I love this. Matt Jones at BERG shares a list of totally uncool technologies. Mice! Kiosks! CDs! Landline phones! 512MB flash drives!
Matt argues that these technologies all live in the Trough of Disillusionment (which is where you fall after cresting the heights of hype), and that recombining or recontextualizing these technologies…
…can expose a previously unexploited affordance or feature of the technology – that was not brought to the fore by the original manufacturers or hype that surrounded it. By creating a chimera, you can indulge in some material exploration.
The rest of the post is really interesting, and you should check it out. But I want to dwell on the word “chimera” for a second.
We obviously love hybrids and interdisciplinary thinking here at Snarkmarket. But you know, I think we might love chimeras even more.
Hybrids are smooth and neat. Interdisciplinary thinking is diplomatic; it thrives in a bucolic university setting. Chimeras, though? Man, chimeras are weird. They’re just a bunch of different things bolted together. They’re abrupt. They’re discontinuous. They’re impolitic. They’re not plausible; you look at a chimera and you go, “yeah right.” And I like that! Chimeras are on the very edge of the recombinatory possible. Actually—they’re over the edge.
Tim’s last post feels chimeric to me.
I was going for something chimeric with this post, I think.
Chimeric thinking. It’s a thing.
The documentary film crew shows up.
This is not totally crazy. The 48 Hour project is a Twitter sensation. More than 6,000 people signed up to potentially contribute to the magazine’s first issue, some from as far away as Brazil, Rwanda, and Japan. The project had been covered that day by the L.A. Times and the Wall Street Journal.
But when the filmmakers arrive to document the drama and the glory, they find a handful of people working quietly around a conference table.
Their hair is clean. Their shoes are on. They are not visibly intoxicated.
The film crew retreats to an empty conference room to regroup
Love it. Of course, I also love the magazine itself, which I’ve ordered. You should, too! (There’s a short piece of work from Robin Sloan waiting for you on the very last page.)
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.
More thoughts on Op-Tech writing at major dailies. In particular, I had a sentence that I wanted to squeeze in, but forgot about until an hour after I hit submit: “Op-Tech is equal parts business, politics, and aesthetics.”
Think about it! Most of this journalism is about major corporations who each release a handful of significant products or technologies each year. In a few cases, a Pogue or Mossberg will spotlight peripheral objects by smaller companies. But it’s really about major trends and players in the tech sector, trying to understand and evaluate what’s happening. That’s the business end.
But again, Op-Tech writers don’t largely touch on issues of manufacturing, personnel, law, everything the tech reporters do. They write as users (albeit expert users) for users. They talk about the aesthetics and experience of using an object, and make recommendations to users (and only occasionally to companies) about how best to use and whether to purchase a business or service. This is where they’re closest to food or movie reviewers.
Think about it! Like a meal or a movie, personal digital technology is criticized primarily according to the aesthetic experience of the user. I’ll ramp that up beyond the bounds of plausibility. New gadgets or software packs are among our most important aesthetic objects, more significant and universal than books, TV shows, or movies — so much so that the paper of record requires experts to weigh in on their value and importance.
At the same time, technology writing is political in a way that most aesthetic criticism simply isn’t. What I mean is that 1) there are real arguments between partisans, and 2) these arguments have significant real-world consequences — in ways that criticism of movies or restaurants, simply don’t, unless you live in the right part of Manhattan.
This, I think, is why so many people get upset about the cozy relationship between Op-Tech columnists and the companies they cover — they feel as though criticism, any criticism that might question the strategies of the Major Powers (yes, I’m talking about Apple, Microsoft, and Google as if they were empires on the verge of World War I), is shut out or at least diminished and contained for that reason. The weird position of the major guys as reviewers/insiders/brands appears to guarantee that.
My response would be 1) that you don’t need or even want a David Pogue or Walt Mossberg to be running around playing Edward R. Murrow, and 2) that job is open — at least that sliver that hasn’t largely been filled by magazine writers, academic critics, and independent bloggers.
Still, I would love to see more writing in newspapers that really focuses on the aesthetics of tech — Virginia Heffernan is really the model here — or the broader ramifications of tech policy. Imagine if the New York Times had an opinion columnist — right next to Krugman, Dowd, Brooks, and the rest — writing about the intersection of technology, politics, and culture? Not in Slate, not in the Chronicle of Higher Education — but smack in the middle of the NYT, WSJ, or the Post.
After all, EVERYONE who reads the editorial page of the Times has an opinion about who OUGHT to be writing for the editorial page of the Times.
I say, let’s treat this like it were actually already happening: write your model nominees in the comments below.
For the past few years I’ve been trying to think this way about projects, professional and personal: I need to know how big the market is, and I need to know what success looks like. Now, this doesn’t mean the former has to be huge and the latter has to be blows-the-doors-off; in fact, the opposite usually sets a better stage for satisfaction. Small, well-understood audience; limited, well-defined success scenario. The Powell Doctrine of projects.
So you can see why I loved this estimate from Daniel Menaker in the Barnes & Noble Review (which I didn’t even know existed)—
I have this completely unfounded theory that there are a million very good — engaged, smart, enthusiastic — generalist readers in America. There are five hundred thousand extremely good such readers. There are two hundred and fifty thousand excellent readers. There are a hundred and twenty-five thousand alert, active, demanding, well-educated (sometimes self-well-educated), and thoughtful — that is, literarily superb — readers in America. More than half of those people will happen not to have the time or taste for the book you are publishing. So, if these numbers are anything remotely like plausible, refined taste, no matter how interesting it may be, will limit your success as an acquiring editor.
This is great. Even if it’s off by an order of magnitude (and I don’t think it is), it’s great. It’s like Drake’s Equation for publishing. Here are the odds that there are intelligent life-forms in the universe… who will buy your book.
It’s hugely important. The reason the web works so well—even though, for so many things, the web barely works at all—is because at this point it’s simply so sprawling. Your starting number, N, is huge, so even if you have to whack it down (oh, only 10% of N are even interested in this, and of those N1, 1% will ever find our blog, and of those N2…) you still end up with a huge number.
This is not true of the Kindle-verse. Not true of the App Store—though it’s growing fast. Some markets just don’t have the liquidity to support anything other than the utterly generic, the totally mass-appeal—and it’s not that hard to scratch out some numbers and find out which is which.
An estimate like Menaker’s is also important because it helps you gauge success. What we always hear about are the best-sellers and the blockbusters. They tend to make any numbers that don’t end in –million seem pretty lame. But with Menaker’s numbers as context, suddenly a super-smart book that sells 10,000 copies seems like an improbable success.
So, this is stuff to think about when you’re creating anything. How big is the potential audience—the upper limit? And what fraction of those people do you have to reach to feel like you succeeded?
Via Matthew Battles’ posterous, which is just about my favorite thing on the web these days.
Gotta say, even though I’m not a huge HuffPo fan, I like the sound of this: a new books section produced in partnership with the New York Review of Books.
It’s almost weird how good the NYRB’s website is; you expect an institution like that to barely have a website at all, to be vaguely hostile to the notion. But nope, it’s great! Really, I guess the virtue at work here is minimalism—the articles are basically presented in print-this-page format. Smart text, no distractions: can’t go wrong.
But, like, their Twitter feed is really good, too! Somebody over at NYRB knows what’s up.
Anyway, the idea of turbocharging NYRB ideas with everything that HuffPo knows about web traffic—getting them in front of HuffPo’s huge audience? This could be interesting.