The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32

I really don’t know clouds at all

I watched Peter Diamandis give a presentation yesterday (at the Michigan CEO Summit) – among other things, he showed a video of Watson absolutely dominating in Jeopardy and mentioned, offhand, that Watson has an API now.

My ears perked up, and one Google search and a few clicks later, I confirmed what I’ve long suspected: AI is coming for my job.

Message Resonance

But don’t worry, fellow wordsmiths and rhetoricians: the only audience you can optimize for, under Watson’s current public incarnation as Bluemix, is the crowd of Twitter users interested in two topics:

  • Cloud
  • Big Data

And that, if you’ll forgive the somewhat laborious introduction, is why I’m thinking about clouds.

Sunrise (Abbottabad) 1

Much like its tropospheric namesake, you can see almost anything in the digital cloud if you stare at it long enough. Panopticon? Library of Babel? Sum total of human knowledge? Yes, yes, yes, all of the above. So why do we persist in using only one word to mean so many things?

I’d like to propose a new classification system. Instead of just talking about “the cloud”, as in “this app syncs with the cloud” or “I keep all my photos in the cloud now” or “Ever since Snowden, I just don’t trust the cloud” – let’s be more specific.

Clouds and Clouds

Cirrus clouds are light, wispy, more decorative than consequential.

Cirrus clouds 2

Moving over to the digital world, a cirrus cloud primarily stores metadata, and you wouldn’t really miss if it disappeared. For example, Chrome browser sync – it’s nice to have your bookmarks on all your computers, but not something you couldn’t live without. GameCenter on iOS keeps track of your leaderboard rankings and syncs your game progress, but you don’t really “keep” anything in GameCenter.

Cumulus clouds are hefty, voluminous, big.

Cumulus clouds 3

A cumulus cloud is a storehouse for heaps of data, like that 25GB of correspondence over a decade in your Gmail account, or photo backups on Dropbox, or your iTunes library.

Stratus clouds are flat sheets, sometimes layered. People don’t take many photos of stratus clouds, because frankly they’re not very impressive.

Stratus cloud 4

A stratus cloud is important, but it’s not customer-facing. Amazon AWS, Github, Heroku – workhorses, one and all, but unless you’re a developer you probably neither know nor care.

And then there are nimbus clouds – the ones that promise rain, sleet, snow, hail. Or worse.

Nimbus cloud 5

Nimbus clouds are the dark internet, the alphabet soup of NSA programs, the hacked credit card and password databases getting passed around the back alleys of the net. The cloud that rains on your parade when your identity gets stolen: that’s a nimbus.

This is just scratching the surface of cloud-related terminology, but it’s a start – and hopefully a useful one. What do you think?

Notes:

  1. Photo CC-BY-SA Umais Bin Sajjad
  2. Photo CC-BY European Southern Observatory (ESO)
  3. Photo CC-BY-NC Fir0002/Flagstaffotos
  4. Photo CC-BY-SA PiccoloNamek
  5. Photo CC-BY-SA Malene Thyssen
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I wanted you, but I’m over that now
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Every album by The Wrens so far has turned out to be a time capsule prophecy of my life in the decade to follow — just open it up ten years later, listen to it again, and it turns out there was your whole life, written for you by a band’s songwriters who’d already gone there and were sending you a message back, like constellations five to ten light years away, only it went in reverse, and you are actually seeing the future in the stars. Superluminal astronauts desperate to get a message back to the past, and the only way is through slightly overwrought guitar pop songs.

They’re releasing another one, signed with a label, recording is almost done. Their fans may be few, but we are loyal and we are mighty, and we have been making ourselves ready, here on the other side of the universe.

Call it dad rock if you want. I, for one, am anxious to learn what my forties will be like, and grateful to know that if the pattern holds, no matter what happens, at least I’ll live that long.

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A leaky rocketship
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I’ve been trying to write this post all day. It’s hard for me to write these days because I fractured my shoulder a few weeks ago, so writing for me really entails talking to a computer, which translates my speech into text. This sounds like it would be easy, but it isn’t. You need time, electricity, and relative quiet, which turns out to be really scarce. You also need to be able to pay attention, which is also pretty scarce.

We’re not quite at the “Speakularity,” where speech in any context can instantly be converted to text and back again with a minimum of human processing. But speech recognition software has gotten incredibly good — certainly much better than it was five years ago when I was last injured and trying to write blog posts with a combination of one-handed typing and decent – but – still – rudimentary speech recognition software. Those early Snarkmarket posts in the fall of 2009 were pretty rough. I remember contacting Robin Sloan and asking him if he could proofread them for me, because I made so many typos with my left hand, and I couldn’t pay attention long enough to reread everything I’d written.

Snarkmarket is 11 years old today, and like the preteen that it is, it’s not as communicative as its parents would always wish it would be. Attention and quiet are scarce resources, and even a hardy desert ecosystem needs those two things to sustain itself. Still, it’s a relief to know that Snarkmarket it’s always here, a pied-a-terre in the blogosphere for those of us who live on social media, dark social, the official world of formal communications, the imaginary world of invented fictions, the obligations and complications that life continually calls on us to address and fulfill. Snarkmarket is here. The key to that lock will always let you in.

Six years ago today, I became one of the writers/editors of Snarkmarket, joining Matt Thompson (hahaha — you guys can’t see it, but my speech software wanted to call him “Matt #”) and Robin Sloan in convening this circus tent, this public diary of private preoccupations, this repository for 10 year time capsules, this leaky rocketship into the future. Snarkmarket has been Snarkmarket with Tim longer now than it wasn’t.

And I think — maybe Robin and Matt would contest this — but Snarkmarket deserves a place as one of the Great Blogs of the 2000s. I don’t know if anyone is keeping a list of these, or if people get together and argue whether Metafilter or Kottke.org was better and why, or if the whole Daring Fireball route was a mistake, like sports fans arguing about overrated and underrated sports teams and players, but if such a world exists, and let’s be honest, a universe with such a world inside it is better and greater than one without it, in the same way that a universe with a just and perfect God is better and greater than one without it, I submit that in this world Snarkmarket needs to be considered as one of the Great Blogs, in the same way that Tony Gwynn is one of the great baseball players, or the 1988-89 Detroit Pistons is one of the great basketball teams of all time.

Enough people — smart people, successful people, people not much younger than Robin and Matt and I, but often more successful than any of us, which, look around, is a pretty significant hurdle to clear — come up to me and say things like, “Snarkmarket helped me figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up.” enough people say these things that I increasingly have a sense that Snarkmarket was not just the most important blog to me when I joined it in 2008, but to many other people too. It played that Tony Gwynn/Kazuo Ichiro role for a lot of people — sure, other blogs had more power, but Snarkmarket was just a little smarter, a little trickier, a little more curious, a little better at getting on base.

Joining this blog was one of the most important things that ever happened to me, and that’s another way in which I can judge somewhat objectively how important it is been. In November 2008, I was on the academic job market, getting ready to interview for a few tenure-track jobs and postdoctoral fellowships, and it was weird — it was a time when people, smart people, influential people still said “you shouldn’t have a blog, you shouldn’t be on twitter, if you do these things, you should do them under pseudonyms, and if anyone asks you about it, you shouldn’t tell them, because if you blog, and it’s known that you write a blog, online, people are going to wonder whether or not you’re really serious about your work, and you just don’t want to give them any extra ammunition to wonder anything about you.”

I didn’t care. I had been waiting for one or two years, ever since Robin had suggested that maybe Snarkmarket would add a few writers and maybe I might be one of them, I think when we were on our way to the bathroom at the Museum of Modern Art on a random visit, and I was just super hungry to be handed the key to this place where I’ve been reading and writing comments since before I knew what a blog really was.

Is that still a thing, people getting excited about being able to be part of a blog? I didn’t think so, but then I became part of Paul Ford’s tilde.club and saw people falling over themselves to get an invite to SSH into a UNIX server, just to be a part of something, just to have a chance to put up some silly, low bandwidth, conceptually clever websites and chat with strangers using the UNIX terminal. It’s not like being one of the cool kids who’s in on a private beta for the latest and greatest smartphone app, where your enjoyment is really about being separate from the people who aren’t included, and the expected attitude is a kind of jaded, privileged disinterest: it’s more like getting a chance to play with the neighbor kid’s Lego set, and he has all the Legos.

Robin and Matt had crazy good Legos. I didn’t get that academic job, but I was able to take their Legos and build my way into a job writing for Wired, of all places, 30 years old and I’d never been a journalist except by osmosis and imposture here at Snarkmarket, and now I get paid every month to write for Wired, how does that happen except that this place was an extra scaffolding for all of us, for me in grad school, for Matt at newspapers across the country, for Robin at Gore TV/Current TV/Twitter, to build careers that weren’t possible for people who didn’t have that beautiful Lego scaffolding to support them (I’m wearing a sling on my arm right now with straps that wrap around my body to hold my arm in place, and a screw and washer to hold my shoulder bone together, my upper arm bone really, plus my rotator cuff, plus hold massive tendons, plus I’m thinking about those times that I would walk from my apartment in Columbus Circle down Broadway to Four Times Square in Manhattan to go to work at wired, wired isn’t there anymore, Condé Nast just moved in to one World Trade Center today, all the way downtown, but the scaffolding in Manhattan that is just constant, that is the only thing that allows the city to remake itself day after day month after month year after year, so this scaffolding metaphor is really doing something for me, plus Legos, well, Legos that just came from before, so what can I tell you, roll with it).

I don’t work at Wired, Robin doesn’t work at Twitter, Matt is at NPR, and we are where we are because of the things that we did but also because of this place. Ars Technica ran a story about it being 10 years since EPIC 2014 – I could paste the link and maybe that would be the bloggy thing to do, but you’re big boys and girls, you can Google it after you finish reading this — and there’s great interviews in there with Robin and Matt about how they made the video, and some specific names of wars and companies aside, were basically right about how technology companies were going to take the distribution and interpretation of the news away from both traditional journalism companies and the emerging open standards of the World Wide Web. I mean, isn’t that a hell of a thing, to see the future and put it in a flash movie? Anything was possible in 2004, especially if that anything Looked like a future that was vaguely uncomfortable but not so bad, really.

I turned 35 today, and I don’t really have a lot of deep thoughts about my own life or career or where I am in it. I’ve had those on other birthdays, and I’ve had them on many days in the not too distant past. Today, though, I’ve mostly felt warm and embraced by the people all around me, in my home, across the country, on the telephone, connected to me by the mails, whose books I read (and whose books publishers send to my house, my friends are writing books and their publishers send them free to my house, that’s almost as amazing as a machine that I can control that lets me read new things all day), and who were connected to me by the Internet: on twitter or Facebook, on Slack or email, by text message or text messaging’s many, many hypostases, all around me, as real to me as anyone I’ve ever imagined or read or touched, all of them, all of them warm and kind and gracious and curious about me and how I’m doing, what I’m up to, what I’m thinking, what I want to do this week or next month or when I get a chance to read that thing they sent me. it is as real to me as that invented community at the end of epic 2015, that brilliant coda that people almost always forget, and I don’t know why because it’s actually a better prediction of our future-come-present than anything in the first video, but maybe it’s not about the New York Times, it’s just about a beautiful day outside, a traffic accident, an open door, Matt’s beautiful voice when he narrates that photograph, beckoning you to come outside to look, LOOK.

The Snarkmatrix Is infinite, the stark matrix is everywhere, the start matrix can touchdown at any point in these electronic channels and reconstitute itself, extending perpetually outward into the entire world of media and ideas and editors who are trying to understand what will happen next, and teenage kids who are trying to figure out how what they’re doing maps in any way at all to this strange, established world of culture, to writers who are anxious for any sense of community, any place to decompress between the often hostile worlds of social media and professional correspondence. People want a place, a third place, and blogs are a great form of that place, even when they’re not blogs. (I’m subblogging now. This is what it’s come to. But I think most of you feel me.)

I don’t feel like I’m at any kind of peak or hollow or inflection point of my life or career, or any vantage at which I can look forth and contemplate what’s happened or what is to come. what I feel overwhelmingly is a sense of being in the middle, in medias res, nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita, and there is no crisis, only a sense of being surrounded, enmeshed, connected, and in-between, en route. Snarkmarket remains en route. And I hope it does for another 111 years. It deserves to.

Screenshot 2014-11-04 13.24.26

4 comments

Or not

Imagine, if you will, the following as narrated in a British accent. Or don’t. It’s really up to you.

It was a late spring afternoon when the reader discovered a new post at a beloved but recently quiet site. The reader’s initial enthusiasm was somewhat dampened when it was discovered that the post took a video game as its jumping off point. “Wasn’t the last post about a video game?” the reader sighed, but continued anyway. This was, after all, the sort of site where interest was often found in unexpected places. Whether motivated by fascination or nostalgia, the reader moved past the somewhat awkward third person narration of the opening paragraph, and began to read in earnest.

Binary

While videogame developers like BioWare (Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect) and Quantic Dream (Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls) have generated a great deal of sound and fury by designing games on the premise of meaningful narrative choices, there has been in the past few years a quiet movement of smaller games such as Pathos, Unmanned, and The Stanley Parable which throw into question the very possibility of meaningful choice in an “interactive” narrative environment. Read more…

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Old blood

I don’t know a great deal about the upcoming PC game Apotheon beyond what can be gleaned from the trailer. According to Polygon, it’s a Metroid-like 2D action platformer whose original comic book visuals were replaced during the development process by its current classical-Greek-inspired look.

While the trailer doesn’t seem to delve much into the why of what goes on in the game, it’s pretty clear that there’s a lot of combat, and that the game takes the idealized figures of ancient Greek pottery and adds a great deal of blood. Exploding clouds of blood, in fact, not even imagining that every wound must hit an artery so much as the human body itself as a film special effect, with a layer of explosive squibs directly beneath the skin.

That said, it must be acknowledged that while classical Greek art might not often be gory to our modern, horror-film-jaded eyes, it is frequently violent. (See, for example, this image of a pot depicting Achilles dragging Hector’s body behind his chariot, which probably illustrates my point better, but doesn’t look quite as nice on the page as the more generic battle scene below.)

Amphora_warriors_Louvre_E866

And if the ancient Greeks valued a clean line in their visual art, they certainly didn’t shy away from detailed descriptions of the effect of violence on human anatomy in their poetry. Read more…

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Women’s voices and mogul swagger
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I had the fortunate accident of reading these two very different articles in close succession: Mary Beard’s “The Public Voice of Women” and Peter Lauria’s “Mark Zuckerberg Comes of Age As A Mogul.” I think you can guess which quotes from come from which:

I want to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’; telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public. I’m thinking of a moment immortalised at the start of the Odyssey. We tend now to think of the Odyssey as the story of Odysseus and the adventures and scrapes he had returning home after the Trojan War – while for decades Penelope loyally waited for him, fending off the suitors who were pressing for her hand.​ But the Odyssey is just as much the story of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope; the story of his growing up; how over the course of the poem he matures from boy to man. The process starts in the first book with Penelope coming down from her private quarters into the great hall, to find a bard performing to throngs of her suitors; he’s singing about the difficulties the Greek heroes are having in reaching home. She isn’t amused, and in front of everyone she asks him to choose another, happier number. At which point young Telemachus intervenes: ‘Mother,’ he says, ‘go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.’ And off she goes, back upstairs.

§

Noticeably absent from the mounds of coverage of how Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp came together is any mention of the social network’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg… Her absence, at least publicly, seems to suggest that Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg no longer needs adult supervision. Quite the opposite, in fact. Though Zuckerberg is still three months away from his 30th birthday, over the last few years he has blossomed into a very impressive mogul. Gone is the caricature of him as a hoodie-wearing, socially awkward CEO profusely sweating under questioning. He’s grown into a cocksure leader, solid operator, and gutsy dealmaker, even if the casual dress still remains. Looking at him today, he can rightly be called the first mogul of social media.

§

There is something faintly ridiculous about this wet-behind-the-ears lad shutting up the savvy, middle-aged Penelope. But it’s a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere; more than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species. The actual words Telemachus uses are significant too. When he says ‘speech’ is ‘men’s business’, the word is muthos – not in the sense that it has come down to us of ‘myth’. In Homeric Greek it signals authoritative public speech (not the kind of chatting, prattling or gossip that anyone – women included, or especially women – could do).

§

It’s important to understand that not all CEOs are de-facto moguls. There’s a swagger moguls have that transcends simply being the boss or being rich. Moguls are visionary, decisive, and a bit ruthless, at least with their business objectives. They are concerned not with industry or domestic but rather world domination, and usually have grandiose mission statements to describe their business (“Connecting the world” in the case of Facebook; as another example, “Organizing the world’s information” for Google). And they also usually have absolute control of their companies through majority control of its voting shares. Not unlike the traditional family-run media companies — think News Corp’s Murdoch family, Comcast’s Roberts family, Cablevision’s Dolan family, or Viacom’s Redstone family — Zuckerberg has an ironclad grip on Facebook’s board and strategic direction through his 57% control of its voting shares.

It’s both fucked-up and perfect to think about Telemachus competing with both Penelope and her suitors over her “control of voting shares” in Odysseus’s media empire.

I did a quick Google search to see if any female tech CEOs have been praised for their “swagger,” and got stalled at Andrew Wallenstein’s exhortation for Marissa Mayer to, well, shut up:

It’s as if Mayer is trying to play two seemingly incompatible roles at once: the visionary turnaround specialist who lets the innovations she implements do the talking, and the rockstar CEO who rationalizes that her company basks in the refracted glow of a halo that gets its shimmer from her swagger.

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” you think. Well, “The Marissa Mayer Show Needs a Rewrite” spells out its subtext, pitting Mayer against Sandberg through way of a joint photo op. While Sandberg epitomized “tasteful restraint,” Mayer “seemed to be auditioning to be an Entertainment Tonight correspondent.” “Sandberg leans in. Mayer preens in.”

Dismiss this opinion of Mayer as pure sexism if you must. She’s an attractive woman who shouldn’t have to tamp down her femininity to correspond to some conventional presumptions of how an executive should conduct him or herself. But the same could be said about a male executive who posed for GQ and interviewed the cast of Fast and Furious 14.

Beard’s article/speech isn’t really about the way professional media writers talk about CEOs. It’s more directly about the way the hoi polloi talk to and about women who speak, especially women who speak out. But I think Beard also persuasively shows that the two things aren’t so separate. The way we frame women’s personae at the top of the social pyramid, from Penelope to Margaret Thatcher to Mayer and Sandberg, both guides and is supported by the way we talk about women’s and men’s public and private voices all the way down.

The whole mess is caught up in an inherited fabric so tangled, so knotty, so devious, that “misogyny,” Beard suggests, is a word that falls far too short. It’s not only hate; it’s history.

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‘he deserves another shot’
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DayZ is a zombie-themed video game, one of the most popular entries in a recent streak of revenant-driven survival horror titles that shows no sign of ending anytime soon. This particular game began its life in 2009, when an Army officer trainee modded another game to help him prepare for training exercises. His mod snowballed in popularity, has been remade and released as a standalone game, and can now boast imitators of its own (such as 2013’s Rust).

It’s been true for a while now that video games are able to provoke a type of fear experience that no other medium delivers. Playing a survival horror game is much scarier than reading a book or watching a movie with equivalent plots and themes. We play these games to experience feelings that are difficult to recognize as pleasure or enjoyment.

The thing about good zombie fiction … is that the zombies are never the most horrific thing. Zombies don’t typically have the capacity for complex thought — they don’t execute stratagems, play politics, torture people. All they do is feed. The true horror in any zombie story worth its salt is what other people do when faced with the zombie threat. Zombies are merely relentless; humans can be sadistic.

Dayz is a zombie game in which the player’s main antagonists are actually other people, which makes it unnervingly compelling:

Any satisfying gameplay requires working together, but the alliances are informal and can be dissolved at a moment’s notice, plunging the player back to the opening beach. Any institution — even one as meager as Freeside’s trading post — is under constant threat of attack from roving bandits. On forums, players describe being forced into slavery by marauding gangs. One popular video shows two players boarding a bus, supposedly bound for a camp in need of workers, then being forced to fight to the death.

The best chronicle of the weirdly poignant and disturbing human behaviors DayZ brings out in its players might be Christopher Livingston’s Tumblr hey are you cool (that phrase was the first thing Livingston heard from another player). Here, via Rock Paper Shotgun, is a peek into a hostage situation Livingston happened to overhear in the game:

You are dead.

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How to enjoy ephemera

This is my favourite thing-of-the-moment.

A few weeks ago, Adrian Chen subscribed to Harper’s.

Adrian waits for Harper's

Waiting for Harper’s

At the risk of over-explaining the joke, here is why it’s wonderful: Adrian has worked out how to exploit a behaviour in Twitter’s controversial conversation view that allows him to tell a longitudinal joke on Twitter, a medium so ephemeral that many top tweeters ICYMI three times a day. Every time he adds to it, Twitter dredges up the old stuff in case we’ve forgotten what’s going on.

Whenever Twitter makes an outrage-sparking change to the web interface, snobs like to affect surprise that anyone uses the service outside of a client. For my money, visiting twitter.com is the only way to ensure you’re fully appreciating the work of people pushing the medium to its limits.

P.S. If you do use web view, you owe it to yourself to add @glitchr_ to your feed. @glitchr_ only works through the involuntary collaboration of neighbouring normal tweets.

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Calculating the Weight of the Object

curta Image courtesy of Grant Hutchinson.

William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition is likely a familiar novel to readers of Snarkmarket – if not in content, then in its tone and its concerns. It is a tale of Cayce Pollard, a strange marketing-savant with a literal sixth-sense for design, and her quest to solve the mystery of both “the footage” – a series of loosely connected video fragments released anonymously online – and her father’s disappearance on September 11, 2001.

Among the things that struck me about the text was the fuzziness of the real — the fact that the mysterious videos at the centre of the story hover in an odd liminal space of being both true and false, referring to “reality” and not. It’s an aspect of the text intimately tied to digital tech – to the novel’s sense of the “virtual” nature of a virtual world, an approach which can often produce a split between an assumed real thing and its digital corolloary (think, regardless of how you feel about the implied hierarchy, of the book vs. the ebook, the face-to-face interaction vs. the online one etc).

As a result, it felt like certain things in the novel that were solid, physical, heavy were almost like a relief – a kind of in-focus reprieve from a world otherwise viewed through a kaleidoscope. Protagonist Cayce is obsessed with signs, and systems of meaning – and remaining ambivalently illegible – but also takes comfort in the unambiguous weight of a locked door, her crisp, black Rickson’s jacket, the strain on her muscles during a morning’s workout.

And then there was the Liechtensteinian calculator – the Curta.

The Curta is a mechanical calculator, but to say that seems to do it injustice. It can perform addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and even square roots and more. Gibson describes it as “heavy, dense, knurled for gripping”, seemingly “executed by a small-arms manufacturer” while “the sensation of its operation is best likened to that of winding a fine thirty-five millimeter camera.” It also just looks really freaking cool. Like a hand grenade of math.

Watch this video relating its history and explaining how it works. Because, though I hesitate to use the phrase, it will blow your mind. And if that wasn’t enough, its inventor Curt Herzstark, perfected it while interned in a concentration camp during the Second World War. Yeah.

This came to mind because I was double-checking a reference today for a dissertation chapter which is partly about Pattern Recognition. While writing that torpid thing, I apparently thought that “as a calculator, [the Curta] is a thing bound up in ‘non-significatory’ actions, a material object meant to produce ‘immaterial answers'” – but that this “pre-digital device is meant to perform functions now hopelessly intertwined with electronic technology, and thus is itself a fetishistic sign of pre-internet technology and industrial manufacturing.”

Now I think that may be an uncharitable read.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between objects and activities. It’s something obviously affected by digitally-enabled multi-functionality. The digital object doesn’t so much have “a function” as a series of functions under an umbrella of one or two metafunctions – to wit, “this device is what I use to keep up to date” or “my tablet is what I use to read everything from the news to novels.” The association between object and function that was often one-to-one has become multiplied, perhaps receding into infinity (what, really, is the limit of what you can do with your iPhone?)

But more than that, though I know it sounds like mere tautology, the function of physical devices is related to their physicality. How they operate and what they do in 3D space is dependent on the manner in which they occupy that space. Maybe it’s my digitally-addled brain that needs reminding of that, but it somehow feels like a point worth repeating. And the Curta, in a world in which even the scientific calculator feels arcane, just seems so fascinatingly, resoundingly, undeniably physical. And perhaps it’s because of that physicality, but something about it thus seems so purposeful.

It is easy to get caught up in romanticizing the object we can touch, just as we here on Snarkmarket can occasionally get a bit too attached to pixels you can interact with and manipulate. But I’ve been wondering lately if, beyond the chatter about the attention economy or a supposed “inherent” nature to print or screens, there isn’t something pleasurable in the object that performs but one function. Physical or digital, it doesn’t matter. All I mean to ask is if there isn’t something to be enjoyed in a conscious minimalism of function rather than form – that one might find relief in the simplicity of a one-to-one relationship between an activity and a thing.

2 comments

What a dodo might teach us about books

We seem to be living in a perpetual age of the death throes of The Book. 1 There are too many pieces to count that insist that the book is dead or (despite all odds) is thriving, that paper books are different/better/worse than electronic books, that game apps will save books, blah blah blah. We seem to rehash the same surface-level observations over and over again. As my friend Alan Jacobs wondered, “Why do people still write as though they’re the first ones to think about the difference between e-books and codices?” I’ll spare you my thoughts on the subject, since I’ll only gripe about how people misunderstand the complexities of books, whether on a print or a digital platform, and who wants to read more griping?

If you want to think about these questions through experiencing them, let’s look instead at some books that live on the boundary between print and electronic. The obvious starting place is Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s Between Page and Screen (Siglio Press, 2012): it exists in a codex form that can be held in your hand but to read it, you’ll need a computer. The pages of the book are black-and-white geometric shapes that are referred to as markers or hieroglyphs or sigils. The shapes aren’t legible as words to the human eye; hold them up to your webcam, however, and the book’s website will show back to you the poem floating above the page.

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Is it still a book if you can only read it with a computer? That’s not a bad question, I suppose, and I find the concept of the work interesting. But the experience of using the book drives me crazy. When I first got it, my ancient laptop didn’t have a camera; the computers in the house that did either didn’t have Flash installed or had their cameras disabled. Now that I have a fancy laptop, I have the technological requirements, but it turns out I’m not so good at orienting the book to be read by my computer. First I held the book so that it was orientated to the computer’s perspective . . .

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And then I realized (thanks to my 12-year-old) that I should hold the book so that it faced me correctly, not the lens. Perhaps I’m so wed to the notion of reading that I automatically assume that the computer “reads” books top-to-bottom, left-to-right as I do—that is, my problem might be a feature, not a bug. But if I’m really going to judge this book as something to be read, I have to say that the poetry in it dreadful. Apparently the book first existed in a limited-edition run of 12 letter-press books; perhaps the frisson between letter-press and Flash would have shifted some of the attention away from the words. I love the idea of visual poems that move through digital space, just as I have a fondness for codices that make themselves hard to read. 2 But I’d like to see the technologies harnessed to something with words to equal the beauty of the interface.

Perhaps the opposite of Between Page and Screen—and way more fun—is Richard Moore’s Paper Pong (2008). Paper Pong is, essentially, a Choose Your Own Adventure version of Pong, in which you start on page 1 and then need to choose whether you’re going to move your paddle up (go to page 114) or down (go to page 117).

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I spent a lot of time as a kid playing Pong at home, so perhaps that’s why I enjoy this book so much. But I love it, too, for its ridiculousness. It’s a paper replication of a video game! Why would you do that? Why write lines of code to create a game of Pong that you then remediate in paper form? I don’t know that there’s a good reason to do that, other than you can. And, actually, that’s a decent reason, one that drives more than a few novels. Also, it turns out I’m still pretty bad at Pong and actually lost a couple of times before I got the hang of it. It’s a bit surprising the amount of tension generated by a paper version of a video game of a ball-and-paddle game. When you do lose, you end up with the wonderful message, “Game Over / To play again, go to page 1 / To quit, close this book.”

There are other books that take the graphic approach to the question of where the boundary is between print and electronic. Silvio Lorusso and Sebastian Schmieg’s 56 Broken Kindle Screens: Photographed E Ink, Collected Online, Printed On Demand (2012) consists of 56 images of broken Kindle screens found on Flickr and then reproduced in a print-on-demand paperback. The images can be gorgeous, and I love both the way it turns broken objects into art and the layers of mediation, moving from e-ink to pixel to paper, that goes into producing it. And my scholar’s heart loves that at the back of the book are credits for each image.

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Fathom Information Design’s Frankenfont (2011) prints Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in fonts taken from a collection of pdfs gathered online; the book starts off with individual letters reproduced in the most common fonts (Arial, Helvetica, and Times New Roman, of course) and gradually shifts until the letters are in unusual ones (scripts, non-Roman fonts, pictograms). It, like 56 Broken Kindle Screens, is a good concept, but in practice I find it less engaging. Perhaps if the fonts were more interesting—rather than using unusualness as a marker of font, what about wholeness? Software degrades, fonts degrade. Perhaps if there was more willingness to play with ideas of beauty and completeness I would have liked it better.

There’s also the more straightforward projects of printing out the web. Rob Matthews, in 2012, printed out 0.01% of Wikipedia as a 5000-page, 1’7” tall book (XKCD, by the way, has worked out how many printers it would take to print out the entire English-language Wikipedia). There’s the ongoing Printing out the Internet (“A crowdsourced project to literally print out the entire internet.”), which doesn’t seem as clever to me as it does to its creators, although it’s apparently somehow intended to memorialize Aaron Swartz. If that’s not enough, the Library of the Printed Web displays the terrifying number of projects devoted to variations of this enterprise. It makes me weary just thinking about it. I do love The Art of Google Books, however, and if its creator, Krissy Wilson, does end up making a book from the Tumblr (as she suggests she’s interested in doing), I’d buy it in a heartbeat.

My favorite book for thinking about technologies and obsolescence is A Dodo at Oxford: The Unreliable Account of a Student and His Pet Dodo (Oxgarth Press, 2010). This book, edited by Philip Atkins and Michael Johnson, purports to be a facsimile edition of a 1695 printed diary of an student at Oxford who owned a dodo. Atkins and Johnson tell the story of finding the book in an Oxfam, searching for more information about it, and finally editing it for us today. The bulk of the volume is their facsimile replication of the diary with their annotations in the margin explaining various historical facts and oddities; there are also a series of appendices explaining early modern printing, including the use of the long-s, ligatures, and signature marks.

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The story itself is charming—the narrator is bequeathed the Dodo by a dying Dutchman and then struggles to study and keep healthy the bird, all while enduring the usual poor-student travails—and the book is gorgeous. But what does this have to do with technology and obsolescence? I’m hesitant to give away too much of its wonder, but it’s no coincidence that Atkins and Johnson choose to tell the story of an extinct bird in a format that emphasizes its distance from our technologies today. It’s not only the replication of seventeenth-century print features, but instance after instance of subsequent histories, including some openings reproduced as blue-line corrections to the text, prophetic dreams about bicycles and other not-yet-inventions (you can read one of those dreams in the image above), a bookmark about the dangers of smoking, and inserts of photos of electricity pylons being built. The entire codex interweaves questions of technology, extinction, and discovery. Is the book a museum like the Ashmolean, an object to be studied like the Dodo, something that dreams the future? A Dodo at Oxford is smart and funny. Go read it the next time someone tells you that books are (omigod are not!) dying.

Perhaps the main thing to remember as the fruitless debate circles and circles is that any opposition between print and digital is, today, ridiculous. You might think you’re reading a paper book, but it was, I promise you, produced through digital means. The person who wrote it is overwhelmingly likely to have used a computer to do so, it was edited and typeset using software, its distribution is enabled and tracked with databases, and it is reviewed and discussed in both electronic and physical spaces that are enabled by technology. 3

It’s not a black-and-white world out there. Our methods of producing and consuming books will continue to be as multiply shaded as our reactions to them has always been. So here’s to reading instead of fretting!

Notes:

  1. I recommend reading Robert Bolick’s excellent account of the long history of the so-called death of books.
  2. In the category of books that thwart you, see Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, which is gorgeous and impossible.
  3. Matt Kirschenbaum’s forthcoming book Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing will drive home the point that all books today are digital products.) 
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