Genre Fiction and the Literati

Cover of Zone One, a fancy zombie story

All the literati are scratching their heads at the multitudes of supernatural creatures that have invaded the literary world of late.  Last week it was The Atlantic, which took a good hard look at some folks who crossed a culture divide and wrote literary fantastical fiction, spurred into action by the new Colson Whitehead novel Zone One, which is about zombies.  Recently author Lev Grossman was asked why Fantasy novels are so popular, and his response was basically, “why is realism so popular?”  Fantasy literature has been a part of our heritage forever, and there’s nothing saying that fantasy literature is somehow less deserving of literary merit.  Would anyone deny that The Lord of the Rings is a classic?  (And have I mentioned how much I love Lev Grossman’s work?)  This week it’s Warren Adler in the Huffington Post lamenting people’s choice to go down the road of “childhood literature,” instead the more edifying works of cultured people.  Adler’s big question is “why are we seeing all of these monster stories, and what does this mean for our culture?”  He asks at the end why are people gobbling this stuff up?

I’ll tell you Mr. Adler.  Let’s take a little walk to a magical place called the 80′s.

I grew up in the 1980′s, and I was very deeply entrenched in pop movie culture.  My family let me watch absolutely everything that came through our cable television and they took me to movies all the time, sometimes just buying me a ticket and dropping me off at some R rated thing that they didn’t want to see.  Now, don’t go judging my parents.  I was a creepy kid, and it was a lot of fun for me.  Just like it was fun for Warren Adler to go see his serial pictures at the theater.  During the late 1970′s and early 1980′s there was a huge surge in popularity in horror films, most all of them slasher movies.  First it was 1978 with Halloween that gave us Michael Myers, then 1980 with Friday the 13th that brought out Jason Voorhees, then 1984 with Nightmare on Elm Street that gave us Freddy Kruger.  These characters became the staple of an entire generation of sequel films that raked in millions (probably billions combined) in the box office.  This was the brain candy of my generation, the monsters in our closet as well as in our dreams.  We lived to be scared.

When we weren’t at the movies we were reading horror novels and comic books.  I had to read Charles Dickens in middle school, but when I wasn’t reading Great Expectations for school I was reading The Shining by Stephen King, Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice, and The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker.  These works sat side by side for me growing up, and I saw little distinction.  Macbeth is just as dripping with blood and gore and witchcraft as any of the things cooked up by the horror novelists of the 80′s.  Though to be perfectly honest Dickens bored the life out of me.  I tried A Tale of Two Cities twice, and couldn’t bear it.

Swamp Thing as Green Man, Vol. 2, iss. 157

But let’s talk about comic books for a minute here.  Because this is where things get really interesting.  In the early 1980′s DC Comics had a story line running called Swamp Thing.  You may have seen the film with Adrienne Barbeau.  Wait, no, you probably haven’t.  Anyway, in 1982 a British writer named Alan Moore took over the series and he did something incredible with it.  He brought comic books into the realm of high literature.  Now, DC did something incredibly radical as a result of this shift.  They decided for that series that they were going to abandon the Comics Code Authority, which had basically meant that these works were morally safe for young readers, and instead write a story for adults.  The Swamp Thing was a ridiculous creature from a laboratory experiment in the early days of the series.  In the hands of Alan Moore this creature became a physical embodiment of nature, in the company of the mythical Green Man and Robin Goodfellow.  He was one of an unbroken lineage of mythological characters that resonated throughout time.  This nothing, throw-away horror comic became a literary masterpiece.  He went on to write some of the most transformative and imaginative pieces of literature in the world of comics including The Watchmen, a scathing psychological profile of superheroes as a people and a genre, and V for Vendetta, an homage to British Anarchism and scathing critique of the burgeoning police state.  With work like this coming down the line in the land of comics its no wonder that people who succeeded Moore at the DC Comics Vertigo line, like Neil Gaiman, continued to make the connection between the world of canonical western literature and the world of comics.

In the 1980′s comics grew up.  They found a vein in the rich literary tradition of the past and aspired to new heights.  I believe what we’re seeing now with this resurgence of horror novels and mythical creatures is a turning point for them as well.  There will always be the popular fiction churning out book after book, with whatever sells.  Then there will be those moments where someone pulls from the bag of monsters, and mixes it with master strokes of literature to create something more.  That’s why we’re seeing people like Justin Cronin and Colson Whitehead writing monster stories.  Whitehead’s influences are a lot like mine.  The fodder for new stories comes from the works of the past, and the things we read and watch as young people shape our interests as adults.  For people who grew up immersed in monsters, and loving it, it’s no wonder that we see more of them today. Does that mean literary fiction is in a crisis?  I don’t think so.  The next book after I read the first printed edition of Amanda Hocking’s novel Switched is The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. I think the Trojan War is always a good start for a literary classic.  Then again, I’ve got a penchant for the classics.  Not everyone does.  And that’s okay.

You Are A Brand (whether you like it or not)

In today’s employers market (and it is theirs, believe me), the base line assumption is that everyone down to the lowliest person in your company will have an email address and an electronic copy of their resume.  At the Public Library we spend hours a day introducing returning job seekers to this world that they’ve accidentally come to inhabit that is entirely online.  Checkout Cashiers at the local grocery have to apply online.  People who wash dishes, or flip burgers have to apply online.  To someone net savvy, like any of the people who are reading this blog right now this may seem like it’s not a big deal.  But it is.  It is an enormous deal, because these new job seekers, by the truckload, are unprepared to enter into this kind of workforce.  And the library becomes a default place to learn those skills in the moment of need.

Now I’m not complaining that we need to go back to paper society with physical applications, or even that our job is made more difficult by the massive influx of people who don’t have computer skills.  What I am more importantly concerned with is the severe disadvantage that new people jumping into the digital age face as they enter into the new workforce.

I’ve been online since 1994, at least.  I had an email address at the University of Cincinnati while I was undergraduate.  I learned how to navigate Gophers, then Mozilla, then Netscape.  I developed a handle for my email when I got one at Yahoo in 1997.  I came into my adult dating years via IRC.  I was filing documents online and through EDI to shipping companies in Costa Rica in 1998.  I jumped onto LiveJournal in 2002.  I’ve been on some social networks since before they were open to the public.  I’ve got a very broad and deep public persona.  And it’s one that, over the last few years, I’ve cultivated carefully into the person writing this blog.  That’s 15 years of history of being online, to become the person I am today.

And now we expect everyone to be there as a matter of course.  Not only are they expected to be at that level, but they are also expected to understand intricate levels of social propriety in online discourse so that they won’t tarnish the reputation of the company.  Some companies administer social media background checks against new employees, and if your public (or semi-public) persona is at fault they won’t hire you.

Everyone online is expected to be a brand of themselves now.  You’re not just promoting yourself when you go to that fancy party, or when you hand out your business cards.  No, it’s all the time.  You are building a reputation of who you are and what your values are as a person and as an employee all the time.  And your employers, as well as everyone else in the world, know who you make yourself out to be.  They can see if you talk about your previous employers, or if you bitch about your job and your coworkers.  Don’t think for a minute that they can’t.

Adults who have no online presence today, are like people with no credit score.  If you have no credit score, no bank in their right mind is going to give you a loan.  You’re untrusted goods.  No one knows your value or the value of your word.  The same is true for your online persona.  If you don’t have one, that says volumes about who you are to a prospective employer.  They don’t know who you are as an employee, but they can already tell that you’re lagging behind other people in the workforce. That means they will have to invest extra amounts of time in training you, which no American company is willing to do when they can pick and choose from the cream of the crop.

But even more damaging than those people who have no online persona are those who have been born with them.  Again, I see kids at the public library every day going onto Facebook, uploading videos to YouTube and posting pictures all over the internet.  One of the strange trends that is popping up these days are fight videos.  Now, everyone who went to a public school saw a fight between teens.  I saw plenty of them back in my day, and I could probably name names.  Some of them were vicious and brutal, and it is a fact that it happens.  But there was no permanent record of these fights occurring between these people.  Now there is.  And personal, reputation damaging content like this being online can ruin someone’s life before they even have a chance to begin it.  There was a fantastic article in Forbes about how The School at Columbia University is approaching teaching kids about the effects of their actions online.  They have developed an internal social network that allows the kids a chance to experiment with online interactions in a controlled environment, so that they can learn about the repercussions of their actions.  On page two they talk about a YouTube video that one of the students posted where he jokingly makes a racist statement and then play-fights with a friend.  A teacher was able to find the video, and bring the students into the Principal to talk about the consequences of what this video can mean to someone years down the road, when they themselves may have even forgotten it exists.  That level of social sophistication is something that today’s kids, and all future kids, are going to have to be instilled with from the very beginning.

The digital divide today is so much more than just having access to the computer and the internet.  It is about understanding a new level of social interactions, having a permanent record of your life available for the world to see, establishing a digital reputation for yourself, and maintaining that image throughout your life.  Adults joining the online world for the first have two hurdles to overcome, not only the technological, but also the social.  Children and Teens who are getting online are going to need to have a serious education about branding themselves, developing their unique online persona and managing the image of themselves online.  Teens are always experimenting with breaking the rules, and pushing boundaries, but they don’t always understand the consequences of their actions.  Today its even more crucial to know that, because mistakes that teens make today most certainly will come to define their employment opportunities in the future.

My Day at DPLA – Part 2

Digital Public Library of America sticker

The second half of the day was dedicated to the beta sprint presentations, which laid out several component pieces that could be reviewed for incorporation into the DPLA project, whatever it may become.  The Beta Sprint is a technique used in software development to develop working models of software to demonstrate operability.  The sprinters work ruthlessly to push out a piece of working code as fast as possible.  The DPLA Secretariat got 39 models and they selected six major ones for a long presentation and three shorter ones for a “lightning round” presentation.  All of this work, unpaid volunteer work by major institutions and college students.  Yeah.

The first presentation was Library of Congress, National Archives and Smithsonian.  Smithsonian created an intermediary metadata layer that sat over the digital collections of all three institutions and mapped common fields into a unified search function.  MAJOR.  Second presentation was was the Digital Library Federation, IMLS and DCC.  They created an actual live model that integrated data sets from a few hundred small cultural heritage institutions around the entire country.  This led to a question about curation of the content and who can be included and who gets excluded.  No clear answer to that at this stage.  The third presentation was for a product called ExtraMuros.  OMG, it is mind poppingly cool. This allows you to not only search across multiple document types including full text book searching, photo and video collections in partner institutions but also on the web via sites like Flickr and YouTube, BUT ALSO allows you to play with the content and create new collections, new documents, and enhance existing documents by overlaying and integrating multimedia resources into a text.  I was blown away.  The next presentation was a consolidated government documents interface from University of Minnesota, Hathi Trust and CIC.  It was primarily a mapping and data scrubbing layer that would create greater access to historical government documents, which are notoriously difficult to navigate.  Interestingly the GPO was not involved, nor were they interested.  As a former GPO employee I was a little surprised, because they have an army of catalogers pumping out records every day.  Who knows.  Then the folks from Athens, the one in Greece, presented a product called MINT.  MINT is a metadata mapping product that allows you to create the connections between the products in your data sets and everyone else’s data sets.  They also discussed a minimum viable record standard that they apply for data to be discoverable using their system.  Looked easy.  Finally were two coordinated products called LibraryCloud and Shelf Life.  Library Cloud is exactly what it sounds like, a data cloud server for library content that backs up local data and serves it up for you.  Shelf-Life was much like an OPAC interface that allows you to interact with all the different types of virtual objects in the DPLA catalog through visual shelf arrangements, and incorporated a lot of social media elements such as public reviews, comments, tagging and ranking of data.  I wasn’t totally sold on the look of it, but that’s obviously something that can be changed.

Then there was the lightning round.  First up was Bookworm, which combined the N-Gram viewer and the library’s metadata to create a more powerful search result system.  There was a hilarious moment in here where the undergraduate math student was explaining how to use the product and said “Social Sciences is ‘H’ for some reason” and the entire room burst into laughter.  Silly undergraduates not understanding the Library of Congress Classification System.  It was good, and made great use of variable data visualization techniques.  Next was a method for creating profiles for the cultural institutions and the content that they share with the DPLA.  Meh.  The final one was a project called WikiCite, which would create a citation index of digital information, as well as caching links that are referenced and cited as sources for Wiki articles.

After this we broke for the afternoon tea and had a chance to go and explore some of the poster sessions.  I primarily just hung around looking to see if I knew anyone else. I didn’t really see anyone that I hadn’t already run into.  It was a conference of maybe 300 people so you got to see a lot of the same people over and over again.

The final panel of the day was the report back and mission statements from the six work streams to see where they were headed.  I’m just going to identify the work streams and their mission statements, so I can move on to future thoughts.

  • Audience: Create a digital public Library of America that is a trusted first platform for knowledge online and is universally accessible, participatory, and compelling for all.
  • Content and Scope: Facilitate the discovery and exposure of digital heritage content for permanent, open, public access for the enhancement of knowledge and community.
  • Financial: Explore and develop mechanisms to generate ongoing support for the DPLA. Generating recurring demand is implicit in this statement.
  • Governance: Develop a system of decision making and management for the DPLA.
  • Legal: Illuminate legal issues and, where feasible, provide information and options for addressing legal issues for America’s libraries as they go digital
  • Information Technology: Establish the technical and normative principles of the technological framework that will best support the DPLA’s aims.

As you can see from this, it’s all a little vague, and that’s good at this stage, because they’re still defining the future of the project.  But they’ve also got a very aggressive schedule and a deadline of 18 months to a deliverable product.

Yeah.

So, that kind of wrapped it up there at the end and I was left with a ton of questions, all of which will have to wait for answers.

What kind of product is this going to be?

Who’s going to be using it and what are their needs?

How can the public library use this resource and promote its use with their user base?

How can libraries and cultural institutions become contributors to this project as well as users?

Will the general public be able to create content, share it with the DPLA and be able to expect longevity and access?

Will the DPLA advocate for copyright reform to increase digital access, and actually be able to compete with the stakeholders?

Can the federal government or local governments or public/private partnerships create an internet corps of engineers to enhance access?

Will this product start to change average people’s minds about copyrights and accessibility of content?

Would the DPLA start to challenge the publishing industry to end EULAs and DRM on eBooks to increase digital adoption?

Are we just going to stop with the United States or will we push this toward a global digital culture revolution?  With the U.S. and Europe on board this digital train, South American, Africa and Asia ought to be close behind.

I’m going to end with the vision of the starship library that I wrote about last month.  This is how we get there. By partnering together to make the entire cultural heritage of the world universally accessible, downloadable, remixable, and free.  With this level of access and collective urge to make things available we will get to that point.  And when we finally reach another world, we can start building a new collection, with the unified wisdom of our entire planet behind us.

I am so ready to take that big step.


I’m going to edit this to add one very important thing.  This project is going to revolutionize the web for one very simple reason.  Metadata.  We have been living in a world where blunt force, raw searching yields millions of useless hits.  The value of a service like the DPLA is that it is in fact curated by librarians, archivists, museum curators, as well as the public who volunteer their efforts to make it relevant.  This is the hybrid of the old school library catalog and the new school wiki pages, where we have expert metadata people working round the clock to make things accessible, and average people dedicating their personal knowledge and time to make that metadata even more relevant.  This is going to fundamentally change how we use the web, because I will guarantee you that website owners are going to want to get in on this somehow.  And that means that they are going to have to generate metadata for their work to make it accessible and relevant to the collection, and then the users of those sites are going to curate the hell out of them.  Is that Web 3.0?  2.5?  I don’t know, but it’s a radical shift in an excitingly old/new way.

My Day at DPLA – Part 1

Today I had the pleasure of attending the Digital Public Library of America plenary session at the National Archives and Records Administration.  It was one of those moments where you see something and you instantly know that this is going to be huge.  The heaviest hitters in library science and digital access were there in full force, all of them throwing their support at this new coordinated initiative that, if successful, will revolutionize digital access to not only the United States, but to the world.  And I’m not just saying that, I really, really believe that this is going to be an utterly transformative movement in the world of internet culture.

Let me get all the name dropping out of the way.  Harvard, Stanford, The Internet Archive, Wikipedia, Public Knowledge, The National Archives and Records Administration, The Library of Congress, The Smithsonian, The National Endowment for the Humanities, The Institute for Museum and Library Services, The American Library Association, State Library of Texas, The Sloan Foundation, The Arcadia Foundation, The Gates Foundation… Carl Malamud, Brewster Kahle, Bob Darnton, Susan Hildreth, Maureen Sullivan… This thing was HUGE.  The scale of it, never before attempted, and never before possible, and they brought everyone to the table, including interested parties from a similar project called Europeana, and the director of the British Library just happened to stop by.  The other fascinating aspect of this was the participation of rank and file librarians (like myself) and library school students.  They are really making an effort to spread the word and reach out to get the kind of feedback that they need to really develop a service that’s going to transform society.

And on one small, and interesting, detail: the entire conference was illustrated simultaneously by two different live artists.  It was like watching RSA Animate live!  All I could see of them was their pixie-like heads and their colored pens zooming along, but these ladies were incredible.  They were able to summarize hours and hours of presentations into cool wall sized graphics.  I’ve never seen anything like it done before my eyes.  I want these ladies at every meeting I ever have.

I’m going to try and reconstruct the day from my tweets.  Hopefully it won’t be too mangled.

Up first there was a welcoming prologue from the National Archivist David Ferreiro who turned it over to James Leach from the NEH.  Leach talked about C.P. Snow’s concept of the Two Cultures: Sciences and Humanities, and how today’s culture is merging those two fields via projects like this.  His driving note was that we need to develop an “infrastructure of ideas.” This was immediately followed by a generous donation from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation of $2.5 million dollars toward the project, which was then followed by an equally generous matching $2.5 million from the Arcadia Foundation.  Yeah.  That just was announced almost randomly in front of everyone there.  The speaker from Arcadia talked about how digitization projects to date have been haphazard boutique kinds of projects with a little money here and a little money there to make a small thing accessible online.  His call to action was to develop the big box version of that, going from the boutique to the Wal-Mart phase.  Everyone kind of gasped and chuckled.

The money bomb was followed by a report from some big players in the digitization movement here in Washington.  Library of Congress has scanned and made available 28 million of their 148 million items in their collections, and are itching to get the rest out there, much of it public domain books with priority scanning for American History titles.  IMLS was looking for projects that they could directly fund to help increase the DPLA movement.  The resounding statement here was collaborate and conquer.  NARA spoke about their mandate to make available a trove of some 400 million declassified documents by 2013.  All of which are pending review by relevant agencies.  The National Archivist wants to digitize absolutely every piece of paper in the archive and make it freely available.  BOLD.  In the follow up questions it was asked if they were considering the difference between making something accessible versus making something discoverable. Ferreiro made the statement that “if it’s not online it doesn’t exist.”  I’ll come back to that in a minute.  This was followed up by a lot of talk about massive amounts of metadata as well as accessibility for the blind and others as well.  Lynne Brindley, the director of the British Library stood up and mentioned that they have opened up all of their metadata under a Creative Commons 0 license.  A director from the Smithsonian also chimed in stating that they have 137 million items that they want to make available as well, most of them natural history specimens.

Now let me take a moment to just talk about metadata.  Many of you who read this blog already know what that is, but for those of you who don’t let me try and explain it in plain English. When you go to the library and you use their online catalog to search for a book, that catalog is created from a database containing about 80-100 fields of information about that book from the title, author, and subject to really obscure things like the height of the book, its language, illustrators (if it has one), I could go on and on and on.  Anyhow, that data, is data about the properties of that book.  We call that metadata.  Now, books aren’t the only things that have metadata.  Everything does!  Pictures online have metadata, items in museums have metadata, archives are loaded with metadata.  The crazy thing is that wildly different standards have arisen for different industries, and all of that unique information is often only readable by systems specifically designed to read that database code.  That’s one of the major hurdles in a project like this that wants to combine the forces of libraries, museums, archives and user generated content.  It’s a metadata nightmare!  But they are thinking about this and in a major way.  More on metadata in the beta sprints.

Bob Darnton from Harvard wrapped up that session with a very inspirational vision that this is not just a project for America, but a project that is international in scope via partnerships with similar cultural heritage projects like Europeana.  It’s easy to see that coming via open metadata standards between DPLA and Europeana.  In fact they plan to do a digital exhibit on the history of European migration to the United States as one of their earliest partnership projects.

The next panel consisted of many of the visionary people behind the DPLA movement.  The first was John Palfrey from Harvard.  His vision of this system was not one unique repository, but rather an access point that coordinated online access to the digital treasures that are the purview of local institutions.  He reinforced that the metadata itself needed to be open to everyone, and that the code that powers the DPLA be made available for local customization projects, like a Sourceforge for Libraries. He concluded with a hilarious idea about creating “scannebagos” to go out to different little towns and scan their documents and get them online.  Peggy Rudd from State Library of Texas pushed the idea of making the DPLA so resourceful that it would itself spawn a verb, ala Googling, viz. DPLAing.  Doesn’t have the same ring, but I like this vision of saying “I’m going to check The Library for it.”  Brewster Kahle spoke about three simple ideas to build a digital America.  The thing is we already are living in the digital America, and the services that we create today are what is going to drive the future of digital access online.  His three points were to make everything in the public domain freely available, make orphaned works available to lend, and to buy digital copies of new works and lend them.  Straightforward, and covers everything.  Amanda French from the Center for History and New Media had what was the most poetic speech about the vision of the DPLA.  She began by reading an aubade by John Donne, and talking about how we are clinging to our love of books as the sun is rising on a digital era.  Her conclusion was to find the balance between the digital products that we absolutely need, as well as the necessity of the physical space of the library and that would lead us to the gleeful rendez-vous with the soul of the library.  Carl Malamud was the final speaker and his was a call to action.  He sounded a rallying cry to create a new public works program of digitizing our nation’s heritage. “Deploy the Internet Corps of Engineers!”   It was astounding.

It was in this last panel’s question and answer session that we revisited the sentiment “if it’s not online, it doesn’t exist.”  Several other people, Kahle and Malamud I believe, echoed that sentiment.  When an audience member questioned this, asking “doesn’t this denigrate the physical work? Won’t people decide to not go to that museum, if they’ve already seen the entire collection online?”  Amanda French chimed in and restated it.  “If it’s not online people don’t know it exists.”  Making content freely available increases it’s value by exposing and promoting it.  How would anyone know if a museum in Iowa has a Caravaggio painting?  Perhaps in the knowing of that information a person may plan a trip to Des Moines, thus increasing tourism through open access.

It was at this point that we went to lunch.  I had a great conversation with some lawyers from Public Knowledge and Berkeley about the Hathi Trust / Author’s Guild lawsuit and the ridiculousness of it.  It was great and the food was awesome.

I’m going to take a break in the narrative here and post the second half of the day with all of the technical details and visionary work as well as my questions and dreams in the next post.

Digital Public Library of America: Invitation

Tomorrow at the National Archives and Records Administration building in DC the folks from Harvard’s Digital Public Library of America will be hosting a plenary session for stakeholders.  They will be showing the 9 models of the DPLA that were produced at the Harvard Hackathon and soliciting comments and feedback from the participants. I will be there live tweeting the event and hopefully doing a major write up of the experience.

If you are in the DC area to attend this event I invite you join me after the conference for tea and a chat about the future of digital public library stuff.  I’ll be hosting a gathering at the Teaism in Penn Quarter just a couple blocks north from the Archives building.  Just grab a drink and head downstairs and join the group in the back of the room.

I hope to see you there!

Early Literacy: Print vs. iPad

Watch this video.

The author of this video implies that his daughter has been coded by Steve Jobs and that she has already ditched print media.  The child attempts to interact with the magazine in a way that is reminiscent of the iPad and that she gives up because “print doesn’t work.”

The child in this video is about one year old, at least that’s what is assumed by the folks over at NY Daily News where I saw this piece.  I agree that the child looks about less than a year old, and that’s really the important piece of this story.

The folks over at Early Stages, a childhood developmental testing center here in DC, have developed a really fantastic handout about the milestones that all children should be reaching by different ages.  Around 7 months to 1 year old children are learning how to interact with and manipulate objects properly in their surroundings.  That’s what I believe we’re seeing here.

In that developmental phase children are trying to understand how different objects work.  We as adults know that iPads and Magazines work differently, and we manipulate them differently with our hands. But we have grown up in a world where those things were also taught to us.  Many of us don’t remember how we learned to read a book, because that educational experience happens at about this age of 6 months and on. So, it’s not that the magazine is “broken.”  Rather, it is that no one has shown the child how to manipulate the pages of a magazine to see all the pictures inside.

A child at this age doesn’t understand the difference between an square icon on a piece of glass and a square on a piece of paper.  They don’t know that they might not act differently, and their very limited experience in life has not given them any reason to suggest that they would.  That’s why we see the child attempting to “click” on the boxes on the page, or trying to “pinch” and blow up an image.  She just hasn’t developed the subtlety to make that distinction between paper and digital.

I do think this says something, however, about the future of reading.  Interactivity is a huge part of contemporary reading.  All of the heaviest hitting places on the web are interactive.  The enhanced eBook movement is an attempt to incorporate that into the process of reading.  It’s so much more than just sitting down with a book, it’s sitting down with a book, a collection of movies, a dictionary/encyclopedia and some critical works just in case you don’t quite follow along.  Not to mention that you can fiddle with the look and feel of the reading experience until it fits your own personalized style, provided they’ve given you the option to do that.  The printed book just can’t compare to that, and that’s okay.  It doesn’t have to.

There is no reason why we cannot fully embrace both print literacy and digital literacy with children.  The world they are going to grow into is probably going to slowly migrate into a digital playground, but not without a lot of stumbling blocks.  Print isn’t going away tomorrow, and magazines aren’t useless.  Well, maybe a few of them are useless…  But the point is, if you are raising a child in today’s world, it’s a mistake to think that their inability to manipulate a magazine is a sign that they are now wired for iPads.  No, it’s a sign that you need to show that child how you open a book, turn a page, and read along the line.  Books, magazines and newspapers are still a part of our world, and they probably will be a for a long time.  Make sure that child learns how they are different and how they are the same, because that’s what builds up all those skills she’s going to need when she starts school.

And I’ll bet she’ll probably need to read a book or two in school.

Artistry & The Mediated Experience

In thinking about the passing of Steve Jobs, as everyone in the universe seems to be doing, I think about the legacy he leaves behind.  All of the numerous voices recalling his work at Apple reflect on his unique vision and attention to detail.

That is true.  The look and feel of Apple products has been superb for years. The chrome, glass, and simple interfaces are beautiful.  There is indeed a level of design artistry that no other manufacturer has ever been able to capture.

But what we get with Apple is also a monoculture.  The devices love each other, and reinforce internal consistency.  In order to make an apple product compatible with other devices you often need a special Apple converter, with unique settings.  And nowadays they are building internal controls on things as simple as cords and AC adapters for iPods and iPads, such that you have to buy an official Apple connecter and adapter. As a user, this is probably the most frustrating element of Apple.  Only the most dedicated Apple fanboy will have the intricate levels of product consistency to maintain this Apple driven reality, and he will have to pay for it. Not to mention that devices like the iPod and iPad are considered unique extensions of your desktop/laptop computer, and thus have no backward compatibility to share files from the iPad/iPod back to the desktop.

While I love the iPad apps that have made my use of the web better, I long for the day when I can abandon this beautiful and dysfunctional device. I want devices that like to talk to other devices, regardless of their OS, and can operate on their own, and share files backward and forward.  That sounds like a fairly simple request, but it is one that Apple doesn’t want to accommodate.

This is what we sacrifice with Apple.  We get beautiful products, but that beautiful package has issues you don’t realize until you’re really using the hell out of it.

No other computer system (except maybe the new Kindle Fire) is this heavily controlled.  This is why the market for other computer companies is so wide and variable.  You buy an OS from one place, get a motherboard and CPU here, some hard drives here, a DVD-RW with Blu-Ray capability there, a monitor from over there, a keyboard you like and a mouse that does some interesting things, maybe some peripheral things like a scanner, printer, capacitive tablet for delicate drawing…  It’s a kind of chaos.  But it is a chaos that drives many of the largest design and manufacturing firms in the world.  And it’s built on standards that are mutually agreed upon so that most all of these components are interoperable.

Consider the same thing with iPhone vs Android commentary.  There have been a lot of people, especially Mac people, who have said that it’s erroneous to compare iPhone against the Android, because iPhone is one piece of hardware while the Android is an OS on multiple devices.  To some degree that’s true, but for the most part it’s a semantic argument.  Yes, the iPhone is a handset, but it also bundled with their iOS for phones.  Apple here, controlling their product from start to finish comes out with one phone, take it or leave it.  Google on the other hand, much like Microsoft and Linux have done for desktop computers, just build the OS, and leave the creation of handsets to companies better suited to that endeavor.  So you can go and get an Android handset from a whole suite of different companies, pay vastly different prices depending on which model you buy.

Steve Jobs’ legacy, to me, is that of artisan computing.  There is a vision of a product, and that product is designed, built and sold all under one company.  It is a heavily mediated experience, that works diligently to keep you a part of their world.  Many of their products are absolutely amazing.  That works for a lot of people, but it doesn’t work for everyone, nor should it.  Internal control can only take a user and a company so far.  There is always someone out there with a new processor, a new touch-screen, a newer, smaller storage medium, and to cut oneself out of those options means that you will eventually be lagging behind.

Heavily mediated experiences are fun for a while, but don’t hold up under extended scrutiny.  Children go to amusement parks and see their favorite cartoon characters and they believe them to be real.  It fills them with a sense of magic to see princesses and evil witches and silly animals.  But an adult looks and sees the gears the drive The Mouse, and knows that there is a person inside, probably sweating like crazy and needing a bottle of water.  We don’t live in Disneyland. We live in the world where the costumes come off, the scenery is put away and we look to each other for what we’re going to do next.