Archive for the ‘future of the book’ Category

The Legacy of Hypertext Fiction and how Steven Johnson Gets it Wrong

afternoon-1-webThis week, Steven Johnson published a short article on Wired’s site called “Why No One Clicked on the Great Hypertext Story.” He opens by referencing and effectively contextualizing Michael Joyce’s foundational hypertext fiction, Afternoon, a Story, from the early ’90s. Back then there was a literary electricity about the possibilities for telling stories by linking together smaller chunks of text into a larger whole. The future was finally on its way, and it looked like hypertext.

Or not so much. Twenty years later, it would be hard to argue that hypertext fiction has found the cultural traction so many theorists thought it would. Johnson speculates as to why:

It’s not that hypertext went on to become less interesting than its literary advocates imagined in those early days. Rather, a whole different set of new forms arose in its place: blogs, social networks, crowd-edited encyclopedias. Readers did end up exploring an idea or news event by following links between small blocks of text; it’s just that the blocks of text turned out to be written by different authors, publishing on different sites. Someone tweets a link to a news article, which links to a blog commentary, which links to a Wikipedia entry. Each landing point along that itinerary is a linear piece, designed to be read from start to finish. But the constellation they form is something else. Hypertext turned out to be a brilliant medium for bundling a collection of linear stories or arguments written by different people.

I think Steven Johnson is a great writer. A certain kind of writer. Someone who learns important ideas and puts those ideas in conversation with each other in a way that’s accessible to a wide audience of readers. He is smart and has positive cultural impacts. But in this case, he’s just wrong. In so many ways. First of all, while his brief description of the rise of social media is clearly written, it is neither smart nor new. Cultural critics have been trotting out a version of that same summary every time blogs, MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter have made news for the past ten years (or more, depending). The compressed history Johnson offers us is the answer to some other question–not about the legacy or failure of hypertext fiction.

And yet, I love the fact that Johnson’s using his stature in the world of culturally-recognizable intellectuals and Wired’s status as a respected institution for the discussion of digital culture, especially hypertext fiction. What I’d like to do is rewind Johnson’s article just a bit. To the point just before he offers us his answer. The strongest moment in Johnson’s article is when he reflects on why there was so much enthusiasm for hypertext in the early nineties:

The literary/philosophical world had been musing about the death of the author and fragmented, reader-centric text since the late 1960s, but suddenly all those abstract ideas were grounded in technological reality. [If you’re interested in these ideas, I’d start with Foucault’s “What is an Author?,” Barthes’s “Theory of the Text” and “Death of the Author,” Derrida’s ” Différance.” Among others, of course.]

Rather than looking at the literary theory and philosophy informing the enthusiasm for hypertext, I want to argue for–and eventually offer–is an alternative approach to understanding hypertext’s legacy (and future). That alternative approach involves certain orientations toward history, narrative theory, the publishing industry, literature, genres, authorship, distribution, intellectual property.

Essentially, we need to explore two fundamental aspects of storytelling. The first is understanding how and why the forms and practices of storytelling have mutated in the past. The nature of an entity affords and limits the ways it can possibly change, and those changes end up changing the ways it will be able to change again. What emerges is a unique continuity of change across an entity’s history. At any given time, an entity has a certain type of momentum fueling it’s changes, and that momentum is shaped by the current nature of the entity. In other words, as in Johnson’s case here, he attempts to comment on the nature of hypertext storytelling by focusing only on hypertext. He doesn’t invoke an understanding of the historical changes storytelling has undergone.

The second aspect of storytelling we need to understand is that of its cultural functionality. What does storytelling do for us as individuals? As storytellers? As a reader? As a member of an audience? Considering questions like these allows us not only to theorize what stories do, but also what we might want stories to do had we access to different technologies or cultural attitudes. For instance, Johnson mentions the excitement on the part of a tiny portion of writers and readers. It was the cultural euphoria and wonder regarding the nascent web that amplified the attitudes of this small community. Writers and critics were focused back then on the potential for what hypertext could do to stories. What they forgot to ask, however, was whether or not storytelling in its current social and cultural forms lent itself to these types of changes.

I plan to continue this discussion in subsequent (and likely sporadic) posts this summer where I’ll break out smaller pieces of this post and offer more detailed explanation and examples.

Parallel Transitions: Manuscript-to-print, Print-to-Digital

I ran across this video on YouTube a couple of days ago, and I thought it makes some nice, summary comments related to the many public/pundit anxieties currently circulating about the ebooks and the inexorable death of print books. What’s cool about this particular piece is that it demonstrates how many of those anxieties eerily echoes common fifteenth and sixteenth century jeremiads about the dangers of the printing press. Here’s the short, context-setting piece that opens Charlie Rose’s roundtable discussion with Jonathan Safran Foer, Jane Friedman, Tim O’Reilly, and Ken Auletta:

I wonder if Charlie Rose showed this opening piece to his guest before the conversation? Given his reputation, I assume that he did. The video does such a great job of framing many of the roundtable comments which immediately ensue, especially those of Jonathan Safran Foer. In the clip to the right, Foer responds to some smart comments from Freidman about books/ebooks being merely formats for texts, the ubiquity of screens/devices, and there always being a market for physical books (note). I’m a big fan of Foer’s. He’s written popular and critically acclaimed books, but he’s also an outspoken, often polarizing cultural participant (as opposed, merely, to “commentator”). So I’m surprised that I find some of his comments a bit short-sighted and myopic. The idea that new reading experiences will be more public and faster aren’t, I think, off-base. However, I don’t think there’s any reason to think those experiences will supplant the intimate and deliberate experiences Foer sees as at stake. His attitude is similar when talking about “resist[ing] the temptations” (note the jeremiad rhetoric?) of new media elements. What he fails to acknowledge (and what Tim O’Reilly quickly reminds him) is that all of these changes are happening in a historical continuum. We’re going to figure out what sorts of technologies are going to make books better. But we’re going to do that by taking some risks. Which means failing consistently. Until we get it right. Which means making some bad books, or making some bad texts and mis-calling them books. And then stumbling onto some absolutely stunning text. And it will be a book. But not like books from fifty years ago. It might be something like the recent “The Silent History,” or the New York Times’s long form feature “Snowfall.”

I guess I just want to say (as many times as I need to say it) that I’m excited for what books are about to become. The physical forms they’ll take. The reconceptualization of their cultural purpose. And how they’ll continue to affect my life in ways that movies, television, or music have yet to match. And I also want to add that I’m not worried about print books. I love what Tim O’Reilly said about digital technologies forcing traditional print books to become beautiful again. Maybe I’m a dreamer, but I think I’m pretty realistic about how difficult and slow this transition is going to be. How many false steps we’ll take. But I’m excited to be here in the middle of it. Watching. Looking for a way to participate.


(Note: My apologies to Jane Freidman here. She’s so smart, and she’s shown real courage in publishing some risky books, especially of Foer’s. I know I’m only showing one side of this conversation, but I’m still figuring this out. How to quote video material while still allowing for some context.)

Books that Read You Back: Measuring Engagement, Proprietary Services

CourseSmart recently announced that it would begin beta-testing a new textbook technology designed to track and measure student interactions with certain textbooks. This technology would, ostensibly, deliver an “Engagement Score Technology”:

a proprietary algorithm that evaluates standard usage data such as page views, time spent in a textbook, and notes and highlights taken by a student, and assimilates them into an overall assessment of students’ engagement with the material. Provosts, deans, course designers and others can then easily assess the utility of adopted digital titles to ensure course materials are being used effectively. Faculty will be able to identify “at risk” students based on engagement with assigned course materials and correlate this to overall student performance, which will help to aid retention and ultimately, improve learning outcomes. (via CourseSmart – Media.)

Surveillance technologies almost always make me a little nervous. I’ll admit that I don’t really mind security cameras in retail stores and offices, GPS systems, or even most browser cookies. But I have to say, I’m pretty uneasy about CourseSmart’s claim that it can offer some sort of meaningful “engagement score.” It’s not that I don’t like the idea. It’s just seems like another one of those situations that is marketed as something positive, but really turns out to be far more destructive than productive.

Read the rest of this entry »

What books are libraries for?

by Ryan Trauman

Books take many forms, and that variety of forms constantly growing more expansive and fluid. This phenomenon is due in large part to the encroachment of digital technologies on the world of readers, writers, publishers, and other stakeholders. But one of the stakeholders often left out of public discussions (and most academic discussion, as well) are libraries and librarians. To the extent that you might define a library as a physical space for storing, distributing, and maintaining books, libraries must respond to the book’s destabilization in form. Those lacking the necessary constitution might throw their hands in the air and despair the falling sky. But not most librarians, and not Rick Anderson over at The Scholarly Kitchen blog (“Redefining the Library, Part 1: Why?“).

The premise of Anderson’s post is that the “books” libraries were built to circulate/store/maintain is no longer the book’s dominant future form. And it follows that the ecosystem around that form (the codex) is changing, too. In order to effectively and responsibly confront these changes, libraries and librarians must reconsider some of the most basic assumptions we have about books, scholarship, publishing, etc. The purpose of the post isn’t to offer alternative understandings of these elements of book culture, but to begin to articulate a set of questions necessary for responding to a new world of books, readers, scholars, and educators. Those questions include:

  • What is a book?
  • What does “publication” mean?
  • What does it mean to “own” a document?
  • What is a publisher?
  • Who should bear the cost of scholarly research?
  • What is the appropriate unit of sale for scholarly products?

The post is an excellent read. Although light on responses to the questions he poses (for that content, see Part II of his post), his explanation for each question’s relevance is articulate and compelling. And anyone paying attention to the pattern of his questions will more easily be able to recognize and construct similar questions within the context of their own constitution.

Some “big [humanities] data” made cool for fans, accessible for scholars.

by Ryan Trauman

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if all the stories and all the novel ever written actually took place in the same universe? A “storyverse,” if you will. Personally, I haven’t. But I’m pretty sure there are plenty of people that have, and even more, now, who will. Enter: Small Demons. It’s sort of a cross-referenced network connecting the people, places, objects, plots, themes, etc. of a growing pile of books (hundreds of thousands so far, I think). Do you want a list of books in which Marilyn Monroe appears? Check. How about stories that take place on Mars? Check. How about a comprehensive list of stories where Tom Sawyer or Buck Rogers make appearances? This is your site.


Personally, I’m not much of a fiction guy, unless you’re talking about movies. I much rather read scholarship, design books, or modern poetry. However, I am excited about this site because of how it uses “big data” (a phrase more common within the Digital Humanities than Literature) in a way that’s accessible and useful to scholars and non-scholars alike. What I’m really hoping for is that scholars in Rhet/Comp, Computers and Writing, Digital Humanities, etc. begin to see how a similar initiative within a discipline could serve as a sort of “force-multiplier” for humanities scholarship. The potential for efficiency gains are exciting. We could become so much more effective at identifying trends within data which is much more rich (and potentially responsive to our needs) than the sales and production data to which most discussions of books and scholarship are currently limited.

The scholarly potential for the humanities demonstrated by a Small Demons sort of site also might serve as one of the more effective “bridge” examples of more of the benefits of moving books and scholarship over to more consistently digital set of platforms. It should also serve the scholarly universe as a heads-up for why exactly it’s not only worth it, but essential to incorporate fine-grained, atomized metadata into future scholarly texts.

More Robert Darnton wisdom about the future of books

by Ryan Trauman

When Robert Darnton speaks (or writes, or blogs, or whatever nowadays), I listen. He’s brilliant. One of the most important intellectuals engaged in discussions of the future of the book. You might have run across his eminently accessible and cohesive collection of essays “The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future.” If so, you’ve been treated to the reflections of a scholar who’s been at the heart of these conversations for the last thirty years. But what I find most fascinating about Darnton is his ability to be so overwhelmingly invested in both the history and future of the book. Here he is talking about how that history and future both intersect and galvanize each other in the present:

we have a kind of case of collective false consciousness that people imagine that there is a technological spectrum with the analog on one end and the digital on the other as if they are opposed and are enemies. In fact, I think now what’s happening is that there are a lot of ways in which the electronic book compliments the printed book and vice-versa, and that they’re working together so that this period of transition from a strictly world of prints to one of electronic communication is a world in which the whole landscape is becoming richer and more complicated.

I don’t think the quotation needs much explication, even if you tend to lean harder one way (nostalgia) or the other (feat/hope). The quote comes from an interview of Darnton by Dr. Albert Mohler of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary titled, “The Fate of the Book in the Digital Age.”

Other highlights of the interview include: contentious newspaper editorial meetings; book-smell scratch-n-sniff stickers as ebook accessories, e-textbooks, personal libraries, public libraries, and more. It’s a good read. Take a look.

Darnton promises functioning “American Digital Public Library” for 2013. Google straighten’s up in its chair.

by Ryan Trauman

In her article for The Guardian, Alison Flood reports that Robert Darnton (of the Harvard Library) has promised a free, publicly accessible American Digital Public Library that “will be up and running by April 2013, and its initial holdings will include at least two million books in the public domain accompanied by a dazzling array of special collections far richer than anything available through Google.” If this is true (and Darnton certainly has done nothing that I know of to sully his own reputation), it’s a wonderful development for the literacy practices of millions of people.

Here are a few of the headlines I was considering for this short post:

“Darnton promises functioning “American Digital Public Library” for 2013. Google throws up a little in its throat.” or “Darnton promises functioning “American Digital Public Library” for 2013. Google to take its ball and go home.”

If nothing else, even the threat of this project should get Google back to work on its book scanning project. Not that they’ve stopped. Scanning books, I mean. But the litigation surrounding the case has certainly stalled, with Google’s hands effectively tied (or at least in risky legal limbo) until they push forward with a newly-structured agreement with authors and publishers. Either way, they’ve significantly scaled back the resources and marketing associated with the project for which I had so much hope. But as Darnton points out in several of his brilliant texts, Google is has a monopoly on the vast scope of its scanning project aaaaaaand its a for-profit corporation. That’s a dangerous mix. And I think the last 18 months of stagnant development (before which it was firmly established that there was little opportunity for another private entity to compete with Google’s project) have shown Darnton’s fears to be at least significantly warranted (although I wouldn’t argue they’ve yet come to fruition. yet).

The only thing trouble about this announcement is that the ADPL just had the first round of its three-part technological development workshop this week. I don’t want to suggest that they’ve really not made much progress with the project. From what I can tell the project is incredibly well-funded from institutions/organizations that will allow them every opportunity to succeed. And they’ve certainly built a solid foundation of theoretical scaffolding on which to build the project. I just don’t know how well-conceived it is to talk about such a HUGE benchmark twelve months from now.

From what I’ve seen, it takes three components to make digital initiatives work: clearly demonstrable need, accessible theoretical foundation for immediate and future action/funding, and momentum. I don’t think it takes a genius to understand the first two components. However, the need for momentum cannot be underestimated. There is an enormous volume of projects whose initiatives are (at least partly) to transition analog media or institutions to digitally operative structures. Unfortunately, even at the most subtle hint of failure or stalling, there are just too many alternative projects to jump to. It may be a chicken-or-the-egg sort of problem, but that’s the point where it’s very difficult for an initiative to regain its momentum.

This is all to say that… Darnton better not be wrong. I want him to be right. Oh how I want him to be right. But if he’s wrong, and the project is really 24 months, rather than 12 months away from functioning, Google will be able to relax again, fat and complacent with its cash and huge digital book database, confident that a digital public library is a technological challenge (which only it can solve), rather than a social challenge (which we as a public, can solve it we put our minds to it).


“The Future of the Book” (according to IDEO)

by Ryan Trauman

I love this beautifully produced vision of what books could/should be. Three variations on a theme. Central: tablet experience + social activity + reader participation. “Nelson” for education. “Coupland” for professionals. “Alice” for traditional narratives.

There’s something that makes this video one of the most compelling for me. There’s not much “new” in terms of how books might operate both within a social scene or as an individual’s experience. Sharing and interacting. The variations on those operations offered by IDEO are not radically new. They are, however, effectively integrated into existing/emerging reading and circulation practices. There is still a text at the center of the experience, and there’s still plenty of elements of that text that are formally stable. Pages, text blocks, image-position, portability, etc. Effectively, IDEO’s approach allows us to clearly associate this sort of reading-experience as an interaction with what we conceptually consider a “book.”

It’s the “little steps” implemented so cleanly into our existing practices that make these mutations not only possible, but likely. Readers can easily understand and adopt them, while at the same time seeing these changes as an expansion of the possibilities of book-ness.

Oh, and the video is rendered with a beauty and polish that only reinforce the possibility of these changes actually being realized.

I realize that most of these concepts have been around for a quite a while. This is just a compelling example of multiple innovations realized in a mature and relatively-seamless form.

contributed by: Trauman

Ebooks Continue to Evolve

by Ryan Trauman

Ebooks are not better than print books. But they are sometimes. And they are in some ways. What I found in my inbox today is a perfect example.

I got an email from A Book Apart  letting me know that a new version of a book I ordered from them, Responsive Web Design, had been updated. Instead of encouraging me to buy the new edition, they simply sent me a link with free access to the updated version. Maybe I’m cynical, but I was stunned. I’m so used to publishers (I’m looking at you, textbook publishers.) minimally changing content in a book and discontinuing access to the previous version. To drive sales. And to drive prices up. Not A Book Apart, though. Nope.

I’ve been thinking about it this morning, and I realized that the same thing has been happening for years in the software industry. We’re constantly being reminded about updates to software we’ve installed on our machines. Half the time we don’t even know it’s being updated. But I’ve always thought about those practices as software companies fixing bugs, responding to small changes in related technologies, and cover-your-ass security updates.

I realize that Microsoft and Apple upgrade their operating systems all the time. But at the price Microsoft charges (wow, that’s ridiculous!), it feels like I’m buying a whole new product. This perspective changed for me a bit when I started to switch over to the Mac OS. When they updated their operating system, the upgrade was cheap enough that it really felt like I was only paying for the trouble of distribution, not the added value of the improved product. Now, with iOS, Apple has made the upgrades to their mobile platform free.

So why is this trend important? Because I’ve had my Macbook Pro for almost three years, and I like it even better than the day I bought it. It runs faster. And the operating system is better than the original version it shipped with. I realize that I will eventually have to replace my Macbook, but I’ve already had it longer and like it better than any Microsoft product I’ve had (plenty of them).

Okay, back to ebooks. To put it simply, it’s easy to keep ebooks up to date. And by easy, I guess I mean inexpensive enough to incorporate as part of a business strategy. A service sold along with the object. Which is different than with most print books. And I like it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that N. Katherine Hayles and Johanna Drucker don’t make weekly changes to their manuscripts. The scholarly community isn’t ready for that. But that’s mostly because the value of a lot of scholarly books lies in their historical or theoretical offerings. More so, more often than, anyway, their timing.

So it’s a small bit of praise for a book seller that deserves more attention in the design community. And A Book Apart’s  parent organization is A List Apart , one of the smartest, relevant, and current websites on web design and content strategy.

And I suppose this is my unabashed plug. Call it A Plug Apart.

contributed by: Trauman

Boundaries Redrawn: Escaping the Intellectual Gravity of Book-ness

Contributed by Cindy Selfe

CCDP LogoFrom my point of view, starting a digital press is relatively easy, but sustaining it, and making sure that it publishes great scholarship represents a whole constellation of ongoing challenges.

Over the past three years, most of Gail’s and my attention in setting up Computers and Composition Digital Press (CCDP) has involved getting the mission and the goals of the CCDP just right so that we can serve the computers and writing community in the way we envision. With regard to mission, we have been determined to create a press that publishes e-projects with the same intellectual gravity, reach, and scope of more conventional scholarly books, but also one that recognizes and celebrates multimodal/multimedia texts that live fully only in digital contexts. Our goal is to provide authors of digital/multimodal projects the professional and scholarly recognition they deserve by insisting on peer review by eminent scholars who value the intellectual significance of good scholarly work and can judge excellence in both content and design. Read the rest of this entry »

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