“I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window-shutters, I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me.”
I sent the image, without any information about its original context (and strict instructions not to google it), to Yoz Grahame who answered a call for a writer on Twitter.
His reaction was this text:
I reach for support and find velvet under the rubble. I look up at more velvet, towering wings bathed in candlelight, going up and up and up to the bombed-out ceiling; then sky, stars, flashes of the battle.
“It’s too late for new, Mara!” She’s on the stage, capering around the candles. She bends to add another mark, then straightens up. Straight arms, straight teeth, eyes ready to pop. “It’s time to try some old.” The chalk tumbles from her fingers but I don’t watch it land: I’m looking at the curtains, because that can’t just be candlelight, and then the claws appear.
This text was then sent to the artist Sara Hames, who responded with this image:
The image was then sent to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, where five people were given the chance to describe the image in a creative manner. They were paid $1 each, and spent an average of two minutes, 15 seconds on their responses. Although this is higher than most Turk rates, only three people attempted it in the first two hours.
I have no idea who or where they are except for their anonymized IDs.
The face of a Dead woman covered in her shroud that will be with her for all time. She will be buried with this and this will be the last image of her ever made.
Travelling too far out of the intricacies of universe, space, and even time itself can lead you to a middle age woman who controls everything that happens in the universe.
She spoke lies to me, I sensed this, but I could not hear them. Yet I could see it somehow, the bottom of her face melting away into what appeared to be a sculpture of silver, bone-like wire and fleshy triangular patterns. None of it made sense; the silver giving way to buried treasures and diamonds, colors flowing off into the distance… I wondered, as I watched her, if this spoke her true desires, wealth and freedom and pleasure beyond compare. But all I could see, all that stood before me, was a monstrously beautiful mystery.
This was the first forking event we defined, currently containing three possible new paths, though many others could also be started based on the above creations. By maintaining their connection to the original Frankenstein, perhaps in the digital margins of the e-book, and updating them continuously, we could trace the ripples created by the source material’s ideas. This kind of book consciously embraces its descendants.
I will admit, I am largely ignorant about gaming. I am not wholly ignorant…I have my intermittent addictions to casual iPhone games. I helped to advise a design thesis on gaming IRL (“in real life” for you other non-gamers). I think that captures just how far from a gamer I am. Part of the problem is that I get really sucked into the activity on the screen, enough so that my vestibular system is terribly confused and it looks like I’m moving when my body says I’m not. In short, I like games, but they make me want to throw up.
Recently, I have become really interested in a phenomenon I’m told happens in World of Warcraft, or WOW, as I’m told the more clued-in members of society call it. This is the phenomenon of raids.
I actually have never seen a raid. I’m not terribly curious to see one. What I love is to ask gamers about raiding, because raiders get very excited. Raids, it’s been related to me, occur when bands of players gather to take on a quest or a boss character. It takes social coordination, strategy, and patience to pull off a raid. In a raid, players need to forget themselves a little and dedicate themselves to some larger purpose. Raids are for people who can see the big picture. Raids are for people who really understand the world and their place in it, and that understand WOW is not just a game, but a parable for life and its challenges and how if you band together you can conquer anything. Or so I’ve been told.
I love hearing about raids in part because I am so much the solitary bookish nerd that I can hardly relate to the frenzied excitement gamers apparently feel for raiding. As I watch them gesticulating and feinting, reenacting their last raid in their retelling, I wonder what in my life would be raid-like. What would a literary raid be? Would we all take up our pitchforks and arrows and demand our favorite authors hurry up and write their latest magnum opus already? Would we all quest to translate obscure literary texts? Is a book club in any way raid-like?
Ah, I’m sitting next to Kiyash, and across from Lee. Let us consult the wisemen: “People need specific tasks and roles,” says Kiyash. Maybe you make a story appear in distributed books and pieces and people have to get together to reconstitute the story. Now Lee is involved: there’s something like this in William Gibson’s Agrippa (1992). Needs to be time constrained. Can’t be persistent. Maybe the bits and pieces need to appeal to different kinds of people with different skills so that you really need lots of people to put it together.
I think what I love about reading is in many ways that it is a quiet, solitary, cloistered activity. It is focused. It is contemplative. It is individualistic. It is personal. Reading occurs at a scale that is as large as my mind, and just as small. It might be the antithesis of the raid, with all its hurly-burly simultaneous collective action. Trying to think of a raid of readers takes me back to my grad school days at MIT. I would take the Red Line from Harvard Square to Kendall, a short two hops. On the platform, on the train, nerds everywhere. I read a research paper. You had the news. That lady there has a well-worn paperback. You could look up and down the cars and everyone would have their nose in a book. Often people couldn’t be bothered to stop reading even when they got to their stop and had to step off, make their way to the turnstile, go up the stairs. We were together, underground, moving in concert, going to the same place. And still. Still. Still. The thing that bound us was that we all had trouble stopping reading.
It begins with space. There is space to draw. That’s the most important feature.
The margin opens up into white space whenever you call on it. You can fill that space however you want. Sketches, scribblings, notes, doodles.
The book collects them, tags them to the places in the text that inspired them, and keeps them. Every time someone reads it, the collection grows deeper and broader.
For example, this passage has been illustrated five thousand times:
I suddenly beheld the figure of a man, at some distance, advancing towards me with superhuman speed. He bounded over the crevices in the ice, among which I had walked with caution; his stature, also, as he approached, seemed to exceed that of man.
This one has been illustrated only three times, but still:
I was partly urged by curiosity, and compassion confirmed my resolution.
It is possible to walk from sentence to sentence, from one end of Frankenstein to the other, stepping only on the images the text has inspired, without touching a single word. There are actually many such paths.
With each new reader, the text is growing and changing. Over time, these small additions—a stick-figure sketch here, a note there—accrue into a living record of the audience and their shifting perceptions of the story, the themes, the characters. You can view these illuminations alongside the text, or inline, or alone. You can plot them chronologically, or by subject. You can look at one scene a thousand ways. You can add to any image, recombine them in different sequences, create something wholly new from them.
This has led to all kinds of unexpected permutations of reading. Conversations are taking place in the margins. A phrase becomes an image, that image begets a new caption, and that caption leads to yet another image. All of these connections are preserved.
For many people, reading Frankenstein has become a game. There are no set rules, or rather, there is no single set of them. There are thousands of rules, thousands of variations. Some are written down, but many more are not. Folk games bubble up for a season, then disappear. A hundred pictures, each drawn in a different hand, showing only the monster’s nose, inexplicably appear on a single day, all originating from a town in southern England. Closer investigation reveals that the tenth graders of the local secondary school were reading Frankenstein at the time, but no one remembers exactly why all the noses got drawn.
There are many such exquisite corpses strewn across the landscape of the book.
Phrases from the text are starting to crop up in unexpected places in popular culture. When they do, they are tagged and added back into the text. The document becomes a magnet that attracts its derivations back to it, and re-enfolds them. A character in a popular television show quotes the first line of Chapter Five. A Top 40 song references Henry Clerval. Mary Shelley herself becomes a sort of cult heroine. Her face appears on t-shirts, tattoos. She and her creation are macro’d and memed in ways that make some Romantic scholars cringe. But the truth of this spreading, viral text is undeniable, and even the most stoic of academics celebrate it with a smirk: the text is alive. It’s alive.
Are words the same as meaning? Does the form in which you are writing influence the content of what you write? Here’s a game that explores the way form and word choice might influence meaning. For one or many players. Join in!
Rules of the Game:
Rewrite a sentence or passage from the Declaration of Independence into a series of linked 17-syllable verses that, like haiku, follow a 5-7-5 sequence of syllables to the line.
Try to stay close to the original meaning, but be open to re-interpretation, if the new form requires it.
Must reference nature and the seasons
Less is more
Stop when you have written an ending
Translate what you have written back into more straightforward prose
Post the poem, the prose translation, and the original passage, in that order.
In the bright summer
Of human events
We dissolve our connections
Turn cold our eyes to
Take a place at the wellspring
Of power on Earth
We respect others
Enough to clothe our action
In modest Nature
Don’t argue with us
We are as good as you are
God tells us this. Splash!
The poem, restored to prose:
Now, in the harsh, dry reckoning of human events, we dissolve the bonds that have heretofore tied us to others and, eschewing subservience toward those from whom we have split, sit with them at the spot from which power emerges and men seize it. Out of respect to those with whom we are now competing, rather than serving, we assert that there is a higher law to which we conform, and a Deity who has given us the same rights that they claim.
The original text:
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
Today we consider reading as a game. Actually, I don’t consider reading to be a game, but perhaps the most serious thing around. At least the most serious way to impart and take in information. Nevertheless I can easily immerse myself into the game of “Translation Wars,” where we take something memorable and make it unintelligible. Move from one language to the next and on to the next using the wonderful bait-and-switch of automated Internet translation. Like that age-old game of Telephone, where we whispered into the ear of a friend and they whispered to another and then onto another, now we let the machine do the talking. And let’s see just what corner it talks itself into….
On the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s first visit to Castle Frankenstein, let’s see what the Wizard of Internet does with the famous encounter between the good Doctor and his Creature, traveling through one language to the next and then to the next and eventually back to the English in which we began.
“Devil,” I exclaimed, “do you dare approach me? And do not you fear the fierce vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head? Begone, vile insect! Or rather, stay, that I may trample you to dust! And, oh! That I could, with the extinction of your miserable existence, restore those victims whom you have so diabolically murdered!”
“I expected this reception,” said the daemon. “All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.”
“Diable”, m’écriai-je, “avez-vous osé s’approcher de moi? Et ne craignez-vous pas la vengeance féroce de mon bras semé sur votre misérable tête? Va-t’en, insecte vil! Ou plutôt, séjour, afin que je puisse vous piétiner dans la poussière! Et , oh! que je pouvais, avec l’extinction de votre existence misérable, restaurer ces victimes que vous avez si diaboliquement assassinés! ”
“Je m’attendais à cette réception”, a déclaré le démon. “Tous les hommes détestent les misérables; alors, comment dois-je détestais, qui suis misérable au-delà tous les êtres vivants Pourtant, vous, mon créateur, détestent et méprisent moi, ta créature, à qui tu es lié par des liens que dissoluble par l’anéantissement! l’un de nous. vous but de me tuer. Comment osez-vous le sport ainsi avec la vie? Faites votre devoir envers moi, et je vais faire le mien vers vous et le reste de l’humanité. Si vous vous engagez à respecter mes conditions, je vais les laisser et vous en paix;. mais si vous refusez, je vais assouvir la gueule de la mort, jusqu’à ce qu’il soit rassasié avec le sang de vos amis qui restent ”
“Devil “, rief ich , ” kannst du es wagen mich zu nähern ? Und glauben Sie nicht den harten Rache meinen Arm auf Ihrem elenden Kopf gepflanzt fürchten? Begone , abscheuliche Insekten ! Oder eher , Wohnzimmer, so kann ich Ihnen in den Staub trampeln ! Und, oh , ich könnte , mit dem Erlöschen des kümmerliches Dasein , Wiederherstellung dieser Opfer den du so teuflisch ermordet zu haben ! ”
“Ich erwartete diesen Empfang “, sagte der Dämon. “Alle Menschen hassen die elenden , also wie soll ich hasste , der elend jenseits aller Lebewesen bin Doch du, mein Schöpfer, verabscheue und verachte mich , dein Geschöpf , dem du bist durch die Bande gebunden , dass auflösbar durch Vernichtung ! einer von uns. ihr mich zu töten . Wie können Sie es wagen und den Sport mit Leben? tun Sie Ihre Pflicht auf mich zu, und ich werde mir auf Sie und den Rest der Menschheit zu tun . Wenn Sie einverstanden, dass meine Begriffe , werde ich euch und Friede lassen . , aber wenn Sie sich weigern , werde ich die Klauen des Todes zu stillen , bis es mit dem Blut von deinen Freunden zufrieden ist bleiben ”
” Дьявол “, я воскликнул: ” Вы смеете подходить ? И не верьте суровую месть мою руку посадили на вашем несчастной головы страха? Прочь , отвратительные насекомые ! Вернее , в гостиной , чтобы я мог растоптать в пыль ! И, о , я мог , что вы убили так дьявольски с вымиранием жалкое существование , восстановить эти жертвы ! ”
“Я ожидал, что этот прием , ” сказал демон . ” Все мужчины ненавидятнесчастен, так как я должен ненавидел кто я несчастен за всех живых существ не менее вы , мой создатель терпеть , и презирать меня , твой существо , которому вы обязаны узами , что разрешимых путем уничтожения! Любой из нас . ей убить меня . Как ты смеешь и спорта с жизнью ? выполнять свой долг по отношению ко мне , и я собираюсь сделать с тобой и остальным человечеством . , если вы согласны на мои условия , я дам тебе и Мир может . , но если вы откажетесь, я остановлюсь челюсти смерти , пока она не удовлетворена кровью друзьями остаться ”
” Diablo, ” mi kriis , “Vi kuraĝas tuŝi ? Kaj ne kredu la malmolajn venĝo metas mian manon sur vian kapon mizera timo ? Away , naŭza insektojn ! Prefere en la salono do mi povus dispremi en polvon ! Kaj, ho, mi povis vi mortigis tiom damninda formorto mizeran ekziston , restarigi tiujn viktimojn ! ”
” Mi atendas ĉi akceptejo ,” diris la demono . ” Ĉiuj homoj nenavidyatneschasten , ĉar mi malamas kiun mi estis mizera por ĉiuj vivantaj estaĵoj tamen vi , mia kreinto rezistos, kaj malestimas min, via infanino, al kiuj vi ligis per obstakloj kiujn solvebla per detruo ! Ĉiuj el ni. Ŝia mortigi min. kiel vi kuraĝas sporto kaj vivo ? fari vian devon al mi, kaj mi faros kun vi kaj la resto de la homaro . , se vi konsentos miajn terminojn, kaj mi donos al vi Pacon povas. , sed se vi rifuzos , mi ĉesos makzelo morto ĝis ŝi ne estas kontenta kun sango restos amikoj ”
“Devil”, huudahdin, “Sinä uskalla pelata? Ja usko ankara kosto laittaa käteni pään kurja pelko? Away, ilkeä hyönteisiä! Edullisesti huoneessa niin voisin murskata tomuksi! Ja oi, voisin olla sinun tappoi niin pirun sukupuuttoon kurjaa olemassaoloa, palauttaa ne uhrit! ”
“Odotin tätä vastaanoton”, sanoi demoni. “Kaikki ihmiset nenavidyatneschasten, koska vihaan, että olin onneton kaikkien elävien olentojen, mutta minun luoja kestää, halveksi minua, olento, jolle sinä olet sidottu siteitä, jotka liukenee tuhoa! Jokainen meistä. Hänen tappaa minut. Kuten uskallat urheilun ja elämän? tee velvollisuus minua, ja minä teen sinun kanssasi ja muut ihmiset., jos hyväksyt ehtoni, ja minä annan sinulle rauhaa., mutta jos kieltäydyt, en lakkaa leuan kuolemaan saakka hän ei ole tyytyväinen veren pysyä ystävinä ”
and back to its mother tongue:
“Devil,” I exclaimed, “You’re afraid to play? And believe harsh reprisals put my hand on the head of a miserable fear? Away, nasty insects! Preferably in the room so I could crush into dust! And oh, I could have you killed so damn extinction miserable existence, restore those victims! ”
“I expected this reception,” said the demon. “All the people nenavidyatneschasten, because I hate that I was unhappy with all living things, but I take my God, despise me, creature, to whom thou art bound by ties that dissolves destruction! Each one of us. His killing me. As you dare to sport and life? Obliged to make me, and I will do business with you and other people., if you agree to my terms, and I will give you peace of mind., but if you refuse, I will never cease until the death of the jaw, he is not satisfied with the blood remain friends ”
And hear you may listen to the babelized mix, with the additions of Turkish and simplified Chinese mixed in…
And what can this teach us? That all the world’s a book, and stories are like monsters that take on a life of their own as we tell and retell them?
It seems the old models for books are changing. Increasingly, audiences expect content to be free, and there is more competition for their limited attention. As we have been talking about future business models for writers and readers, I have started to reflect on my relationship with Kickstarter. I teach interactive device design classes, and do a fair bit of hobby electronics myself, which is why I’m a regular backer of various electronic device projects that are on the site. Could we start a KickStarter exclusively for writing and reading?
On some level, people are already using KickStarter to fund book projects. I backed my friend Jon’s project to make an exhibition and catalogue, etc. called All Possible Futures recently. A little search/research shows that our very own Andrew Losowsky is involved in a project called HRDCVR, “a book-shaped magazine for the new everyone” which currently has 129 backers for $8,369 pledged of its $150,000 goal—I wonder if that will take off.
Of course, this means we’ll have to have trailers for prospective books. Wait. What? There are already trailers for books? (Who knew?) Trailers will work a lot better for famous writers, or writers with famous friends. And of course, you need a budget, roughly $10k—which, let’s face it, if a writer had on hand they probably shouldn’t be blowing it on a video. Would a sample paragraph be enough? Could we train people to read book treatments?
The other thing that Kickstarter demands is a schedule. Every writing project has a schedule, but it isn’t usually the readers who are watching the clock. Maybe this is why projects like Longshot work, because the schedule is so limited, and the success or failure is thus carefully proscribed. There is a kind of work that is suited to this type of sprint, but maybe so many other works that aren’t. Definitely not something for the modern-day Joseph Hellers. Although, maybe Joseph Heller could have been ferried through his many dry years on the contributions of so many high-school-required-readers-turned-fans.
I do think that a site dedicated to featuring literary projects would be better for both readers and writers than a site where you end up finding a cool book proposal when you were just checking in to see how the LED cat sweater you backed is doing. Maybe more experimental work would happen because people would more easily find the audience their weird project ideas resonated with. Maybe the plaintive customer service inquiries from backer/readers would be an antidote to writer’s block.
“Why, I just met someone in Geneva who is interested in meeting you,” said my friend Bendik, president of the World Composers Association. “Like you, he’s obsessed with bass clarinets.”
“Well, there are a few of us clarinet nerds around,” I smiled.
“I think you might want to talk to this guy. He’s the chief copyright lawyer for Google.”
Bill Patry lives in a quite modest suburban house. Half of it is immaculate and organized. “That’s my wife’s half.” He seems proud. “She’s a caterer.” The other half is a complete mess: piles of papers everywhere, hundreds of clarinet mouthpieces, gold plated bass clarinet necks, clarinet stands, sheet music, various giant screen monitors. The two parts of the house are divided by a single book sitting on a shelf, one book in eight volumes about U.S. copyright law, thousands of pages—the largest single work on this subject ever written.
“Try this one,” he beamed, holding up a rare clarinet mouthpiece. “Beautiful, isn’t it? And now this one. And now this one.” So many beautiful clarinet accessories.
“So how do you work here?” I asked. “Do you practice the bass clarinet for a few hours, then swivel your chair to this computer here and work for a while, and then back? Do you carefully organize your time?”
“Not at all,” Bill said. “Maybe I’ll play a little, jump to the computer a little, jump back, practice a new piece, try a new reed, a new mouthpiece. Not very disciplined at all.”
“And do you ever go to the office?”
“Not if I can help it. Got everything I need right here.”
“So what is your job exactly?”
“Well, think of all the information coursing around on the Internet. Someone owns the rights to many pieces of that information. And we are trying to develop a way for those who own the rights to get paid every time someone accesses that information.”
That’s a tough challenge for our information economy. Maybe the biggest intellectual property dilemma of our age. Almost as hard as playing the bass clarinet.
I have no doubt that a copyright lawyer can learn a lot from playing the bass clarinet on and off throughout the day, but I’m not sure what. And I know the publishing industry has learned something from the music industry in figuring out how to digitize itself and still convince people to pay for something that courses freely through the digital world. As recorded music courses freely over the virtual waves, files of texts which take even less space are somehow being more widely sold and less widely stolen, because the industry has created ways in which people seem happy enough to buy and read them. I believe people who value culture should pay for culture, as much as we can afford—if for no other reason, to prove that we do value it. My students want to steal as much software and music as they can, but they also realize there is something morally and legally wrong about the practice. They wrongly believe that most of the musicians whose work they love are rich, and don’t need money from fans. Sometimes a little basic economics lesson is in order.
The popular cellist Zoë Keating has been very forthcoming in releasing the details of the money she makes through various forms of electronic media sales. She does quite well by independent music standards. On iTunes she sold 32,170 tracks and 3862 albums, earning her $38,195. On Spotify 403,035 streams earned her just $1,764, and 1.9 million YouTube views earned her $1,248. So on Spotify, she earned $0.0044 per stream, and on YouTube $0.00064 per stream.
It is quite instructive to read such figures. For all the music we can instantly access by streaming for a reasonable subscription fee, the artists get almost nothing. It’s close to stealing, and only Spotify is raking in the bucks.
Clearly Patry and his employer have yet to implement their system to fairly compensate artists through the magical Internet of possibilities.
I try to tell everyone I know who claims to care about culture to pay for it whenever they can afford to. If you like someone’s music, buy one of their songs. Show some love, put in a dollar. They will appreciate it.
I just heard today from a newly minted PhD philosophy graduate that most of her friends in academia spend their browsing time scouring Russian websites to download free copies of overpriced academic books that only a few people in the world can really understand or really want to read.
Now if these people are stealing books, why would anyone want to pay to publish them? I know we didn’t get into this life of words and music to make money, but it’s still nice to earn a living from the world and work of stories and ideas.
Pay what you can. And pass me that next mouthpiece…ah, you’re right, it really does sound beautiful.
We’ve been talking around ideas of a digital economy, starting with Jan Sassano’s suggestion that corporations like Twitter and Facebook make their money from the value that we, their users, give to them for free. How do we get rewarded for the value we’re bringing to them? (As a musician and ill-paid actor I once knew put it succinctly, “Money is such a nice way of showing your appreciation.”)
We’ve tried brainstorming ideas, though we keep getting caught up in digressions (which has been described as “the only way anything ever gets said”). There’s clearly no obvious answer to this question. Early this afternoon, after someone mentioned Socratic dialogue, I joked that maybe we should create the “Socrates app,” an app that would interrogate you and engage you in a Socratic dialogue. It would be a sort of ELIZA program with an edge. (No, I don’t have any idea how this would really work. But it’s an app! Apps all make lots of money, right? Right.)
Maybe I should crank up the Socrates app right now and have it ask us: “And how do you intend to make money?” Or maybe that’d just be too much like your skeptical parents shooting down your brilliant career plan.
We’ve tossed around ideas about control vs. influence (fame and celebrity of authors and other creators), thick data (deep-diving data about individuals), meaning vs. statistical quantities, and what Jan called the public experience of reading. That last led Wendy Ju to ask, “So, should publishers become special-events planners?”
We’re hardly the first to point out that writers today have to be self-promoters, and that live events have a major role in the ecosystem of publishing. The balance varies: a poet who is published by a small press may actually sell most of their books at live readings, while an economist or business consultant might give away their books as a sort of calling card when they do a public lecture or workshop, which is what they really get paid for. (Does Edward Tufte make his living from selling his books, or from presenting his one-day courses? Both, perhaps.) Academic authors often get their real reimbursement in academic credit and kudos, which translates into professional advancement at their institution, rather than through the pittance they’re actually paid (if any) for an academic book or article.
So is the future of publishing going to be live events? Public reading? Online interactive discussion, annotation, and response? Dan Gillmor said that he gets great value from the comments on his writing that come back to him from his readers, that in fact it adds to and improves his writing. There’s a big difference between applause and laughter at a live event and the approbation of comments on a blog or website, but they’re both response. And neither one pays for the groceries.
Is it possible to be a professional reader? If social media services ought to be paying us for participating in their game, should publishers be paying us to read their books? Or for allowing our responses to be measured, and aggregated and analyzed by the publisher? Maybe. How would that work?
SANCHO is the friendliest sidekick. He’ll never serve you a sentence longer than ten words. The sentences all have simple structures. Words with more than four syllables are replaced.
We start on SANCHO in primary school. He teaches us to read and understand texts. That is his goal—to help us understand. Most books become shorter with SANCHO.
Some people like to play a joke. They give SANCHO complicated manuals of advanced physics. It is not a very good way to learn physics.
Some people stay with SANCHO all their lives. They like how he makes reading easy. One cannot blame them. He is the friendliest sidekick.
Some of us move on to FRIDAY. FRIDAY isn’t so concerned with simplicity, but rather with finding the best way to tell a story to whoever might be reading. When you install FRIDAY, she starts learning about you. She looks at your metadata and builds a psychological profile. She maps perceived mood against weather and location and social interactions. She tracks your gaze, senses your micro-expressions, and cross-references this data with the text, so that she learns what makes you smile, what makes you gasp, what provokes emotion in you. She uses this information to predict what kind of an experience you want from the words on the page, and that’s what she serves you.
FRIDAY knows, after you’ve been reading with her for awhile, how long you want to read. She knows where you like to read. She knows the optimum volume of ambient noise for a peak reading experience. She knows that you read on the train, of course, but she also knows at which station on your morning journey, statistically, you begin reading, and at which one you typically stop, look up, and gaze out the window.
Some people are afraid of FRIDAY because her algorithms are so precise and so personal. Some people say it’s scary reading a book with FRIDAY. But the truth about FRIDAY is that she’s also friendly. She doesn’t want anything more than for you to be happy, for you to enjoy the act of reading, for you to read the perfect story, the perfect article or essay, every time.
We don’t need to talk about TRIVELIN.
Why are you bringing up TRIVELIN? He’s not useful. TRIVELIN only plays tricks on you. He lies. He omits words. Sometimes he omits . He moves text around. They say TRIVELIN was created by a hacker collective, but no one wants to take credit for it. No one wants the grief. The thing about TRIVELIN is that he’s skinned just like FRIDAY, so you don’t know he’s messing with you until it’s too late. Why are you bringing up TRIVELIN?
But here’s the thing: some people actually like TRIVELIN. They’re masochists, of course. They say he keeps them on their toes. I know of one person who reads exclusively in TRIVELIN. She’s never given me a good explanation of why. All I can think is that secretly, she thrives on chaos.
More common are the casual “Trivelinos,” people who switch back and forth between FRIDAY and TRIVELIN, to keep things interesting. Some people even install TRIVELIN within FRIDAY, so that FRIDAY herself can learn to sub-switch to TRIVELIN functionality when she senses that it’s appropriate.
And here’s another thing. Some people say that TRIVELIN is the only way to read some texts. By forcing unexpected cognitive leaps, by juxtaposing disparate themes and ideas, TRIVELIN reveals their secrets in a way that no other sidekick can, in a way that transcends even the original source material. TRIVELIN is the key that unlocks them. For a few people, it comes close to religion.
Publishing is the act of enabling collaboration between a writer and a reader.
I build new worlds, and construct lenses to change how you see existing ones.
The worlds I create are singular ones, spaces for everyone to inhabit as one. I leave each behind for people to experience, while I get busy constructing the next, and once that is ready, I offer passage to its entrance. A string of unique worlds, one after the other.
I am the creator, the first cause, the organizer of matter. But without your knowledge and imagination, nothing I build matters. I only build the universe, you have to live in it. I create, I step back, and I hope.
That was then.
Now I am also omniscient. I can see what you are reading, on what devices and when, how fast you are reading my words, when you stopped and never returned. I follow you as you read, hoping to gauge how you feel as you do. I hear you when you cry out that my actions are unjust, unpleasant, insensitive, wrong. I am always listening.
I am not an uncaring presence. I want to learn how to make you feel better about my words, about what it will take to make you read more. I want to serve you and to nourish you in ever more effective ways.
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. For I am the writer, the creator who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.
The singular worlds are over. Now I am constructing universes, parallel and connected. They are of the same origin and structure, but with significant differences in how they are experienced, each tailored to how and what and why and where and who you read and when.
Some of these universes deliberately maintain the previous relationship between reader and myself. Others bring me closer to the ground and elevate people above the land to a middle point where we share our tools, creating and improving what is there through a co-authorship centered around my construct. Together we fork even more universes and mental spaces, connected and joined yet different in ways small and big. Now we are omnipotent.
Reading has always been a solitary experience. Now it is a unique one as well, with an overarching conceit that we can share. No single person could, would, should visit all of the universes created by the pattern. Your reading experience is your own, and the infinite library is filled with one book.
There is one book and one Spirit, just as you were called to one reading when you were called; one book, one text, one creation; one writer, who is over all and through all and in all. But to each one of us grace has been given as the writer apportioned it.
When I was working on We the Media (2004), I published an early outline in my blog. Then I published chapter drafts. I got incredibly useful feedback.
But when the book was published, I had no idea how people were using it. Did they stumble over certain passages? Did they skip entire sections? What was going on? I wish I knew.
I never did a second edition of that book (though I should have, mea culpa). If I had, I’d certainly have looked for a way to learn from the readers in much deeper ways than we do today.
As we ponder the future of books and reading, some of us are thinking about the emerging relationship between writers and readers, and how we can enhance that for both. I’m looking at it in this exercise from an author’s point of view—one author’s, of course, because writers have so many different styles and needs.
The features I want—many of which exist already, though not as part of standard authoring and publishing tools—include:
Collaboration with prospective readers as I work on a new book. I can do this easily now by creating a forum, wiki, Google Doc, blog post/comments, and any number of other ways.
Feedback. I can buy my book on Kindle and see what people have highlighted, or what they’ve written in the digital margins. But that’s just Kindle, and I want much more. I’d like to do semantic analysis on their notes, and get data on what they think matters, and why. I’d also want granular data showing how, in detail, people are reading the book. None of that is available, at least to the author, on any of the major platforms. (Others in this group will talk about how we can provide readers a vastly better, or at least different, experience.)
Corrections/additions. As I fix the current work and plan a new edition, I’d like to see, in context and in an easy to use format, the errors readers have spotted, as well as suggestions for improvements.
Conversation. Again, this is easy if I don’t mind creating a new space online, or using existing social media. Combining it with the above features in a more seamless way would have a fantastic value to me as an author.
These disparate features need to be part of a framework, not a monolithic product. They should be modular pieces we can fit together as part of the authoring/editing/publishing platform — and the reading platform. We need to have ways to reward the most active readers—perhaps by offering discounts or other benefits, including direct conversations (if they want them) with authors. And we need these features to be available not only as proprietary tools, but in open-source versions. If it’s a modular framework, with APIs, we can create a marketplace around the tool sets, too.
Audiences are members of communities in many genres. I see these features as enhancements not just to accuracy and thoroughness, but more fundamentally to enhancing the communities that are discussing these ideas.
I spend a lot of time improvising. Besides the daily requirements of a knowledge worker in our modern economy, I also teach and perform longform theatrical improvisation. In this art form, there is a very loose structure of acts that the performers simultaneously perform and create in front of the audience. There are “best practices” we practice and teach that enhance the experience for all involved, from the new player to the audience member. The core idea is “Yes, And.” If an idea is offered, it is accepted as truth and everyone builds on top of it until a world is developed. Each person on stage has as much say in that world as anyone else. It is built in a truly collaborative way; all participants are equally responsible for the outcome. Every offer is looked at as a gift, and the audience discovery happens at the same moment as the performer discovery. The process values intuition. acceptance, flexibility, and imagination.
Del Close (the history teacher in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off), the father of this genre, tells us to treat everyone, including the audience, as “poets and geniuses.” The theatre that I perform in, that I helped build, was an adaptive reuse project. It was a small barbershop in Central Phoenix that we transformed into an intimate theatre that seats 33 people. In our space, the audience shapes every show because we can see and feel each person in this cozy space. As an improv community, we’ve had to develop a certain kind of resilience to the energy of a sleepy or generally low key audience at the top of a show—with some mixed results. Sleepy and low key shows are a snake biting its own tail.
I broke away from a scripted performance background after years of working in that structure with a benevolent dictator in the director (and an absolute dictator in the playwright). I realized I was expending my energy towards another person’s vision, sometimes in a way that really clashed with my own thoughts and vision. Acting requires us to ask permission to perform: auditions, rehearsals, line notes, opening nights. The final goal is reproducing the rehearsed performance in a consistent way so that the Friday night patron gets the same quality as the Sunday matinee patron. It becomes a fairly rigid set of notes in the stage manager’s notebook in the end, and it is a transgression to deviate from this vision past the last tech rehearsal. The process values thinking, control, consistency, and precision.
Masters of the longform improv craft bring precision and consistency to the work in a different way through deep listening skills, trust, and imagination. They never look out of control despite the fact they have no idea what will happen in the next second. In the best improvisations, the audience leaves saying “They totally cheated, they wrote that.” It looks like a script, walks like a script. It must be a script. It is an infuriating compliment to any group of improvisors. Hopefully they return an hour later to the next show and realize it is completely different. It would be impossible to write and refine the quantity of shows that are performed in improv theaters across the country.
Both the scripted and improvised performance paradigms are great lessons in cooperative or collaborative work. The core difference is a focus on process versus product. Scripted performance is product focused: a refined, definitive end that can be repeated. Improvisation makes the process ultimately the product. The process is repeatable, while each product or outcome is unique. Our theatre advertises this as a feature: “It’s different every night.” Because of this, performer preparations are very different. Scripted theatre is a focused, detail oriented, discrete period of time. An actor can give too much of themselves to the project and will have some time to recover after the show closes. Longform improvisation is a marathon: every weekend there are new performances. It runs all year round. Stamina and a big picture awareness make it sustainable for an improvisor.
I found myself thinking a lot about this over the course of the three book sprints that make up our Sprint Beyond the Book experiment. I was charged with the content workflow and publication of the document, in whatever format was required for the particular sprint. The three events came with very different parameters, depending on the collaborators involved.
Iteration 1: The Future of Publishing
The first sprint involved a platform that was in development by one of the collaborators. It was rigid in its requirements for publication. I was asked to produce the following:
A flattened PDF, non-interactive—basically a set of images collected in one document
A list of external links referred to in the content
A folder of digital assets, including images and videos that will be embedded in the content
A list of titles and captions for each digital asset
The location and page number for each link, video, or image so they can be manually entered one by one in the platform.
The platform was geared towards rights management for publishers, so the document could be updated and pushed out to those that had the platform and subscribed to the title. The platform was not accessible on every operating system, so we published the content on a web site as well, organized by themes. (As a bonus layer: the performative aspect of the sprint was set to happen in Germany, and I was located in Arizona.)
I developed a set of master pages in InDesign for the book layout, a template, and fed each article in to those pages as I received them. The template was designed for reading on a medium sized screen, like an iPad. It was meant to be viewed as single pages, not spreads, though it didn’t break if viewed otherwise. I had spreadsheets for the links and digital assets. My approach became very outcome focused, including rehearsals and demonstrations for nervous parties. The design was determined before the content existed, something I truly abhor as a designer. The system needed to be retrofitted to the content as the sprint progressed, making our goal of three publications during the process difficult to meet with the expectations of good typography, layout, organization of content, and imagery.
The script broke. We published two incomplete versions on the platform. One complete version was retroactively published as a somewhat interactive PDF for download, using the same template designed for the original platform.
Iteration 2: Knowledge Systems
The collaborators changed shortly before our event, which forced a decision to either start fresh or stay the course. We decided to stay the course with a minor shift: we would produce a semi-interactive PDF in addition to the website. The template was simplified for Microsoft Word, giving more people access to edit and change the document as it developed. The content was exported from the site as a collection for each writing-and-publication session (in our terminology, “mini-sprint”) with a tool built for creating anthologies from websites. This sprint had everyone in the same location, which made communication easier.
This script broke this time as well. We published one incomplete version online during the event.
A second incomplete version was published shortly before the third sprint, with “known issues” listed in the post. After the sprint was over and refinements became limited in Word, the content was brought into InDesign once again to expand the options for layout and typography.
Iteration 3: To be announced
I have decided that I am not an expert in this: alone I don’t have the the best answer. My benevolent (or absolute) dictation has fallen short in the experiments. So I’m putting my faith in a purely collaborative process this time, one in which each participant is equally responsible for the outcome, where the process is the product. These documents are performative and living. The overall shape of the final product will change as the conversation develops and it will depend on everyone that is performing. I hope the energy of the audience will impact the development as well, just like if we were in a 33 person theatre in Central Phoenix.
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The introduction of the rapid-readability rheostat automates the process of reading and places control of material in the hands of you, the reader. No longer will you have your reading and comprehension speed compromised by long words and difficult concepts. [Version two, currently in development, learns what you like to read, reads it for you, and sends out an intelligent-sounding tweet under your name all about it. No longer will you have to worry about being the first to read the next exciting article! You’ll have commented about it within 1.4 seconds of it being published.—AL]
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Hard stuff? No worries!
Look at the dot.
Product description: a hardware/software add-on to Google Glass. Tracks eye-movements and emotional responses, and adjusts the text to the reader’s reading-comprehension level and comfort zone. Basically, it automatically edits the text for each specific reader.
Yes, it dumbs down the text, but it can also (with the optional software, available at an additional price) smarten-up the text, so a student or writer can sound more intelligent than he actually is.
Yes, it values content over style.
Question: How will this affect the writer? (After her initial bout of depression, of course.)
Question: How will it affect the reader, to always be reading at exactly his comfort level? Will it mean increased literacy, more widespread reading by people who would nowadays be discouraged from reading?
Question: Since it will dumb down the actual content, leaving out the hard stuff, subbing in quotes from Paris Hilton instead of Dostoyevsky, how will it affect the general intelligence of the target population? Is how is this any different than now, with the media dominated by Fox News and the Daily Mail?
In one way, a book is a remarkably crude, blunt tool.
Its component parts are rudimentary and primitive. It consists of words, and these words don’t do anything other than sit there and beg to be read. An author constantly asks her readers to picture this, imagine that. Books are needy.
Looked at against richer media, it’s kind of amazing that books still exist at all. They don’t move. They can’t carry a tune. They’re simply not capable of the kind of visual beauty that we can get elsewhere in the media ecosystem. They require an investment of time and active attention that no other media form demands, and that is supported nowhere else in our daily lives.
Image by Alberto Fernandez Fernandez
In a way, they’re a bit like the coelacanth — a holdover technology from a much earlier era, a strange evolutionary dead-end that somehow never died.
The thing about books, though, is that it’s not their primitive components that make them work. It’s the imagination of the reader, and that is an incredibly potent—and timeless—media tool. The power of a book comes from the act of reading it.
So the question of the future of books is really a question about the future of the imagination.
If we start from that premise, I believe there are two questions that naturally follow:
1) Assuming that the book itself is an evolving technology, however crude, how can we use technology to not only preserve, but amplify its power as an engine of the imagination?
2) What do we want the act of imagination that we call “reading” to look like and feel like in the future?
I don’t think either question has a right or wrong answer. But I think they’re both essential questions for any writer, or any serious reader, for that matter, to consider.
As to the first question, I have some dogmatic sentiments about what is and isn’t an appropriate use of technologies to augment the act of reading. I think everything else I believe flows from a personal core philosophy that reading is an act that requires focused attention. I also consider this question primarily as a storyteller, and I realize that not all books exist to tell a story. But as a storyteller, I believe that anything that distracts from the primary act of tracking words and their meanings puts distance between reader and material and disrupts the engine of imagination.
So how do we add to the experience of reading without breaking the engine? Again, I don’t think there’s a correct answer, but I believe that’s the right question for authors to ask. I can think of some interesting case studies that might point the way towards a future I would be excited about.
Robin Sloan’s “The Truth About the East Wind” (2010) is a short story with a subtle audio track, with cues triggered by scrolling down the length of the single-page text. About halfway through the story, a sound effect begins—a whistling wind—so quiet as to be imperceptible. As the reader keeps scrolling, the wind grows in volume until, by the end, it’s a howling squall (or that’s how I remember it, anyway).
What’s cool about “East Wind” is that, as a reader, you don’t need to do anything other than read, and as a consequence of that one act, the text comes alive in a way that dawns on you only gradually.
From The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
The interplay of text and image in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (2008) is an elegant example of design and illustration that exists seamlessly around and among the text of the story. Dave McKean’s illustrations lead the reader from one page to the next—they follow the momentum of the reader’s eye so that processing an image is something that happens in parallel with reading the text that surrounds it.
If I had to distill any sort of guiding design principle from these examples, I think it would be the notion that as the book evolves, the media that augments it should function in parallel to the text, and not at oblique angles and tangents. A book becomes a deeper collaboration between author and experience designer. And it demands a deft touch from both.
If that’s the case, then the act of reading doesn’t actually change much. It’s still a focused, directed act, and it still requires the reader to call on her imagination. And maybe, just maybe, something even richer will emerge.
Reading a book might become an experience in itself.
As a writer, I think the greatest possible accomplishment is that your readers will have a memory of the act of reading your work, and not just of the content. There’s a future where our power to create texts that achieve this effect is even greater. That’s the one I want to see.