Update: Discovered I needed to wait an extra week to book the hotel rooms because of how far out it is. We should be able to confirm signups this week. — MT
Snarkmarket is nine years old today. At this point, I think of Snarkmarket as less of a blog and more of a collective of incredible people with similar (and often wonderfully divergent) fascinations who’ve happened upon each other at the right time. Years after the height of this blog’s activity, I still meet folks who introduce themselves with the question, “Hey, aren’t you Matt from Snarkmarket?”
In 2013, we want to try something that ties together many of the fascinations of this collective. We’ll be seeking about 30 fellow travelers to join us in a year-long, self-assembling digital seminar on media. Everyone will be a lecturer and everyone will be a participant in a series of weekly discussions focusing on a particular text or set of texts. It’ll culminate in a weekend of creation and collaboration in St. Petersburg, Fla., where Snarkmarket began.
First, we have to figure out who’s in. The price of admission will be a hotel room reservation at a hotel in St. Petersburg (official venue TBD) the weekend of November 2nd and 3rd, 2013. We’ll take care of actually booking the rooms. Next week, we’ll post more information on claiming a spot in the seminar. If you want to be in the loop when we do, shoot me a quick email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Second, we have to create the syllabus. Starting Sunday, January 6th, we’ll have a weekly discussion led by a different seminar participant, focusing on a different set of texts. During the month of December, each participant will volunteer the text (or texts!) they want to discuss during their week at the virtual podium. It can be anything, of any vintage — a video, a book, an essay, a story, a game, an artwork — just as long as it says something fascinating to you about media today. Once we’ve identified the full set of texts, we’ll arrange a lecture calendar (with a few breaks for holidays and whatnot).
Weekly discussions get underway the week of January 6th. We’ll try to find a regular day and time that’s agreeable to as many members of the group as possible. The day after each discussion, the next participant at the virtual podium will introduce us to their text with a post telling us why they find it fascinating. Our weekly homework assignment is to participate in the comment thread about this post (you’re not getting graded on responses, so they can be short; “I’m not sure I saw the same resonances you did in this video” is a perfectly legitimate reaction).
In September, we’ll break to work on our final “papers.” These can obvs take any form you wish. They’ll be due by Sunday, October 20th. No more weekly discussions during this time.
Last, we gather in St. Pete. What will happen there, no one can know. We promise only wizardry and delight.
The last time we embarked on a grand adventure together, we wrote a book that’s still being talked about today. I’m beyond excited at the prospect of spending a year in study with this community, learning and sharing alongside one another. I hope you’ll join us.
Happy birthday, Snarkmarket. And happy birthday, Tim!
From Robert Krulwich’s 2011 commencement speech at UC-Berkeley’s Journalism School:
Some people when they look for a job in journalism ask themselves, What do I like to do and Who can take me there? Who can get me to a war zone? To a ballpark? To Wall Street? To politicians, to movie stars? Who’s got the vehicle? And you send them your resume and you say, “I want a seat in your car.” … And you wait.
But there are some people, who don’t wait.
I don’t know exactly what going on inside them; but they have this… hunger. It’s almost like an ache.
Something inside you says I can’t wait to be asked I just have to jump in and do it.
So for this age, for your time, I want you to just think about this: Think about NOT waiting your turn.
Instead, think about getting together with friends that you admire, or envy. Think about entrepeneuring. Think about NOT waiting for a company to call you up. Think about not giving your heart to a bunch of adults you don’t know. Think about horizontal loyalty. Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it.
And when it comes to security, to protection, your friends may take better care of you than CBS took care of Charles Kuralt in the end. In every career, your job is to make and tell stories, of course. You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back.
And maybe that’s your way into Troy.
This speech makes me want to run around the entire internet, giving a million high-fives.
(via @edyong209, who gets high-five #001)
Here’s another post-constellational metaphor for a mode of thinking and writing, from Sarah Vowell’s interview with The Onion A/V Club, with reference to her new book on Hawaiian history Unfamiliar Fishes:
AVC: Your writing also features these tangents that circulate back around to the main thesis and manage to fit well in the context of the larger topic. When you’re writing, do you craft these tangents consciously, or do they come about naturally in the way you write?
SV: Both. When I went to Hawaii, I had never seen a banyan tree before.A banyan tree is this tree that starts with one trunk, and then when the branches branch off, little tendrils sprout off the branches and eventually grow down to the ground and take root and become another trunk, and more and more branches and tendrils develop off of that, so each banyan tree becomes its own monster-looking forest. And when I first saw one of those trees, I thought, “That is how I think.” Little thoughts just sprout off and drip down and take root, and then they end up supporting more and more tendrils of thought, until it all coheres into one thing, but it’s still rickety-looking and spooky. I like to think that my tangents have a point. I do love a tangent. I think part of it is inherent within the discipline of non-fiction.
I always found that when I was a college student and researching my papers always the night before—and this was before the Internet—I’d be in the library and I’d find one thing, and see something else and want to follow that, which now is how the Internet has taught us to think, to click on link after link after link. But there is something inherent in research that fosters that way of thinking, and then there’s this other interesting thing, and that builds and builds. When I’m writing, I have all these index cards, and I sit on my living-room rug and move them around until they make sense. When I’m talking, it’s just the unedited me. Anyway, there are just sometimes asides, some of them are just about the joy of fact. I find facts fun, and sometimes I’ll just put something in if I think it’s interesting, even though it’s not going anywhere.
You can think about the banyan tree as an associative style of writing, but also as a new kind of community, and way of writing in public — or better still, both at the same time. A matrix.
Also, let’s not forget to note “the joy of fact”! A greater phrase even than Ezra Pound’s “luminous detail.” I believe I need a T-shirt for this. Or create a small shrine for a school of nonfiction writing, devoted to digging in the crates and extracting, not only facts, but their joy.
American Journalism Review has a new story about how The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal convinced Dan Sinker to out himself as @MayorEmanuel:
A month earlier, for example, a reporter for the NBC-owned television station in Chicago requested an interview. @MayorEmanuel told him to “just call the office: (312) FUC-KOFF.”
When Madrigal received no response, he tried a different tack: “I think it is incumbent on you to at least tell me to fuck off,” he wrote, also providing his e-mail address. “It’s the only time I’ve ever used the F-word in my Twitter feed,” Madrigal adds.
@MayorEmanuel brushed him off. But a short while later, Madrigal received an e-mail from an anonymous e-mail account. The subject line read, “OK, asshole.”
“There were two points in it,” Madrigal says. “One, if you tweet about this, it’s over before it even started. And two, you’re the journalist — you pitch me.”
Snarkmarket’s part of the story, too. There’s a link to The Two Mayors, and I got to talk to AJR’s Greg Masters about why I think Madrigal got the scoop. I’m particularly delighted I got quoted talking about one of my favorite movies, comparing Alexis’s appoach to @MayorEmanuel to “W.W. Beauchamp sidling up to William Munny at the end of Unforgiven.”
[Warning: violent. Munny = Eastwood. Beauchamp = Saul Rubinek, in the glasses.]
Also, if you missed it, definitely check out Dan Sinker’s appearance on Colbert, where he is way more William Munny gentle father than William Munny/@MayorEmanuel murderous sonofabitch:
|The Colbert Report||Mon — Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
All blogs should have a “best of” page: http://tinyurl.com/4ckf7m8
Lots of blogs have auto-generated “top posts” or tags or “about” posts that act as introductions to the site. But how do you distinguish what’s churning (or churned a long time ago) from what’s really hung on as valuable? What are the exemplars? If your blog had a portfolio, what would it look like? And how would you decide what went into it?
For instance, before starting this post, I went through our analytics to find our highest-traffic posts, assuming that even if it’s an imperfect metric (I think it misses some hits and spreads out traffic to some of the older posts that got new URLs unevenly), it’ll help some of the best stuff rise to the top.
And it turns out that Snarkmarket’s highest-traffic single post is Robin’s “Stock and flow,” which is a little over a year old. Not only a good candidate for the blog’s “best of” page, but actually illustrates the concept of a “best of” very well.
On the other hand, one of the other top posts is “OMG!!11! Google LOL,” written by Matt in 2005. It’s no slouch — nice little post about Google’s then brand-spanking-new IM client. But I strongly suspect that the accidental Google juice of the title skewed this post’s numbers a little bit. At any rate, I wouldn’t pick it for the “best of.” Not when Matt’s “Towards Engagement” or “Free Book Idea: Too Big To Succeed” sitting out there.
So this is an open call to the Snarkmatrix. What do you think are the site’s best posts? Which ones were the most important? Which are the smartest? The funniest? The strangest? The most relevant, six or seven years later? Which meant the most to you? If you had to say “here are ten posts you should read from Snarkmarket,” which would you pick?
Let ‘er rip in the comments below.
There are many invented scenes, places, characters, and events I love in my friend and colleague’s novella Annabel Scheme, but my favorite invention is probably the fictional MMORPG “World of Jesus.” An online VR game set in Palestine at the time of Christ.
Here’s why I’m writing about it. Read Write Web has a short write-up of virtual ancient worlds, mostly created by libraries, museums, and universities:
When the first immersive 3D games came out, I asked a programmer if he knew of anyone who had used that technology to create a Virtual Ancient Rome or Virtual Ancient Athens. I loved the idea of walking around in a place whose current face was changed out of all recognition from its golden age. He shook his head. Creating virtual worlds was way too time consuming and required too much specialist knowledge and so was too expensive. A virtual Rome wouldn’t create the profit that Doom did.
Fast forward a decade and the programming necessary becomes easier to do and the number of people who know how to do it have increased substantially. The costs involved in creating a virtual world have decreased at the same time that academic and scholarly institutions have become much more willing to invest in it.
There are terrific settings here: Rome, Athens, Tenochtitlan, and Beijing’s Forbidden City. But — and I think this is surprising — no Jerusalem. No World of Jesus.
For those who haven’t read the book, on its face, the game’s name sounds like a clever zinger, like something that would be the punchline to a joke on Futurama or at a relatively hip Bible Camp. But what I think Annabel Scheme does particularly well is pushing past surface details and cute references to dwell within its two worlds, the technological and the spiritual, taking both of them seriously. I can’t think of any better manifestation of that than “World of Jesus.” The character who plays the game believes in this world and his place in it: his religious faith and his technological faith are one and the same, turning a mechanical ritual into treasures in heaven. And so we believe in it, because it’s a reflexive, self-allegorizing move too: for the reader, the fictional San Francisco of Scheme and Hu is just as much a virtual world, with its own enticements, traps, rules and ways to break them, as “World of Jesus” is for them. Dreams within dreams, virtualized virtuality.
It helps that Robin brings some of his most evocative and affecting writing in this chapter, too, as his AI narrator Hu becomes “embodied” for the first time in the world of the game:
The first thing I noticed was the light.
My eyes opened in a small, simple house with wooden shutters, and the light was peeking in through the cracks, picking up motes of dust in the air. I’d never seen anything like it. Are there motes in the real world? Scheme’s earrings didn’t show motes.
In World of Jesus, you could choose between looking over your character’s shoulder or through its eyes. I saw myself from behind, then spun around: I’d chosen the girl in silk.
Then I switched to see through my own eyes. All I ever did was look over Scheme’s shoulder. I wanted a new perspective.
The door opened automatically. Outside, the sun beamed in blue-gold through a scrim of tall cedars and fell in wide bars on a dusty, stone-paved street. Everything looked… mildly medieval. I had a feeling that this Jerusalem was not historically accurate.
I lifted my eyes to the sky, and it felt like my heart was going to jump out of my chest. It was probably just my eight processors all seizing up at once; I wasn’t built for this. Grail servers are optimized to process gobs of text, not 3D graphics, so the carefully-crafted World of Jesus was a new exertion.
I didn’t care. That sky. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. White curls and wisps dotted the glowing blue bowl. I couldn’t do anything except stand and stare.
A voice crackled: “Hu, is that you?”
I turned. It was a woman in a simple gray tunic, with red hair just like Scheme’s.
“Yes, it’s me,” I said—and realized that I spoke like everyone else.
Let me tell you something: I think that if a game company were to make it, and do it well, “World of Jesus” would be a smash hit. If you wanted to get your Warcraft on, you could play as a centurion and slash-and-hack Persian armies and crucify dissidents. Or you could be a Jewish rebel fighting to overthrow the Romans. Maybe you’re a female disciple, fighting to retain women’s leadership roles after Christ’s death. Or you’re a regular person: a tax collector, a fisherman, a falafel merchant. An online RPG that doesn’t necessarily have to be about how many people you can kill. (See: “A four-year-old plays Grand Theft Auto.”)
Many faiths, many ages, many games within games. Or if you wanted to play in story mode: what a story!
One of my favorite moments in Annabel Scheme is the party thrown by a mysterious musician known as “The Beekeeper”:
If you had electronic eyes and night vision—I had both—you would have seen slips of paper passing from person to person. On each slip was a phone number. Each one was different, and there were a dozen circulating in the crowd. Each wandered and blinked like a firefly as kids used their phones, torch-like, to illuminate the number, then passed it on. Here and there, then everywhere, they were dialing numbers, switching their phones to speaker-mode and pushing them up into the air like trophies.
The buzzing was coming from the phones. It was a low, rhythmic drone. At first you couldn’t hear much, but apparently, if you put enough phones on speaker all at once, it starts to get loud.
So that was the trick: There were no speakers because the crowd was the speaker. The bees did not sound so far-off now.
Scheme clenched her teeth. “This is hurting my face.”
Suddenly it stopped. The graveyard fell silent. It was a field of pale arms thrust to the sky, swaying like seaweed. Kids were bouncing silently on the balls of their feet. Waiting.
Then there was a count-off, a tat tat tat tat and then the music started and it was everywhere, megawatts of power flowing out of every palm and pocket. There was no focal point, so bodies were pointed in every direction, ricocheting and chain-reacting. Kids were losing it, jumping up and down, colliding and cuddling in the dark grass.
The music had a clear beat, but it was warped and scratchy, like someone was tuning a giant radio. Snatches of singing would ring out for a moment, then decohere. There was a trumpet that pealed from somewhere very far away…
The music was coming together as kids followed their ears. If your phone was buzzing with bass, you joined the bunched-up sub-woofer section. If it was sending high notes sizzling into the air, you joined the line that snaked around the crowd’s perimeter. The music worked its pattern on the crowd. It was both amazingly high-tech and totally pagan.
The first question I had after reading this was — I wonder if Robin knows about Zaireeka, the Parking Lot Experiments, or the other stuff that The Flaming Lips tried in the late 1990s?
I still don’t know. But I was reminded of that perplexity today reading this interview with Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson that’s all about the amazingly high-tech and totally pagan crap that the Lips tried before exploding with 1999’s The Soft Bulletin. Complete with YouTube videos, several of which were new to me.
If you were taken with either (Scheme or the Lips), try both.
Today is my one-year anniversary of writing for Snarkmarket.
I should say — my anniversary of writing as an author, because I was the unofficial commenter-in-chief long before that. Snarkmarket was the first blog I read; it inspired me to start my own, which (being even nerdier than Matt and Robin) I bestowed with the German pun Short Schrift; and I think it also helped me to realize that the problems I’d been thinking about in philosophy and literature and politics and elsewhere revolved around problems in media — and for me, specifically, media that had something to do with writing.
It’s been really cool, to use the parlance of our times. When I describe Snarkmarket to people who’ve never read it (especially if they’ve never read a blog), I say that the three of us — a journalist, an academic, and a media producer (does anyone know exactly what to call Robin?) write about how these three fields and everything they touch (which is everything) change — with all of us writing about everything, under the assumption that one important change is the redefinition of intellectual/professional boundaries.
Now, I like the indefinite tense on “change,” because Snarkmarket has always been tense-agnostic; we all write about the past, present, and future. If I skew towards the past, Robin towards the future, and Matt towards the present — I’m not completely sure that we do, but that’s what you might predict — it all somehow becomes quite coherent.
I think the root of that coherence may be that Matt, Robin, and I are all in love with writing, in all of its forms.
I deliberately give “writing” a very broad meaning, both materially and conceptually — which is nevertheless a very literal meaning. It’s not an accident that in my entry for “photography” in the New Liberal arts, I define it even more literally as “the writing/recording of light.” It bothers me when otherwise intelligent people implicitly limit writing to either handwriting or print, the writing that fills up books or fills out our signature. It’s not true. Writing — and reading — are everywhere, in almost every medium. It’s not even worth listing them all. We’re saturated in literacy.
The assumption that usually goes along with this reductive view of writing — setting aside ritual genuflections before the ghost of Gutenberg and his machine — is that reading and writing are essentially ahistorical, almost natural, assumed parts of the educated order, at least for moderns like us, while other technologies are unnatural interruptions of this order. Or, that once key technologies are discovered/invented — e.g., script, the alphabet, the codex, or print — their history stops, and they proceed along, virtually unchanged, until the present.
I once heard Marilyn Frye, a philosophy professor at Michigan State, describe this as the point-to-point view of history. In 1865, Lincoln abolished slavery; in 1920, the 19th Amendment guaranteed women the franchise — and after each event, nothing else happened, at least to women or black people in the United States. Ditto, Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type in 1439, after which, nothing else happened, writing no longer has a history.
For instance — and I don’t want to unfairly pick on something tossed off during an interview, but here we are — Brian Joseph Davis, interviewing Michael Turner for The Globe and Mail, flatly asserts that the book “is stalled out, in terms of technology, at 1500 AD, and sociologically at around 1930.” See Jason Kottke’s post, “Books have stalled,” where he quite rightly asks what these dates might mean.
On the technology side, Davis is just flatly wrong. I’d invite him to operate an incunabula letterpress — set the type, prepare the pages, swab the ink, and crank the mechanical lever page by page — and then visit a contemporary industrial press before he felt tempted to say something so silly again. (If he’s only talking about the codex form of the book, and not the means of production, then he actually needs to run back over a millennium — and even then, the size and shape and composition of books has steadily changed over those 500+ years too.)
We also don’t print on parchment anymore. Gutenberg did print a bunch of bibles in paper, but it was cloth paper — the fancy stuff we print our resumés on now — not the kind of paper we use today. Davis should read a few 19th-century histories and manuals of papermaking — they’re free on Google Books — just to realize what a technological triumph it was to create usable paper out of wood-pulp. You can’t just smash up some trees — it’s a chemical process that’s as complicated as creating and developing photographic film, a breakthrough that happened around the same time (the two are actually related.) Turning that into an industrial production that could make enough paper to print books and newspapers and everything else in the nineteenth century was another breakthrough.
This is what the industrial revolution did for us, folks. It wasn’t all child labor and car parts. It changed the way we made and consumed culture.
For the last 500 years, ours has been a culture of paper. But the East had paper for centuries before, and what we call paper completely changed a little more than a century ago. It’s convenient if you want to either attack or defend book culture to paint it as unchanged by the passage of time, but it just isn’t so.
Add in all of the cataloguing and distribution technology developed in the twentieth century, shifts in marketing, the rise of chain retail and online booksellers — the kind of stuff that Ted Striphas writes about in The Late Age of Print — and it’s clear that there wasn’t just one revolution (Gutenberg’s) that made the past and another (digital media) that’s making the present and future. We are dealing with a long, intersecting history of multiple media, each of which are heterogeneous, that is ongoing.
Anyways, that is the past, and the present. I hope you will stay with us for the future. So far, I’ve loved this show. I can’t wait to see what next.
Unintentional Simultaneous Coda (from Matthew Battles, writing about something quite different):
Of course there is intention and purpose in the system, Smail allows, but it’s personal, limited in space and time, not a case of grand, scheming ideological structure.
What’s in this for me? Well, it’s a handy and inspiring way to think about the rise of writing in general, and of specific letterforms, as memes facing selection pressures that change with dips and explosions in media, genres, and social and cultural forms. So there’s a retrospective use, helping to understand the existence of stuff like serifs and dotted i’s thrive while eths and thorns and a host of scribal abbreviations die out. And prospectively, it help enrich my sense of the future of reading and writing—mostly by reminding me that it will be decided by no business plan or venture capitalist, but by all of us getting in there, using and breaking the new tools, and making new things and experiences with them.
Absolutely. Now all we have to do is get there.
When it came out that NASA was going to shoot some rockets into the moon so they could see what would happen, I immediately thought of this classic sketch from Mr Show with Bob and David:
The obvious climax of the sketch is when Galileo the monkey wisely asks the scientists who plan to destroy the moon, “Why? Why do you want to blow up the moon?” Of course, NASA quickly replaces Galileo with a circus monkey who doesn’t know sign language, “who will do the job, no questions asked.”
Why am I reminded of the fat people in the movie Wall E when I read about this electronic book stuff??? Is there some thing wrong with an actual book? Other than that nasty paper wasting thing, and the toxic ink, oh yeah.…the list goes on. But isn’t a Kindle or a Nook going to end up in a landfill too when the newest, latest and greatest gadget hits the scene???? So I guess turning into a blob staring at a TV screen is our future.….nevermind!!!
“Is there something wrong with an actual book?” This is a serious question, and deserves a serious response.
For my part, obviously, the answer is no. As I wrote in my reply comment:
Hey, look: here at Snarkmarket, we love printed books so much, we made one our selves. We love them so much, we write love let ters to 16th-century Venetian print ers. I love books so much that when I broke my arm and couldn’t hold onto a heavy paperback with two hands, I cried.
I’ll expand: I’m a PhD in Comparative Literature and a postdoctoral fellow who teaches freshman how to write about literature, philosophy, and science. I teach a class called “From Scroll to Screen: The History and Theory of Writing.” I insist for this class that my students BUY THE BOOKS, and bristle at any suggestion that the books cost too much or pose too much of a physical burden. I study the history of the book (and of other material texts) and write papers and attend conferences on the same. I wrote my dissertation on something I call “Paper Modernism.”
But books just aren’t my professional life; they’re my life. As I say routinely, books are my drug of choice. I can’t imagine living without them.
But I don’t feel entirely like Galileo the monkey. I’m full-on into new media too; I teach cinema and media studies ALONG WITH books and newspapers — part of my thesis argues that we actually can’t entirely separate these media streams from one another, because they’re created and circulated and especially EXPERIENCED together, not identically, but as part of a total media system. And I have become, somewhat surprisingly, a computer person: a blogger and blogreader who totes around a laptop and smartphone. Just as I can’t imagine my life without books, I can’t imagine it without screens either.
Part of what we do at Snarkmarket — as screen people talking largely to other screen people — is to chart and celebrate and critique screen culture, and above all, to try to figure out where it’s going. I think we do this in a way that’s reflective and ethical, understanding that every technological change is in turn an anthropological change, one that both says something about and directly informs our fundamental values.
And yet — on something like electronic readers, where it’s so easy to ooh and aah at the new tech, or to snipe on janky designs or “old-media” people who “don’t get it” — I don’t want to be Koko the monkey either, mindlessly cheering the scientists on as they blow up the moon! Let me say that I don’t think we will ever totally lose books, or print — but even the loss of influence that the printed word that we’ve seen over the last century has been a genuine loss.
More precisely: there are people, and industries, and experiences, that HAVE LOST; that will CONTINUE TO LOSE; and this will be because digital media will gain in influence, partly at print’s expense. Anyone doubting this, or expecting otherwise, is like Mitt Romney telling voters in Michigan that if they keep working hard enough, the industrial jobs will come back. An era is passing. We have to treat it accordingly.
So. Why reading machines?
1. Because readers are already there. We are already reading more on electronic devices, on screens ranging from TV to computer to cellular phone. What’s more, while book-reading and newspaper and magazine subscriptions are down across the country (and across the world), electronic reading is GROWING. It’s growing in share, it’s growing in readers, and it’s growing in influence. If you are in a reading-intensive business, you want to get your content on a screen, because that’s where the readers are, and will be in the future.
Dedicated e-book readers have emerged because booksellers couldn’t get into that market, onto those screens. First and foremost, there was no real marketplace. And, there are several things about both computers (in any form factor) and smartphones that make them less than ideal for long-form reading. Readers needed a device, and they needed a store; Amazon wasn’t the first to offer both, but like the iPod before it, the Kindle was the first such device and store to be taken seriously, even as its total numbers haven’t exactly set the world on fire. Barnes and Noble saw a different way to approach the same market, and created a device and a software and store model to take advantage of it. But essentially, even as they’re inticing old readers in, booksellers and publishers are playing catch-up to the rest of the reading market.
2. Because otherwise publishers may not survive. It’s ironic that booksellers, especially online booksellers, have done so much to push e-reading, because they’ve already solved the problems of storage and circulation of material, discovering the long tail of content, etc. Electronic books are just one more step in Amazon’s reconstruction of retail — but they would have been okay anyways.
Really, it’s publishers who are screwed. Paper and printing costs, plus the expense of storage and transfer and delivery, are killing publishers — in books, magazines, journals, and newspapers. They can either raise prices or cut standards or go completely exclusive, high-end, luxury — and watch their market shrink even further — or turn to electronic delivery as the last best way to cut that knot. If we want to continue to have inexpensive books, news, commentary, and entertainment, we as readers and producers of media have to embrace digital delivery. The status quo is unsustainable.
3. This one is a little more metaphysical, but: Something has to be next. Our current forms of media, and our current interfaces for them, are exhausting themselves. Much of this is purely economic. But it’s also ideological and cultural. If books and newspapers and magazines and movies and television and radio and even blogs and web pages have slowly but inexorably calcified — and I think the signs are good to suggest that they have — then something has to happen next. Or, we resign ourselves to it, playing out the string, until elderly people die off, and the kids forget that there was such a thing as vitality in culture.
That’s when you wind up in the Wall-E universe, Ami Marie; when we forget that we can change things, when we stop exploring.
Let me return to something I wrote a few months ago, about the surprising rekindling (no pun intended) of literacy in the digital age:
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…
The return to speech, in all of its immediacy, after centuries of the technological dominance of writing, seemed inevitable. Film, radio, television, and the phonograph all seemed to point towards a future dominated by communication technologies 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 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 out side, 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.
The word is transforming, and being transformed. If you wanted to stick your hand in the dike, to stop what is happening to the book, you need to go back a century or more.
For my part, I find myself continually grateful for and delighted by what is happening, because while reading in some individual media is falling off, reading as such is actually flourishing. As I tweeted a week ago:
The revelation of the present isn’t that the printed word is in decline; it’s that reading and writing haven’t been destroyed along with it.
It is to keep reading and writing alive, and to keep them innovative, reflective, and exploratory, that I do everything — let me say it again, EVERYTHING — that I do.
To every reader of Snarkmarket, let me say: thank you for letting me do it here; and above all, for doing it with me.