Let’s All Play the Bass Clarinet


“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.”

bass clarinet in parts

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.

clarinet mouthpieces

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.


The Perfect Word


Here at MultiWords we’ve peeked into the future and have seen the future of the Perfect Word. We bring good news.

In the bad old days, stuffy modernist authors obsessed over words. They put great faith in the process of revision. They saw the construction of style as a special kind of creative labor. They thought they, like, owned their words.

The Perfect Word served specific functions for the modernist writer. Some thought the Perfect Word perfectly matched an underlying reality. It showed the hard work the author put into the process of selecting it. It might affect you, the reader, in some precisely calibrated way. Whatever the reasons for choosing it, the Perfect Word was the word the author chose, the word the author imposed upon you.

Postmodernists became suspicious of perfection. Words only ever stood in relation to other words, they said, in an endless chain of reference. Words were social constructions that had no necessary relationship to any underlying reality. Authors, not surprisingly, freaked out. Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1947) showed why picking a style was scary business. Exercises in Style renders the same trivial anecdote in ninety-nine styles. None of these ninety-nine is first or foremost. There’s no “original,” no authentic baseline. No legitimate way of picking the “right” style.

Today, anxious authors have other problems. Perhaps the Perfect Word today is the word that gets top search results. Literary style might well be something more like Search Engine Optimization. Perhaps the Perfect Word is the word that gets the most retweets. Style would then be technology for winning a social competition for attention.

We at MultiWords find these competitions somewhat dull. We’re sick of letting authors pick words. We’re sick of authors having crises. At MultiWords, you the reader will get to choose the Perfect Word. How awesome is that?

Using MultiWords, the Perfect Word is the word you choose for yourself. Your reading level, your mood, your values will shape which version of the author’s word will make its way to your eyeballs. The Perfect Word will be the words you most relate to. The Perfect Word will be the word that speaks to the your unconscious needs. The Perfect Word will be the word that knows you better than you know yourself. The Perfect Word is nothing other than the word you want to read when you want to read it.

Is There a New Economy among Readers, Writers, and Publishers?


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.

But also, TRIVELIN lies.

MultiWords Functional Spec


What is the product? What does it do? How does it do it?

  • MultiWords is a Mozilla-like multifunctional online-reading mediator.
  • Plug-in components, hardware and software that are accessed via third-party output devices with the capability of tracking readers’ comprehension levels. Additional components can track users’ mood or level of engagement (via heart rate or other monitoring device).
  • Software that collects and distributes data received from readers to subscribing authors.
  • Software automatically adjusts reading level of book by editing it on the fly to a reading level determined by the plug-in hardware from the user’s eye movements and physical data.

What are the markets?

  • Authors
  • Readers
  • Publishers?

Author takes reader feedback into account, can use it as a resource. So can reader.

Available via Mozilla/Wikipedia/WordPress non-profit company

API is freely distributed so 3rd-party vendors can add MultiWord functionality to their products, such as authoring tools, reading platforms, etc.

Can be plugged into authoring tools.

Dan Gillmor thinks of it as a tool that changes how a book comes into being and then can be used to changed and remix the book, either by the author or by readers.

  • Dynamic feedback between reader and author in creating new iterations of the book.
  • Readers’ engagement will be different depending on the levels at which they are subscribed. (Special info from certain readers?)

User benefits:

  • Benefit to reader: they get a customized reading experience
  • Some may feel a deeper connection to the author or to the work.
  • Author can look at collective data and drill down.
  • Author gets a community specific to the book
  • Useful for developing a crowdsourced book

Are we looking at an omnibus tool?

From the author’s POV, it works like this:

  • Author writes original work.
  • Reader views work from accustomed output device, which includes hardware capability that enables it to track reader’s eye movement, emotional states.
  • Author or publisher receives :

—  data about readers’ eye movements
—  actual comments from readers
—  aggregated feedback from readers

  • Reader receives:

— benefit of a customized reading experience (to reader’s personal level, which can change automatically if reading competency improves)

—  possible special relationship with author


Additional functionalities planned for version 2.0

Add composition package, so existing simple texts can be made more complicated. Turns short stories into novels? Guarantees a higher grade on book reports?

Add pallet of constraints, so authors can limit what can be done to their prose. (Note: I’m sure that these authors will suffer in the marketplace!)

Add functionality to enable readers to customize the text of a work to reflect their beliefs or personality.

In the Beginning Were the Words

Image by Simon Breese

Image by Simon Breese

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.

The words are the beginning. This is now.

Writers and Readers: Tools for Deeper Understanding


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.

You Cannot Stop Me. Help Me.


If I want to use a book as a paperweight, the author cannot stop me. If I want to use a book to level a chair, to flatten a flower, to use as a weapon, the author cannot stop me.

If I want to draw all over the pages, to carve my name into the words, to change the meanings with a scalpel or a Sharpie, the author cannot stop me. I can give my copy of your text to my dog, just to see what happens. You cannot stop me.

I want to take your text and give it to my algorithm. I want the words to react and to change. I want to create a million skewed copies, each with its own imperfections and improvements, for different readers, for different interactions, for new creations. I want to create fertile ground for a thousand flowers to bloom from a single seed.

The writer / philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti is quoted as having said that our souls all come from the same paper, but what makes us unique is the creases formed in the paper from all the folding and unfolding of our life experience. Give me your work in a thousand identical pages, and I will let the crowd start to fold.

Books Without Pages: Reading Beyond the Skeuomorph


Skeuomorphism, the idea that digitally designed “objects” should mimic their real-world counterparts, is decidedly out. Ask any designer of digital anything these days.

In 2012, designers, amid much controversy, hailed the dawn of the “post-linen” era (linen had been a trademark texture of Apple’s mobile devices, per an edict from on high), which was taken by many to be synonymous with the “post-Jobs” one. (See this October 2012 New York Times piece by Nick Wingfield and Nick Bilton to learn more.)

When Jobs died, his “spiritual partner at Apple,” Jony Ive, was named Senior Vice President of Design and, with the announcement of iOS 7 at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), Apple declared the death of skeuomorphism.

Still, in 2014, skeuomorphs abound—in Apple software and beyond. Think of all those icons on your laptop and mobile device screens: the address book, the camera lens, the time-honored trash can. And there are auditory skeuomorphs: the shutter-click sound emitted by most camera phones when taking a picture. The click, of course, doesn’t come from a mechanical shutter on phones with camera apps but from a sound file in the phone’s operating system. Ditto for “analog” mobile phone ringtones, which hark back to a bygone era in the evolution of physical phone technology.

But tying digital experiences to physical ones, in addition to creating usability challenges (in music production, a physical knob or dial is much easier to operate than its digital representation), may limit our creativity as we envision future books. And the most obvious “knob” of digital books has to be the animated turns of deckled pages on tablet-based e-books.

Page turns are fast losing favor with designers and readers alike, who are choosing, where possible, the “swiping” alternative. Swiping from right to left moves the screen’s content in that same direction. I almost said, “Swiping from right to left turns the page,” which just goes to show that I’m still as stuck in the old skeuomorphic paradigm as anyone.

Must we see page turns to know that we’re reading a book? Do they provide a needed transition—a pause or breather between units of text—on which we’ve come to rely? Are they a comfort? A nostalgia? What might happen if we stopped defining books as units of thought broken down into other units called “pages”? Could dropping this convention give way to shedding other skeuomorphs endemic to e-books and free our imagination further? In a future no longer concerned with skeuomorphic concordances, can a “real page-turner” become a “real swiper”?

We certainly don’t need to continue representing facing pages; they’re an artifact of physical bookbinding and serve no practical or aesthetic function. But I think that digital narratives will always need to be broken down into discrete, quantifiable bytes—both for easy reference and to help orient the reader and give her a sense of her progress through them.

Pagination seems key in that it manages expectations. Before we begin reading, we want to have a sense of what our time commitment will be, so that we can make an informed choice about engaging with the content. With physical books, the very heft of the tome often settles these questions, however imprecisely. And we can always flip to the back of the book for a page count.

Likewise pages (and lines of pages) act as critical points of reference and orientation. While reading, we might make a mental note of an interesting passage on page 43 and then refer back to it a bit later. Or we may want to reference the passage in a critical exegesis. One of the boons of digital book design is that the reader may choose to adjust font size to their need or preference, thereby customizing the reading experience. But changing font sizes reflows text and alters page and line counts, making such referencing and orientation a fraught exercise.

Digital book designers are faced with a choice: include a progress bar, which removes dependence on page numbers but confounds easy referencing of the content, or include pagination. The latter yields a further choice: assign page numbers to every new page of the reflow (so if the 450-page book is now 7,000 pages, reflect that in the pagination) or tie the maximum page count to that of the physical version of the book, or to a particular font size. In the former case, page count can be daunting, and a deterrent to engagement. In the latter, any increase in font size will maintain the 450 pages, but the reader may now be faced with multiple “page 4s” to accommodate the fixed count. Clunky. Confusing. Unreferenceable. And we’ve once again tied ourselves to the physical world!

Good creative solutions for digital books, which offer no tactile cues, remain elusive. How do we move beyond the page paradigm? It may seem a small matter, but I think that examining our attachment to features of physical books—discerning which are artifacts of physical production and which are fundamentally supportive of the reading process in any format—can be a first step toward imagining future books whose integrity isn’t compromised by the drag of ancestral ties.

Improvising Scripts: Flexibility, Control and Systems for Designing Books on the Fly


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.

First work flow

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:

  1.  A flattened PDF, non-interactive—basically a set of images collected in one document
  2. A list of external links referred to in the content
  3. A folder of digital assets, including images and videos that will be embedded in the content
  4. A list of titles and captions for each digital asset
  5. 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.

Workflow 2

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.

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 WhiteHouse.gov.

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.

The Future of Imagination


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.

Latimeria Chalumae

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.

In Defense of Literary Celebrity

Barnes & Noble in Manhattan

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”

– William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming” (1919)

I’m concerned about the kinds of conversations we’re able to have with each other about books now, in an increasingly fragmented literary landscape. In what ways can we talk about books with one another when even avid readers haven’t read any of the same books?  Like Yeats (and Joan Didion, who invoked this same passage in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)), I’m worried about dispersion.

Even with my most literate friends, I find myself mostly pitching books, talking mostly about plot. After all, it’s almost impossible to talk about style, craft, and the subtle nuances of ideology with people who haven’t read the book. I read a lot of literary fiction, and I admit that my particular form of anxiety might be specific to that genre. How do I really talk about the greatness of a Jennifer Egan or Jeffrey Eugenides when I’m stuck explaining the plot? In other words, do I have to enroll in an MFA program to have these conversations about texture and form?

It’s this concern with the analytical quality and specificity of our conversations about books that leads me to literary celebrity as a construct. I find celebrity promising as a construct because it is a cultural machine for generating common points of reference. But I’m increasingly certain that for most of the literary landscape, it’s doesn’t really exist. I might think that Margaret Atwood (winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Booker Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship) or E.L. Doctorow (winner of the National Humanities Medal, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award, and the Library of Congress Prize) are bona fide consensus figures: living legends. But my most literate friends and my colleagues at Arizona State University frequently know little about them and their work. At the same time, they’re equally scandalized about my lack of familiarity with Jonathan Lethem or Thomas Pynchon.

In the chair next to me, Lee Konstantinou is writing about One Book and Big Read projects that unite an entire community around a single text. Two seats down from Lee, Dan Gillmor is writing about how authors create small niches of readers who hold them in particularly high regard. Digital platforms like Goodreads and in-person social formations like book clubs (not to mention university programs at the undergraduate and graduate level) represent ways of confronting this problem. And maybe it’s not a problem after all. Some readers/consumers prefer dispersion to an arbitrary and exclusionary canon, especially since most of our canons unquestioningly support and reproduce the privilege of wealthy straight people, white people, and men.

But I still worry that there’s something impoverished about a literary marketplace without (deserving) celebrities. Even in its most easily-despisable Hollywood form, celebrity enables diverse groups of people to participate in conversations at a significant level of detail. Celebrity can be a conduit for incredibly broad and inclusive conversations about values, ethics, politics, and the mechanics of identity and selfhood. Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Lindsay Lohan and their ilk give us a rich grammar to talk about who we are and who we want (and don’t want) to be. I believe that books are even more powerful devices for generating productive and challenging conversations, but without literary celebrity to diffuse shared referents throughout large swaths of the public, reading becomes a solitary activity instead of a starting point for interaction, interpretation, and thoughtful debate.

Maybe Goodreads and LibraryThing solve this problem for some of us. I hope that people respond to this piece by suggesting tools for having these kinds of in-depth, deliberative conversations.

It’s worth noting that digital platforms like Goodreads chain together reading and writing. If you want to use one of them to have a conversation about a book, you have to commit to some intellectual labor. So for those of us who consider ourselves ardent readers but not always enthusiastic writers, Goodreads can feel like another chore. And for a white collar professional / knowledge worker like me, Goodreads and book clubs sometimes too closely resemble things like web management and staff meetings—they can look and feel a little bit too much like work.

Perhaps this is an arena where booksellers can act as curators, or where other cultural authorities (like Lee Konstantinou’s Book DJ) can catalyze and manage conversations. By performing the cultural work of igniting and managing conversations in a highly visible way, maybe they can make the rest of us feel like we’re just having fun, enriching our minds, and freeloading on their sweat.

In their defense, authors and publishers are doing everything they can on the celebrity front—from Twitter and Facebook to low-yield book tours and TV appearances, where they can pick them up. Is literary celebrity even possible anymore? The only place I see it these days is in the red-hot young adult market; J.K. Rowling, like Stephen King before her, even failed in a subterfuge to escape her global fame. Maybe it’s just not possible for authors like my beloved Egan and Eugenides to “tip” in a broader media landscape where films, TV, and increasingly video games dominate our attention economy.

Perhaps the shift to “lifelong learning” that we’ve continued to hear about throughout the 1990s and 2000s will mean that classroom-style interpretive exercises—either in-person or virtual—will become a more consistent part of people’s adult lives. But “lifelong learning,” at least so far, hasn’t been a conversation about humanities education. I do believe that structure and obligation and community membership—soft forms of force—might be necessary if we want literary discourse to be a vibrant part of the broader culture. This will also require a critical understanding of the concept of a “canon” as something to be questioned, revised, critiqued, and examined closely, instead of an unassailable stamp of cultural primacy.

To close with one last quandary: if we’re not having these conversations about literature, has the conversation moved to another cultural site? Are video games, or apps, or movies, or sports, the place to look for robust, inclusive, analytical conversations that are “about” more than they seem to be about? If we can agree that it’s valuable to come together and talk about something we all have in common, what is that thing today? What should it be in the future?


Photo courtesy of Monica Arellano-Ongpin, used under a Creative Commons license