Ancient Marginalia: The Watershed Manifesto

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The arithmetic magicians of old did not know what fire they handled, what heat they hefted, when they considered the humble ‘1’ and the mystical ‘0.’ Certainly, they knew of power there, but none could have guessed what this dynamic digital duo would be up to come the 21st century.  Indeed, heroic ‘one’ and the Enkidu ‘zero’ are a pair on a journey – and we are all along, passenger and crew.

The recent achievements of this binary couplet are many – but one in particular concerns us here.  Binary has (re)turned content into a fluid. By content, I mean the stuff we generate to fill pages and the grey between our ears.  Story telling, information transmission, all outward expression has been touched and transformed by digitization.

Continue reading at Digital Book World…

The Minigraph: The Future of the Monograph?

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It has taken digital a lot longer than many had thought to provide a serious challenge to print, but it seems to me that we are now in a new moment in which digital texts enable screen-reading (if it is not an anachronism to still call it that) as a sustained practice. Here, I am thinking particularly of the way in which screen technologies, including the high-resolution “retina” displays common on iPhones, Kindle E Ink, etc., combined with much more sensitive typesetting design practices in relation to text, are producing long-form texts that are pleasurable to read on a screen-based medium and as e-books. This has happened most noticeably in magazine articles and longer newspaper features, but is beginning to drift over into well-designed reading apps that we find on our mobile devices, such as Pocket and the Reader function in Safari.

With this change, serious questions are being asked about our writing practices—especially in terms of the assumptions and affordances that are coded into software word-processors like Microsoft Word, which assumes and sometimes enforces a print mentality. Word wants you to print the documents you write, and this prescriptive behavior by the software encourages us to “check” our documents on a “real” paper form before committing to it—even if the final form is a PDF. The reason is that even the PDF is designed for printing, as anyone who has tried to read a PDF document on a digital screen will attest. But when the reading practices of screen media are sufficient, then many of the assumptions of screen writing can be jettisoned, especially the practice of writing for paper.

There is little doubt that writing and reading the screen is different from print (Berry 2012; Gold 2012). These differences are not just technical; they also involve forms of social practice, such as reading in public, passing around documents, sharing ideas, and so forth. They also include the kinds of social signaling that digital documents have been very poor at incorporating into their structures, such as the cover, the publisher, the author’s name, and the book’s unique design. Nonetheless, at the present phase of digital texts, it is in the typesetting and typography, combined with the social reading practices that take place, such as social sharing, marking, copying/pasting, and commenting, that make digital a viable way of creating and consuming textual works. In some ways, the social signaling of the cover artwork, etc. has been subsumed into social media such as Facebook and Twitter, but I think that it is only a matter of time before this is incorporated into mobile devices, since advanced screen technologies, especially an E Ink back cover, can be built for pennies.

To return to the texts themselves, the question of writing, of putting pen to paper, is on the cusp of radical change. The long thirty-year period of stable writing software created by the virtual monopoly that Microsoft gained over desktop computers is drawing to a close. From its initial introduction in 1983 on the Xenix system as Multi-Tool Word and renamed that year to the familiar Microsoft Word that we all know (and often hate) today, print has been the lodestar of word processor design.

As the next stage of digital text emerges, many of the textual apparatuses of print are migrating to the digital platform. As they do so, the advantages of new search and discovery practices make books extremely visible and usable again, through tools like Google Books (Dunleavy 2012). There is still a lot of experimentation in this space, and some problems still remain: for example, there is currently not a viable alternative to the “chunking” process of reading that print has taught us through pages and page numbering, nor is there a means of book marking that is as intuitive as the changing weight of the book as it moves through our hands, or the visual clues afforded through the page volume changing from unread to read as we turn the pages. However, this has been mitigated by turning away from the very long-form book- or monograph-length texts of around 80,000 words, to the moderate long-form, represented by the 15-40,000 word text which I want to call the minigraph.

By minigraph I am seeking to distinguish a specific length of text that is able to move beyond the limitations of the 6-8,000 word article, but avoids the chunking problem of reading lengthy digital texts. In other words, in its current stage of implementation, I think that digital long-form texts are most comfortable to read when they stay within this golden ratio of 15-40,000 words, broken into five or six chapters. The lack of chunking is still a problem without helpful “page” numbers, and I don’t think that paragraph numbering has provided a usable solution to this. However, the shortness of the text means that it is readable within a reasonable period of time, creating a de facto chunking at the level of the minigraph chapter (2,000 – 5,000 words). Indeed, the introduction of an algorithmic paging system that is device-independent would also be helpful, for example through a notion of “planes” which are analogous to pages but calculated in real-time.1 This would help sidestep the problem of fatigue in digital reading, apparent even in our retina/e-ink screen practices, but also creates works that are long enough to be satisfying to read and offer interesting discussion, digression and scholarly apparatus. Other publishers have already been experimenting with the form, such as Palgrave with its Pivot series, a new e-book format: “at 30,000 to 50,000 words, it’s longer than a journal article but shorter than a traditional monograph. The Palgrave Pivot, said Hazel Newton, head of digital publishing, ‘fills the space in the middle’” (Cassuto 2013). Indeed, Stanford University Press has also started “to release new material in the form of midlength e-books. ‘Stanford Briefs’ will run 20,000 to 40,000 words in length.” Cassuto calls Stanford’s format the “mini-monograph.”

How should one write a minigraph? It’s likely that Microsoft Word will algorithmically prescribe paper norms, which in academia tend to either 7,000-word articles or 70,000-word monographs. Here, I think Dieter (2013) is right to make links with the writing practices of Book Sprints as a connecting thread to new forms of publishing (Hyde 2013). The Book Sprint is a “genre of the ‘flash’ book, written under a short timeframe, to emerge as a contributor to debates, ideas and practices in contemporary culture…interventions that go well beyond a well-written blog-post or tweet, and give some substantive weight to a discussion or issue…within a range of 20-40,000 words” (Berry and Dieter 2012). This rapid and collaborative means of writing tends toward the creation of texts of an “appropriate” size for the digital medium. Book Sprints usually involve 4-8 writers, facilitated by another non-writing member. The output of each writer throughout the sprint conveniently maps onto the structure of minigraph chapters discussed earlier. For Dieter, the Book Sprint is conducive to new writing practices, and by extension new reading practices for network cultures, and therefore “formations that break from subjugation or blockages in pre-existing media and organizational workflows” (Dieter 2013). In this I think he is broadly correct; however, Book Sprints also produce texts that are conducive to reading and writing in a digital medium, especially in terms of word count.

Nick Montfort (2013) has suggested a new predominantly digital form of writing that enables different forms of scholarly communication, the technical report, which he argues “is as fast as a speeding blog, as detailed and structured as a journal article, and able to be tweeted, discussed, assessed, and used as much as any official publication can be. It is issued entirely without peer review.” Montfort, however, connects the technical report to the “grey literature” that is not usually considered part of scholarly publishing as such. Experiments like the “pamphlets” issued by the Stanford Literary Lab, and which Montford argues are technical reports in all but name, are between 10-15,000 words in length: slightly longer than a journal article and a little shorter than a minigraph.

However, a key difference is that neither the Book Sprint nor the technical report are peer-reviewed, although they might be “peer-to-peer reviewed” (see Cebula 2010; Fitzpatrick 2011). Rather, they are rapid production, sharing, and collaborative forms geared toward social media and intervention or technical documentation. In contrast, the minigraph would share with the other main scholarly outputs—the journal article and the monograph—the need to be peer-reviewed and produced at a high level of textual quality. This is where the minigraph points to new emergent affordances of the digital that enable the kinds of scholarly activity, such as presenting finished work, carefully annotated and referenced, through these nascent digital textual technologies. If these intuitions are right about the current state of digital technologies and their affordances for the writing and reading of scholarly work, then the minigraph might be the right structure and form for digital scholarship to augment the current ecosystem of the article, review, monograph, and so forth.

In some ways the minigraph is a much less radical suggestion than the multi-modal, all-singing, all-dancing digital object that many have been calling for. However, the minigraph, as conceptualized here, is still potentially deeply computational in form. We might describe the minigraph as a code-object. In this sense, the minigraph is able to contain programmable objects itself, in addition to its textual load, opening up many possibilities for interactive dimensions, like those suggested by the Computable Document Format (CDF) created by Wolfram.

The minigraph as described here does not, of course, exist as such, although its form is detectable in the documents produced by the Quip app, the dexy format, as “literate documentation,” or the Booktype software. It is manifestly not meant to be in the form of Google Docs/Drive, which is essentially traditional word-processing software in the cloud, and which ironically still revolves around a print metaphor. The minigraph is a technical imaginary for what digital scholarly writing might be. It remains to be coded into concrete software and manifested in the practices of scholarly writers and readers. Nonetheless, as a form of long-form text amenable to the mobile practices of readers today, the 15-40,000 word minigraph text could provide a key expressive scholarly form for the digital age.

Notes

[1] Minigraph chunks would be at 250-350 word intervals, roughly pages, and chapters of 2-5,000 words. There is no reason why the term “page” could not be used for these chunks, but perhaps “plane” is more appropriate in terms of chunks representing vertical “cuts” in the text at an appropriate frequency. So “plane 5” would be analogous to page 5, but mathematically calculable to approximately (300 x plane number) to give start word, and ((300 x plane number+1)-1) to give the end word of a particular plane. This would make the page both algorithmically calculable and therefore device-independent, but also suitable for scholarly referencing and usable user-friendly numbering throughout the text. As the planes are represented on screen by a digital, the numbering system would be comprehensible to users of printed texts, and would offer a simple transition from paper page-based numbering to algorithmic numbering. If the document was printed, the planes could be automatically reformatted to the page size, and hence further make the link between page and plane straightforward for the reader (who might never even realize the algorithmic source of the numbering system for plane chunks in a minigraph). Indeed, one might place the “plane resolution” within the minigraph text itself, in this case “300”, enabling different plane chunks to be used within different texts, and hence changing the way in which a plane is calculated on a book-by-book basis—very similar to page numbering. One might even have different plane resolutions within chapters in a book, enabling different chunks in different chapters or regions.

Will books evolve?

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Evolution takes a great deal of time and happens over generations rather than lifetimes.

The definition of a ‘book’ will not evolve until paper copies of books cease to be published.   Long player vinyl records are no longer mass produced for music but the notion of an album still exists on iTunes even through the physical product is almost dead.  A collection of songs in a particular style will continue to be defined as an album as will a collection of words on a theme continue to be defined as a book.

What will evolve however is the notion of a story in fiction or a designated expert writer in non-fiction.   Around a camp fire or when reading to children many people can contribute to a story orally or change stories that they tell.  Digitized fiction books will take this ‘playfulness’ we have with the creation of stories and provide more ways to play with a story.   Whereas digitized non-fiction books will result in their not being one single expert but a number of contributors who could all be accessible to the reader.  In much the same way as the springbeyondthebook project.

A book will remain a book as it exists in its current form but the notion of a story or non-fiction content will evolve in the future.

How will the concept of the book evolve in the future?

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What is a book and what isn’t? Are books an accident of history? How do books shrink space and crunch time? And what on Earth is a zimboe? Read our authors’ ruminations on the evolving concept of the book to find out:

Learn more about our project and share your vision for the future of the book at SprintBeyondtheBook.com!

What Is a Book? Discuss

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In the news sphere, there can be endless arguments over whether this person or that person is a journalist. It’s a pointless conversation, because the real question is: What is journalism? Edge cases are easy. The New York Times is journalism. The “BlahBlahBlog” isn’t. But it gets blurry fast, and that’s where the conversation gets interesting.

We’re starting to have the same discussion in the book world. Again, the edge cases are easy. Here’s a book:

Cover of Charlie Stross' book The Atrocity Archives

 

Charlie Stross’ novel comes in print — bound pages — and in several e-book formats. It’s a book, period.

Not all books in the traditional realm are based on text, of course, though I’m hard-pressed to name a book that doesn’t include at least some text. Graphic novels and the heavy oversized volumes of photography we put on our coffee tables are just as much books as Charlie’s novel or Moby-Dick. But just as a collection of blog posts isn’t a book, the latest installment in some comic series isn’t either (though we do call them comic books).

This is also a collection of bound pages. It’s not a book, at least not in the context I want to use here:

Notebook

 

The little notebooks I carry around, and into which I write notes of various kinds based on ideas and conversations, isn’t meant to be seen by others. It doesn’t start here and end there. It’s random. Book? Nope.

What about this volume, called Between Page and Screen:

Cover of the book "Between Page and Screen"

 

Its authors call it “an augmented reality book of poems.” Here’s a video of how it works.

Come back when you’ve watched it.

Is this really a book? Or is it something else, even if part of it fits between two covers?

Now check out “The Elements” on the iPad.

I love it. Is it a book? Probably, but I’m not sure what I’d say if I had to give a yes or no answer.

Welcome to the blurry world of tomorrow’s books — blurry in precisely the same way that some other media forms have become. It’s all about digital technology, of course, which subsumes everything that existed before, and then extends it into new realms. Things bleed into each other: The New York Times posts excellently produced video online, and the BBC publishes text-based articles.

The experimentation in book publishing today is great to see. People are using technology to push out the boundaries. At some point, though, what they create no longer seems to fit into any category with historical antecedents.

I’ve asked any number of people in recent months what a book is. The answers have ranged about as widely as you’d expect. Several zeroed in on a fairly simple but powerful notion: a book starts here, holds your attention for a non-trivial period of time and ends there. Then again, so does a walk in the woods, or a film.

I suspect a book will be anything we decide to call one. Traditional books, after all, span an enormous range of presentation methods, not just topics and styles. Maybe we’re just adding new methods.

Words take on new meanings in any case. When was the last time you dialed a phone number by turning a little wheel on a landline telephone with a wire connected to a wall plug? But you knew what I meant by dialing.

I do worry that our shrinking attention spans will make traditional reading less and less relevant. But, ever optimistic, I’ll predict that books — whatever that means — do have a future, because we need them.

Book as Fluke: A Thought Experiment

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What if the existence of books were a cosmic accident, not something irrevocably part of our evolution, not intrinsic to the human experience, but more or less the most profitable thing to be produced from a printing press, a function of commerce and retail and/or a function of religious or scholarly systems? What if the book perpetuated itself not out of necessity, but through a human desire for profits, ego inflation and prestige? Particularly when looking at contemporary attitudes toward the book, as Richard Nash discussed in his essay “The Business of Literature” (2013), books might be seen as culturally “important” partly because of a public relations campaign mounted by the father of spin, Edward Bernays:

“Where there are bookshelves,” [Bernays] reasoned, “there will be books.” So he got respected public figures to endorse the importance of books to civilization, and then he persuaded architects, contractors, and decorators to put up shelves on which to store the precious volumes.

There is so much mythology and self-important discussion surrounding books that we sometimes forget the book is a technology, so old a technology it has disappeared into the background. A book as set of bound, typeset pages has nothing in particular to do with the survival of storytelling, reading or writing. But the advent of the printing press and the advent of the book are so closely connected that we tie the benefits and importance of the printing press (cheap and quick distribution of information) to the benefits and importance of the book (the vessel carrying the information). Perhaps they are inseparable throughout much of their history, but now that we’re undergoing another paradigm shift – a new way of distributing information quickly and cheaply, through the Internet – one has to question whether the book, which is tied so closely to the advent of the printing press, will retain its meaning, relevance and utility in the digital age.

The great growth of reading and writing we’re now experiencing is connected to the Internet’s abundance of information and instant-publishing opportunities, not books. In fact, books have been mostly absent from the Internet (for reading and reference) because they’re closed off in separate universes, not often made available for search, and not as freely distributed, copied and subscribed to as other digital media. In Google’s attempts to bring books inside the fold of the Web, they have faced innumerable challenges and legal battles from people who wish to strictly protect the copyright and profits related to books.

But it may not matter in the end, because the book – either as a unit of commerce or as a unit of attention – may not be the best way to satisfy the needs and desires of people who can instantly access information from mobile devices and be entertained by an unlimited amount of media. As Marcus Dohle said at the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair, “We want [customers] to choose books as a future, and not Netflix – and that is a big task.” Industry consultant Mike Shatzkin has also said that the biggest challenge facing publishers isn’t the digitization of books or Amazon’s retail practices but the consumer deciding to pass the time by playing Angry Birds or scanning Facebook rather than reading a book.

This challenge, as Dohle says, is a big one. Some controversial articles have argued that the best storytelling today is found on TV, not books. Some have accused literary fiction of becoming irrelevant to contemporary life. Tim O’Reilly famously said the following on Charlie Rose in 2012:

I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away. They’re an elitist pursuit. And they’re relatively recent. The most popular author in the 1850s in the US wasn’t Herman Melville writing Moby-Dick, you know, or Nathaniel Hawthorne writing The House of the Seven Gables. It was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writing long narrative poems that were meant to be read aloud. So the novel as we know it today is only a 200-year-old construct. And now we’re getting new forms of entertainment, new forms of popular culture.

Recent innovations in delivering stories have not typically come from book publishers, but from start-ups or online-based companies that can closely evaluate reader reaction and behavior. Amazon, following the lead of other media start-ups, has launched digital initiatives such as Kindle Singles (to deliver stories between 10,000 and 30,000 words), Kindle Serials (to sell story subscriptions) and Kindle Worlds (to deliver fan fiction). None of these genres or formats really fit into the existing paradigm of the book or the legal strictures surrounding it; therefore the traditional publishing business, concerned about profits and marketability, has rarely pursued such content. Now that such areas are flourishing in the digital environment, we begin to recognize the artificial construct of the book – that its length, shape and purpose is based on manufacturing, marketing and other commercial considerations.

Yet some do effectively argue that the book has evolved to encompass the perfect unit of attention and the perfect length to expound on an idea. Maybe this is true, or maybe this is just what we’re used to; after all, attention spans appear to be changing. Still, it’s difficult to envision that a book-length work of fiction – the novel – will become extinct any time soon. It seems likely to continue, but as a less popular form. Consider how the invention of the LP once led musicians to focus on the art and craft of the album: now the digitization of music has ushered in the age of the single. Perhaps fiction is headed in the same direction, something more befitting our short bursts of attention or time when we’re seeking 5-10 minutes of entertainment while standing in line at the grocery store or waiting at the doctor’s office.

The idea actually under threat is the book as information vehicle. Much of the publishing industry – especially the educational sector – is acutely aware that the typical book doesn’t necessarily do the best job of imparting information. Many nonfiction publishers have completely stopped talking about “books” and now focus on content strategy and media agnosticism, recognizing the need to deliver information in many different channels, formats and environments. Wiley’s CEO Steve Smith has said in a range of talks that his company’s job as an educational publisher is not to deliver information or content, but to develop services. By that he means: servicing universities, students and professionals with online courses, assessment, workflow tools, communities and, yes, digital books.

I also wonder about the feasibility, particularly in the nonfiction realm, of culture continuing to deify the author, according him great respect, authority and prestige for producing a book. For writers that subject themselves to the wisdom of the crowd, whether through an agile publishing model that collects reader feedback or a series of blog posts, they’re deeply aware that their own knowledge and perspective, without the knowledge and input of others, often falls short. Case in point: Nature found that Wikipedia is about as accurate as Encyclopædia Britannica. Wikipedia of course has its weaknesses (mainly in structure and style), but the resource is still in its infancy when compared to Britannica.

As far as the role and primacy of the author in storytelling, I can’t help but refer once again to the strength of current TV writing, where a room of writers debate and produce a story arc collectively. While there is usually a creator or visionary, someone who has come up with the premise (as in the case of Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad), most show creators are quick to give equal credit to the many writers they work with.

Bottom line, we forget that the idea of authorship – and the creation of copyright – came along with the printing press. Before the printing press, there really wasn’t any such thing as an “author.” There were scribes and historians, but authorship is a relatively new idea. With the digital age, we may see the role of the author start to disappear or diminish. Futurist David Houle has predicted this and said in an interview that the younger generations are not as concerned with control as they are influence. They are more interested in completing projects in a collaborative manner, rather than the ego- and identity-centered “I’ve got to go off by myself and create my work of art.” This latter attitude pretty much nails the primary mode and concern of novel writers today, who find themselves in dramatic opposition to the technology surrounding them. (See: Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers.)

Building Worlds Out of Books

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We’ve been writing about the future of the book without having given much thought to the question of what a book is in the first place. Is it a physical, papery artifact, a thing? An autonomous textual unit of attention made up of meaningful bite-sized subunits? A word whose persistence in language is merely a matter of convention, a residue of more bookish times?

I’d like to propose that a book is a window onto a world. If this is true, we have good reason to believe that books will survive in a form that will remain recognizable to us.

Books project worlds by objectifying thought. They freeze in place a story, a longish idea or a description of life. Books are one means of taking a world, real or invented, and compressing it, encoding it and presenting it. Books shrink space and crush time. So long as we enjoy shrinking space and crushing time, we’ll crave book-like things.

Then again, in the same breath that they create worlds, books also destroy themselves. When I read a science fiction novel (and not only science fiction), I read for worlds. I define the word world as the sum total of relations – among things, characters, settings, laws, etc. – within a bounded imaginative space. If the book does its job, its bookishness will dissolve into the reader’s concern for characters and situations and plots. Even the most intensely avant-garde poetry (think Kenneth Goldsmith’s American trilogy) or the boldest experiments in book design (think Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes) construct worlds. Even the most book-conscious books are finally self-effacing.

Which might lead us to doubt that books need to survive. If I can watch a skillfully made rendition of Frank Herbert’s Dune, of what special use is the novel? It’s true, literary style is only one sort of window onto interesting worlds. But it’s a window with strengths and weaknesses, zones of clarity and opacity. Despite a century of efforts to do so, no novel will ever offer the visceral experience of a play or film or television show or video game. Contrariwise, non-literary modes of world-building still stink at dramatizing thought or deploying metaphor. Within the domain of prose fiction, moreover, short stories can only hint at the fullness of an imagined or real world, a job the novel does with ease.

There are also economic reasons why books will likely survive. In an age of vertically integrated multinational media conglomerates, books remain useful as vehicles for the creation of worlds on the cheap, worlds that subsequently spawn other higher-margin worldish media products. A company like DC Comics sustains its comics division almost purely as a means of research and development for its profitable films. Film producers often outsource creativity to popular novels or book series. The book (whether of poetry, drama or prose) fits snugly in curricula and on syllabi at every level of education. Finally, the novel is still at the peak of the pyramid of narrative and cultural prestige. No other form comes close to capturing the imagination of a world-hungry public. These are forces that will, fortunately, be hard to dislodge.

The future of the concept of the book is therefore the future of the book’s capacity to facilitate the reader’s access to worlds. As long as humans are hungry for fully evoked worlds that include figuration or densely packed information or renditions of characters (or people) whose inner lives are richly accessible, something very much like the book will survive.

Do Zimboes Dream of Electric Sheep?

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The act of reading is inextricably linked to the intertwined structures of language and consciousness.

We are conscious beings; as mammals, when we experience the world around us we weave a narrative account of our existence that gives us a retrospective timeline in which to anchor our viewpoint and sense of unitary identity.  We possess a “theory of mind” which allows us to ascribe intentionality to other organisms – the dog bit the postman because it was frightened (and fear provokes a fight/flight response) – a valuable survival ability during our prehistory on the plains of Africa. And we possess language with syntax and deep semantics and grammar, a possibly unique and very powerful capability that allows us to encode behavior and insights and transfer them from one mind to another.

Cognitive philosophers have, over the years, chewed on the concept of consciousness until it is grey and mushy about the edges – but with little digestive success. One thought experiment they use to examine this phenomenon is the idea of the zombie. In cognitive science, a zombie is a philosophical thought experiment: a human being with no interior state, no sense of identity, no “I.” Philosophical zombies do not, as far as we know, exist, but they possess a number of interesting attributes; they presumably eat, sleep, breathe and respond to stimuli, but possess no personhood. If you ask one who he or she is, or what they are experiencing, they won’t be able to frame a reply that encodes any sense of identity: they observe but they do not experience.

To probe some questions arising from philosophical zombies, Daniel Dennett proposed a new category: the  “zimboe.” A zimboe is a special type of zombie which, when asked, will deny that it is a zombie. That’s its sole specialty. It’s like an empty house where the lights are on and nobody’s home, but the absent householder has left a tape-recording of a dog barking or a baby crying playing on a continuous loop to convince burglars that it’s a bad prospect. If you ask a zombie about themselves they can’t tell you anything. If you ask a zimboe about themselves they will spin a convincing yarn, but it’s a lie – they don’t feel anything. Detecting a zimboe is next to impossible because they claim to be conscious; we might be surrounded by them, or even married to one, but we might never know.

When we read fiction or autobiography or any other narrative text that encodes a human experience as opposed to some assertion about the non-human universe, we are participating in an interesting process that Stephen King described as the nearest thing to telepathy that humanity has yet developed. An author has encoded their interior experience, serialized it as text and handed it to the reader in some kind of package. The reader then inputs the text and, using their theory of mind, generates a simulation of the interior mental states the writer was encoding.

What happens when a zimboe reads Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?

The lights are on, but there’s no consciousness present and therefore no theory of mind to be deployed to generate an emulation of the interior states of Jane Austen’s characters. You can quiz the zimboe about their reading matter and they can answer factual questions about the text, but they can’t tell you why Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are feeling any given emotion, because they lack the theory of mind – the cognitive toolkit – necessary to infer interior states and ascribe them to other entities.

We may therefore expect zimboe lairs to be curiously deficient in the kind of reading matter that provokes emotional engagement and long interior arguments with recalcitrant fictional protagonists who need to recognize the error of their ways, pull their heads out of their fictional asses and sort themselves out.

And, more fundamentally, we may infer the existence of a cast-iron test for whether a person is a person or a zimboe…because zimboes can’t write fan fic. Not even bad fan fic. They probably can’t write any kind of fiction at all, or even reliably recognize the distinction between fiction and narrative fact.

Zimboes don’t dream of electric sheep. And, come the zombie apocalypse, we can use this fact to defend ourselves from them!

Further reading:

Mixtures and Compunds

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As a religious publisher, I am aware of the curse that attaches to making the slightest change to Holy Writ.

All publishers know authors who object to the slightest editorial change to their great opus.

Movies exist, audiobook exists, games and quizzes exist; for news their is journalism. Adding videoclips or databases to a book makes a new synthetic or hybrid product, but the video is still video, pics are still pics, and text is text. Chemists make a distinction between a mixture and a compound: I am not convinced that books-plus can go from mixtures to something new.

The Announcement of My Death Was Premature: a Traditional Book Speaks Out

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Many have written my obituary, on more platforms than you can imagine; in old media newspapers, new media blogs, on-line magazines, e-alerts for smart phones. You name the venue and someone has rechoiced at or opined about my demise.

But most of the blather has been misdirected. True, books are evolving, but more in the way that birds and reptiles evolved from a common ancestor. Aspects of the DNA of one organism remains genetically inbedded in the other.

That’s what’s happening with me. Part of my DNA has been spliced, creating spin-offs that will diverge from me, blurring our connection until it becomes almost invisible. Within a short span, children will be enjoying interactive “experiences” that include text, pictures, embedded video, soundtracks, a plethora of options. A paper-bound book will seem as unrelatated to these as chiseled hieroglyphics seems to modern word processing.

But I will survive, surprisingly intact. Of course, I am not immune to the force of evolutionary change.  Already many experience me via dedicated ebook readers, tablets and phones, and wipeable, changeable smart paper beckons from the horizon.

But my magic remains undimmed by these new methods of access. I still have the power to transport a child or its parent into a world of mystical wonder, where pirates battle brigands, where grieving daughters mourn fathers, where a son seeks vengeance for an untimely murder.

I myself provide a unique experience: the opportunity to actually lose yourself in the words. No other medium can do that. And no technological innovation can destroy the siren song of my power.

So do not fret. Not only am I alive and well–in a world of thechnological cacophony, I’m growing stronger.

 

Smart, flexible, shareable, salable magic.

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How will the def­i­n­i­tion of “book” change?

The Neverending Story , the a German fantasy novel by Michael Ende, features a rather peculiar book of the same name being central to the story.  The book allows for the reader to become part of the story, to the extent that the story itself is dependent upon the qualities of the reader.  The reader becomes part of the story, and therefore the Story is different (if only slightly) depending on who reads it.  Indeed, the story might very well be different for one person, if read several times over a lifetime.

Whereas a ‘static’ book is the encapsulation of various and sundry ideas of an author (or authors) and editors, once it’s bound and shipped it remains just that until such time as a revised printing might come along.  Those ideas reach out, though, and transport the reader along in a passive sort of way.  The reader is observer, incapable of changing anything about the encapsulation.  She can only consume.

As access to wireless bandwidth increases, as flexible display technology gets closer to paper in texture, you’ll be closer and closer to the book described in Stephenson’s The Diamond Age in terms of technological sophistication, a leather bound tablet computer with gilt pages instead of Gorilla Glass, with a smorgasbord of functionality, and you well may have the last book anyone needs to buy or lend (in terms of saving space on the bookshelf, at any rate) but what about the stories themselves?  Are they to remain static encapsulations?

In certain instances that’s going to be necessary.  It would be a mistake to let trolls at the text of the Odyssey, or would it?  What about while an author is living and interacting with their work? The video game industry had a hit with GTA V.  Some billion dollars for one instance of interactivity in a digital sandbox.  What happens when books and video games blend together finally?  And when the data is analyzed for trends, what will we see as our most common dreams that we desire to be real?

“Book” is going to become more and more about the totality of available experience and less about something that gathers dust on a shelf, or merely takes up byte-space on silicon.