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.

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

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.

Reading Rheostat Product Tag



Thank you for purchasing Gunn’s Rheo-Read for Google Glass!

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]

All new! Use GRRGG’s virtual eye-tracking slider to activate the reading level you’re most comfortable with. Trust parameters can be entered via standard social-capital statistics or heart-rate monitors, and automatic credibility adjustment will insert reassuring quotes from A-list celebrities on any topic. Access to Smarty-Pants™ libraries of quotes on technical, historical, and literary subjects are available by subscription.

Our optional composition package features a complexity-augmenter suitable for preparing term-papers or writing novels. Set the grade-level, and forget it: GRRGG takes it from there!



Hard stuff? No worries!

Look at the dot.

Press Enter!



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?

More questions and social implications?