Ancient Marginalia: The Watershed Manifesto

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Ganges Post-Book01100011 01101111 01101110 01110011 01110100 01100001 01101110 01110100 00100000 01100011 01101000 01100001 01101110 01100111 01100101 00100000 01101001 01110011 00100000 01101000 01100101 01110010 01100101 00100000 01110100 01101111 00100000 01110011 01110100 01100001 01111001 – Neil Peart

The arithmetic magicians of old did not know what fire they handled, what heat they hefted, when they considered the humble ‘1’ and the mystical ‘0’. Certainly, they knew of power there, but none could have guessed what this dynamic digital duo would be up to come the 21st century.  Indeed, heroic ‘one’ and the Enkidu ‘zero’ are a pair on a journey – and we are all along, passenger and crew.

The recent achievements of this binary couplet are many – but one in particular concerns us here.  Binary has (re)turned content into a fluid. By content, I mean the stuff we generate to fill pages and the grey between our ears.  Story telling, information transmission, all outward expression has been touched and transformed by digitization.

In the centuries-long epoch before alphabets and well before Guttenburg’s galaxy was colonized, story telling and information sharing were accomplished the old fashioned way – orally. Communication streams were fluid and rarely replicated with real precision.  Instead, oral histories and story traditions flowed from central tenants, varied in the telling as they flowed through time.  Communication was an act of memory, social interactivity, creativity, and present-tense, multisensual contexts (i.e. communicating by the hot fire, near those frog-chirpy trees, under the ruddy sunset sky…).

Alphabets solidified the stream.  They freeze the words in place forever, allowing a message to exist independently of the physical presence of the human messenger. Vellum, paper, and clay all substitute for a present-tense story teller, vibrations of air, and semiotic eyebrows.  As we’ve written in earlier posts, the wide spread of the paper codex eclipses orality with a print culture – one that puts the static paper book and its alphabetic encoding at the center of information transfer and story telling.  And this exchange has been at the center of civilization for some 10,000 years.

Things are different now. The advent of binary immediately disintermediated content from container.  And content is a multisensual stream once again.  Digital storage and design allows for the innovation of powerful forms of content delivery. These are post-book opportunities. These new forms allow for a return of the fluidity of yore.  Databases and APIs create a massive open memory archive.  Well-designed user interfaces allow access and amendment to multiple content forms and feeds.

These are our assertions:

We are post-book.  Digital affords us the opportunity to express book content in new effective forms and contexts.  The paper book is an object and as such is easily attended to with object metaphors.  Post-book artifacts and experiences are better characterized with stream metaphors.  Books are visual and tactile objects hinged, strung, and stitched into existence; post-books are engineered watershed ecosystems with multiple content streams and multisensual experiences.

Post-book artifacts and experiences provide
1. multifarious content
2. fluidity over fixity
3. sensuality over monosensual experience
4. multiple content streams
5. dynamic and social marginalia

Post-book content should follow the what we will call the “Daly Principle” after the writings of Liza Daly.  The principle may be stated thusly:  If a post-book work has a central content stream, the additional streams must be:

1. Nontrivial: natural and useful extensions of the central content such as primary source material, obscure topics, deep dives into related topics. These may be provided by the central content author, publisher, or other users. third parties.

2. Immersive: natural and useful extensions of the central content made available to the user “at the moment that these curiosities naturally arrive in the course of consuming the text.”

As a place rather then object, the post-book enables readers (users, visitors?) to co-author the text as well.  The content of a post-book experience may be authored by professional authors, the publisher, or readers.

Everything we state is already evident in the simplest of web pages. Hell, it was true of any MySpace page in 2001. It is true of several notable experiments with reading apps.  We are not calling for the invention of anything new.  Rather, we would like to bring these elements to bear directly on innovations in 1) digital storytelling vessels and 2) the mission statements of publishing companies old and new. Robust and courageous experimentation will yield the future.

By the way, we personally dislike the phrase post-book as a real name for what we describe – it is backwards-facing,  skeuomorphic, and hyphenated. We only employ it here for lack of the imagination to devise a better term.  Whosoever provides a better nomenclature for these new digital reading experiences wins a free phonebook…

Corey Pressman (@exprima)

About Corey Pressman (@exprima)

Corey taught anthropology for 12 years before founding Exprima Media, a software design and development company that partners with content providers to envision, design, and develop compelling and effective interactive experiences. Corey delivers presentations on a variety of topics including the future of publishing, interaction design, and global mobile initiatives. He is also a Fellow of the Imaginary College at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination.

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8 thoughts on “Ancient Marginalia: The Watershed Manifesto

  1. Corey,

    Love the manifesto! Nice job setting the stage for amazing things that will/should be happening very soon. Or perhaps they’ve been happening for a long time…

    A bit of a (relevant) aside about this:

    When I was in grad school, I had to take, among other things, several courses in linguistics. Because that’s what you do in comparative lit. By this time, I had taken at least 8 other courses in various facets of linguistics; this one year it was syntax & semantics.

    There are two things I remember from that class: one was the way a certain professor diagrammed a sentence from an early except of Madame Bovary and explained that, according to the grammar used in one particular sentence construction, the rest of the story HAD TO follow a downward trajectory in the way that it did; that if there was a moment that things could have gone right it would have been there, and they didn’t so that was it.

    The other one, which is infinitely more important here, was about grammar. What the other professor (it was a co-taught class) explained was that grammar was actually a meta-language. It existed in an undefined (mind)space between speakers of any given language. The rules that we apply, while codified in grammar volumes over the years, were merely representations of those rules which, really, were unattainably in the ether. Yet they had very concrete forms that we used everyday without so much as thinking about them.

    Here is what I am getting at: grammar is what is beyond the data store. There are stories and tropes and words that live up there for us to codify in different forms and then manifest. The database is the grammar tome which tells us what is codified. The API is the language we use to express the data. And the client (or UI) is the story we tell, in our own way, each one a little different.

    But, truly, there are only so many things that can live beyond the data store. The entire world of difference and variety lives in the codification and manifestation of this information through language.

    Much in the same way that the picture of hand held technology you showed at TOC this year (it was a picture of a rock) is not a new concept, neither is this other stuff.

    All of this to say: What is new is the concept of ongoing content streams. There are a few reasons for this:

    1. We’ve talked earlier about SPAs (single page apps); one of the big pieces of SPA development is that of direct streams of data from the db to the client. Many Node devs, for instance, are using things like Websocket protocols to forge a direct tunnel from the client to the backend. This circumvents having to go through the much slower HTTP protocol. (Which also required an explicit request from the browser.) As such, real time apps are happening where data is transferring very quickly. A content stream can also be real time.

    2. Because of the technology available to us, we are uniquely positioned to be able to move through these content streams more rapidly than any other time in history. The real time transmission of information, and the almost instantaneous movement from meta-language to outward manifested speech has never been able to do this. EXCEPT in natural human dialog.

    3. ONGOING CONTENT STREAMS. It’s a powerful concept.

    4. Finally, in technology, we are simply building human interaction. And perhaps, if the world is a simulation as many say it is, we are just building a mirror of what some other entity has already created, understanding our own origin.

    5. And unsurprisingly, it comes back to language, which metaphysics has been concerned with for some time now.

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  4. Great piece, Corey! I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot recently and just co-wrote an article on Slate suggesting a word for the things we read in this post-book world: the codeX. No, it’s not perfect, but it’s certainly an improvement on “e-books.”

    The problem with post-, as Brian O’Leary points out above, is that it throws all the emphasis in the wrong direction…back to the thing we’re leaving behind. As another grad school survivor, I saw this problem all the time in the discussions of postmodernism and postpostmodernism, etc. You can never effectively articulate a new position if your keyword is so firmly entrenched in the past.

    I thought your readers might enjoy the piece and the discussion–what do we call this thing?

    http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2013/10/we_need_a_new_word_for_e_book_here_s_one_idea_beyondthebook.html

    • Wow what a great thread! Really enjoyed what you said Brett and how you brought it full circle to Websockets in Node!

      Loved the “beyond the book” article Ed. The Frankfurt experience sounds like it was phenomenal, I am definitely jealous. I think codeX is definitely heading in the right direction, and might even be perfect, but I know that adoption of any new term will be incredibly difficult for readers to pick up on…

      It’s certainly an exciting time for ebooks regardless of what they are called, as we heard loud and clear at the digital conference at BEA this year: it’s not about when, but how. Digital is upon us, and it is time to start going beyond the page. Bringing computer scientists and authors together to create some real book science that will offer readers more. To start to utilize the incredible hardware people carry with them every day.

      This is exactly what we are trying to do at Beneath The Ink: offer authors readers more from digital books. We are starting with embedded content that lives underneath words (we call these Binks-Beneath The Ink Links) that readers can access at the tap of a finger. This subtle interaction can lead to a dialogue between author and reader, and maybe even give people a reason to buy ebooks that transcends the portability factor…

  5. Wow what a great thread! Really enjoyed what you said Brett and how you brought it full circle to Websockets in Node!

    Loved the “beyond the book” article Ed. The Frankfurt experience sounds like it was phenomenal, I am definitely jealous. I think codeX is definitely heading in the right direction, and might even be perfect, but I know that adoption of any new term will be incredibly difficult for readers to pick up on…

    It’s certainly an exciting time for ebooks regardless of what they are called, as we heard loud and clear at the digital conference at BEA this year: it’s not about when, but how. Digital is upon us, and it is time to start going beyond the page. Bringing computer scientists and authors together to create some real book science that will offer readers more. To start to utilize the incredible hardware people carry with them every day.

    This is exactly what we are trying to do at Beneath The Ink: offer authors readers more from digital books. We are starting with embedded content that lives underneath words (we call these Binks-Beneath The Ink Links) that readers can access at the tap of a finger. This subtle interaction can lead to a dialogue between author and reader, and maybe even give people a reason to buy ebooks that transcends the portability factor…

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