stubborn necessity

August 19, 2007


Emerging electronic media , although transformative in many ways, are not reinventing our relationship to books. As with any change in the human environment, polarizing opinions tend to dominate ways of understanding. This will obscure genuine trends, making it harder to imagine what a book in 2015 might look like. First it might be best to observe the historical book of yesterday.

Books, as a communicative form, have maintained a dominance over informational authority, dissemination of meaning, and community imagination across a global culture for centuries. The dynamism of oral historical transmission is not possible once the word is written down, but almost every other significant intellectual and relational human development is arguably attributable to the book. Religion is able to define values and right behaviors, lawmakers are able to establish precedent, merchants are able to codify national and international bartering systems, and policy makers are accountable to history. Once Averroes (nee Abul-Waleed Muhammad Ibn Rushd) reintroduced the West to Aristotle, a revolution of individuation began which we continue to work through to today.

St. Matthew from the Gospel Book of Charlemagne, c.800-10.

from St. Matthew, from the Gospel Book of Charlemagne, c.800-10.

Manuscripts were instrumental in this, yet without standardization, context and meaning could change. The first widespread re-imagining of the book occurred with Gutenberg’s movable type. (Though China achieved this with baked clay over 400 years earlier, the basic realities of Chinese script prevented common use.) The Gutenberg Galaxy as Marshall McLuhan labeled it, enabled text to be set in a way previously not possible. As more and more copies of a work were produced, identically and rapidly, paradigmatic precedents could be more quickly established. People were able to communicate more effectively, much like the initial standardized catechisms for Christians, yet more personally and frequently.

The manipulation of meaning in a written work prior to printing presses has never entirely gone away, though it was slowed for a time once editions numbered in thousands. Anxiety about losing authoritative, factual information is justified, especially in a world where entities such as Google are becoming global repositories on an unprecedented scale.

Yet this anxiety must be contextualized. The West, circa 1200a.d., did not even know what it was missing until Averrose translated Aristotle. How many books are really in the Bible? And written by whose hand? Absolute meaning is illusory, a reflection of a human need more than an accurate representation of truth. This scientific, rational age is dependant upon the assumption that facts, once discovered, are eternal. Books reflect all dimensions of human experience, and their authority is granted by a wish for it to be so. Through neglect, propagandism and selectivity, meaning is negotiated over time.

Propaganda Billboard in Iran

from Crazy and Funny Billboards

Part of the problem with wondering about books’ future is that historically the idea of what a book is has changed. For me, today’s eBook is akin to the copying of books by monks from Charlemagne’s time until the printing press. Manuscripts would change, depending on the inclinations of the monk, his attentiveness, or even the physical degradation of the source text. Something like Wikipedia, though materially sped up, is as malleable as a handwritten manuscript.

Our imagined book is fixed in time, a static recitation of alphabetic or logographic symbols. This is a very limited definition of what a book is. For Max Ernst or Paul Eluard, a book might be a collection of collages in lieu of words. For Alexsandr Rodchenko, a book may contain coins, twine, letter pressings and glass. For Katsushika Hokusai, a book may be a printed fan, a single sheet of paper bound accordion-style, or even a tiny box of lithographs centered on a single theme. The “Museum of the Book” already exists, and even did as a concept in the time of Charlemagne, when he sought to re-establish the lineage of Roman philosophy nearly lost to Visigothic and Vandal raids.

The question then might properly be “What is the possible effect that digitalization will bring?” The primacy of books can be attributed to many factors: portability, accessibility, affordability, durability, familiarity, and readability, among others. Until digital means can approximate or replicate all of these conditions, books as physical artifacts with paper bones and inky blood will not be replaced.

Portability for electronic books is on the verge of realization, as is accessibility. Affordability? Maybe not. Durability is unlikely, considering that many manufacturers rely on either inferior craftsmanship or software updates to ensure a continual need for purchasing new equipment. Familiarity can only be established over time. A foremost concern is readability, for though the human eye will adapt to longer exposure times to electronic stimuli, it remains difficult to enjoy an electronic work for as long a time as one can a book.

Moving images will survive, though perhaps that is too young a model. Music has undergone about as many transformations as the written word, be it private amusement, communication, traveling minstrels, orchestral engagements, wax cylinders, vinyl and digital storage. Books will continue to thrive, fluidly, stubbornly, but mainly out of necessity.

Writing Cards


The Electro-Map Menagerie → March 20, 2003 Iraq

July 27, 2007

Today’s map is a respectful work of collective memory, in memoriam. It is the Iraq War Coalition Fatalities map.

The methodology of the map encompasses both time and space in a way other maps in the Menagerie have not done. Beginning in March, when the Iraq war officially began, and current up until February 13, 2007, the map depicts verified coalition fatalities as an animation overlaid upon a map of Iraq, showing 10 frames a second — one frame for each day. Every death is a tiny black dot, accompanied by a ticking sound which is softer or louder depending on the number of fatalities at any particular moment in time.

The criterion for verified fatalities as well as the source of the data are stated in the “about this project” section of the website. I cannot link directly to it however because the Javascript is written to encourage visitors to experience the map in a particular way. I highly recommend letting it run its course, and turning up the volume as well, even while reading the supplementary information.

I used to live in Asheville, North Carolina, and watching this map reminds me of a hotly contested billboard that was off a side street in downtown Asheville. Just after the war began, someone rented both sides of a tiny little billboard and kept a running tally (updated roughly weekly for a time) of coalition fatalities, as well as officially stated coalition force numbers and roughly estimated civilian casualties. After a time, as the war continued to grow economically and humanly burdensome, resentment about the billboard began also to grow in conservative communities, until one day a privately hired poster-board company was caught in flagrante delicto, pasting a pro-war advertisement over the already rented billboard. Once exposed, the company undid their work and claimed to not know that they were performing an illegal act, and as far as I know there was never a civil suit against them, or against the group that hired them. I eventually came to know those who posted the list of fatalities, and one of them had a son who, at the time, was serving in Iraq…

I dedicate today’s Electro-Map to that Hilliard Avenue billboard. (My only regret is that I could not find an equivalent project detailing civilian casualties, which would undoubtedly be louder and more active, but much less accurate.)

Tomorrow, an Electro-Linguistic spaghetti bowl.

The Electro-Map Menagerie → Photo Graphic

July 25, 2007

You may already know about Flickr, the wonderful online photographic scrapbook that people are updating from all corners of the globe. But have you seen David Troy’s Flickrvision?

I first came across an application like this through WFMU, my vote for one of the modern Wonders of the World. During their last fund-raising marathon, enterprising DJ KenzoDB created the Marathon Map using Google Maps technology with a bit of TerraMetrics, NASA and Europa Technologies as well. This ingenious little application would track pledges from around the globe and highlight them real time, as well as make space for commentary if the generous soul wished to say something to the WFMU community at large. As I monitored their progress each day to make sure they reached the year’s fund-raising goal (which they did, yay!) I also checked in to see who was pledging and from where. Perhaps not quite a pan-continental phenomenon, they did manage to score pledges from I believe four continents. A nifty trick.

Well, Flickrvision does the idea one better. It tracks the most recently uploaded photography from around the world and pinpoints its origin for you while showing you a snapshot portrait of the fresh-from-the-oven content. I could watch it for hours….bowling in China, a Korea-Canadian baby, a dog from Seattle and…that’s weird, a note to “The Rotten Thief Who Cleaned Out Our Bank Account.” I didn’t know people photographed word documents to post on Flickr but there you go. I hope they find the culprit, that’s sad.

I don’t think I have anything to say after that.

Tomorrow, a visit to Les Cites Obscures.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

July 21, 2007

One cannot use spies without sagacity and knowledge,
one cannot use spies without humanity and justice

–Sun Tzu

who is watching you?

Polvo gallery will be hosting an art show in Chicago, from August 3rd to September 1st 2007, called echelon: who is watching you? I suppose we earn the honor of hosting this little historical survey of US surveillance since “Chicagoans may soon be the most watched urbanites in the world.” PoliceOne has an online copy of a 2004 AP article Chicago Moving to ‘Smart’ Surveillance Cameras that is worth a look, in case this is news to you.

But we are the second city after all, and NYC will soon be enjoying a “London-style surveillance veil,” a phrase that’ll send me to the bar for some scotch any day of the week. This package includes Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) technology which, since at least 2004, has been helping London tighten the weave of its dragnet & capture a carnival of suspects more effectively. (Check out the excellent Spy Blog from the UK which is Watching Them Watching Us; there are numerous discussions of ANPR to be found)

I definitely hope to attend opening night of the echelon show, in part to see try and understand what this surveillance means to me as a relatively new Chicagoan. I have been known to peek in on official industry presentations about these kinds of technologies; likewise the echelon show will be a great way to take a read of current discussion in Chicago about escalating digital data-capture technology. Of course the Bush administration is more than happy to support pervasive ground-level invasions of personal citizens’ privacy while drawing lead blinds on its own activities. So far the courts have kept some of these inclinations in check (TOO SLOWLY, in case they’re listening in) but it’s only gotten worse since the Geneva convention-denying Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez was confirmed with a notable lack of enthusiasm.

On July 6th 2007, and from an unexpected corner, San Francisco’s Ninth Court of Appeals ruled in US vs Forrester that “Feds can read e-mail, IP addresses without warrant[s].” The crux of their argument is that monitoring email addresses and IP addresses constitutes no greater invasion than that of identifying the information on the outside of a sealed letter, or recording a roll of phone numbers, which are both protected levels of surveillance. Numerous commentators feel that the volume of information available to an agency looking through an electronic list of email chains as well as the volume of information to be gleaned from web sites is far greater than can be traditionally gathered, and constitutes something worthy of 4th amendment protections.

The Volokh Conspiracy in particular has a substantial comment roll about both sides of the issue; JohnMc brings summarizes an interesting point for consideration in our current Web2.0 environment:

Orin, I am going to side with TechieLaw not on the legal merits but the technical issues. The crux of my argument is that as a general basis, with internet your private data is hosted off your premieres. From a business perspective, were the general public not to be afforded the same 4th amendment protections as in their residence then you might as well forget about Web 2.0 and close Sun Corp. down (“The network IS the computer”).

The visionaries see a not too distant future where you keep your data on a contracted provider who has the resources to guarantee always available access and multiple redundant backup. Think Google. However If the only way I can keep my papers private is to keep them on my own server in my own home then that is what will happen. At that point we are back to a technical future equivalent to 1960. It just all runs faster.

The 4th needs to be amended to expand ‘reasonable searches and seizures’ to your papers regardless of location or format.

Couple this with the FBI’s use of exigent letters to illegally convince telephone companies to immediately surrender documents on their existing clients, usually by claiming that appropriate necessary documents were filed, and suddenly the reality seems explosive. With such a large number of free data hosting sites (i.e. ewedrive, JustUpIt, etc.) which will maintain uploaded data for you in a personal account, as well as traditional paid hosting services, the problems seem endless.

Until clear and non-politicized language is developed, within an internationally accepted framework, to erect legally defendable digital borders for private citizenry there will be no lasting security. Lamenting concessions made by the big players can seem academic, especially when we undeniably enjoy so many other freedoms protections in the US, but my feeling is that until a service such as Yahoo can be held accountable, then we are all as vulnerable as Shi Tao.

Als sie mich holten, gab es keinen mehr, der protestieren konnte
–Pastor Martin Niemöller

(Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak up for me.)


Just minutes after launching this post, which I finished a draft of yesterday afternoon, I came across this apropos ruling in today’s NYT article Court Tells U.S. to Reveal Data on Detainees at Guantánamo by William Glaberson:


A federal appeals court ordered the government yesterday to turn over virtually all its information on Guantánamo detainees who are challenging their detention, rejecting an effort by the Justice Department to limit disclosures and setting the stage for new legal battles over the government’s reasons for holding the men indefinitely.

The ruling, which came in one of the main court cases dealing with the fate of the detainees, effectively set the ground rules for scores of cases by detainees challenging the actions of Pentagon tribunals that decide whether terror suspects should be held as enemy combatants.

It was the latest of a series of stinging legal challenges to the administration’s detention policies that have amplified pressure on the Bush administration to find some alternative to Guantánamo, where about 360 men are now being held.

A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Washington unanimously rejected a government effort to limit the information it must turn over to the court and lawyers for the detainees.


It didn’t end there, though:

The ruling also included significant victories for the government, including a decision allowing the Pentagon to limit the subjects that the lawyers can discuss with detainees and authorizing special Pentagon teams to read the lawyers’ mail and remove unauthorized comments.

Why are these rulings often such mixed blessings? This is how New York Lawyer Wells Dixon, from the Center for Constitutional Rights, sums up the essential stalemate at the close of the article:

“Once again,” Mr. Dixon said, “we are left to rely on the government to produce all of the information that it says exists.”

Authors at the Anvil

July 19, 2007

As printing continues its lateral swing into a parallel digital existence, a number of high profile writers are worriedly tracing the demise of traditional book reviews. I’m talking about either the reduction of book review sections in newspapers and magazines or the section’s wholesale removal. Haven’t heard about it? You can check out Motoko Rich’s article Are Book Reviewers Out of Print? from the New York Times, David Kipen’s Last exit to book land for Salon, or Josh Getlin’s Battle of the Book Reviews for the Los Angeles Times. These are the most talked and blogged about pieces but hardly the only ones lamenting the continued prominence of online book discussion and commentary.

There are a fair number of influencing factors, though personally I wonder how much corporate media homogenization is to blame, for both promoting a watered-down focus on potential best sellers coupled with the loss of newspaper jobs for community level writers with a feel for what’s of local interest. By and large, book review blogs have no investment in the traditional publishing mainstream (Harry Potter aside), which only aggravates ingrained publishing models. Those in online communities who are discovering a home for their particular interests are people who are peeling off heavy layers of clothing after a long, cold winter of lowest-common denominator hit-making; their enthusiasm is blossoming anew in direct sunlight, and in England at least people are actually reading more.

Perhaps the shift to book review blogging reflects a freedom to express one’s opinion, immediately and publicly, a potent and liberating phenomenon available to more people than ever before. All things in balance, as it were. The passive nature of consumption encouraged by contemporary corporate and marketing interests could not last. I think the fear over a loss of concentrated outlets for book reviews is misplaced. To me it is akin to the shift from sumptuous full page comic illustrative art in turn-of-the-century newspapers to the maniacally diminutive spaces allotted comic artists from the sixties onward. (Just read the introductory essays by Bill Watterson, of Calvin and Hobbes fame, to his collected works, especially the ones from his Tenth Anniversary Book, for a detailed insider’s view)

Comic art subsequently bought a new home, and morphed into an enormous canon of illustrated novels, graphic novels, zines, poster art and comic book collections. In fact, the web has made the daily publication of comics as accessible as it ever was in the golden age of newspapers, with no need to alter format or inspiration to accommodate for limited space.

Recently I have come across several wonderful resources, blogs and links for web authors & book reviewers which demonstrate some of the beauty of just one small flowering digital community. Certainly there are the high-profile sites such as Syntax of Things, Bookslut, Book Lust, SmallPress Blog, et al, but I want to encourage you to look at some of the smaller contenders.

One of the best things about blogs is the ever-present blogroll, often found on either side of the main body of content. Often I can spend hours just trolling the links, finding spectacular diamonds buried deep, outside of my normal but limited online feeds & habits. I can remember, back in the days of FTP and BBSs, the difficulty of searching for content without prior knowledge. Much more insular, and in its own way much more fringe and exciting, since effectively knowledge meant membership in a subterranean society, but limited for those very same reasons. Damn, I loved being part of it back in the day. Yet what we have today is so much more lastingly rewarding, since with more participation and content naturally emerges an explosion of diversity and representation, meaning more likelihood of discovering something of direct interest no matter how focused or specialized the interest is. What I’m trying to say the long way round is: embrace & respect the blogroll.

Alright, here are some review sites —

LotusReads is my favorite recent find, a serendipitous click from an unrelated search. She is a Canadian book-fiend who is, since May 2005, writing passionate and personal reviews of contemporary literature and who has an extensive & very useful blogroll. Among the personal review blogs she has a nice section on literary havens that links to useful networks for writers of every stripe.

Lost in Translation is the blog of a South African reader living in England, who, since February 2006, has been writing about older and contemporary African literature. The post from Monday, November 20 2006 is a mini education for me; out of 14 African authors I only recognize 2, and that’s after being a voracious book-selling reader, with a penchant for reading publisher catalogs, for about 10 years.

Books For Breakfast Books For Dinner might be your poison if you want to read ” A blog about books. And cocktails. Because nothing is more literary than alcoholism.” Kristin Dodge read 150 books last year, and this year aims to “tackle Time’s Top 100, ALA’s Top 100, the top 10 books that are banned in 2006/2007, and 5 books about different religions.” Avoid her blog only if you don’t want to be an enabler. (Incidentally her blog is also rated G, as mine was a few weeks ago, even with a reference to marijuana milkshakes. Go figure.)

And then there’s Giornale Nuovo… mr. h’s exploration of arcane and decadently illustrated nooks in the bibliophiles’ world is dizzying, with a blogroll that is teetering on the razor’s edge of gnostic revelation.

Desarrollo de Yi Ching by Xul Solar; tempera on paper, 1953 (borrowed from Giornale Nuovo, April 30 2007)

So hopefully this is a good starting point for exploration, and I guarantee that each site could whittle away hours of time that you thought you couldn’t spare.

A counterpart to all of these artful miniatures in blog form is the desire to create and participate. So I will end by letting you in on a little secret of mine, Matt Huggin’s 55 Essential Articles Every Serious Blogger Should Read. With articles grouped under categories such as Building Meaningful Content, Increasing Traffic & Retaining Readers, and Building a Community there is certainly something for everyone, from the anxious neophyte to the seasoned know-it-all. (His links focus a little too often on the economic benefits of blogging for my tastes, but I provide the link anyhow, out of recognition that pairing with advertisers and businesses is a concern of many bloggers out there) I don’t know about you, but I definitely have come across too many blogs that haven’t read John Chow’s 10 Blogging Mistakes to Avoid, who, with a little dedication and consideration, could Bring [Their] A-game to Write for Blogs.

Please, mourners of the book review, it isn’t quite time to build an ossuary of manuscripts. An historical genealogy of media have demonstrated a wily tenacity and capacity for transformation of form without losing even a gram of soul in translation. So my advice is either back off, or throw your hat in the ring.


Please don’t try to reach me at home tomorrow night, I’ll be reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Film Preservation

July 11, 2007


For several nights now I have been fast at work programming a web resource for film archivists. This is an assignment for a class I am taking on Internet fundamentals, and once the work is done it will go live on the web. I am exhausting myself in an attempt to streamline my CSS and XHTML, and provide solid content. Keeping this blog has not lessened my appreciation of what it means to go live, as I thought the ease of it might do, but instead I feel a greater sense of responsibility, to myself and to the library profession.

I think back to my days as a bookseller, and I can feel the weight of the published word, nearly stifling in volume and density. The number of books which would pass through my hands as the head receiver seemed large, if I let myself forget about all the other book stores in the world. My bosses kindly let me take home all of the catalogs of upcoming publications and backlist titles, ostensibly for my collage making, but really I had a strong desire to know just what the larger environment of book publishing was like. Reading thousands of book catalogs each year can be inspiring, anesthetizing, deeply informative, and even heartbreaking. There are just so many books published every year, so many left over from last year, and years before, just so many voices…an atomic accumulation of paper-bound mycelial axons, slowly communicating with the global mind.

As I research more and more about the state of film preservation today I am beginning to feel a familiar sensation. Reel after reel of film is degrading and hard decisions are being made in the triage of our cinematic heritage. There are significant concerns about access and viability which need to be decided first. A majority of the films which are in need of restoration are so-called orphan films, meaning films for which no clear copyright or provenance is established.


“Orphan films make up the overwhelming majority of our cinematic heritage, and are a vital part of the culture and cultural record of the twentieth century. Indeed, the Library of Congress declared that it is in the task of restoring these orphan films that ‘the urgency may be greatest.’ They include a vast treasure trove of newsreels, documentaries, anthropological films, portraits of minority life in the U.S., instructional films, and even some Hollywood studio productions. While it is both a tragic shame and an unnecessary loss to our culture that scholars and citizens are hampered in making use, for example, of
orphan books and musical scores, the difficulty of access to orphan films is a matter of crisis because these works are literally disintegrating. At a time when digital technologies allow for more sophisticated and cheaper restoration and distribution of old films, uncertainty about copyright status has impeded restoration efforts. Worse still, in most cases the films are completely unavailable to the public even for simple viewing.”

Quoted from the Center for the Study of the Public Domain paper Access to Orphan Films


The situation is similar in other nations as well. Even Hollywood, with its awe-inspiring reserve of liquid assets, has been unable to preserve much of their history. “Of the tens or hundreds of thousands of movies made before 1950, fully 50% are already irretrievably lost. For films made before 1929, the loss rate is far worse: over ten years ago, the Library of Congress estimated that 80% of films from the 1920s, and 90% of films from the 1910s had already decayed beyond any hope of restoration.” (See The Silent Era: Lost Films for a small sample)

Digital restoration or archiving is an increasingly standard solution. Digital preservation is believed to be a cure for many photographic and archival ills, but already there are unpredictable digital dustclouds lying dormant before the breeze. David S. Cohen, in his Digital Proves Problematic article from April 20th of this year, echoes a sentiment familiar to agencies already invested in digital preservation. Apparently “the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Science and Technology Council warned in 2005 that within just a few years films shot with digital cameras could be lost.” He cites Andy Maltz of the Academy’s Sci-Tech Council that “they had found archival tapes unreadable just 18 months after they were made.”

Fortunately there is a significant amount of work already being done by remarkably dedicated associations and individuals. The George Eastman House, the Library of Congresses National Film Preservation Board, and the Association of Moving Image Archivists are all wonderful agencies in the United States working toward reversing daily losses. Internationally UNESCO has gone a long way toward establishing standards of practice, and much of the work being accomplished today can be attributed to several reports they have issued since the late seventies. Just as incredible, and perhaps the most significant foreign association is The International Federation of Film Archives. Not only is their list of member organizations a formidable networking tool, but they have developed a beautiful Code of Ethics. Just look at these two principles:

“1.4. When copying material for preservation purposes, archives will not edit or distort the nature of the work being copied. Within the technical possibilities available, new preservation copies shall be an accurate replica of the source material. The processes involved in generating the copies, and the technical and aesthetic choices which have been taken, will be faithfully and fully documented.
1.5. When restoring material, archives will endeavour only to complete what is incomplete and to remove the accretions of time, wear and misinformation. They will not seek to change or distort the nature of the original material or the intentions of its creators.”

I admire FIAF very much and I am thrilled to see so many countries represented on their membership roll. Who could imagine that organizations from the US, China, North & South Korea, and Iran would all subscribe to a Code of Ethics like that?  They do say film is a universal language.  (But then, they also say that math, English, cookies, glossolalia, Google Translator and love are universal languages, so maybe they’re not to be trusted)

I will post a link to my site once it goes live, and hopefully I’ve done enough researching and vetting of information to be of use to someone, somewhere. There is such an accumulation of noise in our informational substrate, and I hope to sustain my focus while navigating through it. I don’t want to become another monkey plugging away at reauthoring the Library of Babel.


I am an old anarchist

July 6, 2007

“You see, I am an old anarchist — you have to destroy the power, not take the power. I think we are opening all the boundaries, and that with this tool, this media [cinéma vérité], people without writing can transmit their fantasies to some other people and to share that with them. And it was maybe the aim of the first anthropologists. But, unfortunately, they wanted to be scientists and to push their own explanation on the others systems. We are just making archives of that without explanation. The explanation will come later on. I think that’s wonderful because it will change the face of the world.”

Jean Rouch, 1978

A Videotaped Conversation with Jean Rouch, Ricky Leacock and friends, Summer Institute on Media Arts at Tufts University, July 13 1978

uploaded by guano to flickr on march 13 2007 (creative commons)

“Well, I think the most important thing in the world of today is to have friends, and to do something with friends. If you are doing something with people that you don’t respect, it’s a bore. And unfortunately, the majority of people of the world today are making a world that they hate…I think we have this old myth still living behind us. I think this myth was there this morning, just somewhere in our brain, coming from an ancient age, which is a relation with nature and things that we have lost. And it is still there, even if there’s just small sparkling things.”