The Algorithmic Corpse


One of my favorite classroom assignments is to ask students to write original fiction or poetry using words and phrases plucked from Google Autocomplete. Inspired by Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing (2011), the challenge requires them to use some kind of seed phrase (“how do I,” for example) and then add on words to get new language for their reuse. To give this constraint a little flexibility, I also allow students to elide the seed phrase and pluck other keywords out of the resulting text if they wish.

I’d like to think this is a kind of exquisite corpse where the collaboration happens between millions of strangers, most of whom have no idea they are playing the game. The result is powerful precisely because of this distributed network of textual ghosts: people who typed in phrases (often profound, or bizarre, or deeply sad) thousands or millions of times. The exquisite corpse that emerges is both improvisational and thoroughly grounded in a particular intentionality and history.

Consider this example, starting with the keyword “exquisite”:

Exquisite blood surf

Exquisitely tender

Infernal black diamond necklace

Synonyms and antonyms

Exquisite corpse why lie

This corpse is the artistic creation of one individual (breaking the cardinal rule of the game), but it is also a kind of collage that involves millions. The search bar is a vital interface between the collective id and the articulated consciousness of the Internet. It is a confessional and a space for interrogatory dialog. When we adapt the distinctively clipped, quasi-boolean voice of the search query to the ends of poetry, we get something that is perversely beautiful and multivalent. Each phrase drags along its own string of corpses behind it, the trial of inquiry and speculation that leads people to ask Google questions like how do you have sex.

I don’t know quite what game I’m playing here, or how this could become a multiplayer game like the real exquisite corpse. One variation might be to tell a story starting with a letter of the alphabet, using that letter to find an autocomplete phrase to add to the narrative. How else might we build this monster?

On Not Being Seen

Suvodeb Banerjee

Lonely Bush, Dover by Suvodeb Banerjee

What is the opposite of celebrity? Will it be possible to remain unknown in the future web? Think back to the dawn of the blogging era, to LiveJournal and even Geocities: spaces that were public but untrafficked, like a quiet residential cul-de-sac. The kind of place you would safely let your 12-year-old wander around, relying on the (perhaps illusory, but still palpable) sense of security through obscurity.

Today, those structures no longer exist. The infrastructure of the web itself is changing, with platforms replacing sites and automated linking systems tracking our profiles and activities across hundreds of different URLs. Site addresses have evolved from human-readable strings that reflected their own hierarchies (e.g. a New York Times article organized by domain, date, section of the newspaper, and article title) to unique machine-friendly codes (e.g. the addresses of articles on Medium). As Anne Helmond argues in a Computational Culture article, the proliferation of URL shorteners and link APIs have transformed the hyperlink into a meta-structure for the web, turning the “blind” pointer of the web address into an interactive monitoring device for tracking attention.

These systems transform the architecture of reading online, networking the simple act of sharing or even following a link. But what about writing? The expansion of universal logins (again predominantly through Facebook and Twitter) connects our public personae together, hooking one-distinct online spaces into a persistent tapestry of public presence (often hijacking our credentials to promote a product or inform our friends about our most recent “achievement”). It is now not only possible but surprisingly easy to have almost every online activity sourced to a single identity, from reading on Goodreads to exercise on RunKeeper to civic engagement through

It is still possible to write anonymously online through pseudonyms and privacy-oriented platforms like PiratePad. But this is not the same thing as riding your bike around a quiet cul-de-sac. This is donning your mask and actively obscuring your real identity. This kind of conscious obfuscation takes on its own stakes and political positions, like the Guy Fawkes masks that bled out from V for Vendetta (2005) into Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous. This is the contemporary equivalent of Thomas Pynchon fleeing a news photographer in the 1950s and pleading with CNN not to out his image on air.

But that is quite different from being unknown. The efficiency of search engines and the social web make that kind of informal, quiet anonymity much more difficult to maintain. When it does occur, it happens in the walled gardens of platforms like Facebook, where data is relatively protected from the search spiders. But that same data is eagerly offered up to advertisers, and that is probably the worst kind of celebrity, the kind of indelible tracking that is both invisible to us as individuals and highly visible to data aggregators.

So outside of those gardens (which are maybe more like pastures, where we are the cows), the romance of the unknown is almost entirely illusory. Everything we write is tracked by someone, or multiple entities, and linked indelibly and rapidly back to us through the simple trace of a Google search or a targeted email. We are all the stars of our own little social media galaxies, and our works are burnished brightly as our automated updates can make them. Simply using the Internet over a period of years is enough to accrue hundreds of followers and detailed digital histories.

This presents a quandary about authenticity. Is it possible to “discover” a new voice, a new artist anymore? Is there an MFA student or young creative artist left who does not already have multiple broadcast channels installed on social media? The answer seems inevitable because the pressure of discovery continues to grow with every micro-celebrity who joins the blogosphere: presumably artists now need to have a following before they even begin their real careers, simply to stand out from the background noise. The creative universe suffers from a kind of light pollution, the background glow of a billion algorithmic publicists pumping out every networked dog, cat and human’s personal narrative. I suppose this makes all of those neighborhoods a little more brightly lit for the kids to play in, but it also makes them all look the same.

One More Sprint: The End of the Experiment


Already our third book sprint has distinguished itself: new faces, new approaches (delving much more deeply into design, aesthetics, and music), and some important new questions. Our authors here at Stanford cited science fiction, alternate reality games, typography, and design in their self-introductions; we have an exciting three days ahead of us.

One of the major topics of discussion is the process itself. What are we producing while we’re here, and what should the ultimate outcome be? Will we be satisfied with a static PDF or EPUB document, or should we be aiming for some new model?

This is one of the key reasons I am here: to push the envelope of writing and publishing as performance. But, now that we’re arriving at the end of our roadshow, it’s time to start thinking about the long shadow of publication. Books are spaces of performance not just in the immediate process of authorship, publication, and reception but in the long tail of reading and circulation. How can we keep this gift moving?

Talking It Out


As I sit here in a nearly silent room filled with creative thinkers about the future of books, I cannot avoid asking whether we’re doing this all wrong. As a couple of our participants have pointed out, it’s slightly perverse to bring these people together and then ask them to spend much of their time tapping silently at flimsy plastic input devices based on flawed 19th century machines.

Shouldn’t we be talking about this stuff instead?

I’d like to argue, borrowing from Churchill, that this method is the worst form of collaboration except for all the others. The book sprint that we’re running here is inspired by an ambition to reinvent the concept of the book, but perhaps more importantly, the process and performance of publishing. But it is also an effort to reimagine how intellectual conversations can happen. The best conversations are live, spontaneous, and require the high bandwidth of sharing a physical space. You can do it remotely, even by exchanging a series of letters over decades, but to actually create a sense of energy and improvisation—to get people thinking out loud and thinking together—you need live performance.

So the process of our book sprint needs to include live conversation but also something more. A great conversation, by definition, is not transferrable—you were there or you weren’t. Our challenge is to perform a kind of alchemy that distills the energy of collaborative thinking into a new medium. I say alchemy because this involves transmuting a fundamentally magical component out of another. The conversation itself is unique, and even an ESPN-style multipoint camera crew could not capture the live intensity of smart people thinking on their feet—at best, it would an archival recording of something cool that happened once.

The traditional solution to this problem has been to let people figure it out for themselves: have a great conversation, take it home with you, and maybe months or years later it will emerge as some kind of intellectual outcome. In the humanities, the process is even more stylized: almost all intellectual action happens before or after the big conference, when the paper gets written and when it gets revised. All that happens in the conference room is a bunch of people reading things at one another.

Our project here is not only to pose a series of provocative questions about the future of the book, but also to experiment with new processes for curating these conversations. The series of short writing deadlines and structured groups we’ve deployed here offer people a set of friendly challenges: converse, and then articulate your best ideas in a short essay. At its best the blending of these modes sharpens both the talking and the writing through a set of simple constraints. Our series of quick marches ask participants to articulate a few positions that are neither over-determined (because nobody had time to prepare, to do their work beforehand, to pick an answer before the question was fully voiced) nor consequence-free (because it’s not just a conversation, it’s a text that will live on through multiple publishing iterations).

So the exercise is a kind of thinking by doing on multiple levels of process. Everyone in this room is working out their own solution to the structure, the hurdles and pathways we’ve set before them. And collectively we are discussing the process of authorship and publishing itself. The most important part of the exercise is the possibility, really the embrace of failure. This is one of the beautiful things about a good conversation in performance: the inescapable flow of oral utterance, as Barthes (1975) or Ong (1982) argued, does not allow things to be unsaid, only to be reframed. The book sprint is a digital reinvention of that idea (not by forbidding revision, but by persistently nudging people out of their comfort zones).

The process is performance. The room is talking again; it’s filling with laughter and movement as people come out of another cycle to share notes, to talk things out and to keep pushing forward.

Field Notes from the Future of Publishing


Field Notes from the Future of Publishing

End Scene

Well, we did it! Our mission was simple: write, edit, and publish a book in three days from the floor of the Frankfurt Book Fair. By the end of the third day we had more than twenty-five essays and a number of videos, brief interjections, excerpts, and other ancillary material to fill out a respectable volume.

To be honest, I knew we would: get a few professional writers lined up, ply them with lattes, lay down a few deadlines, and you will inevitably see results. The main surprise was my naïve assumption that I would have time to write alongside them rather than working with our excellent support team to keep the cameras rolling, the editorial engines churning, and our visitors to the booth nodding and smiling.

Now that we have the benefit of hindsight, why did we do it? What did we accomplish? The basic answer is that this was about performance. We wanted to take the distinctive energy, the imaginative space that writers require for creative production, and put it on display. I admit, unashamedly, that one of my inspirations for this exercise was the great, underappreciated Monty Python skit where novel-writing has become a national pastime that can fill a stadium with cheering fans. It’s a little silly, sure, but why don’t we celebrate writing like this?

So we put up a big clock and gave everyone status updates on the project. We had a film crew (there is no better way to signal a happening than to have someone record it). We staged the event as series of individual “sprints” where we would all brainstorm ideas around a particular question, turn to individual writing time punctuated by occasional queries and sardonic commentary, and then gather for a brief review and reflection period. And, in fact, by the end of three days our little group of collaborators did feel something like a team in a stadium, or maybe a newsroom: working hard together on a shared goal under tight constraints.

The effort to plan and execute this at a frantic site like the Frankfurt Book Fair was non-trivial. We spent hours discussing the layout of our space, the people we should invite, the larger goals and specific agenda items, all the way down to the optimal spacing of coffee breaks to allow for maximal productivity (key insight: make caffeine available all the time). Ultimately, the setting was crucial to creating a physical network effect: people stopped by our book…smart, connected people who were going to take this back to their executive boardrooms or their vast online communities.

This brings us back to the notion of performance. Somehow for all the openness of digital culture, the way we share our innermost thoughts, our half-formed ideas and streams of consciousness, writing itself has remained unchanged. Writers compose in private, even when communicating with millions in real-time. You don’t see novelists sitting down and letting people watch them crank out prose, with a few notable exceptions.

The gulf between writer and audience has many consequences. The absence of the artist at the heart of the literary work, the way in which all of those false starts, dead-ends and commodius vici of recirculation are elided in the final text, is a form of loneliness that many writers have struggled with. Ironically, we have made the written word – this deep expression of the self; the telepathic, mind-projecting transmission of thought and feeling from one brain to another – into a new barrier. I suspect this has been true for centuries – that writers like David Foster Wallace find fiction to be a source of redemption, a way out of the lonely Skinner box of human existence, but also an endless deferment of direct, live contact.

Staging Writing

Turning writing and publishing into a live act also takes its inspiration from the performance of literary culture, the idea that extemporaneous discourse is an art in and of itself. So how do we create a space for live writing? Walter Ong (1982) called our transition into the space of contemporary letters the move from orality to literacy, noting that the explosive impact of the written word has involved losses as well as gains. The culture of auditing – privileging speech and listening as the primary formal and legal modes of communication – has given way to the culture of silent reading and, increasingly, silent writing. We lose something in these silences, as the spoken word can never be unsaid, according to the French literary theorist Roland Barthes (1975). Too often the silently written word can be silently erased, and the Internet’s textual cornucopia tempts us to forget all that Google does not know.

The notion of live writing and the performance of writing has interested poets and literary scholars for decades, leading to many experiments in creating more nuanced spaces on the page and in public readings for the performance of poetry and other literature. At its roots these modes of performance serve to construct our own identities as players on the cultural stage: Adam Smith more or less founded his entire theory of moral philosophy on the importance of knowing how to express your thoughts effectively on the fly in the Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). In our Frankfurt experiment we challenged ourselves to imagine how the process of writing itself could become more fluid and more open to observation.

This reflexivity creates a space for collective processing and authorship to take place as well, with writers responding to one another on the fly rather than engaging in a more traditional essay-response format. By organizing ourselves around a series of “sprints” where each writer discussed and then staked out a claim on a particular topic, we were able to work in concerted parallel, explicitly and implicitly weaving together the threads of ideas like Dan Gillmor’s notion of iterated, perpetual beta books and Charlie Stross’s nightmare of feral spam literature.

We could have conducted this experiment with quill and parchment (maybe the Declaration of Independence is a good precedent for writing as performance), but instead we chose to run our experiment online, using Intel’s Professional Grade E-Book platform and a WordPress blog.

Computational tools hold huge potential to create new forms of collaboration between authors, editors, publishers, and their audiences and we are only just beginning to imagine the possibilities. Crucially, they open up the practice of live writing, of shared composition, to become a space of creative performance. While our experiment in Frankfurt relied primarily on closed writing tools (Microsoft Word, the WordPress text editor and the like), I am fascinated by the potential for new modes of collective, live composition. Despite their individualized editorial interfaces, sites like Wikipedia and Reddit rapidly assemble collective narratives about world events as they unfold (the Boston Bombing, for example), creating a collaborative, performative composition space as pages are continually refreshed with new contributions. Likewise social media is rapidly becoming a tool for collective storytelling through hashtags and call-and-response narratives that can involve thousands of voices in the same emergent “story.”

Publishing Performances

In terms of composition, most digital publishing tools are still discrete, private booths into which we pour our words. They are deceptively simple in their front-end operations: users see some kind of text box, maybe some tag or categorization options to direct their conversations towards the right audience, and a big, enticing “submit” button. The real sophistication lies in the algorithms and sharing platforms that curate and transmit all that text to networks of readers. As it stands, most of these systems function as black boxes, specifically fortified against those who seek to “game the system.” All of the most interesting heavy lifting takes place behind the veil, so authors, readers, and texts are put in touch according to proprietary notions of serendipity.

Many of these processes – recommendation engines, social media feeds, discoverability – remain beyond the scope of what we set out to accomplish in Frankfurt. Nevertheless a major ambition of our Sprint Beyond the Book is to make this backend as visible as the front, to demonstrate how easy it is for publishers and authors to create digital versions of their work without resorting to expensive software. The platform we were using from Intel, the Professional Grade E-Book system (PGE), was intended to serve this role: a simple, transparent set of tools to ingest PDFs on one end and create a graceful digital book on the other.

Getting this done in practice was a reminder that every performance needs its gaffers, grips, technical directors, and stage managers. The PGE tool is a proof of concept at this stage, a working prototype of a platform that in the future could be more flexible (running on multiple computing platforms, not just Windows), more adaptable (ingesting multiple text formats in addition to PDF), and more supportive of the increasingly iterative nature of digital publishing, where a book might be published and republished many times as various pieces of its content are updated. In practice our workflow at Frankfurt was still radically simplified and accelerated from the traditional publishing model, with new iterations of our evolving text going online several times a day and a freshly formatted edition coming out roughly once a day. However, we could glimpse even greater efficiencies in the promise the PGE platform has for full commercial deployment: a system that allows anyone to create a high quality e-book using a single, simple production system.

 The experiment in Frankfurt ultimately centered on a different kind of staging: not writing but publication itself as a performance. Bringing our authors together in public, creating the book out in the open, on the fly, is an homage to what I see as the core aesthetic of the publishing industry. Publishers are businesspeople, running companies that serve market needs and must turn a profit, but they are also cultural arbiters. They support writers (who are usually not businesspeople), they watch trends, and above all they define a certain kind of style. The world’s great publishing houses still have this, a sense of brand identity and cultural purpose that extends beyond a simple profit motive. This intangible aesthetic is its own form of performance, a long-running improvisation where books and market seasons are the individual episodes of a larger drama.

The book sprint in Frankfurt and our upcoming experiments at Arizona State University and Stanford University highlight this bigger picture. Expanding what Pierre Bourdieu called “habitus” in terms of individual actors in the drama of cultural systems (1972), we are using PGE and the framework of new digital platforms to ask how a new transparency might transform the relationships between publishers, readers, authors, and critics. We already see writers publishing drafts and readers responding, publishers crowdsourcing new books, and authorship collectives short-circuiting the old rules to bring new books to life. The processes of writing, reading, and publishing are already happening in tumultuous parallel – what happens when we bring them together into the same room, into the same conversation?

A New Word for E-Book


Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich

This piece originally appeared in the Future Tense department on Slate. Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.

When’s the last time you sat down to read a book for several hours? Or even one hour? We are both card-carrying humanities scholars, but even we can barely scrape 15 minutes together for sustained engagement with a text. And yet humans are reading now more than ever when you think about the billions of hours we collectively spend on email, Facebook, Twitter, texting, sexting, and reading illicit things online. This is more than just information overload: When we change how we read, we are changing our brains. Researchers have proposed that we play out literary scenarios with mirror neurons and fire up complex, full-brain patterns of activity when asked to practice “close reading,” in contrast to the patterns associated with reading for pleasure (Keen 2006; Goldman 2012).

Neurological effects, different types of media, totally new reading habits – just a few reasons why e-reading is a fundamentally different experience than curling up with a dead-tree book. Print books are a highly refined technology that isn’t going anywhere soon, but there are ways in which the digital is superior to the old-fangled, and vice versa: They’re horses of different colors.

And yet publishers keep trying to recreate the print experience online, with the faux wood of the iOS bookstore and the fake page-turning animations on many e-readers. It’s time for that to end. We need to embrace digital reading as its own medium, not just a book under glass. That means imagining a new language for reading as an experience, starting with a new word to use instead of book.

It’s still no easy trick to figure out a name for this thing, though. Throughout the writing of this volume, we acted as ringmasters for a crack team of novelists, journalists, and publishers conducting a gonzo experiment in the future of publishing. Sprint Beyond the Book aimed to upend the publishing industry’s centuries-old model for book production. We wrote in public, on the crowded and noisy floor of the fair. We moved from concept to final product in just 72 hours. We crowdsourced the writing, featuring dozens of contributions collected through our website. We shot and embedded videos throughout. We’re even giving the thing away for free. But despite our pretensions to renegade chic, we couldn’t stop returning to the word book to talk about what we were building.

The fact is that every other name we came up with sounded boring or silly. Text was a strong early contender – after all, it’s used by humanities geeks like us to refer to everything from political speeches and Hungarian rap lyrics to recipes for gumbo. Sadly, it’s totally misleading: We’re hurtling toward a future in which reading means making decisions, watching videos, writing back, and getting lost in vast virtual spaces. Book system is too stodgy (as are reading system, platform, and service) and doesn’t even get rid of the word book. We gleefully entertained and discarded many bad ideas like graphies. Some of us liked plat, a shortening of platform that sounds like something out of a Golden Age science fiction story, but the more we said it, the more it sounded like a comic book sound effect for something gross.

Rather than grope forward, we decided to look back. With some trepidation, we would like to nominate codex, a word with a rich history that most of us don’t know anything about. Codex, derived from the Latin caudex (meaning “trunk of a tree”) even happens to contain the English word code, which will be central to the future of reading in a variety of ways. The things we’ll be reading in the future will not only involve a lot of programming; they’ll also require readers to decode complex, multilayered experiences and encode their own ideas as contributions in a variety of creative ways. Since standard printed books are technically codices, we propose (with significantly more trepidation) to distinguish our variant with one of those annoying midword capitals: codeX, to remind us that these new things involve experience, experimentation, expostulation…you know, all those X things.

This also works nicely because it reminds us of the X-Men and the X Games: We see the future of reading as an arena with the social dynamics of competition and play, scoring points and showing off, rather than a LeVar Burton rainbow of love and generosity. (Twitter works like this now, as a performance space where we’re all more or less openly vying for the award for “most clever person on the Internet this minute.”) Books have always been potent weapons in the cultural battlefield for prestige and distinction, and they won’t magically turn into utopian spaces anytime soon. At the risk of sounding too academic, we think the X highlights the jousting and (hopefully friendly) conflict inherent to digital reading.

From social reading platforms like Medium to digital pop-up books like 2012’s Between Page and Screen, we’re already building the future of reading, and there’s no going back. So let’s agree on a new term and stop pretending these utterly new ways of reading are anything like the singular and lovely experience of thumbing through a printed book.


Dan Gillmor Interviews Author Barry Eisler


Barry Eisler writes terrific thrillers. He’s also one of the more forward-looking people in the publishing world. Several years ago he turned down a book deal from a traditional publisher and signed with Amazon. In this conversation, we discuss how it’s gone, and how publishing is changing, especially for authors.