure people expected from handheld devices, as well as the premium they were willing to pay for well-made things. Looking back at the first-generation Kindle, it's actually astonishing how much of the early commentary focused on the perceived ugliness of the device. In particular, the first Kindle didn't just look ugly - it looked out of date. This was something we used to care about with home theater equipment and kitchen appliances - the iPod taught us to care about it on our handhelds, even when we were walking around with cheap plastic phones. If the e-reader breakthrough had happened in 1999 or 2002, even if the device had been similarly awkward-looking relative to the technology around it, I don't think this would have been as much of a problem as it became.
- Software Matters. I almost titled this "Design Goes All The Way Down." It's a truism now that Apple was able to swoop in on the digital music market because they wrote better software than the Sonys and Samsungs they were competing with on the high end. But it's true. You're not just creating a piece of hardware; you're creating an interface for an experience. And in particular, if you get the experience of buying, sorting, finding, and selecting media wrong, you've got real problems. You have to make the software intuitive, powerful, and fun. The goal is to reduce the friction between a user's intent and their goal - whether it's buying music, listening to it, or flipping through album art. If there's friction anywhere in the experience, it had better be deeply pleasurable friction. (That's right, I said it.)
The Kindle actually seems to understand this really, really well.
- This is more specific: People Like Full Color. Was anyone complaining about the monochrome taupe-and-dark-taupe display of the first iPod? No. Was I when I bought my first iPod, in 2004? Not at all. Did I cry inside when they launched the first color-display, video-capable iPod about a month afterwards? Not exactly. I cried on the outside, too. Color is resource-intensive, and hard to get right on a small screen. But god - it's beautiful. It's also one of the things that easily gets lost in the transition from print to digital; there's nothing like a book with full-color prints, and the only thing sadder than an image-heavy book that's all in black-and-white is a digital version of the same book that doesn't have images at all.
- Images Make Reading Easier. I mean, this is one of the big lessons of the graphical interface on the desktop, right? Column after column of text is hard to look at, and it's hard to distinguish one version from the next. Seriously - sorting through an early iPod, like my third-gen one, is one of the most intense reading experiences you're likely to have, and I think it (along with text messages) totally softened people up for reading strings of text on small screens. But texts with icons - even generic icons that just look like little pieces of paper next to the text that identifies with them - reinforces the idea that you're dealing with distinct objects. Add covers - like book or album covers, or preview images of pictures, and you've got a hieroglyphic hybrid mode of reading that is frankly more powerful and intuitive than text or images alone. Create a software interface where you can manipulate those objects, and you've got something that's genuinely game-changing.
- Media Devices Should Do More Than One Thing. It's great that I can take my music with me, but I'd really like to listen to radio programs, too. (Podcasts.) I carry around all of these pictures in my wallet - maybe you could...? (Done.) What about TV? I like TV. And my kids like to watch movies in the car. (We can do that.)
Was it obvious that there was a hidden affinity between pictures and music and movies? No. But once you've got a screen with a big hard drive, a great syncing tool, and a solid store that can deal with media companies... You follow the logic of what you can meaningfully offer and what your customers can use the device to do.
The only thing more appealing for multiple media than a tiny screen with a big hard drive is a great big screen with a big hard drive. I can't believe that future reading devices won't take advantage of it.
- Make It Easy For Me To Get My Own Stuff On The Screen. Can you imagine if Apple had ONLY let you put stuff on your iPod that you'd bought or ripped through iTunes? The iPod moment benefited tremendously from the Napster moment, which in turn was driven by the CD-ripping and cheap fast internet moment. You had all of this digital material sitting on people's hard drives and floating around networks, and we just needed someplace to put it. There's no stuff we want more than our own stuff. Apple smartly opened itself up to it. Well, likewise, now, we've decades of office documents sitting on people's hard drives and hypertext pages floating around networks, and nowhere but our computers to put it.
I'll say it again: There's No Stuff We Want More Than Our Own Stuff. If Amazon, or Google, or anybody, could find a way for me to get MY print library on a portable screen, I would both love and pay them dearly for the chance to do so.
- Devices Should Talk To Each Other. My DVD player is an idiot. It has nothing to say to anyone except maybe my TV and some speakers. Now, I just leave it in a drawer. My TV is a little better, because it listens really well, but not by much. From the beginning, the iPod could both talk and listen to your computer. Now, because of its wireless connect, the iPhone can talk to almost anything.
The Kindle's networking ability, still limited as it is, stands on the shoulders of those devices. (And your computer, too, does a much better job of talking to small, post-PC devices than it used to, from video game consoles to mobile phones.)
- This last point is from Gavin Craig, and it includes the iPod, and the Kindle, but also is more general: "It should be possible to make the device useful in ways that the designer may not have intended." I call this half-jokingly "Media Existentialism." (Existence precedes essence; we come to terms with our determined place in the universe, and only afterwards do we define who we are and what we're for.)
The point is that users, not designers, ultimately determine what an object is for; and any attempt to engineer-through that process in a closed-ended way restricts value rather than creating it.
This is a short list of the expectations we have for reading machines now that we largely didn't have a decade ago. None of them came from devices that were designed (except largely accidentally) to read anything.
But this list only barely begin to speak to the expectations we'll have for an electronic reader decades from now.
What might those expectations be? Where will they come from? How might they change everything else?
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Design, Object Culture, Technosnark
August 17, 2009
Snark By Snarkwest: Kindle 2020
The iPod wasn't the first digital music player, but that doesn't really matter; when it was introduced in 2001, it was the first digital music player that made ordinary tech-inclined (but not necessarily tech-savvy) consumers pay attention.
I graduated from college that year, so I remember that time very well. Let's review; Napster had been shut down. I didn't own a DVD player. In fact, I didn't even have my own computer. (I bought both that December.) I didn't have a cellular phone, but some of my friends did. (In fact, I didn't get one until 2005.) I had never used wireless internet, ever. I had bought an APS camera two years before, on study abroad. (Digital cameras cost about a kajillion dollars.) Instead of writing a blog, I kept email lists of everyone I knew and periodically quasi-spammed them with prose poems, Nietzsche quotes, outlines for essays on Bulworth ("The key to understanding Bulworth is that it's not very good"), and news about my life. Oh, and I used telnet for email.
The time hardly seemed propitious to launch a device that would effectively break wide open handheld digital media. But that's what happened.
It's worth remembering this, because we've now had eight years of the iPod, iTunes, and the Apple Store, during which we've had to clear all of these technical and commercial and psychological and social hurdles to get to the devices that most of us carry around (in one version or another) every day.
What does this year's model of the iPhone (already almost three years removed from the announcement of the first version) have in common with the first iPod? It fits in your pocket; and maybe - maybe - you still put stuff on it from your computer - to update the firmware, if nothing else.
That's eight years of the iPod. I'm glad I saw it, because 21-year-old me wouldn't have believed it. All the more so because none of what happened is in retrospect at all ridiculous.
Now let's imagine twelve years of the Kindle.
Now the Kindle in 2020 might not even be the Kindle anymore. Maybe Sony or Apple or Google or Microsoft or someone we don't even expect might shoulder Amazon aside and take center stage, or readers will be more like the smartphone market right now, with a handful of solid competitors egging each other on.
But the Kindle now, like the iPod eight years ago, is the first electronic reader that most of us tech-inclined but not tech-savvy users have paid much attention to. It's already gotten better, it's already spurred competition, and the chances are good that we're going to see some significant advances in these devices before the end of the year.
In twelve years, we know electronic readers will do more, store more, work faster, look cooler, and offer more things to look at then it does now.
But what don't we know about the Kindle 2020 yet?
Robin, Matt, and I - yes, all three of us - have proposed a presentation for South by Southwest Interactive where we -- and some other supremely smart people -- are going to try to figure out just that.
Here are some basic questions:
- What kind of devices will we use to read?
- What formats will be used to deliver documents?
- What kinds of documents will be "read" - text, image, video, audio, hybrids?
- How will documents be written and produced?
- How will documents be bought, sold, and otherwise supported?
- How will contributors be compensated?
- How will reading work in different industries?
And here, I think, are - for me, at least, some more interesting ones:
- What could turn an electronic reader into a totally NECESSARY device - like a mobile phone, or iPod?
- What features will the reader of 2020 have that nobody's even talking about yet?
- What are we going to use it to do that nobody uses anything to do now?
- What's going to be your favorite thing to read on it?
- Forget your favorite thing - what are you going to use it to do over and over again, whether you like it or not?
- How are you going to write with it?
- Who's going to have one? How are they going to pay for it?
- How do we share what we read?
- What will we still want but not get?
- Here's the big one: how might it change the entire FIELD of media consumption, handheld devices, computing, reading, etc... Will everything restructure itself around the reader? Or will it be a fun, handy curiosity, plotting its own logic while everything else goes along unchanged?
Beginning today, you can vote to help get this panel accepted to South By Southwest. I am way excited. First, I am a nerd for all things related to the written word. Second, Robin and Matt are the most talented futuronomists I know.
Finally, in addition to being awesome, Austin is (oddly enough) geographically centered for the three of us. If you look at our locations (Philadelphia, Minneapolis, San Francisco), Austin is the country's fourth column, which (I think) bestows it with Penumbra-like magical powers.
Between books, papers, and screens, I think we might just have this covered. But see, this is where we start to worry about our own blind spots or idiosyncratic enthusiasms, not because we want to lose them, but because we need to put them in context.
So we don't just need your vote. We need to know what you know. And we're willing to use the patented Snarkmarket figure-four leg-lock -- by which I mean, your comments in the thread below -- to get the conversation started.
They say that hindsight is 20/20, but that's not really true; some people remember the past better than others. The future, however, really is 20/20 (especially in 2020). Right now, we all know just as much about the future of reading as everyone else.
The only difference is that we -- you and I -- are focused.
What do you see?
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Collaborations, Object Culture, Technosnark
August 16, 2009
Classifying Very Small Objects
August 9, 2009
Now that my dissertation is good and filed, I want to share a few fragments of what I've been working on, on-and-off, for the past few years.
Here's a few selected grafs from the first chapter:
The history of Modernism is part of the history of paper. That is, the transformation of literary and visual culture announced by Modernism and the avant-garde is inseparable from the transformation of the largely paper-based communication and information technologies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries...
From the daguerrotype to the cinema, the history of photography simultaneously parallels and intersects the development of paper and print. A single image, handmade by an artisan, is succeeded by a continuously-fed reel of industrially-made material. In fact, the chemical treatment of wood pulp cellulose with sulfurous acid to produce paper is only slightly different from the chemical treatment of wood fibers with nitric acid to produce celluloid film. Nitrocellulose (also called guncotton) in ether or acetone yields collodion, the albumen alternative that allowed for glass-plate photography; the evaporation of collodion in turn led to the discovery of celluloid film. Celluloid emerges as a paper alternative with Eastman Kodak, the company credited with the introduction of flexible film and the supplier of continuous film rolls for Edison's early motion pictures. Kodak had originally used ordinary paper treated with collodion in their famous “roll” cameras; amateur photographers could take multiple photographs then send their camera, including the paper film, to the company for development. Kodak’s invention democratized photography by eliminating the chemistry required to prepare a plate and develop a print, but when the plain paper stock produced poor quality negatives, Kodak quickly switched to celluloid, a paper-like (and paper-based) polymer. The earliest popular forms of photography, too, were paper products: the newspaper, which was quick to adapt photography for both journalistic use and graphic interest, and the codex photograph album of course, but also the carte de visite and cabinet card, both of which displayed portraits on thin paper prints glued to inexpensive card stock. The paper document had not been eliminated by the photographic image; the two had transformed together...
“It takes very little to start a little magazine,” Reed Whittemore writes. “As a minimum a secondhand typewriter, some paper, and access to a mimeograph machine will do.” And indeed, the mimeograph, invented in 1876 by Thomas Edison, helped to make several upstart avant-garde magazines possible. Its use is most notable during the postwar period, but what Stephen Clay and Rodney Phillips call “the mimeo revolution” of little magazines between 1960 and 1980 can easily be placed much earlier, in the 1920s, if not before. William Carlos Williams’s account of starting Contact in 1920 with Robert McAlmon gives an especially direct example:
Our poems constantly, continuously and stupidly were rejected by all the pay magazines except Poetry and The Dial. The Little Review didn’t pay. We had no recourse but to establish publications of our own. For after all, the outlets being so meager, we had otherwise far too long a time to wait between drinks. It was the springtime of the little magazines and there was plenty for them to do…
Pa Herman [Williams’s father-in-law, a paper manufacturer] cut up some paper for us and sent us a ton of it—I’m still using it and shall be for the rest of my life I imagine, I’m writing on it now… There were the first two issues, mimeographed and clipped together, then one printed on the same paper, with a printed cover; then a final issue printed and bound on white paper. That was the last. Nobody bought—and there was much else in the wind.
Williams and McAlmon could afford an issue printed on good paper while retaining editorial control because McAlmon had married Bryher, a wealthy heiress and writer also known as Annie Winifred Ellerman, H.D.’s companion who would later co-found the film journal Close Up. McAlmon’s Contact Editions was an early example of an independent American modernist press, and would eventually publish Spring and All in 1923. But it began with Williams’s paper, McAlmon’s earnings from nude modeling, and a mimeograph machine. I contend that Contact may be the first mimeographed literary magazine, predating Yvor Winters’s Gyroscope (Clay and Phillips’s candidate) by nine years...
In “The Rhetoric of Efficiency in Early Modernism,” Susan Raitt has shown how various modernist formal strategies, from Imagist poetry to stream-of-consciousness fiction, position themselves on the side of verbal, psychological, and social efficiency, in many cases following the model of contemporary theories of scientific management. I think this theory is essentially correct, but I would specify that the principal problem of scientific management during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is the efficient conservation of paper, whether in its scarcity and or its plenitude. During World War I, for example, paper shortages and increased government regulation of the printing trade made publishers and typesetters (who were equally responsible under British law) skittish of printing anything likely to run afoul of the censor or public indifference. D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow was seized and burned in 1915, the same year that the British government took steps to restrict and regulate the paper trade, control that intensified as shortages increased throughout the war. In 1916, Ezra Pound promised James Joyce that if printers refused to print A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with objectionable phrases intact, “I shall tell Miss Weaver to print it with blank spaces and then have the typewriting done on good paper and pasted in. If I have to do it myself.” When Portrait reached its second edition in 1918, Pound began his article in The Future by exclaiming:
Despite the War, despite the paper shortage, and despite those old-established publishers whose god is their belly and whose godfather was the late F.T. Palgrave, there is a new edition of James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” It is extremely gratifying that this book should have “reached its fourth thousand,” and the fact is significant in just so far as it marks the beginning of a new phase of English publishing… The actual output is small in bulk, a few brochures of translations, Eliot’s “Prufrock,” Joyce’s “A Portrait,” and Wyndham Lewis’ “Tarr” (announced), but I have it on good authority that at least one other periodical will start publishing its authors after the War, so there are new rods in pickle for the old fat-stomached contingent and for the cardboard generation.
It’s no accident, then, that once the shortage had ended, modernist writing found both more outlets for publication and room for longer and more adventurous works. However, it still had to frame itself in the terms of an aesthetic of scarcity formed during the war. As Pound notes in his “Paris Letter” for The Dial published May 1922, Ulysses’s “732 double sized pages” have “greater efficiency,” “greater compactness,” and “more form than any novel of Flaubert’s.”
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture, Self-Disclosure
July 24, 2009
Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy
There's a great scene in Star Trek IV - yes, the one where the crew travels back in time to save whales - where Scotty, the engineer, tries to control a Macintosh by talking to it. When McCoy hands him the mouse, he speaks into it, in a sweetly coaxing voice: "Hello, computer!" When he's told to use the keyboard ("How quaint!"), he irritably cracks his knuckles -- and hunts-and-pecks at Warp 1 to pull up the specs for "transparent aluminum."
As recently as 2000, it seemed inevitable that any minute now, we were going to be able to turn in our quaint keyboards and start controlling computers with our voice. Our computers were going to become just like our telephones, or even better, like our secretaries. But while voice and speech recognition and commands have gotten a lot better, generally the trend has been in the other direction - instead of talking to our computers, we're typing on our phones.
(Which is arguably the hidden message of Scotty and the Mac - even somebody with the most powerful voice-controlled computer in the galaxy can touch-type like a champ. He probably only talks to the computer so his hands are free to text his friends while he's engineering! "brb - needed on away team" -- "anyone know how to recrystallize dilithium" -- That's why he's so inventive! He's crowdsourcing!)
The return to speech, in all of its immediacy, after centuries of the technological dominance of writing, seemed inevitable. The phonograph, film, radio, and television all seemed to point towards a future dominated by communications technology where writing and reading played an increasingly diminished role. I think the most important development, though, was probably the telephone. Ordinary speech, conversation, in real-time, where space itself appeared to vanish. It created a paradigm not just for media theorists and imaginative futurists but for ordinary people to imagine tomorrow.
This was Marshall McLuhan's "global village" - a media and politics where the limitations of speech across place and time were virtually eliminated. Walter Ong called it "secondary orality" - we were seeing a return to a culture dominated by oral communication that wasn't QUITE like the primary orality of nonliterate cultures - it was mediated by writing, by print, and by the technologies and media of the new orality themselves.
“When I first used the term ‘secondary orality,’ I was thinking of the kind of orality you get on radio and television, where oral performance produces effects somewhat like those of ‘primary orality,’ the orality using the unprocessed human voice, particularly in addressing groups, but where the creation of orality is of a new sort. Orality here is produced by technology. Radio and television are ‘secondary’ in the sense that they are technologically powered, demanding the use of writing and other technologies in designing and manufacturing the machines which reproduce voice. They are thus unlike primary orality, which uses no tools or technology at all. Radio and television provide technologized orality. This is what I originally referred to by the term ‘secondary orality.’
I have also heard the term ‘secondary orality’ lately applied by some to other sorts of electronic verbalization which are really not oral at all—to the Internet and similar computerized creations for text. There is a reason for this usage of the term. In nontechnologized oral interchange, as we have noted earlier, there is no perceptible interval between the utterance of the speaker and the hearer’s reception of what is uttered. Oral communication is all immediate, in the present. Writing, chirographic or typed, on the other hand, comes out of the past. Even if you write a memo to yourself, when you refer to it, it’s a memo which you wrote a few minutes ago, or maybe two weeks ago. But on a computer network, the recipient can receive what is communicated with no such interval. Although it is not exactly the same as oral communication, the network message from one person to another or others is very rapid and can in effect be in the present. Computerized communication can thus suggest the immediate experience of direct sound. I believe that is why computerized verbalization has been assimilated to secondary ‘orality,’ even when it comes not in oral-aural format but through the eye, and thus is not directly oral at all. Here textualized verbal exchange registers psychologically as having the temporal immediacy of oral exchange. To handle [page break] such technologizing of the textualized word, I have tried occasionally to introduce the term ‘secondary literacy.’ We are not considering here the production of sounded words on the computer, which of course are even more readily assimilated to ‘secondary orality’” (80-81).
This is where most of the futurists got it wrong - the impact of radio, television, and the telephone weren't going to be solely or even primarily on more and more speech, but, for technical or cultural or who-knows-exactly-what reasons, on writing! We didn't give up writing - we put it in our pockets, took it outside, blended it with sound, pictures, and video, and sent it over radio waves so we could "talk" to our friends in real-time. And we used those same radio waves to download books and newspapers and everything else to our screens so we would have something to talk about.
This is the thing about literacy today, that needs above all not to be misunderstood. Both the people who say that reading/writing have declined and that reading/writing are stronger than ever are right, and wrong. It's not a return to the word, unchanged. It's a literacy transformed by the existence of the electronic media that it initially has nothing in common with. It's also transformed by all the textual forms - mail, the newspaper, the book, the bulletin board, etc. It's not purely one thing or another.
This reminds me of one of my favorite Jacques Derrida quotes, from his essay "The Book to Come":
What we are dealing with are never replacements that put an end to what they replace but rather, if I might use this word today, restructurations in which the oldest form survives, and even survives endlessly, coexisting with the new form and even coming to terms with the new economy --- which is also a calculation in terms of the market as well as in terms of storage, capital, and reserves.
I doubt that "secondary literacy" will catch on, because it sounds like something that middle school English teachers do. But that's too bad - because it's actually a pretty good term to describe the world we live in.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Media Galaxy, Object Culture, Technosnark
July 16, 2009
A Genealogy of Tape
After I followed Robin's link to the photos of the Apollo 11 astronauts, I wondered, "why don't we have ticker tape parades any more?" Of course, it's because lower Manhattan isn't swimming in ticker tape. We've got the words (a change in a stock price is still called an uptick or downtick) but the telegraph-and-paper-strip-printing machines are long gone.
On Metafilter, someone asked: "How long will it take to remove the word 'videotape' from the collective vocabulary?"
I caught myself yesterday asking somebody if his performance was videotaped. Of course, there is no tape involved in this process any more. Why was that the first phrase that sprang to mind even though "recorded" or "digitally recorded" are the technically accurate terms? How long does it take for language to catch up with technological obsolescence?
The short answer is that it doesn't. Virtually nothing in language goes away, so long as it's rooted sufficiently deep - it just restructures itself. Tape is a great example of this. The ticker tape era closed; the magnetic tape era opened. Tape itself went nowhere. Even the meaning of the noun - a thin, flat strip of material - didn't change. The verb did; "tape" no longer meant "to shower with paper" - that would be "TP" - it means (or meant) to record or to stick. It doesn't matter what the tape is made from, either. Tape used to just mean "ribbon," especially a cloth ribbon used to tie clothing or parcels - but that sense is now mostly displaced by tape made of paper, cellophane, and metal.
The great thing about tape is that it shuns whatever qualifiers you want to put on it, and it's still perfectly clear what it means. Tape is equally adhesive tape, audio tape, video tape, paper tape, surgical tape, the tape at the end of a race. And it always means both the physical strip of tape itself, its container, and its contents, as well as the act of putting the tape into use.
Are there other words that carry the same grammatical structures regardless of their contents? It's almost like speakers intuitively assume, "well, if 'tape' is going to mean a ribbon AND to tie that ribbon, then it HAS to mean the sticky tape AND the act of sticking it, the magnetic tape AND the act of recording to it," etc. We're effortlessly swapping contexts all the time.
Claude Lévi-Strauss called this qualiy of language bricolage - instead of starting from scratch, we fiddle with language, we tinker with it, we make do with the parts we have on hand, like using a key to open a package or a knife to unscrew a screw. Or a piece of duct tape to fix a car. A word like tape can stretch and stick to whatever we need it to.
The great tapes that never became tapes are film reels. Celluloid and acetate film is tape, folks. But celluloid is a product that was derived from an evaporation of the collodion film that was used on glass plates in wet-plate photography. So they called it film, instead.
What's the future of tape? Will the future find need for long, thin ribbons of material? Will 3M find a way to do away with the strips bearing the adhesive altogether? Are wipes the new tape? I'm not sure. But I've got a Beckett play and an 8-Track of Five Leaves Left. I'll catch you guys in the basement.
July 13, 2009
Meet The New Fetish, Pt. 2
If you want people to know what awesomely supercool books you are reading, you can use the internet to tell them.
Ezra Klein, "Can the Internet Be Your New Bookshelf?":
This is one of those spots where I imagine social networking really will save us. Back when I was using Facebook more, I was a big fan of Visual Bookshelf, which let you display what you were reading and, when you finished, let you rate and review the books. As a matter of signaling, it's quite a bit more efficient. Your friends don't have to catch you in a literary moment on the Metro. And being able to browse the collections of all my friends was a delight, and offered occasional surprises that helped me known them better: former football teammates who were now reading John Kenneth Galbraith, for instance, and libertarian friends who listed "The Grapes of Wrath" as one of their favorite books of all time.
I also found that displaying the contents of my bedside table helped counteract my tendency to get distracted 90 pages in and start something else. Now that the books were hanging out on my profile, I felt more pressure to finish them. Somehow, simply leaving books around my room didn't carry the same silent reproach. In fact, I sort of miss that pressure. Which is why I've added a little Amazon widget that does much the same thing to the right sidebar. Technology!
Meet The New Fetish, Same As The Old Fetish
James Wolcott laments the loss of personalized conspicuous consumption that goes with putting down a paperback and picking up a Kindle:
How can I impress strangers with the gem-like flame of my literary passion if it’s a digital slate I’m carrying around, trying not to get it all thumbprinty?
Books not only furnish a room, to paraphrase the title of an Anthony Powell novel, but also accessorize our outfits. They help brand our identities. At the rate technology is progressing, however, we may eventually be traipsing around culturally nude in an urban rain forest, androids seamlessly integrated with our devices...
The Barnes & Noble bookstore, with its coffee bar and authors’ readings, could go the way of Blockbuster as an iconic institution, depriving readers of the opportunity to mingle with their own kind and paw through magazines for free. Book-jacket design may become a lost art, like album-cover design, without which late-20th-century iconography would have been pauperized. (Try imagining the rock era without the gold lamé bravura of 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong or the modernist graveyard of the Sgt. Pepper cover or Andy Warhol’s zippered jeans for the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers—impossible.)
It's half tongue-in-cheek, sure, but Rex chops it at the root:
Argh! It's not that this form of nostalgia is unworthy of some passing historical fascination, because I'm sure digitization actually does represent a drastic change in how we perceive cultural objects. Rather, the obvious annoyance in this sentimental prose is its complete lack of awareness of just how silly the fetishized cultural object was in the first place. Shouldn't we be suspicious of anyone who thinks that showing off your CD collection was ever really the point?
I am all about passing historical fascination, so I'll stick around and dig a little bit. The first and maybe obvious answer is that the cool factor will transfer to the device rather than the book. If you're reading a Kindle DX, and I'm reading on my iPhone, and somebody else is furiously typing on a Blackberry - actually, in real life, I'd be that last guy - we've all effectively announced our identities. If that's not enough variety for you, give it time: capitalism will fill your need for an individualized brand. It's not perfect, but it is really good at that.
The second and maybe even more obvious answer is that you can still bring books on the train. This is Walter Benjamin 101: the outmoded technology gets its aura back. People still collect, and record companies still produce, vinyl records. (Some of them are actually really awesomely designed.) Actually - this may be news to Wolcott, who seems to be stuck on CDs -- people consider collecting vinyl to be kind of cool. As a friend of mine recently reported, "if you're like, a 6, collecting vinyl automatically makes you a 10."
In fact, in ten years, schlepping that beat-up paperback -- or, please, one of those coffee table books -- might make you the coolest guy on the train. It's like smoking a pipe, or wearing a monocle. Your retro aesthetic will identify you, Mr Wolcott, as exactly what you are.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Cities, Design, Object Culture
July 12, 2009
Romance, Manuscripts, and Cyborgs
Virginia Heffernan says that internet romances "are not romances between people at all. They’re affairs with the Internet" - like World of Warcraft, where you become your own avatar:
O Computer World! At its most elementary, it’s a marvelous place, filled with risk and surprises and novelty, unbounded by space and time, where you can be a teenager again, trade gossip, avoid your overseers, gab to friends and boyfriends — all while pretending to do homework. What a perfect realm for puppy love or love with that Sanford-patented “soul-mate feel” — unconsummated love, in other words. By removing the body from relationships, electronic communication makes romantic love less animal. The lovers’ discourse becomes simultaneously more childlike and more intellectual, more spiritual.
As Chapur wrote to Sanford, “I haven’t felt this since I was in my teen ages.”
Epistolary romance seems to have existed as long as romance itself. But letters — the ink-on-paper kind, the kind Byron and Anaïs Nin wrote — had a dense materiality, with handwriting that always suggested the beloved’s hand and thus her body. Besides, wasn’t writing paper always being supplemented with dried flowers, locks of hair and wafts of perfume? It’s not clear whether mp3 love songs or links to insightful blog posts, the value-adds that now come with love e-mail, contribute a sensory dimension or only amplify how nerdy and how platonic digital romance is.
The connection to communications technology — the connection to connection — has become part of what makes us human. In the idiom of those who are swooningly in love, it makes us “feel alive.” When we’re denied the connection to connection, it’s no wonder we lust for it. Probably the pundits are wrong: there’s no special problem with marriage or romance in this country right now. Instead, our current bind is with offline reality — real life. We’ve been cheating on it, all of us, for a long time, living in a wireless fairyland where we r all so giddily hot.
I wrote my college girlfriend love letters over two summers, when she was in Texas and I was in Michigan (and then London). It is completely different. But I fell in love with her, at least in part, not least because in our freshman year, she was my first constant email correspondent.
Manuscript is different. I disagree, though, about the total virtualization/dematerialization of the body with the internet - I think at one time, exchanging flirtatious glances on Friendster, or staring into a telnet terminal in your campus computer lab, that was true. There was something cold and immaterial about that world, where you had to wait hours for a response, when you couldn't take an email with you without sheepishly printing it out on a dot-matrix.
But the ubiquity and intimacy of our net-connected objects have changed that. Heffernan's friend hands her his Blackberry with a note from his mistress, and she recoils: "I didn’t like holding the device. It felt hot and even damp, as if it had been inside a human body. Lots of erotic energy was going into that thing." It's a secondary physicality, a different kind of fantasy of immediacy - a love letter that can reach your beloved wherever she is, finding her not at her office desktop but in her purse or pants pocket. And when your phone vibrates with her new message, you have received something real, something you can touch.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture, Society/Culture, Technosnark
July 11, 2009
Britta Gustafson, "Learning to see wooden poles":
When I’m not in a rush to get somewhere, I look up at the tops of telephone poles. I don’t know anything about electricity, but I find myself reading glossaries of linemen’s slang and technical definitions, learning how to refer to the grey buckets that transform electricity for home use (cans, bugs, distribution transformers) and how to identify several other pole features, especially different varieties of shiny ceramic insulators.
It's a really nice photo-essay, with little detours about the pleasures of walking, childhood memories of the Mister Rogers crayon factory documentary, and generally finding joy in "functional and authentic technical equipment, the more elaborate and less appreciated the better."
My grandfather was (and my uncle is) a lineman for Detroit Edison, so like Britta, I find power lines really fascinating. The general tendency of this century has been to make our infrastructure and industrial more invisible and remote, even as it becomes more individualized and less communal. (Think about riding a train versus driving a car.) Utility lines, when you notice them, spell out the lie in all that. Of course, they're most conspicuous when they stop working. (Actually, they're really conspicuous when they're knocked over in a shower of sparks and flame, but that's a special case.)
One of my favorite parts in Terry Zwigoff's documentary Crumb is when R. Crumb explains how he takes photographs of ordinary buildings and street corners - apartments, gas stations, strip malls - so he can use them as reference for adding details like telephone and electrical poles, junction boxes, gutter grates. Otherwise, he says, you forget about these things; it's as if they were never there.
File under: Beauty, Cities, Design, Object Culture, Recommended, Technosnark
July 8, 2009
Swimming Out Of The Death Spiral
And now for a note on the dark side of printed books: Michael Jensen, Director of Strategic Web Communications for National Academies and National Academies Press, collects and analyzes data about global warming and ecological collapse. At the AAUP meeting in Philadelphia, he presented "Scholarly Publishing in the New Era of Scarcity," an argument that the combination of financial and environmental necessity compels university presses to move away from printing, shipping, and storing books and towards a digital-driven, open-access model, with print-on-demand and institutional support rounding out the new revenue model.
(I'm posting Part 2 of Jensen's speech - the part that's mostly about publishing - here. Watch Part 1 - which is mostly about the environment - if you want to be justly terrified about what's going to happen to human beings and everything else pretty soon.)
This is one reason I'm kind of happy that we didn't print a thousand or more copies of New Liberal Arts. We can make print rare, we can get copies straight to readers, we can make print more responsible, but mostly we have to make print count. And - of course - share the information with as many people as possible.
July 2, 2009
Geeking Out, c. 1990
I love this; Hewlett-Packard is selling an exact copy of its HP-12C financial calculator for the iPhone.
The iPhone version of the HP-12C is a near carbon copy of the actual machine. It not only looks the same, but it actually runs the same code as do the physical calculators. The iPhone version is actually a bit better than just a clone of the original, though, because HP includes a simplified portrait-mode calculator (the 12C is a landscape-mode device). When used in portrait mode, you can use the number keys, along with all the usual math operators and a couple of other functions such as square roots and memory—perfect for those times when you just need a basic calculator.
The real power of the HP-12C is found when you rotate your iPhone to landscape mode; what appears on the screen then is a photographic reproduction of the actual HP-12C calculator, complete with the gold-brown-orange-blue color scheme that made the original so…endearing? Because the app uses the actual calculator’s code, absolutely everything works just like it does on the real calculator.
I used a calculator just like this to win a middle school mathematics competition - in those days, it was called a "Calculator Competition," because you could (gasp!) use a calculator. There was a school-wide thing, then a regional, and then a state final; it was a whole thing. The state final was the first time I'd ever seen a graphing calculator; that shiz blew my mind.
June 27, 2009
The Codex Climaci Rescriptus
Sotheby's is auctioning a palimpsest manuscript of the New Testament (and parts of the old). It's written in 8th-c. Greek, 6th-c. Aramaic, and overwritten in a 9th-c. Syriac script.
Apparently the sixth-century scribes who wrote it were living in what was then Judea, somewhere in present-day Israel. The document was taken to the Sinai desert in Egypt and stowed away for 300 years at a monastery called St. Catherine's, at the foot of the mountain where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments.... Then in the ninth century, a new set of scribes dug through St. Catherine's looking for parchment, which was very expensive in those days. They pulled pages from eight different books--six in Aramaic and two in Greek--and did their best to erase the original writing. They then turned the pages upside down and wrote over the ancient text in jet-black ink. The newer text, in Syriac, is a copy of instructions on how to run a monastery, originally written by a sixth-century monk named John Climacus.
This happened all the time, and was one of the best advantages of writing on parchment. It was expensive - anything made from animals rather than vegetables always is -- but you could scrape the top layer off and use it again and again.
There's a whole aspect of monastic discipline and spirituality that's tied up with manuscript and parchment culture. Preparing vellum for writing was hard, physical work - and the scraping of the parchment became a kind of allegory for spiritual renewal and an ascetic's soul. You're literally mortifying flesh, scraping it clean, in order to fill it with wisdom and the words of God.
But at the same time, it was prosaic and practical:
"It was like using yesterday's newspaper to wrap up your fish and chips," says Bolton.
I love the description of the appearance of multiple scripts in the document:
The resulting palimpsest looks like a pirate's cipher for buried treasure, written in several mysterious scripts. The Aramaic writing, in a pale, faded brown, appears loose and fluid, with the odd curlicue swirling outside the margin. The black Syriac is careful, tight and slanting. It's not exactly a key to a puzzle written in code, but it sure looks like one.
H/t to Gerry.
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', Object Culture, Worldsnark
June 22, 2009
The Only Blogger With Backup
With all the time and energy you've squandered on that blog, you could have written a book. So goes the self-reproach, and indeed, the book in question turns out to be 449 pages long...
All of the posts and essays included in The Wreck of the Henry Clay are available free already on this blog, so why should you buy it? I have no idea! I have given up trying to understand the internet's economics, but maybe it'll be like buying ringtones versus stealing MP3s? Who knows. It took a surprising amount of time to turn several hundred blog posts into a several-hundred-page book, so perhaps some of you will be willing to pay me for my PDF-creating skills? As I said, no idea. Let's not call this "self-published," by the way. That has a kind of disreputable sound. It's a chapbook, all right? Why am I doing this? I saw not long ago that someone had published a book of his Twitters, and I felt I was in danger of being behindhand. I am hereby restored to the bleeding edge. Also, now, when the electromagnetic-pulse device is detonated, I will be the only blogger in America with backup. And of course I'm looking forward to kicking back while the cold, hard internet cash at last streams in.
Of course, Snarkmarket, too, has its own experiment in meatspace self-publishing on the way...
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Marketing, Media Galaxy, Object Culture
June 13, 2009
Path-Dependence, Increasing Returns, and Technological Competition
I think anyone interested in technological change ought to read W. Brian Arthur's legendary paper on path-dependence (PDF) :
Modern, complex technologies often display increasing returns to adoption in that the more they are adopted, the more experience is gained with them, and the more they are improved. When two or more increasing-return technologies "compete" then, for a "market" of potential adopters, insignificant events may by chance give one of them an initial advantage in adoptions. This technology may then improve more than the others, so it may appeal to a wider proportion of potential adopters. It may therefore become further adopted and further improved. Thus it may happen that a technology that by chance gains an early lead in adoption may eventually "corner the market" of potential adopters, with the other technologies becoming locked out. Of course, under different "small events"--unexpected successes in the performance of prototypes, whims of early developers, political circumstances -- a different technology might achieve sufficient adoption and improvement to come to dominate. Competitions between technolologies may have multiple potential outcomes...
The argument of this paper suggests that the interpretation of economic history should be different in different returns regimes. Under constant and diminishing returns, the evolution of the market reflects only a-priori endowments, preferences, and transformation possibilities; small events cannot sway the outcome. But while this is comforting, it reduces history to the status of mere carrier--the deliverer of the inevitable. Under increasing returns, by contrast many outcomes are possible. Insignificant circumstances become magnified by positive feedbacks to "tip" the system into the actual outcome "selected". The small events of history become important. Where we observe the predominance of one technology or one economic outcome over its competitors we should thus be cautious of any exercise that seeks the means by which the winner's innate "superiority" came to be translated into adoption...
Under increasing returns, competition between economic objects--in this case technologies--takes on an evolutionary character, with a "founder effect" mechanism akin to that in genetics. "History" becomes important. To the degree that the technological development of the economy depends upon small events beneath the resolution of an observer's model, it may become impossible to predict market shares with any degree of certainty. This suggests that there may be theoretical limits, as well as practical ones, to the predictability of the economic future. (all emphases mine)
Here Arthur uses the examples of nuclear reactors and steam-vs-petrol car engines -- other classic examples are the QWERTY keyboard and the Microsoft OS, both cases where learning effects and coordination costs might lock-in an inferior (or at least quirky) product. (I'm also rereading Henry Petroski's The Evolution of Useful Things, which takes a similar historical-accident-over-essential-function approach to design history.)
File under: Design, Object Culture, Technosnark
June 4, 2009
Luxuriating In Print
We slapped Dave Eggers around a little bit for his "nothing has changed" speech to the Authors' Guild, but his mass email for lovers of print is way more nuanced and inspiring in a constructive, non-cheerleaderish way:
Publishing has, for most of its life, been a place of small but somewhat profit margins, and the people involved in publishing were happy to be doing what they loved. It's only recently, when large conglomerates bought so many publishing companies and newspapers, that demands for certain margins squeezed some of the joy out of the business.
Pretty soon, on the McSweeney's website— www.mcsweeneys.net— we'll be showing some of our work on this upcoming issue, which will be in newspaper form. The hope is that we can demonstrate that if you rework the newspaper model a bit, it can not only survive, but actually thrive. We're convinced that the best way to ensure the future of journalism is to create a workable model where journalists are paid well for reporting here and abroad. And that starts with paying for the physical paper. And paying for the physical paper begins with creating a physical object that doesn't retreat, but instead luxuriates in the beauties of print. We believe that if you use the hell out of the medium, if you give investigative journalism space, if you give photojournalists space, if you give graphic artists and cartoonists space — if you really truly give readers an experience that can't be duplicated on the web — then they will spend $1 for a copy. And that $1 per copy, plus the revenue from some (but not all that many) ads, will keep the enterprise afloat.
As long as newspapers offer less each day— less news, less great writing, less graphic innovation, fewer photos— then they're giving readers few reasons to pay for the paper itself. With our prototype, we aim to make the physical object so beautiful and luxurious that it will seem a bargain at $1. The web obviously presents all kinds of advantages for breaking news, but the printed newspaper does and will always have a slew of advantages, too. It's our admittedly unorthodox opinion that the two can coexist, and in fact should coexist. But they need to do different things. To survive, the newspaper, and the physical book, needs to set itself apart from the web. Physical forms of the written word need to offer a clear and different experience. And if they do, we believe, they will survive. Again, this is a time to roar back and assert and celebrate the beauty of the printed page. Give people something to fight for, and they will fight for it. Give something to pay for, and they'll pay for it.
Eggers is basically now saying not that nothing has changed, but that EVERYTHING has to change. But it needs to change not because we've just progressed forward from print to digital, but that by first betting on the infinitely expanding profit potential of mass publishing and then paring the experience back to try to meet that bet, we've made a huge mistake.
So, in some sense, we need to go back to basics; but in another, we need to rethink our direction forward based on what's best for the people and the product, not the margins. We were pushing so hard for so long in one direction that we capsized the boat.
It's still a conservative vision, but it's a David Simon/Michael Moore kind of conservative -- i.e., a nostalgic but critical liberalism, in the tradition of John Ruskin. And that's a good mood to strike, if not for everybody -- not least because it's not at all intended to be a model for everybody.
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Design, Journalism, Media Galaxy, Object Culture, Snarkonomics
May 31, 2009
Dating the Past
Historiscientific nerd alert: There's a hot new method of dating historical artifacts, specifically ceramic artifacts, based on their moisture uptake. But there's at least one big problem -- it assumes that mean temperatures are constant. HNN's Jonathan Jarrett has the goods, in a paragraph so well-linked that I've cut-and-pasted them all. (I also changed some of the punctuation and split Jarrett's long paragraph into a few short ones.)
Now, you may have heard mention of a thing called "the medieval warm period." This is a historical amelioration of temperature in Europe between, roughly, the tenth and twelfth centuries. This probably decreased rainfall and other sorts of weather bad for crops, therefore boosted agricultural yield, pumped more surplus into the economy, fuelled demographic growth and arguably deliquesced most European societies to the point where they changed in considerable degree.
However, because of the current debate on climate change, it has become a ball to kick around for climate "scientists," those who wish to argue that we're not changing the climate pointing to it and ice coverage in Norse-period Greenland (which was less than there is currently despite less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere then), while those who wish to argue that we are changing the climate (and, almost always, that this relates to CO2 output, which does seem like a weak link in the argument) dismiss it as legend or scorn the very few and unscientific datapoints, not really caring that the historical development of European society in the ninth to eleventh centuries just doesn't make sense without this system change from the ground. None of these people are medievalists and they're not trying to prove anything about the Middle Ages, so it gets messy, but there is a case about this temperature change that has to be dealt with.
This obviously has an impact on this research. If the sample were old enough, the errors and change probably ought to balance out. But if it were, from, say, the eighth century, then the moisture uptake in the four or five subsequent centuries would be higher than expected from the constant that this research used and the figure would be out, by, well, how much? The team didn't know: "The choice of mean lifetime temperature provides the main other source of uncertainty, but we are unable to quantify the uncertainty in this temperature at present."
We, however, need to know how far that could knock out the figures. Twenty years? More? It begins to push the potential error from a single sample to something closer to a century than a year. That is, the margin of historical error (as opposed to mathematical error) on this method could be worse than that of carbon-dating, and we don't actually know what it is.
Lots of good stuff in the whole, long post, including an annotated run-down of ALL of the ways we know how to date old things.
File under: Learnin', Object Culture, Science, Worldsnark
May 30, 2009
Finally, You Too Can Be Marcus Aurelius
I am a sucker for long histories, especially when they're summarized with simple schema. Phillip Greenspun wrote this for a talk on how the internet has changed writing, under the subhead "Publishing from Gutenberg (1455) through 1990":
The pre-1990 commercial publishing world supported two lengths of manuscript:
Suppose that an idea merited 20 pages, no more and no less? A handful of long-copy magazines, such as the old New Yorker would print 20-page essays, but an author who wished his or her work to be distributed would generally be forced to cut it down to a meaningless 5-page magazine piece or add 180 pages of filler until it reached the minimum size to fit into the book distribution system.
- the five-page magazine article, serving as filler among the ads
- the book, with a minimum of 200 pages
In the same essaylet, Greenspun has a subhead, "Marcus Aurelius: The first blogger?":
Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 160 AD to 180 AD, kept a journal during a military campaign in central Europe (171-175). It was not available until after his death and not widely available until printed in 1558 as the Meditations...
This was preserved because the author had been Emperor. How much ancient wisdom was lost because the common Roman citizen lacked TCP/IP? [By 1700 BC, the Minoans were trading with Spain, had big cities with flush toilets, a written language, and moderately sophisticated metalworking technology. Had it not been for the eruption of Thera (on Santorini), it is quite possible that Romans would have watched the assassination of Julius Caesar on television.]
It's not all since-the-dawn-of-civilization stuff -- there are lots of examples of writing that really only works on the internet and more pedestrian things like the virtues of blogs over Geocities. "Webloggers generally use a standard style and don't play with colors and formatting the way that GeoCities authors used to." This shows how in the weblog, content becomes more important than form. (Psst-- It also suggests that if Minoan civilization had survived and spread, Augustine's Confessions might have been excerpted on a lot of home pages with lots of crappy animated GIFs.)
Via Daring Fireball.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', Object Culture, Technosnark
May 24, 2009
Two Visions Of Our Asian Future
Looking to the east for clues to the future (or the past) of the west isn't the least bit new, but these two recent takes (both in the NYT, as it happens) offer some interesting contrasts.
First, Paul Krugman looks at Hong Kong:
Hong Kong, with its incredible cluster of tall buildings stacked up the slope of a mountain, is the way the future was supposed to look. The future — the way I learned it from science-fiction movies — was supposed to be Manhattan squared: vertical, modernistic, art decoish.
What the future mainly ended up looking like instead was Atlanta — sprawl, sprawl, and even more sprawl, a landscape of boxy malls and McMansions. Bo-ring.
So for a little while I get to visit the 1950s version of the 21st century. Yay!
But where are the flying cars?
In the subway, Ms. Kim breezes through the turnstile after tapping the phone on a box that deducts the fare from a chip that contains a cash balance. While riding to school, she uses her mobile to check if a book has arrived at the library, slays aliens in a role-playing game, updates her Internet blog or watches TV.
On campus, she and other students touch their mobiles to the electronic box by the door to mark their attendance. No need for roll call — the school’s server computer logs whether they are in or how late they are for the class.
“If I leave my wallet at home, I may not notice it for the whole day,” said Ms. Kim, 21. “But if I lose my cellphone, my life will start stumbling right there in the subway.”
It has been a while since the mobile phone became more than just a phone, serving as a texting device, a camera and a digital music player, among other things. But experts say South Korea, because of its high-speed wireless networks and top technology companies like Samsung and LG, is the test case for the mobile future.
“We want to bring complex bits of daily life — cash, credit card, membership card and student ID card, everything — into the mobile phone,” said Shim Gi-tae, a mobile financing official at SK Telecom, the country’s largest wireless carrier. “We want to make the cellphone the center of life.”
It was easier in the 1950s for Americans to imagine flying cars than it was to imagine cashless subways. Hell, it may still be easier.
Height or distance? The billboard ad or the cellphone ad? Physical mobility or mobility of information? The skyscraper or the network?
File under: Cities, Object Culture, Society/Culture, Technosnark, Worldsnark
May 23, 2009
Virginia Woolf on the Future of the Book
From a BBC radio debate with her husband (and publisher) Leonard, titled "Are Too Many Books Written and Published?":
Books ought to be so cheap that we can throw them away if we do not like them, or give them away if we do. Moreover, it is absurd to print every book as if it were fated to last a hundred years. The life of the average book is perhaps three months. Why not face this fact? Why not print the first edition on some perishable material which would crumble to a little heap of perfectly clean dust in about six months time? If a second edition were needed, this could be printed on good paper and well bound. Thus by far the greater number of books would die a natural death in three months or so. No space would be wasted and no dirt would be collected.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture, Radio
May 22, 2009
Papa's Got A Brand New Bag
File under: "Why didn't you just Twitter this, again?" I've been shopping for a laptop bag as we speak, so I am 100% primed for this, but I still love Lifehacker's "What's In Our Bags" series. Gina Trapani just posted her bag + contents, shouting-out a bagufacturer I'd never heard of, and an awesome idea I'd never thought of -- headphone splitters so two people can watch a movie on a plane or train!
Me, I keep insane junk in my bag -- whatever the Bookstore was selling the day my old whatever the Bookstore was selling up and quit on me -- for way too long -- receipts and airplane stubs, books and student papers (oops), pens in zippered components that don't even work (the pens, not the zippers). The only constant companion is laptop plus plug. Even then, sometimes I discover (as I did on a trip to central NY for a job talk) that there's a scone from Au Bon Pain where my plug should be.
But I wish, nay long for, a genuine system! And the Lifehacker folks actually seem to have one!
It's also positive proof that the dematerialization thesis (you know, the idea that objects themselves don't matter, everything is up in the cloud, etc.) is bunk at worst, needs to be qualified at best. We just pretend that matter doesn't matter, until you can't get your Prezi on the screen 'cause you forgot your DVI-VGA thingy, if you ever even took it out of the box in the first place.
Here are people living the life digitale to the fullest, and what do they do? Schlep their stuff around in a bag, just like us jerks. And when they have a good idea, do they whip out their magic pen-with-a-microphone for instant digitalization? Only if they're jotting it down on a 99-cent spiral notebook. All this is very reassuring to me.
File under: Design, Object Culture, Recommended, Self-Disclosure
May 10, 2009
Kindle Up Your Textbooks, Children
The Chronicle of Higher Education on the Kindle DX and the market for electronic textbooks:
Most college students—more than 80 percent, according to a survey by Educause—already own portable machines that can display electronic textbooks: They're called laptops. And more than half of all major textbooks are already offered in electronic form for download to those laptops.
Yet so far sales of electronic textbooks are tiny, despite efforts by college bookstores to make the option to buy digital versions clearer by advertising e-books next to printed ones on their shelves. "It's a very small percentage of our sales at this point," said Bill Dampier, general manager of MBS Direct, a major textbook reseller.
What the textbook industry needs is the equivalent of an iTunes store for e-books, say some experts, who note that sales of digital music never took off until Apple created the iPod and an easy-to-use online music marketplace. That's why Amazon seems like a promising entrant.
Except for one thing: Publishers have already set up a digital store meant to serve as the iTunes of e-textbooks, and it has been slow to catch on. The online store, called CourseSmart, was started two years ago by the five largest textbook publishers. Now 12 publishers contribute content to the service, which offers more than 6,300 titles. The e-books are all designed to be read on laptops or desktops, rather than Kindles or other dedicated e-book reading devices.
One problem for CourseSmart has been a lack of awareness by both students and professors that the service even exists.
Yep -- sounds about right. You think we'd be easy to target, but we're actually not. In fact, probably the ONLY two media/publishing companies with significant overlapping penetration among both students and professors would be Amazon and Apple.
Also of note: the only reason why publishers are really interested in electronic books is that they can use DRM to crush sales of used books beneath their foot forever. (I remember the first book I ever used that required you to register a CD w/ a unique ID number in order to use it; SBS sold it to me at about 75% of cover used and then refused to take it back. I had to buy the new copy again.)
Also also of note: one of the lines Bezos used again and again in his Kindle presentation (from the transcripts I've seen -- anybody know where I could find video) with respect to textbooks is "structured content." I actually think this is a hugely important idea. A book gives a text physical form, sure, but that physicality works together with paratextual devices to structure its content. Page numbers, title pages, tables of content, indices, volume and chapter devisions, footnotes/endnotes, captions, commentary, usw.
This is why Project Gutenberg or any other kind of throw-it-up-there text file service will always suck. It's also why a lot of digital archives don't work. We need ways to give content structure, and to make that structure easily and productively navigable to users. Ebooks have suffered from a lack of legitimate and visible marketplaces, but to borrow a metaphor, they've also suffered from really crappy gameplay. Whoever figures out how to solve these problems will solve long-form electronic reading.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Design, Learnin', Marketing, Object Culture, Technosnark, Video Games
May 5, 2009
Luxurious Artisanal Bibliophile Dada
Sweet Gods of Heaven and Earth! It's the best bookporn post ever!
That's Xu Bing's Tian Shu (Book From Heaven). Rachel Leow writes:
To make [the four hundred books and fifty-foot scrolls], Xu painstakingly carved Chinese characters into square woodblocks, in just the way his ancient printing predecessors would have done, had them typeset and printed, and the printed pages mounted and bound into books and scrolls.
The result is a truly spectacular display of bookmanship — volumes fit for an emperor’s library. Yet, there’s the astonishing, Borgesian catch: Out of the three or four thousand Chinese characters used in these volumes and scrolls, not a single one of them is a real Chinese character.
They are made up of recognizable radicals and typical atomic components of Chinese characters, but Xu laboured to ensure that while they all retain the unmistakable look of Chinese script, they are all, so to speak, nonsense. They do not exist in any dictionary, and do not mean anything. Chinese speakers and non-Chinese speakers alike approach the books with the same sense of wonder at their beauty, and the same sense of incomprehension at their content — though, for Chinese readers, the frustrated impulse to read might detract somewhat from their aesthetic enjoyment of the art piece. I’ve heard that some Chinese readers have spent days attempting to locate a character they can read — to no avail. It’s a piece of art whose meaning is to be found in its meaninglessness.
I want to GO to there.
Instead, you should go to a historian's craft to check out more images of Xu Bing's two books (there is also a Book of Earth) and read every gorgeous word Rachel's written about them. These are the internet equivalent of being touched by "beautiful calligraphy, by brushstroked words on fine paper, by sensuous lines of scripts that dance provocatively on the page, inviting comprehension." You wish you wrote this well this early in the morning. (It's still early in Malaysia, right?)
It's a completely different tradition, but I'm reminded of Augustine's theory of signs. For Augustine, a sign (whether a word or a symbol) is a tool, an instrument. Signification shows that things aren't used for their own sake, but in reference to something else. This chain of signification and interpretation goes all the way up to God, who is the only thing completely sufficient in Himself, that CAN'T be made to signify anything else. Since everything else is deficient, anything that isn't God, whether a word, a gesture, a picture, a dream, stars, a person, an animal, a tree, usw., can be turned into a sign. In fact, it HAS to be taken as a sign, at least in this broad sense of an instrument pointing to another purpose; otherwise, you're performing a kind of idolatry, taking a deficient thing to be self-sufficient and giving to it what you should reserve for God alone. At this point, Augustine's semiotics dovetails with his ethics; we shouldn't delight too much in food for its own sake, sex for its own sake -- in short, in pleasure, except insofar as it helps us to serve a godly and natural purpose.
So there is a universal potential for signfication. Any worldly thing can be a sign. But to refuse signification, to delight in the pleasure of the letter itself, is an act of rebellion.
Rachel's language may be more instrumental than Xu Bing's, but it's no less of a pleasure to read.
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Language, Object Culture, Worldsnark
April 30, 2009
You Want Bookporn? Oh, Man. We Got Some Bookporn.
VERY mature books (is 8000 BC old enough?) with an astonishingly sexy zoom feature -- similar to Google Maps, but smoother and more natural, especially with a two-finger trackpad. It's all yours, for free, at the World Digital Library.
April 29, 2009
Every Little Thing About Things
So, I've been following this Columbia U course blog called "thing theory" for a while now, enjoying the smart discussions of philosophy of things as they've trickled out. (Things are a personal passion of mine, and my dissertation is on the material culture of modernist art/lit/cinema.)
Well, it being the end of the semester, the blog is now positively blowing up. People are taking stances, saying what and who they like and don't like, and generally trying to put it all together for future thinking about, um, things.
So if you like sentences like these:
I understand that if one focuses on these aspects, the zebra ceases to exist, but the zebra is not a hard concrete thing, it is the manifestation of a particular network, a network that repeats itself (with slight variations of course) to create millions of similar networks we call zebras. I get it.
Then, my friend, you've got to jump in and check out this discussion. Tell them that Snarkmarket sent you.
File under: Learnin', Object Culture, Recommended
April 25, 2009
Snarkmarket Reading Survey
Something Walter Benjamin said has interested me for a while now:
If centuries ago [writing] began gradually to lie down, passing from the upright inscription to the manuscript resting on sloping desks before finally taking itself to bed in the printed book, it now begins just as slowly to rise again from the ground. The newspaper is read more in the vertical than in the horizontal plane, while film and advertisements force the printed word entirely into the dictatorial perpendicular.
--- One Way Street (1928)
If Benjamin's right, then this is a reading revolution that's still underway -- expanding from film, advertisements, and newspapers to television, computer, and telephone screens. Even though we're using all these different devices, they just might be participating in this dyad of vertical vs. historical reading.
I've become something of an amateur anthropologist of how people read -- watching people read books or papers or from their phones or laptops in public places -- but I'm curious: how do you read?
* What kind of device(s)? * Where is your body? * Where is your reading material? * How do you prefer to read? * How do you read most often? * Where/how is it hardest for you to read? * What are your reading surfaces -- desks, tables, a bed, your own body? * Do you use any prosthetic aids -- glasses, something to raise your laptop upwards? * How did you read as a child? Ten years ago? What's changed?
Send pictures or movies even! Images of reading!
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Collaborations, Object Culture
April 23, 2009
The Loss Of Routine Beauty
Not that long ago, all books were handmade; now, most of the work is performed by armies of cleverly machined presses and binderies. Lost, in that consumptive progression, is not the beautiful book -- for many special books made by machine do manage to be beautiful objects that function well. Lost is the ordinary book being routinely beautiful.
April 19, 2009
Things: (Re)Statement of Purpose
I really love this elegant digression inserted in one of things magazine's periodic collections of smartly-chosen links:
We used to notice slight spikes in traffic when we led with an image, but these seem to have tailed off (as has traffic in general). Things will always be about physical things but the role of text and analysis has and always will be central to the publication (although readers might have noticed that the physical publication itself has been in an extremely long stretch of self-imposed limbo). As talk of design, objects and collections shifts from the linguistic to the strictly visual, it seems ever more important to write about objects and the role they play in contemporary life -- and, by definition, the role that collecting and collections play as well -- rather than simply add to the ever-growing museum that is the internet. It seems increasingly clear to us that things' role is not one of curator, but guide.
In one sense -- and it's a particularly narrow one -- the change we are undergoing is one of "dematerialization" -- but in another and (I think) more profound sense, what's happening is that materiality and physicality are changing, becoming something else. I'm happy that things is around, in whatever format, to help document that.
April 16, 2009
Library Culture / Information Culture
|LIBRARY CULTURE||INFORMATION-RETRIEVAL CULTURE|
a. quality of editions
b. perspicuous description to enable judgment
c. authenticity of the text
|Access to everything
a. inclusiveness of editions
b. operational training to enable coping
c. availability of texts
a. disciplinary standards
b. stable, organized, defined by specific interests.
a. user friendliness
b. hypertext--following all lines of curiosity
a. preservation of a fixed text
a. intertextual evolution
b. surfing the web
It is clear from these opposed lists that more has changed than the move from control of objects to flexibility of storage and access. What is being stored and accessed is no longer a fixed body of objects with fixed identities and contents. Moreover, the user seeking the information is not a subject who desires a more complete and reliable model of the world, but a protean being ready to be opened up to ever new horizons. In short, the postmodern human being is not interested in collecting but is constituted by connecting.
The chart is from an apparently unpublished lecture by computer scientist extraordinaire Terry Winograd; the commentary is by Heidegger scholar extraordinaire Hubert Dreyfus.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture, Technosnark
April 15, 2009
Eat The Document
Always good to reread Brown and Duguid's "The Social Life of Documents":
In this way, document forms both old (like the newspaper) and relatively new (like the television program) have underwritten a sense of community among a disparate and dispersed group of people. As newspapers recede before broadcast and on-line communication, and as the multiplication of television channels disrupts schedulers' control over what is seen when, the strong feeling of coordinated performance provided by these documents is changing. One possible result may be that the loss of simultaneous practice will reinforce the need and desire for common objects -- the wish at least to see the same thing, if not at the same time. Here the Internet is a particularly powerful medium for providing access to the same thing for people more widely dispersed than ever before. Moreover, the reach of the Internet is increasing a sense of simultaneity as ideas emerging on one side of the world can almost instantaneously be picked up through the Internet and absorbed into the local context by communities on the other.
This essay makes for a nice introduction to a handful of the brainsexy literary/social theorists and historians I like to read: Bruno Latour, Roger Chartier, Michel de Certeau. (Hmm. All French. I guess Benedict Anderson and Joanne Yates are in there, too.)
It also has one of my favorite-ever qualifiers: "Art and eternity are beyond the scope of this essay."
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Media Galaxy, Object Culture
April 11, 2009
Loss Of Service
Matt Richtel whines:
Technology is rendering obsolete some classic narrative plot devices: missed connections, miscommunications, the inability to reach someone. Such gimmicks don’t pass the smell test when even the most remote destinations have wireless coverage. (It’s Odysseus, can someone look up the way to Ithaca? Use the "no Sirens" route.)
Of what significance is the loss to storytelling if characters from Sherwood Forest to the Gates of Hell can be instantly, if not constantly, connected?
Plenty, and at least part of it is personal. I recently finished my second thriller, or so I thought. When I sent it to several fine writer friends, I received this feedback: the protagonist and his girlfriend can't spend the whole book unable to get in touch with each other. Not in the cellphone era.
Then Christopher Breen whines:
As you may have heard, areas of San Francisco’s South Bay and coast lost their landline, cell phone, and Internet connectivity because an individual or individuals unknown deliberately sliced four fiber optic cables in San Jose, California. This action (currently termed “vandalism”), in addition to unplugging over 50,000 area residents, caused many businesses to shut down and threatened lives because 911 services were out for the better part of the day...
I had no Internet access. I couldn’t call the office to alert my boss that I was off the grid. And my iPhone was no good with its constant No Service heading regardless of where I drove. I was completely unplugged.
Voilà.... Read more ....
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Media Galaxy, Object Culture, Society/Culture, Technosnark, Television
April 1, 2009
A Place To Gather (And Use The Printer)
Diana Kimball praises the campus computer lab:
Computer labs offer a combination of connectivity and escape at the same time: they provide a location, a destination, where all of the necessary technological tools are assembled and maintained. They also establish in student’s minds the existence of a “computer place” on campus—the natural place to gravitate toward when your laptop has gotten a virus, or its hard drive has died, or you’re wondering how to set up your email client. Here, the IT helpdesk is right in the computer lab, reinforcing that relationship.
With laptops all but ubiquitous, community computer labs may seem frivolous. But that very ubiquity, and its inescapability, means that colleges have a responsibility to respect and support the relationship between students and computers. A computer lab sends a strong signal, offers an obvious location to honor and troubleshoot that relationship, and gives students an alternative to squinting at tiny screens.
An indication of how fast things have changed: when I started college (in 1997), not only did I not own a laptop, I didn't even own a computer. I had never owned a computer. (My first honest-to-goodness PC to call my own came in 2001, my first year of graduate school.) Every paper I wrote was improvised in a computer lab. (Hmm. Maybe I should try that again.)
Here's my vision of the future of the computer lab: rows of ready-to-go machines, yes, but also of laptop kiosks, places where you can plug in and recharge, hook up to the networked printer, and chat with the techs and support staff. Maybe even a floating reference librarian to help with research questions and writing papers. A place to gather, where the communal intellectual energy can hum and crackle and strike down with electric inspiration. And to use the printer.
File under: Learnin', Object Culture, Society/Culture, Technosnark
March 24, 2009
The Real Industry Collapses
March 17, 2009
The Age of Bespoke Everything
Clive Thompson on Etsy, microbusiness, and personalized aesthetics.
March 11, 2009
Technologies have a social dimension beyond their mere mechanical performance.Â We adopt new technologies largely because of what they do for us, but also in part because of what they mean to us. Often we refuse to adopt technology for the same reason: because of how the avoidance reinforces, or crafts our identity.
Most of Kelly's aticle focuses on tool cultures among Highland tribes in New Guinea, but Kelly's also recently written about technology adoption among the Amish -- which is, of course, unusually explicit about the relationship between technology and group identity.
I'm not sure about this hedge, though:
In the modernized west, our decisions about technology are not made by the group, but by individuals. We choose what we want to adopt, and what we donâ€™t. So on top of the ethnic choice of technologies a community endorses, we must add the individual layer of preference. We announce our identity by what stuff we use or refuse. Do you twitter? Have a big car? Own a motorcycle? Use GPS? Take supplements? Listen to vinyl? By means of these tiny technological choices we signal our identity. Since our identities are often unconscious we are not aware of exactly why we choose or dismiss otherwise equivalent technology. It is clear that many, if not all, technological choices are made not on the technological benefits alone. Rather technological options have unconscious meaning created by social use and social and personal associations that we are not fully aware of.
But aren't these choices still deeply social? Partly it's about access: if you don't have daylong access to the web (or access to the web at all) you ain't twittering, son. But you're also not likely to do it if your friends and coworkers and neighbors don't twitter. Group identity is a lot more complex in the modernized west, sure -- but pure individual choice it ain't. In fact, our adoption of technology actually helps us form new groups and social identities that are not quite tribal/ethnic -- or it helps us reinforce those bonds.
P.S.: My title, "tool culture," isn't from Kelly's article, but from paleoanthropology. One of the things I love about the study of groups like the Neanderthals is that we have evidence of their tool use long after we have fossilized remains. We can actually distinguish between Neanderthal and human settlements based on their tools.
Neanderthals and homo sapiens definitely coexisted. People aren't sure whether Neanderthals interbred with modern humans or not, which makes it hard to know when exactly the Neanderthals died out. Wouldn't it be interesting, though, if a group of anatomically modern humans adopted Neanderthal tools? That technologies could reach not just across ethnicities, but across species as well?
File under: Object Culture, Society/Culture, Technosnark
March 5, 2009
The Joy of Paper Tape
There are so many reasons to enjoy Maximum PC's"Computer Data Storage Through the Ages -- From Punch Cards to Blu-Ray," but I like the way it relates the technologies to the broader culture. For instance:
Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and magnetic tape all rose to prominence in the 1950s, and it was the latter that helped shape the recording industry. Magnetic tape also changed the computing landscape by making long-term storage of vasts amount of data possible. A single reel of the oxide coated half-inch tape could store as much information as 10,000 punch cards, and most commonly came in lengths measuring anywhere from 2400 to 4800 feet. The long length presented plenty of opportunities for tears and breaks, so in 1952, IBM devised bulky floor standing drives that made use of vacuum columns to buffer the nickel-plated bronze tape. This helped prevent the media from ripping as it sped and up and slowed down.
Likewise, audio quality of cassette tapes improved, "ushering in the era of boom boxes and parachute pants (thanks M.C. Hammer." And "the floppy disk might one day go down as the only creature as resistant to extinction as the cockroach."
But my favorite digital storage media, hands-down, is paper tape:
Similar to punch cards, paper tape contained patterns of holes to represent recorded data. But unlike its rigid counterpart, rolls of paper tape could feed much more data in one continuous stream, and it was incredibly cheap to boot. The same couldn't be said for the hardware involved. In 1966, HP introduced the 2753A Tape Punch, which boasted a blistering fast tape pinch speed of 120 characters per second and sold for $4,150. Yikes!
One thing I've always wondered about these early paper-based computer programs is whether they were copyrighted -- and whether that, in part, led to the adoption of paper. One of Thomas Edison's clever exploitations of copyright loopholes was to take celluloid moving pictures (which weren't initially eligible for copyright) and copy them onto a long, continuous paper print -- this meant that an entire feature film could be copyrighted as a single "photograph."
I also wonder if/why early computer programmers didn't use celluloid instead of paper. You can move it a lot faster than paper tape, and it's generally stronger -- except, perhaps, if you punch it with lots of little holes.
File under: Movies, Music, Object Culture, Technosnark
Kottke reports that there's a "Pepsi Natural" on the way to market -- featuring cane sugar in lieu of corn syrup, and served in that most magnificent of beverage transportation devices, a solid glass bottle.
Needless to say, I approve of both of these retronovations. In fact, I make semi-regular trips to my local Mexican wholesaler to pick up soda served this way. But I'm strictly a Coca-Cola man. Let's hope Coke follows Pepsi's lead, and soon.
This is the part of the post where I quote Andy Warhol:
What's great about this country is America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.
Let's make sugar cheap, corn expensive, and bring back those Cokes!
Cologne, Drezden, Grozny
Some time yesterday afternoon, the six-story Cologne Archives, housing documents dating as far back as the tenth century, as well as the private papers of writers such as Karl Marx, Hegel, and Heinrich Böll, and also all of the minutes taken at Cologne town council meetings since 1376, collapsed as if hit by a missile, only there was no missile, but rather, some sort of structural flaw that caused the building to start cracking and tumbling down. Most visitors, plus some construction workers on the roof, were able to get out in time, although two or three persons may be buried underneath the rubble. Ironically, the Archives contained many documents that had been recuperated from library buildings destroyed by Allied bombing during the Second World War, and a small nuclear bomb-proof room that had been constructed in the basement to house the most rare materials was, at the time of the building's collapse, only being used to store cleaning materials.
March 3, 2009
Well, There It Is: Kindle + iPhone
Starting Wednesday, owners of these Apple devices can download a free application, Kindle for iPhone and iPod Touch, from Apple's App Store. The software will give them full access to the 240,000 e-books for sale on Amazon.com, which include a majority of best sellers.
The move comes a week after Amazon started shipping the updated version of its Kindle reading device. It signals that the company may be more interested in becoming the pre-eminent retailer of e-books than in being the top manufacturer of reading devices.
But Amazon said that it sees its Kindle reader and devices like the iPhone as complementary, and that people will use their mobile phones to read books only for short periods, such as while waiting in grocery store lines.
"We think the iPhone can be a great companion device for customers who are caught without their Kindle," said Ian Freed, Amazon's vice president in charge of the Kindle. [emphasis mine]
Mr. Freed said people would still turn to stand-alone reading devices like the $359 Kindle when they want to read digital books for hours at a time. He also said that the experience of using the new iPhone application might persuade people to buy a Kindle, which has much longer battery life than the iPhone and a screen better suited for reading.
I think is pretty cool, and can potentially benefit everybody -- if reading e-books on the iPhone takes off, iTunes could make a play for the market. In the meantime, it might even help them sell some iPhones -- for Apple, the money's in the hardware. Meanwhile, Amazon gets to take a crack at a bunch of readers who can now read e-books on a device that, whatever its relative limitations for reading, is one they already own.
John Gruber has a short review of the app at Daring Fireball.
As the only Kindle-less Snarkmaster, let me say this: I'd really like a freeware Kindle Reader for my MacBook. I like to read to relax, sure; but I also like to read where I do my work (a good deal of which involves reading books). I'm sure whatever prohibitions you'd wind up having to put on the books (no cut-and-pasting?) would make the experience stink. But it is one I would be willing to accept.
Let me put forward this thesis. There will be a lot of portable digital reading devices in the near future: dedicated readers, phones and PDAs, digital paper that you can wad up and throw away, tiny projectors that can use any sufficiently bright surface. But the most important one is and will continue to be the laptop computer. People in the electronic reading business need to continue to think about how they can make that experience both better and sustainable.
And let me also advance thesis #2: Don't let the race to greater portability convince you that this is the end of the game. We need software and hardware that take advantage of BIG reading surfaces -- from the TV-sized screen in your kitchen or living room to Penn Station and the Library of Congress. We don't all always read tucked away in our own private worlds, nor should we -- sometimes reading needs to be a spectacle, on a big public wall, where you can always be dimly aware of it, where it can't ever be fully ignored.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture, Society/Culture, Technosnark
February 21, 2009
Oh, man -- Lifehacker has a powerful strategy for home office clutter. The principle is, don't add more shelves to organize your stuff or spaces to put it in -- they'll just fill up with more junk, like cars and highway lanes in Atlanta. Instead, eliminate physical matter wherever you can, by scanning and shredding your files. Then, you must prebind yourself into a limited, manageable, securable amount of space. You must move your workspace into the closet.
Attentive Snarkmarket readers may know that this is where it gets interesting.
You see, one of the Snarkmasters already has a workspace in his closet, and while not an exact copy, it actually looks a whole lot like that very elegant picture above. And sometimes we joke about the whole "office in a closet" idea.
Another Snarkmaster, who lives in a city that, while not cheap, offers a whole lot more square feet for the money than the locale of SM#1, has a whole library in his apartment, filled with bookshelves and comfy chairs and file cabinets. But it's also full of empty boxes, piles of books and papers, strollers and baby toys, the occasional laundry basket full of clothes, old card catalogues that are really cool-looking but that he hasn't figured out what to do with, and these super-beautiful pocket doors that he uses to just close up the whole mess while he taps away on his laptop in the dining room.
The point is, one of these methods has achieved a kind of zen simplicity. The other may very well offer its own path to enlightenment, but it's going to require a lot of digging to come out on the other end. So, to you, sir, kudos.
File under: Design, Gleeful Miscellany, Object Culture, Self-Disclosure
February 13, 2009
Craig Saper is an amazing guy. When he couldn't get travel funds to deliver a paper on Bob Brown's "Readies" at a panel I chaired at the Modernist Studies Association conference a few years ago, he sent a DVD of himself, reading his paper from an airplane seat, wearing sunglasses. Midway through, the video began speeding up and slowing down, and the audio track was punctured by bleeps, like a badly edited R-rated movie on TV. It was all part of the performance, on reading technologies and obscenity. I wish I still had a copy of it.
-- Kenny Goldsmith, "Littany (for Albie)"
Well, Craig's curated (with Theo Lotz) an exhibition at the University of Central Florida called TypeBound, on books-as-sculpture. Warning: the web site is actually kind of crummy, animated image files and links that download PDFs instead of going to pages. But the exhibits! Amazing stuff: books made of shoes, books with type written on the edges of pages, books with pages going in every direction, and a slew of typewriter poetry. Well worth checking out.... Read more ....
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture, Recommended
February 6, 2009
The Inevitability of Electronic Reading
Many of you have probably read John Siracusa's insightful, entertaining, and long anecdotal history of e-books at Ars Technica. Still, with Amazon set to make a big Kindle-related announcement early next week, it seems like a good time to highlight this sample:
In 2003, Apple started selling music for the iPod through its iTunes music store. Apple sold audio books as well, through a partnership with Audible. Perhaps unknowingly, Apple had just positioned itself perfectly for e-book domination.
It was all happening right before our eyes. First the device, already far past the minimum threshold for screen size and legibility, and rapidly gaining market penetration. Then the digital distribution channel, accessed via a desktop application used by every iPod owner. Then the deals with content owners—not just the independent labels or the scraps from the big table, but all the top record labels, and for their most popular content...
The e-book market was Apple's for the taking.
And then a funny thing happened: Apple never took it... The iPod sold in numbers that made the PDA phenomenon look quaint. And still Apple didn't move. No one moved. The entire e-book market was stalled.
These were the dark times for the e-book market, akin to the five years during which Internet Explorer 6 had over 90% market share and received no major updates. Here was this technology that had so much potential but was not making any substantial progress in the market because the players who were motivated to drive it forward had failed or been rendered powerless by larger forces.
February 3, 2009
Stuff That Lasts
This answer from Gary Hustwit really resonates with me:
How has making [the film "Objectified"] changed the way you look at everyday objects?
I really think about what I buy now: (A) Do I really need this? (B) What if this is the last of this object that I ever buy? I don't want to buy chairs I'll be sick of in five to ten years.
I'm trying to get better at finding, and buying, things that last. Ten years seems to be the magic number. Most things I own right now are more in the, uh, ten-week range.
So far, I'm amazed at the durability of my Cole Haan shoes; I've got a pair that are five years old and going strong. Russell Davies pointed out a new micro-brand that guarantees it jackets and bags for 10 years, which is pretty cool. I have a feeling my Mission Bicycle is gonna last.
Any recommendations for brands, or specific products, worth investigating? Any good experiences you've had?
February 1, 2009
Post-Office Correspondence Art
Dan Visel at if:book has a super entry/exhibition on postal art from Ray Johnson to Ben Greenman:
Johnson ran what he called the New York Correspondence School; he used the word correspondence not simply for its reference to communication but for the way he made associations with words and graphic elements in his collages... Membership was seemingly capricious and full of contradictions: members included institutions and the dead; the school committed suicide publicly at least once; and it was at best the most constant member of a baffling parade of clubs and organizations that Johnson ran, including, at random, Buddha University, the Deadpan Club, the Odilon Redon Fan Club, the Nancy Sinatra Fan Club...
"The whole idea of the Correspondence School," Johnson told Richard Bernstein in an interview with Andy Warhol's Interview in August, 1972 "is to receive and dispense with these bits of information, because they all refer to something else. It's just a way of having a conversation or exchange, a kind of social intercourse." Emblematic of Johnson's work might be his Book about Death, begun in 1963, which consisted of thirteen printed pages of collaged images and text, which were mailed individually to Clive Phillpot, chief librarian at the Museum of Modern Art, and others. (A few pages are reproduced below.) The Book about Death was discorporate, as befits a book about death; more than being unbound, Johnson made sure that none of his readers received a complete set of the pages of the book. The book could only be assembled and read in toto by the correspondents working in concert: it was a book that demanded active participation in its reading. The content as well as the form of the Book about Death request active participation: the names of his correspondents feature prominently in it, but understanding of what Johnson was doing with those names requires some knowledge of the people who had those names.
One of my favorite recent literature/history/theory books is Bernhard Siegert's Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System. Visel doesn't quite say this, but it's clear that despite Johnson's humanist intents, he was using the technology of the mails in a way that was pretty resolutely anti-nostalgic. (In his fake-manifesto "Personism," Frank O'Hara says that he once realized while he was writing a poem for someone that he could just as easily pick up the telephone and call them -- you might say that Johnson realized he could just as easily send them a cheap postcard.)
Greenman, on the other hand, with his de luxe edition "book" collecting accordioned pamphlets and postcards, is working in a different register, where similar gestures connote a backwards-looking resistance to both electronic communication and industrial book design. But (and here Visel is spot on) both foreground the notion that literature doesn't just have a reader but a recipient -- a correspondent, so to speak -- whose contact with the author begins with (but isn't necessarily limited to) buying or reading or thinking about or talking about the book.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Design, Object Culture
January 30, 2009
Virginia Heffernan at NYT would totally be way up high in my bloggers' fantasy draft, with Scott Horton, John Gruber, Carmen van Kerckhove, Jim Fallows, Daniel Larison, Ron Silliman, Ben Vershbow (ret.), Eileen Joy... anyways, you see where this is going.
Anyways, her new magazine essay on digital reading with her three-year-old son is eminently blogworthy, not least for the universal reference:
I'd like for Ben to sit with One More Story and come away with the impression that he'd been read beautiful books all afternoon. But Ben tends to ask for One More Story when he wants privacy, the same state of mind in which he likes videos. Books, by contrast, are for when he feels snuggly.
Which brings up something significant about books for a 3-year-old: whatever else preschool reading is, it's intimate. Before you can read, you get to see books mostly when you're cuddled up with an adult or jostling with other kids in a circle.
Heffernan goes on to say: "I'm not sure he's developing an appreciation for books. But he is learning how to enrich his solitude, and that is one of the most intensely pleasurable aspects of literacy." Other intriguing thoughts include the relationship between interactive digi-books and video games, TV, and movies, the Freakonomics thesis that having books in your house is more important than reading them to your children, and a reluctant skepticism towards viewing digital reading as "reading-plus." I don't agree with everything VH throws out there, but it's all worthwhile.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Braiiins, Learnin', Object Culture, Recommended, Video Games
January 28, 2009
This is great: a librarian identifies curiously common references to "cuddling" in newspaper discussions of print and electronic books. As in, nobody is ever going to use an e-book reader because you can't "cuddle" (up with) it.
Preferably, it appears, by a fire. Because apparently everybody's got a fireplace that they read in front of, and without a proper fire, chair, smoking jacket, and appropriate analog print media, there's no reason to spend hard money on a book, magazine, or newspaper.
My favorite rejoinder is the one outlier: "Forget about the warmth a real book offers when you cuddle up with it by the fire. People spend so much time on buses and planes, in boring meetings, or at kids' soccer practices or hockey games."
I've been spending a lot of time lately thinking about sites of reading and the different physical relationships to text they require. It's fascinating how particular sites and ways of reading crowd out others -- often to make a new activity seem MUCH more new than it really is.
January 27, 2009
Before I visit Washington, I want to be able to go to the web and select items I’m really interested in from the entire Smithsonian collection. When I wake up the next morning, I want in my inbox a PDF of my personalized tour to see these objects. When I’m standing in front of an object in a museum, I want to see or hear more information about it on my cell phone. When an event happens related to an object I’m interested in, I want a text message about it. I want to know when it’s feeding time for the pandas, or when Lincoln’s handball will be on public display. And I want to easily share this information with my classmates, my friends, my family.
Cohen: "This is the Smithsonian not as a network of museums but as a platform for lifelong learning and cultural engagement."
I'll add that I love the unabashed fetishism of it -- "I don't love the museum! I love the THINGS it contains!" It's a vision of cultural membership, not in a changing curatorial space, but in the artifacts and art objects themselves.
It's not using the new information networks to try to obliterate the physical world, but to exchange one relationship to it for another. And I think that's pretty cool.
File under: Beauty, Learnin', Object Culture
January 22, 2009
Life in the Eternal Hotel
"Life in the eternal hotel" was the phrase I coined on what I think was my first-ever comment on Snarkmarket, now almost five years ago. The idea is to try to push how far we'd be willing to swap ownership of objects for subscribtion to services:
There are some things that we own that we expect to be permanent, or nearly so, and other things that we own that automatically have a limited shelf life: light bulbs being the best example. Nobody names a light bulb because, even if you legally own it, you don't own it in the sense of having a long-term personal investment: you use it, it breaks, and you throw it away. Speaking of which, I'd love to have services for trash bags, toilet paper, paper towels, printer ink, soap, shampoo, shaving cream, razor blades, deodorant, laundry and dishwasher detergent (or perhaps laundry and dishwashing services?), contact lenses, and (at least sometimes) food. (Not that life in the dorms was all that wonderful.) It'd be great if you could have all of those pumped into your house like gas, water, or electricity...
The question is to what degree people will be willing to accept an impermanent relationship to certain kinds of things. I doubt that there is anything intrinsic to most objects that would preclude us from using them temporarily: our impulse to name or to fetishize comes from our sense of long attachment, rather than the other way around. Of course, there are cultural differences to be overcome. Some people couldn't see themselves without owning a car, but could easily not own books (instead reading periodicals, at the library, or not at all); for me, despite my Detroitness, it's now the other way around. A better question to ask is whether we could live without any sense of permanent ownership: life in the eternal hotel.
Kevin Kelly has something similar up today, with a post called "Better Than Owning":
Sharing intangibles scales magnificently. This ability to share on a large scale without diminishing the satisfaction of the individual renter is transformative. The total cost of use drops precipitously (shared by millions instead of one). Suddenly, ownership is not so important. Why own, when you get the same utility from renting, leasing, licensing, sharing?
But more importantly why even possess it? Why take charge of it at all if you have instant, constant, durable, full access to it? If you lived inside of the world's largest rental store, why would you own anything? If you can borrow anything you needed without possessing it, you gain the same benefits with fewer disadvantages. If this was a magic rental store, where most of the gear was stored "downstairs" in a virtual basement, then whenever you summoned an item or service it would appear at your command.
The internet is this magic rental store. Its virtual basement is infinite, and it provides omni-access to its holdings. There are fewer and fewer reasons to own, or even possess anything. Via omni-access the most ordinary citizen can get hold of a good or service as fast as possessing it. The quality of the good is equal to what you can own, and in some cases getting hold of it may be faster than finding it on your own in your own "basement."
Obviously, for beauty of expression and clarity of imagery, I think "eternal hotel" beats "magic rental store."
But mull this over with me. What is happening here? And what's happened in the five years between Robin talking about Rhapsody and Kevin Kelly talking about, um, Rhapsody that may have changed how we look at this?