The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

Jennifer § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-12 15:53:34
A few notes on daily blogging § Stock and flow / 2017-11-20 19:52:47
El Stock y Flujo de nuestro negocio. – redmasiva § Stock and flow / 2017-03-27 17:35:13
Meet the Attendees – edcampoc § The generative web event / 2017-02-27 10:18:17
Does Your Digital Business Support a Lifestyle You Love? § Stock and flow / 2017-02-09 18:15:22
Daniel § Stock and flow / 2017-02-06 23:47:51
Kanye West, media cyborg – MacDara Conroy § Kanye West, media cyborg / 2017-01-18 10:53:08
Inventing a game – MacDara Conroy § Inventing a game / 2017-01-18 10:52:33
Losing my religion | Mathew Lowry § Stock and flow / 2016-07-11 08:26:59
Facebook is wrong, text is deathless – Sitegreek !nfotech § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2016-06-20 16:42:52

The post-newspaper city

Andrew points me to a Richard Rodriguez essay in Harper’s on the newspaper and the city. Andrew’s pull is a great line: “When a newspaper dies in America, it is not simply that a commercial enterprise has failed; a sense of place has failed.”

For me, this is the truest line in the essay: “We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper.” And this is the most false or misleading: “If the San Francisco Chronicle is near death… it is because San Francisco’s sense of itself as a city is perishing.”

The gap between these two statements is huge. It can be true – and I believe it is true – that the relationship between newspapers and their host cities has shifted, and that in very many cases the daily newspaper no longer reflects citizens’ sense of their place. Rodriguez lovingly describes the 19th-century newspaper and the San Francisco Chronicle of his youth; what he describes seems vastly different from the functions served by the daily newspaper today. We’ve experienced a profound change in the relationship between a newspaper and its readers’ geographic identities.

However, one cannot and ought not to conclude that the absence of this reflection implies that our sense of place has simply vanished. Yet that’s what Rodriguez does:

The truth is we no longer want to live in Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor. Our inclination has led us to invent a digital cosmopolitanism that begins and ends with “I.” Careening down Geary Boulevard on the 38 bus, I can talk to my my dear Auntie in Delhi or I can view snapshots of my cousin’s wedding in Recife or I can listen to girl punk from Glasgow. The cost of my cyber-urban experience is disconnection from body, from presence, from city…

We will end up with one and a half cities in America—Washington, D.C., and American Idol. We will all live in Washington, D.C., where the conversation is a droning, never advancing, debate between “conservatives” and “liberals.” We will not read about newlyweds. We will not read about the death of salesmen… We already live in the America of USA Today, which appears, unsolicited, in a plastic chrysalis suspended from your doorknob at a Nebraska Holiday Inn or a Maine Marriott. We check the airport weather. We fly from one CNN Headline News monitor to another. We end up where we started.

There are several ironies in this. First, the daily omnibus paper that Rodriguez praises in his hymn to the local itself already obliterated locality. The citywide daily asks readers to identify beyond their own neighborhoods, thinking of themselves as part of an imagined community called San Francisco. The death of neighborhood and foreign-language and political newspapers likewise pushed towards a cosmopolitanism within the polis.

Second, it’s more likely that a range of other media have taken over this identity-mirroring function from the newspaper — local identity has simply been displaced, not imploded. Here’s a candidate: the alt-weekly. As high-circulation dailies increasingly target suburban readers — those Silicon Valley upstarts Rodriguez is so anxious about — they become, again, less rooted in the daily life of a city than the smaller, more targeted local papers. Our identities didn’t simply drift away from the big dailies; they were pried away by hungry upstarts who offered a different, more useful, perhaps more compelling vision of the city.

The internet, too, offers us a sense of the local as well as the cosmopolitan. Rodriguez hints at this with an anecdote about Craigslist (a San Francisco institution if ever there was one):

The colleague I am meeting for coffee tells me (occasioned by my puzzlement at the wi-fi séance) that more and more often he is finding sex on Craigslist. As you know better than I do, one goes to Craigslist to sell or to buy an old couch or a concert ticket or to look for a job. But also to arrange for sexual Lego with a body as free of narrative as possible. (Im bored 26-Oakland-east.)

This might not be a sense of locality Rodriguez wishes to endorse, but you can’t tell me, after long paragraphs about Rolling Stone and the 60s sexual revolution, that you blame Craigslist for turning San Francisco into a place where people seek anonymous sex. That, too, is part of the texture of a place.

The final irony is that the mobile internet, which for Rodriguez suggests only the possibility of transcending the long ride on the Geary St bus, offers the greatest promise of restoring the local. I’m thinking of sites like Yelp, that augment the yellow pages with reviews and commentary from our actual neighbors. What’s more, with GPS, we can access this information as a function of our physical proximity to these places. We become more than just obituaries and directory listings; we become living people, navigating through live, dynamic space.

So on the one hand, Rodriguez is right. Most of us probably don’t think of the newspaper as a city anymore, or vice versa. What we’ve replaced it with, though, is no less rooted in the physical or the local as what came before; if anything, it’s simply easier for us to balance our cosmopolitanism (which was always an outstanding possibility in the world of print) with our locality — like the body, like pain, that most persistent of actualities. Wherever you go, there you are.


Building communities: Introducing

In the fall of 2006, I was in a bad rut. An experiment in home ownership had gone disastrously awry and my dissertation advisor had split Penn for Princeton. I spent most of my time watching Star Wars and playing Sudoku, trying to ignore the horrible stomach pains I had, which took months of tests and medicines to finally diagnose. I was cut off from everyone, adrift in my goals, and in danger of lapsing into what could have been serious depression.

One of the things that pulled me out of that funk was a local web site called Young Philly Politics. The site had been a group blog of some friends, just out of college, most of them, who had been involved in the Howard Dean campaign in 2004 and an effort to upend the local DA in a primary challenge. Before the mayoral primary, they relaunched the site to allow anyone to create a profile and start posting to the blog. Many of the posters were this core group of young progressives, some were hacks and astroturf plants working for the various campaigns, many were cranks — and still others were like me, people who were highly interested in the outcome of the primary but who hadn’t had much direct experience in Philadelphia electoral politics.

Before long, state reps and city councilmen, most of the political reporters for local papers and radio, and even some of the mayoral candidates were posting and commenting on the site. We all had candidates we liked (and some we didn’t) and issues we pushed — even within a community as seemingly heterogeneous as progressive bloggers, we had huge areas of disagreement, and the debate got fierce. Sometimes you would find allies, whether over issues or over a general approach, a way of writing about the world. That winter and spring, my best friends in the world were people I had never met.

And — it didn’t matter who you were or what your credentials were. If you wrote a thoughtful, well-argued post, it got on the front page, which meant that everyone saw it. That was the motivation to say more, to do better. I was briefly famous among politicians and journalists because I wrote some really good posts about local tax issues, and one about nativist attitudes in Philadelphia politics. I didn’t work for a campaign, or a newspaper. I just wrote my ass off. Where else is that even possible?

This, to me, is the beauty of writing for blogs, and for Twitter. With time, hard work, and a few pieces of great writing, it doesn’t matter who you work for, what you do, or where you went to school. You can rub elbows with famous writers, talk shop with people who work for your favorite magazines, and wind up getting written up in the newspaper. It’s not a meritocracy. But it offers great meritocratic possibilities. And maybe even more importantly, it offers a promise of community.

For the past few months, I’ve written here extensively on the past, present, and future of reading. By plugging away at it, I feel like I’ve learned a tremendous amount about it, through the act of writing itself. I’ve also met many brilliant and like-minded people who are trying to sort this out. I’ve tried to articulate both what’s wrong with how we usually talk about reading technologies (whether past or present), and stake out the basic principles of some alternatives. At every step, I’ve benefited from critical and complementary comments and cross-posts; in some cases, I feel like I’ve helped to spark discussions and ideas in others.

Today, I launched a project that I hope will take this further. It’s called

The basic premise of is that it’s like The Daily Kos, TPM Café, or yes, Young Philly Politics for book and media nerds. Anyone can create an account and begin creating content, whether blog posts, book pages, links to important stories, or commentary on another user’s entries. It has no institutional or corporate sponsorship or structure. All it has are a bunch of men and women who care passionately about reading and writing and want to understand its future, so they can be a part of it.

It’s a commons, which means it’s a place to share news and ideas and to collaborate on projects. There’s already one project underway — a collection of essays on the future of reading edited by Clusterflock’s Andrew Simone — that’s being developed in partnership with the site. Some of the contributors — I’m one of them — are going to write our entries in public and incorporate feedback from the community before we ship it off to be printed, as a real, live physical book. (Bookfuturists love paper and print. As Robin Sloan has said, books are great techné.) And we have other collaborations already in the works, from meetups to conferences to reading groups. If you’re interested in reading and technology, this will be the place to be.

Books are a privileged object, even in the digital world, but I also want to try to include reading of all kinds. Journalism is likewise an important example, as are blogs and web sites. But so are text messages, street signs, video games, comic books, technical manuals, restaurant menus, and medical forms. In our hyperliterate culture, reading is everywhere — and everywhere it’s in flux.

I also want to be a kind of social network for Bookfuturists like me. There are clear markets for writing by technological triumphalists (I call these guys and girls technofuturists) and doomsayers (when it comes to reading, this group can be called bookservatives). It’s easy to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to new technology; it’s a lot harder to try to engage with its strengths and weaknesses, to think of ways it could work better, to situate it in history, to study its effect on a culture.

Bookfuturists, though, being equally people of the screen and the page, who know that both screens and pages are as varied and self-differentiated as the act of reading itself, are well situated to offer those readings. However, our status as members of two worlds makes it hard for us. We’re the humanists who can’t put down our iPhones, the tech geeks who read Proust. We don’t fit in at the faculty club or at a technology trade show. We have a hard time explaining to our friends and families why we collect card catalogs and buy two copies of used books — one to read, another to feed to the two-sided scanner. We’re the nerds among nerds.

This is also why I wanted to start this site. Because — and this might sound hokey, but I mean every word of it — there’s no reason why any of us should ever feel alone.

I hope you’ll come by, create an account, and start writing. If you have a blog of your own already, feel free to cross-post or link to your site. (Some of you might be clever enough to automate this.) If you don’t, but have something to say about all this, this is a great time to start one.

You can also post links to stories, blog posts, product reviews, and new books that you think this community shouldn’t miss. (One of the great things about Young Philly Politics was that during the run-up to the primary, it was hands down the best news site in town – period.) This should be the place you go for news on reading technology. At least, I’m going to do my best to make it so.

It’s an exciting time for reading now, because everything is in flux. Soon, you might be able to read magazines on a Hulu-like site on your gorgeous Apple tablet. Giants of publishing will continue to fall. Others will vie to replace them. Amazon and Barnes & Noble will sort out the pricing and compensation market for e-books, and publishers will figure out when to release them. Book piracy might go mainstream.

And yes, human nature itself might change.

It’s all happening now. I’m just glad we get to see it.


The secret levers of Condé Nast power

Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch has the skinny on why magazine publishers are pushing for a “Hulu for magazines” to get magazines on the iPhone:

Why are these print publishers reinventing the digital wheel? A popular app store already exists. It’s called iTunes. And people don’t mind paying for apps there. By creating their own app store, the magazine publishers can avoid paying Apple its 30 percent cut of sales. But that’s not the real reason.

The real reason they want their own store is the customer data. Magazine companies may look like paper companies, with a little art direction thrown in. But at their core, magazine companies are database companies. The way they make money is by knowing who their readers are and marketing to them by where they live and who they are. For nearly every subscriber, they have a credit card number. And they have whole departments which do nothing but massage the data to figure out who to target for advertising purposes and where the profits are. I’ve seen this machine in action. The database people hold the secret levers of power inside magazine companies.

This shouldn’t be a revelation, but it feels like one: nobody working in print media makes money by selling print media. Newspapers sell advertising, bookstores sell coffee and calendars, popular novelists sell movie options, less-popular novelists sell creative writing classes, popular nonfiction writers sell lecture appearances, less-popular nonfiction writers sell humanities seminars, Ben Franklin sold bookplates, and magazines sell subscriber data. It all makes the movie industry’s reliance on box office and DVD sales seem downright purist, even after you consider product placement and crossover merchandizing.

Also worth noting: the fact that magazines’ core business lies in massaging and selling subscriber data makes them pretty good candidates to thrive on the web, once they get their s— together. That’s where the real money and potential for growth is on the internet, too.


Embracing eclecticism

Following Anjali’s suggestion, I steered over to this post, “Bookshops are not dead. Long may it remain so.” Like me, James Higgs reacted negatively to Basheera Khan’s “No more bookshops? Good riddance.” There are some really good points in Higgs’s criticism, and I particularly like this one:

The binding and physical form of the book is an intrinsic part of its content, rather like the frame in a Howard Hodgkin painting. (Another example: James Joyce once made a fuss over the size of a full-stop in Ulysses.) You very much should judge a book by its cover.

Saying that a book can be reduced to a screen is the same thing as saying that a JPEG of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is as good as the original. Thank heavens when we won’t be made to traipse around a physical space, but can have master works beamed into our houses, eh?

This, I think, is one of the major tensions the e-book will have to resolve, or at least develop alternative solutions to, in the years to come. Do we want a perfectly fungible object that the reader is free to resize and redesign according to their own tastes and needs, or do we want a through-designed, screen-independent object that preserves the aesthetic and visual choices of the author and designer? I don’t think that digital can’t do the latter — take a look at iTunes’s recent attempts to bring back album art with iTunes LP, which beats the restricted visuals of the CD, at least. But e-books to date have largely not provided for that possibility, have not sought to create those kinds of objects. Which gives printed books the aesthetic high ground.

My bigger worry, though, with criticisms like Higgs’s, is the following:

  1. “the experience of reading a book is fundamentally different from reading a text on a reading device. Many – and I’d contend that these are mainly people who are not compulsive readers – will not care about this distinction, but this is the market that successful booksellers are targeting.”
  2. “Borders and Books etc are in trouble because they are not good bookshops. There is little to distinguish one shop from the next and, on the whole, their staff are not knowledgeable about the books they sell. They clearly don’t read reviews, or subscribe to major literary periodicals.”
  3. Most people don’t read seriously, and for them, these arguments will make no sense. But for the millions of people who do read compulsively, eReaders are not going to be universally welcomed.”

Now, I don’t care about the elitism in Higgs’s arguments. I’m an elitist reader, too, and I probably like the same books that he likes and would like the same bookshops and be frustrated by the same things in other readers. I do, however, object to the assumptions that

  1. the kinds of texts you like are inherently connected to the kinds of technology you like;
  2. that people who prefer either texts or technologies different from those you prefer are not “real” readers, not committed or compulsive or serious readers;
  3. that the class of readers you belong to is uniquely positioned to determine what the future of reading will look like, or at least ought to.

It’s this argument from authenticity that bothers me most. What’s more, it’s the same trick Khan tries to pull in her post; Khan thinks that “serious readers” would rather carry a thousand books than a handful, that they prefer the library to the bookshop — in short, that they look and act like she does.

I will say it again: reading includes many, many, many things, in every context. If we’re serious about charting the future of reading, rather than advocating for our particular preferences, we have to try to understand and account for all of them, and to do so with as few assumptions and as much good faith and openness to possibility as we can.

After all, the fact that a JPEG of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is fundamentally different from and not as good as the original is only an argument for preserving paintings; it isn’t an argument for abolishing JPEGs of them, or caring about their quality.


Saving more than just face

If you’re at all interested in the health-care debate, especially if you’re coming from the progressive/liberal side of things, Ezra Klein’s reporting on his blog for the Washington Post is just essential. Klein just owns this beat, and every day he posts something from academia to think tanks to Congress that makes me think.

One recent post is especially outstanding. Most people know that the big debate right now is over the public option. Most liberal and progressive Democrats — and, um, more than half of all Americans — want some kind of public health care plan available. Some want a really robust plan, and want to fight for it; some just want something, anything, that could compete with private plans and maybe be built on for later. But most moderate Democrats and Republicans — and, um, the health care industry — don’t want the federal government in the health care business at all. So they are working to either strip the measure out of health care reform completely, reduce the scope and availability of the plan to make it as toothless as possible, or holding out for some other bribes concession to health care interests in their states.

But even if the public option has the highest profile of health-care reform measures (whether for or against), there’s lots of other less-sexy stuff that boosts access and reduces costs/prices. A little while ago, Klein asked an important question: if you give away the public option, what do you get? The thinking here is that a super-stripped-down state-run plan that can’t bargain like Medicare and is only available to a handful of people years from now isn’t automatically worth going to the mattresses for just to have something that bears the name “public option.” So instead of fighting for that idea (which the Republicans and many Democrats insist on fighting tooth-and-nail against), you use it as a bargaining chip, trading it away from something that can offer more bang for your political (and actual) buck.

For instance, instead of a state option for people on the exchange to buy into, which can’t negotiate like Medicare, Congress could allow everyone over the age of 55 to buy into Medicare itself. Klein:

The older you get, the tougher it is to find affordable insurance. Private insurers avoid you like the plague or jack your rates sky-high. Some of that will change with health-care reform. Insurers won’t be able to reject older Americans outright, for instance. But they’ll still be able to charge them quite a bit more than younger Americans pay.

One way to ease the situation for older Americans would be to let them buy into Medicare. Medicare negotiates far better rates than private insurers, making it a potentially cheaper option. Moreover, folks over 55 will be in Medicare fairly soon anyway, so this allows for not only better insurance, but more continuity in insurance, which means more continuity in doctors, preventive treatment, etc. This idea was present in Max Baucus’s original white paper, and even in Howard Dean’s 2004 health-care reform plan. It’s due for a comeback.

Another idea (none of these are either/or, by the way): you could likewise expand Medicaid, to cover everyone who lives below 150 percent of the poverty line. In those two strokes, you’ve extended Actually Existing Single-Payer Health Care to the two groups of Americans (the old and the poor) who have the hardest time finding and paying for decent private insurance.

But what about small businesses, and the self-employed? They have a hard time bargaining for good insurance too. Here’s another idea, that achieves all of the goals of the public option without being called or strictly structured as a public option:

Currently, insurance plans are regulated by the states, which means they’re different in every state. That makes it hard for them to achieve certain efficiencies of scale or maximize their leverage against providers. But back in September, I noticed a promising provision in Max Baucus’s draft that would allow for national insurance plans, so long as they met a minimum level of federal regulation. That seemed like a potentially huge change, but I never heard another word about it, so I let it go.

The compromise being discussed is built atop that provision. The idea is that the Office of Personnel Management would choose nonprofit plans that met national standards and offer them on every state exchange (unless states opted out). These plans would be private, but the OPM would act as an aggressive purchaser, ensuring that they met high standards and conducted themselves properly. It’s a private option with a public filter, essentially. But more importantly, it’s a menu of national, nonprofit plans, which would be much more interesting from a competitive standpoint than state-based, public plans.

There’s a great scene in The Fog of War where Robert McNamara talks about how he and the other folks in Kennedy’s war room realized that Khruschev didn’t want to go to nuclear war; he just wanted a scenario where he could say, “the United States was going to destroy Cuba, and I prevented it!” The US didn’t need to invade Havana or drop bombs on Stalingrad to get that result. They could get greater concessions more safely if they didn’t do those things.

Likewise, I wonder — if we give those punk-ass anti-reform moderates the ability to say, “the Obama administration was going to institute socialized medicine, and I prevented it!”, would that be worth it if we could actually get more people better health care more cheaply without it? I think I might take that deal. I bet the pragmatic tactician in Obama might, too — which is why even as he’s pushed for the public option, he’s always left himself some wiggle room.


The tidal bore of meaning

Stanislas Dehaene tries to explain how when we read a word, the brain gathers and relays information to multiple networks:

Take the verb “bite.” As you remember what it means, your mind briskly evokes the body parts involved: the mouth and teeth, their movements, and perhaps also the pain associated with being bitten. All of these fragments of gesture, motion, and sensation are bound together under the heading “bite.” This link works in both directions: we pronounce the word whenever we talk about this peculiar series of events, but to hear or read the word brings on a swarm of meanings…

Perhaps the easiest way to describe how activation spreads through the dozens of fragments of meaning dispersed in the brain is to compare it to a tidal bore. Some rivers are subject, twice a day, at high tide, to a peculiar phenomenon whereby the leading edge of a massive wave reaches deep into their estuaries. If conditions are right, the wave can travel dozens of miles upstream. No salt water ever reaches this far inland—the tidal bore simply relays a distant rise in water level that spreads in synchrony into the river’s entire system. Only an airplane or satellite can get the true measure of this beautiful natural phenomenon. For a few minutes, a whole network of streams is simultaneously swollen by a powerful surge of water, simply because they all flow into the same sea.

A written or spoken word probably activates fragments of meaning in the brain in much the same way that a tidal bore invades a whole riverbed. If you compare a word like “cheese” with a non-word like “croil,” the only difference lies in the size of the cortical tidal wave that they can bring on. A known word resonates in the temporal lobe networks and produces a massive wave of synchronized oscillations that rolls through millions of neurons. This tidal bore goes even as far as the more distant regions of the cortex as it successively contacts the many assemblies of neurons that each encode a fragment of the word’s meaning. An unknown word, however, even if it gets through the first stages of visual analysis, finds no echo in the cortex and the wave it triggers is quickly broken down into inarticulate cerebral foam.

What a metaphor! A wave, like a thought, consists of countless micro-events which appear to us as a single complex phenomenon. If a stray thought is a wave, then reading is the wave of waves, transversing a network of networks — or a tidal bore.

Which reminds me: So far in the book, Dehaene hasn’t talked about how the brain processes metaphor. It might not be directly tied to reading, but man, I’d love to hear what he has to say. Until then, I guess I’m sticking with that other great French neuroscientist, Marcel Proust.


The gay decade

In the struggle for gay equality (especially marriage equality), the aughts have been the equivalent of the anti-segregation ’50s. Matt Sigl starts with Lawrence v. Texas and rolls from there:

In 2001 The Netherlands (of course) were the first nation in the world to recognize same-sex marriage. In 2003 Ontario followed suit, with Canada granting universal marriage rights to all citizens in 2005. By the end of the decade seven different countries (including South Africa!) have full legal marriage for same-sex couples. Many others have newly enacted civil union laws. And in America, after the shackles of legal and institutionalized homophobia were loosened with Lawrence, same-sex marriage became, just as Scalia predicted, not a lofty dream but a logical necessity and social inevitability. Within six months of the Lawrence decision the ice had thawed enough to allow for the Supreme Court of Massachusetts to demand the that Bay State offer the same marriage license to all its inhabitants, gay or straight.

I’d much rather the aughts be remembered as the Gay Decade than the Hipster Decade.

Both links via Sullivan.


The rise of the info-artist

The best entry by far of this otherwise uninspired “Top Digital Trends For 2010” is the one for “Info-art”:

Where we once had pop-psychologists and pop-philosophers, we now appear to have pop-statisticians and pop-economists. The growing wealth of data and the access to rich and diverse data sources that are significant byproducts of information networks have made the art of data analysis a defining skill of our time.

By the same token, the skill of elegantly visualizing those data has become a defining art of our time. The art of the infographic is becoming increasingly pervasive as people look more and more to the growing amount of data at our disposal for insight, and more refined as the interactions of those data becomes more complex.

With an ever-increasing need for real-time analysis of a growing torrent of raw data, expect to see greater innovation spurred by more elegant ways of capturing and visualizing information by a growing number of info-artists.


The potential to produce information

Poet Christian Bök, on how constraints equal creativity:

I think that my poetics makes it viable for me to excuse a whole variety of obsessive compulsive disorders. It’s not Asperger syndrome; it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Half the battle of being a poet is trying to transform what would otherwise be dismissed as a weakness into a strength, trying to find ways in which something that should fail under other circumstances finds an ecology within which it can succeed…

I’ve put the constraints in place in part to conduct a kind of scientific experiment; I want to be surprised in a relatively rigorous way by the work that I do. I think it’s almost impossible to surprise yourself because of course you’re supposed to know everything about yourself in advance. But by adopting a series of otherwise programmatic constraints, you create a hypothetical set of controlled conditions under which an experiment can be quite literally conducted and the outcome has the potential to be surprising. In effect, it has the potential to produce information.*

Bök’s most famous book, Eunoia, restricts each chapter to a single vowel. So the “E” chapter prohibits any word with an A, I, O, or U. Here’s a short section from “I”:

Writing is inhibiting. Sighing, I sit, scribbling in ink this pidgin script. I sing with nihilistic witticism, disciplining signs with trifling gimmicks impish hijinks which highlight stick sigils. Isn’t it glib? Isn’t it chic?

*P.S.: I wish I’d heard this talk, which was at the Kelly Writers House here in Philadelphia, if only to savor Bök’s punchline. It’s tremendous:

I always joke with my students that poetry couldn’t possibly be as hard as they think it is, because if it were as hard as they thought it was, poets wouldn’t do it. Really, they’re the laziest, stupidest people I know.


Good riddance

Basheera Khan’s post for the Telegraph, “No more bookshops? Good riddance” is as clear an articulation of the technofuturist position on the future of reading as I could imagine. Here’s the key section:

I’m happy to see the back of bookshops, and not just because the paper publishing industry is inherently wasteful of natural resources.

When you buy a book, you’re not just paying for a few hundred bounded pages. You’re paying for the bookshelves you will need to store your books. The time it takes to dust said shelves. The effort and cost of lugging books and shelves if you happen to move house. The psychological debt that builds every time you survey all the books you bought over the years, on a whim, because they were cheap, but which remain unread — because with all the will in the world, there’s just no way to read every book you may want to.

I’ve been slowly divesting myself of the staggering piles of books I accrued when I still bought into the notion that to read a book you had to own it. I look forward with immense relief to the day when all my books are ebooks – light as a feather.

Actually, it’s not quite pure technofuturism. There’s a sop for bookservatives, too:

To people who bemoan the loss of bookshops as a loss to society, I say this: there’s already a place where you can go to find books you simply have to read in physical form. It’s a place where you can browse to your heart’s content, meet friends, take your kids, and do everything you did at your bookshop. It’s called the library. When did you last visit yours?

This is actually a weird binary, almost as weird as the one between bookservatives and technofuturists. Almost every full-throated embrace of technical/social change needs a still point, something that remains unchanged and which can still serve the function of whatever’s being swept aside.

In Khan’s post, it’s the library. It might be self-contradictory — shifting the locus of physical books to the library seems to solve the “hard to move house” and “annoying to dust” problems, but not necessarily the “inherently wasteful of natural resources” or the “I can’t read all of the books!” ones — but that doesn’t matter. She needs libraries. They’re a safety valve. And by praising libraries (and damning bookstore aficionados for not using them) she out-bookserves the bookservatives.

In the same way, folks who want to get rid of all of the physical books in a library would say, “if you still want a physical book, there’s always the bookstore.”

P.S.: If this “technofuturist”/”bookservative” language gets obnoxious or reductive, please tell me. Again, I want to advance “bookfuturist” as an alternative to both of these positions, so if I seem stuck on the words, that’s why.