I love new metaphors for enduring experiences, and Jack Cheng’s got one with the keyframe bias. He’s chosen so well. The keyframe: a tool from hand-drawn animation now used in 3D animation and video compression and elsewhere too. The keyframe is the moment that matters most, the one that holds the most information. Time, experience, and memory are not spread evenly across the universe like cartoon peanut butter. They’re all lumpy—thin in some places, dense in others. The keyframe is the densest moment.
When people complain about the relentless snark and bile of the internet, I never get it. Maybe I’ve just feathered too comfortable a nest for myself in Reader, on Twitter, and here on the Sesame Street of Snarkmarket. Whatever the case, the complaint just never rings true. It never corresponds to my actual experience of the internet.
Tonight, it does.
I’m not going to write about this at length, but I do want to make two small contributions to the conversation (mostly snarky, mostly bilious) about my former colleague Jim Romenesko, my first employer the Poynter Institute, and my friend Julie Moos. (Here’s the post that kicked it off, just in case you’re not already inside this particular filter bubble. None of this will make any sense if you don’t know the backstory.)
First: I like Choire Sicha’s thinking and writing a lot, but man was it hard to read this post. To my eye, it goes beyond criticism: Choire’s post is cruel. And so much of the Twitter pile-on, from so many people I admire, has been similarly cruel. It’s been painful to watch. And so, finally: I get it.
Second: I think it’s fair to summarize the public response to Poynter’s assessment of Jim’s editing as: “Are you kidding me? Nobody cared about that anyway!” There’s also a twist of: “You guys at Poynter over-intellectualize everything.” This is, I guess, an easy response, but it’s also an unsettling one in an era when we (read: the people who read Romenesko) criticize so many other institutions precisely for being opaque and thoughtless.
Listen: there is value in thinking through problems in a structured way. I read Julie’s post—the articulation of a considered, collective decision by many people at Poynter—and yep… I totally disagree with the conclusion. But I admire the clarity and transparency of the reasoning, and I wish we had more institutions working and writing this way. When they do, we ought to argue with them in good faith. I mean jeez, I swear I’m not reaching for false equivalency here… but don’t you think “nobody cared about that anyway” is easy to abuse? Don’t you think it’s been abused before?
Okay, that’s it.
I am, of course, deeply biased by my debt to Poynter and my friendship with Julie and many others there. Poynter was the first place I worked after college, and it’s the place where Matt and I sat in a little computer lab and cobbled together EPIC 2014.
But even so, I’d like to think I’m arguing something general and reasonable here. Simply put, it’s this:
YES to public reasoning rooted in real values.
NO to cruelty. NEVER to cruelty.
If it was all floating in from far away, just another toxic cloud from Mordor, I wouldn’t bother writing anything. But it’s not. It’s coming from people who read this RSS feed.
There are (at least) two different electronic editions of Paradise Lost on Project Gutenberg. The first, produced by Judy Boss and released in October 1991, was Project Gutenberg EBook #20. If you do an internet search for “project gutenberg paradise lost,” this is probably the edition you’ll find.
The second, Project Gutenberg EBook #26, was released in February 1992. This is a curiously short interval, particularly considering that there’d only been 25 ebooks encoded and released by Project Gutenberg in the 20+ years it had existed, and there are (when you stop to count them) many more books in the English language that were available. Even Milton fanatics would probably agree that this was a little early in a mass digitization project to start doubling up.
It turns out, though, that EBook #26 is special. In fact, it merits a special unsigned introduction by Project Gutenberg. By contrast, Boss’s 1991 edition doesn’t have an introduction. Instead, it has a totally charming disclaimer:
All persons concerned disclaim any and all reponsbility
that this etext is perfectly accurate. No pretenses in
any manner are made that this text should be thought of
as an authoritative edition in any respect.
This book was TYPED in by Judy Boss
firstname.lastname@example.org on Internet
eng003@unoma1 on Bitnet
(Judy now has a scanner)
Perfect, right? No authority, just a little signature of the scribe. “Judy made this.” Now she has a scanner.
Ebook #26 needs more context. Here’s the introduction:
This is the February 1992 Project Gutenberg release of:
Paradise Lost by John Milton
The oldest etext known to Project Gutenberg (ca. 1964-1965)
(If you know of any older ones, please let us know.)
Introduction (one page)
This etext was originally created in 1964-1965 according to Dr.
Joseph Raben of Queens College, NY, to whom it is attributed by
Project Gutenberg. We had heard of this etext for years but it
was not until 1991 that we actually managed to track it down to
a specific location, and then it took months to convince people
to let us have a copy, then more months for them actually to do
the copying and get it to us. Then another month to convert to
something we could massage with our favorite 486 in DOS. After
that is was only a matter of days to get it into this shape you
will see below. The original was, of course, in CAPS only, and
so were all the other etexts of the 60’s and early 70’s. Don’t
let anyone fool you into thinking any etext with both upper and
lower case is an original; all those original Project Gutenberg
etexts were also in upper case and were translated or rewritten
many times to get them into their current condition. They have
been worked on by many people throughout the world.
In the course of our searches for Professor Raben and his etext
we were never able to determine where copies were or which of a
variety of editions he may have used as a source. We did get a
little information here and there, but even after we received a
copy of the etext we were unwilling to release it without first
determining that it was in fact Public Domain and finding Raben
to verify this and get his permission. Interested enough, in a
totally unrelated action to our searches for him, the professor
subscribed to the Project Gutenberg listserver and we happened,
by accident, to notice his name. (We don’t really look at every
subscription request as the computers usually handle them.) The
etext was then properly identified, copyright analyzed, and the
current edition prepared.
To give you an estimation of the difference in the original and
what we have today: the original was probably entered on cards
commonly known at the time as “IBM cards” (Do Not Fold, Spindle
or Mutilate) and probably took in excess of 100,000 of them. A
single card could hold 80 characters (hence 80 characters is an
accepted standard for so many computer margins), and the entire
original edition we received in all caps was over 800,000 chars
in length, including line enumeration, symbols for caps and the
punctuation marks, etc., since they were not available keyboard
characters at the time (probably the keyboards operated at baud
rates of around 113, meaning the typists had to type slowly for
the keyboard to keep up).
This is the second version of Paradise Lost released by Project
Gutenberg. The first was released as our October, 1991 etext.
This is honest-to-goodness digital humanism, from start to finish. 113 baud keyboards. IBM punch cards. All caps and no punctuation — like a real Latin text! (In 1964, at least you had spaces between words and periods for the ends of sentences, I guess.) Tapping it out, in many hands, knowing that the number of people likely to even know what they’ve done is probably going to be limited to a handful.
Then in the early nineties, a new generation of digital humanists hears whispered rumors about this file and its editor. Then, after months of persuasion and conversion, “another month to convert to something we could massage with our favorite 486 in DOS.”
Meanwhile, the text itself has actually been recreated by a new editor/typist, working alone. But Project Gutenberg — probably Michael Hart himself — still recreates the text. To maintain that chain unbroken with the past.
When Michael Hart passed away in September, he was hailed as the “inventor of the ebook.” But Hart himself doubtlessly knew better.
He wasn’t the first to type a text into a computer. He didn’t even know who had been, if it was Joseph Raben and his typist(s) or someone else.
Hart didn’t invent the ebook. He invented something more: the place where these digital books and their editors’ names and stories could be preserved and shared. He invented a library; he invented an ark.
I was also pretty skeptical when I started running. I was no athlete. In high school, I thought the days we had to run a mile in gym class equated to corporal punishment.
At the time I started running, I was living in Fresno. I had nothing resembling an “exercise routine.” I would on occasion find myself in the tiny “gym” in my apartment complex, pushing some machine back and forth for half-an-hour until I felt I’d filled a quota. And I was perfectly satisfied with this.
What I wasn’t satisfied with was my iPod. Poynter had given it to me as a parting gift when I left the Institute for Fresno the previous summer. And as delighted as I was with the thing, I hadn’t found any good time to use it. My ride to work was too short; I needed my ears free for the workday; and I usually ate lunch with friends from the paper.
One beautiful fall afternoon, I happened to arrive home early from work to find my iPod staring at me, guilting me out over not enjoying the gorgeous weather. I decided to create an iTunes playlist including some of my favorite weather-appropriate songs, and load the playlist onto the iPod. I figured I’d go outside and walk, but the blocks immediately surrounding my North Fresno apartment complex weren’t the most soul-stirring things. A sudden impulse presented itself: why not jog for a spell? Moving faster, I’d see a bit more of the neighborhood, and possibly discover some previously unseen scenery. No obvious counterarguments presented themselves, so I strapped on the closest running-shoe equivalents I could find in my closet, booted up the iPod, and stepped out.
I made a few key promises to myself as I walked out of the gates of the complex. I recommend these to you:
1) Go slower than you think you should. I had no interest in setting speed records, and I wasn’t really even all that concerned about elevating my heart rate.
2) Turn back when you know you’ve got more than half your energy left. I figured I’d probably jog about 10-15 minutes, and that I could always walk if I overestimated my stamina.
So I started my trot. Nothing magical happened, but the music paired with the scenery was pretty nice. And when I got back home, I wasn’t all that tired. It was pleasant, in its way.
So I went back out, the morning after next – a tiny bit farther, a tiny bit faster. The early morning adrenaline was a treat, and I found myself starting to love the way the pace let you appreciate the scenery – more varied than a walk, more unhurried than a bike ride. And my music mix was the *best.* So I went out again.
Before I realized what was happening, I *loved* running. I craved it. I couldn’t do enough of it. There was always one gorgeous instant when I’d pass over railroad tracks and a grove of walnut trees, typically shrouded in an early-morning fog. (This was where the grove used to be; it’s since given way to development.)
By the time I got to Minneapolis – a runner’s paradise – there was little more miraculous to me than an early morning run around a beautiful lake. Soon, I was going on 6-mile runs, three times a week. I didn’t even need the music anymore. It’s impossible to describe how peaceful it is to run around a frozen lake before dawn, warmed by your own breath inside a balaclava, all the sound in the air absorbed by the snow around you, the white ground glowing beneath a dark sky.
My books are better thought about than read. They’re insanely dull and unreadable; I mean, do you really want to sit down and read a year’s worth of weather reports or a transcription of the 1010 WINS traffic reports “on the ones” (every ten minutes) over the course of a twenty-four-hour period? I don’t. But they’re wonderful to talk about and think about, to dip in and out of, to hold, to have on your shelf. In fact, I say that I don’t have a readership, I have a thinkership. I guess this is why what I do is called “conceptual writing.” The idea is much more important than the product…
My favorite books on my shelf are the ones that I can’t read, like Finnegans Wake, The Making of Americans, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, or The Arcades Project. I love the idea that these books exist. I love their size and scope; I adore their ambition; I love to pick them up, open them at random, and always be surprised; I love the fact that I will never know them. They’ll never go out of style; they’re timeless; they’re always new to me. I wanted to write books just like these. I think you hit it just right when you spoke of reference books. I never wanted my books to be mistaken for poetry or fiction books; I wanted to write reference books. But instead of referring to something, they refer to nothing. I think of them as ’pataphysical reference books.
For more on pataphysics (which I don’t think really needs that apostrophe), aka “the science of imaginary solutions,” read this.
I’ve made a move in the Luddite direction recently by trying to remove UbuWeb from Google. I want the site to be more underground, more word-of-mouth. The only way you’ll be able to find it is if someone links to it or tells you about it, just like music used to be before MTV. But you’ll still find UbuWeb on all the bad search engines that no one uses: AltaVista, Dogpile, and Yahoo! Again, everyone wants to rush toward the center: they even write books about how to get your Google ranking higher. We’re headed in the opposite direction. We want to get off Google.
But actually, even if you go back to that 2005 essay, it has this gorgeous coda, under the subhed “The New Radicalism”:
In concluding, I’m going to drop a real secret on you. Used to be that if you wanted to be subversive and radical, you’d publish on the web, bypassing all those arcane publishing structures at no cost. Everyone would know about your work at lightening speed; you’d be established and garner credibility in a flash, with an adoring worldwide readership.
Shhhh… the new radicalism is paper. Right. Publish it on a printed page and no one will ever know about it. It’s the perfect vehicle for terrorists, plagiarists, and for subversive thoughts in general. In closing, if you don’t want it to exist — and there are many reasons to want to keep things private — keep it off the web.
Something to think about, when you’re too busy not reading.
This guest post by writer, photographer, and Friend of the Snark Quinn Norton is part of Border Town Online, a digital complement to the Border Town Design Studio which will be on display in Detroit starting on September 21st. You can find the rest of the posts at dividedcities.com.
(Let’s just get the silly literary allusion stuff out of the way. Yes, in this Bordertown essay I’m talking about Gerlach and Burning Man, but they’re standing in for the interstitials of modern life and the internet, because we all live in that bordertown now, and frankly, we’re still kind of crap at dealing with it. But Gerlach/Burning Man and IRL/the intartubes are also sometimes synecdoches for the tension between physical need vs the life of the mind. You get deconstructionist bonus points for spotting when, but don’t ask me, because I probably don’t know that much better than you, and intend to lie anyway. HTH, HAND.)
Sometime in the 1970s either Leslie Nielsen, or someone that sounded remarkably like him, did the voiceover of a video about the tiny and worn-down mining town of Gerlach, Nevada. It began, intoned with the solemnity of biblical tragedy or spaghetti westerns, “The town of Gerlach, Nevada endures alone in the vast alkali flats of the Black Rock Desert.” The residents were poor, but hardy and proud. Even then it was already fighting impending death, sitting at the edge of a desert with none of the resources that make modern human lives possible, its little train station on the transcontinental cargo arterial rendered obsolete by the growth of the world around it and by technology. “It’s second best, if you like a rough life,” said one of the residents, the woman who ran the hotel. The video is grainy, low-res, and degraded, in a way that feels true to the subject.
But Gerlach survived, meeting the needs of its dusty people in the coming decades, with gypsum mining, dribbles of tourism, and fixed income retirees. Then, somewhere in the 1990s, Gerlach became a transit town, the last outpost before the edge of this world. Gerlach gave up its position as the last stop before the Black Rock Desert to an intruding municipality seven miles further down the road: Black Rock City.
The line between Gerlach and its neighbor isn’t merely one of land management. It’s one of the most tightly controlled borders in the world, with 24/7 monitoring of ground radar that can pick up a coke can bouncing in the wind, and interstitial agents can be dispatched to check it out within minutes. Access is tightly controlled, vehicles entering are searched. It is actively patrolled by three, sometime four agencies of the law, and even more agents and actors of the city itself. This is what happens at the edge of Black Rock City, home for one week a year to Burning Man. The perimeter of Burning Man is not just a border, it’s a kind of magical frame for the city, what modern man needs to hold the contours of inverted custom, a wellspring of creative madness. It keeps the bodies inside safe, and the minds outside sane.
What is custom in BRC is madness in Gerlach, and vice versa. But they must get along, or it’s likely both municipalities will die. There is animosity, interdependence, the need to be so close they can almost touch, but never risk mingling identities, because Gerlach and Black Rock City are meant to be dichotomous. One is permanent, the other ephemeral. One is an expression of mighty infrastructure, a daughter of commerce; the other, self-generated and money is against custom. The two are trapped in the high energy state of tense borders, conflicted and needful. If you are used to the Gerlachian world, nothing but going can really explain Black Rock City. But Burning Man becomes natural so quickly, because it’s a place of imagination, directly linked to our internal worlds. It is city and deep playa, man and temple, music, sex, and places to cry. Old naked men you’ve never met welcome you home. It is sparkly and glows at night, it has plenty of pain and meanness, and people fight. It is full of actual, non-metaphorical fire, and if you’re used to the safety rail culture of modern life, it dawns on you slowly that no one out here will stop you from stupidly killing yourself.
In the run up to Burning Man and the week you are there, you may, for the first time, put a value on your own life. Burning Man will look for ways to push you. It is full of secret gardens: some sublime, some comfortingly dull, some downright Boschian. You are responsible for your own moral development on the playa; you have no one to blame for your experience. Barring the occasional violence of all cities, you always had the option of walking away, going out from the city, into the darkness and safety of the deep playa. You didn’t have to take that pill, no one made you kiss that boy, and no one can ever take it away. If Gerlach is a place where the work of survival requires the books be balanced, the outer world placated in exchange for support, Black Rock City pushes its citizens into a state mental agility that exceeds their native frame of mind. Burners learn to cultivate serendipity; they come to harness it, and ride it towards the next distant light.
Somewhere, sometimes, in the deep playa you can find a place called the Dust City Diner. It is best found in a mild dust storm, by following the clinking of thick cheap china, and the sound of greasy spoon waitresses calls of “Order up!” Surrounded by nothing but the sterile, basic playa, you will find a small diner bar with red pleather stools. If you sit down on the stools a woman, sometimes chewing gum, will say, “What can I getcha?” All around is the corpse of a sea that died before the first human made a linguistic mark on a piece of bark, or clay, or in charcoal on a stone cave, before the first time imagination was snatched from ephemerality. Now this dream sits on it, ephemeral still but captured, mediated, contained for the outer world.
Not the actual Dust City Diner, but you've got the right idea.
You can order coffee at the Dust City Diner. You can get a very good grilled cheese sandwich. You can talk to the man seated next to you about the things you’ve done so far today. He might be naked, or if it’s a Tuesday, he might be wearing only a tutu. The sandwich will really be much better then it has any right to be, but everything will taste a bit of dust. You may hear dance music in the distance, but getting louder. Eventually you will work out this is a three masted wooden sailing ship, running so low on an old car it looks to be floating across the fine white playa. Dozens of people, sparkling and many in tutus, are on the deck, dancing. This is also normal.
Beyond the diner and the ship is the trash fence, the border of Black Rock City. Outside the fence is the perimeter, and beyond that, nothing. playa the stretches for a 100 miles, soundless and barren, a landscape of pure physical need, and without the trappings of civilization, absolute danger. In the other direction is Gerlach, Empire, Reno, and all of real life. This is the psychogeography of Black Rock City: trapped between mortality and reality.
Wednesday night we biked along Birthday, near 4, looking for something we never found. A man in a trench coat ran nearly in front of my bike, screaming in exasperation that we were both late. We glanced at each other in trepidation for a moment, and pulled off into his camp. “Wardrobe!” he yelled, in between admonishing out tardiness and expressing an extreme relief that we were there at all, “WARDROBE! Get them into costume!” Moments later we were both wearing fedoras, and I another trench coat. They pulled us into the set of a 1930s private detective’s office. I was seated behind the desk, surrounded by incandescent lights, scattered typed pages, books, cigarettes, matchboxes, and a full crew. I heard theme music, a lonely sax, which may not have been real. Everything was dusty, but it wasn’t playa anymore, now it was the dust of troubled neglect. The playa was ten feet away, but it could have been miles. A crew member ran in front of me with a giant pad of cue cards with our lines on them. Turned out I had pictures of my friend’s wife, cheating on him.
She’s just no good.
What can I tell you, Kid?
You’re right. When you’re
right, you’re right, and
I was Jack Nicholson at the beginning of Chinatown. Our scene continued only a couple of minutes, and the crew broke into applause and pats on the back. “You were great, you were perfect!” our director effused, still full of Hollywood. The matchbooks had the password to their speakeasy on the back. We returned later, to a dimly lit bar with more sax and piano, this time definitely real. They gave us excellent Manhattans, and we sat at a round cafe table, legs tucked under a floral tablecloth, munching at mixed nuts and watching the detectives wander by and chat.
Both BRC and Gerlach testify to a common quality; they are both expressions of human effort. These worlds are a lot of work. Gerlach and Burning Man share another tragedy; you will never really know either of them. Gerlach is hidden by your disinterest. You are trying to get through it, either to or from Burning Man. You suspect the locals hate burners. (You’re right.) Some sense of social propriety makes you think maybe trying to get to know Gerlach is impolite, because you’re a freak, and getting to know them is also thrusting yourself upon them. You can’t easily get the things you need most as you’re passing through, which are gas, and an Indian taco. You can’t even say “Indian taco” without feeling a little guilty, especially this close to the res. But by god, you do want one. You’re driving through the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation, and you won’t know it, either. Thousands of years of history that make this country what it is, likely formed your character — the story of the genocide that made the world is here, but there’s no chance you’ll find it, because it’s underneath normal life and you need to get somewhere, either back to your life or out to BRC.
Conditions of life in Black Rock City, as found on the back of the ticket.
You will never see all of Burning Man. If you had a year, you’d never see all of it, and you only have a week. You can’t go to all the parties you’d enjoy the hell out of. Your soul mate is likely out there this year, and you almost certainly won’t run into them. You probably won’t fly in an airplane over the event, even if you know it’s not hard to get a ride at the airport. You not only won’t have all the experiences you could, you won’t even have all the ones you planned on. You will not find the friends you planned to see, and will miss even more friends than that. You will not see a fight at Thunderdome, despite promising yourself that this is the year, damn it. You will run over to climb up inside the Man too late, and it will already be blocked off as people are hauling explosives and accelerants into it. You will miss the artwork your friends made, and you will regret this. but when you tell them this, you will sound like a disingenuous asshole because you’re simply too overwhelmed by that point to sound like you care. You will miss events you really wanted to make, because you were at camp exclaiming that you were bored. You will fall in and out of love several times. You will do things you never imagined yourself doing, and miss other things because of that fact, while extricating yourself from a shade structure converted to a pleasure palace. You will not be able to bring yourself to regret it. You will miss precious things. You will cuss at the weather, and the fucking hippies, and the fucking sparkle ponies. You will know, finally, totally, that the best things and perfect moments are beyond the reach of your time, dribbling into the oblivion of the past, possibly while you were hunting around for your spork. There’s a term for this anxiety at Burning Man, this unease that arises from that which is unseen, from the ghosts of the future missed rather then the past dead. It’s FOMS — fear of missing something. The trick, and this is a very important trick indeed, is to learn that this is OK. This is how you make a life. You miss things, you reach into the river, grab what you can carry, and let the rest go. Instead of finding the best in the infinite out there, you craft an experience one moment chained to the next, made of choices, and appreciated as your own masterpiece, singular in all the world. You feel it all out there, in its tremendous bounty and wonder, and you trust your fellow burners to drink in what you can’t.
Ticket to IRL, the default world.
It is not easy to leave Black Rock City. The process is called Exodus, and it can involve a whole work day’s worth of waiting, ass in car seat, in the line to get back to the paved earth, back on the narrow two lane highway that took you here. People run out of gas, water, patience. You have to work Burning Man, and you’re working right up to the moment you make the left turn onto the highway. Once you’re back on that highway, you will find a plethora of shabby temporary stands have popped up along the side of the road to offer you everything from Indian tacos to trash dumping ($5 per bag, less for sorted recycling), drinks, bicycle rental returns for your dust covered bikes, and even blessed showers. All of it yours, now exchangeable for precious money. You’ll see trash dumped on the side of the road, something exceedingly rare at Burning Man, because of the banal indifference foreigners always have to the little towns, like Gerlach, they pass through. You will feel bad about this, or at least know you should.
Conditions of living in modern life.
The process of coming back out through Gerlach, Empire, and Reno and coming back to the “default world” has a name among burners: decompression. It can be rather like the bends in some ways. The customs are different out here, and you’ll have to remember them. You must remember to stay dressed, and in mostly normal clothes. There’s no dust; you’ll shower more, pick your nose less, and not start every meal with whisky. The next week will be hard. You won’t get enough done. The default world is not about how you feel, or even what you can build; it’s about where you are and what you’re supposed to be doing. There’s a kind of a relief in this; radical self-reliance and radical self-expression have a lot of self in them, and it’s good to not have the whole world you’re called upon to inhabit be about what you and you friends like. It is deeply unhealthy to have your main responsibility be making an experience that is only for you. Back in the real world, you’ll need to have something required of you by others. It’s good to not care so much about what’s in your own head. But nevertheless, you try to carry the mind of Black Rock City home with you. To be a full person this day and age, you have to live in both places at once, alternating, meshed, and distinct.