Before Circulation

Alex French and Howie Kahn’s “The Greatest Newspaper That Ever Died” recounts the early 1990s sports news startup The National Sports Daily during its short, experimental, and ultimately failed run. Mexican billionaire Emilio Azcárraga dreamed up the grandiose plan for the paper, which aspired to provide national coverage and achieve widespread circulation, with much of the writing done by the best-known sports writers of the moment.

The story is worth a read for a couple of reasons. First, it offers a semi-coherent narrative woven not through co-authorial smoothing of transitions (think: prose cortisone shots) but instead by the arrangement of discrete interview snippets. That is, the story is parsed and assembled (more than conventionally written) from a cacophony of contributors who were directly involved with the experiment. Second, contributors (or interviewees?) say over and over that the failure of The National was caused not by the quality of the writing or the innovative vision but by the business side (sales and ad revenues unequal to expenses). I understand the failure was as much a matter of technological infrastructure–the fact that the publishers were attempting to route content from various cities to printing houses using sattelite transmissions that were just too slow. One anecdote has staffers accessing the sattelite equipment on the roof to knock ice and snow off of it with hopes of improving relay speeds. Basically, The National was the right idea in the wrong year. A third reason for reading: this story rolled out on Bill Simmons’ new ESPN-sponsored sports writing site, Grantland, which, considering its renowned writers and editors, amounts to a modern day equivalent of The National. Grantland is, in effect, The National twenty years later.

I suppose “The Greatest Newspaper That Ever Died” will not be all that surprising to anyone who remembers The National‘s hype. But the story of The National is promisingly rivaled, to my mind, by the subtext here about the forces inhibiting fast, large-scale circulation for news. Sure, hindsight makes it easy for us to know all about this now, but the story (a play-by-play, really) condenses and suspends that tension–right idea, wrong year–holding it up like a Jordan-era floater for a compelling sense of that-was-then.

While Supplies Last

From The Long Now blog, an entry today about the end of typewriter manufacturing. What will it be next? VCRs? Film cameras?

I never got much use out of the typewriter as a writing machine. I used them to fill out forms in that dimly lit pre-PDF-dawn when fax machines were hot. I used typewriter impersonators (compact dot matrix word processors, essentially), although I can’t think of a single document whose production depended on it such that it couldn’t by then have been more sleekly crafted on a computer. I read Click, Clack, Moo to Is. twenty or thirty times when she was younger, so that’s something. But this isn’t the sort of discontinuation that I would think gives anyone much pause, except perhaps to wonder which commonplace technologies of today will surrender to obsolescence in the next 25 years.


Science, Etc.

We’re wrapping up Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants Tuesday night in 516. I won’t offer a full-blown review here; maybe another time. For now, it suffices to characterize this as a precarious read for how out of the blue and underdeveloped some of these ideas are. That is, Kelly’s discussion sometimes advances solidly for pages and then, suddenly and without forewarning, it plunges into the quicksand. I am saying this even while I continue to hold much of Kelly’s other work in high regard, yet I have found in What Technology Wants more of these soft spots than I expected I would.

For instance, there’s this:

Yet there is one legitimate way in which we can claim that Columbus discovered America, and the French-American explorer Paul du Chaillu discovered gorillas, and Edward Jenner discovered vaccines. They “discovered” previously locally known knowledge by adding it to the growing pool of structured global knowledge. Nowadays we would call that accumulating of structured global knowledge science. […] Columbus’s encounter put America on the map of the globe, linking it to the rest of the known world, integrating its own inherent body of knowledge into the slowly accumulating, unified body of verified knowledge. Columbus joined two large continents of knowledge into a growing consilient structure. (336)

That this turns up near the end, in a chapter called “Technology’s Trajectories” and a section called “Structure,” and, as well, that it is fitted between an ever-more-conciliatory argument for technological determinism and a large-scale, large-tarp theory of everything-technology called the Technium leaves me wishing for just a slightly tighter linkage between Columbus and science—if that linkage must be attempted in the first place, especially by putting Columbus on stage with du Chaillu and Jenner. Stepping sof…quicksand, possibly worse.

Here’s another puzzler, two pages later:

The evolution of knowledge began with relatively simple arrangements of information. The most simple organization was the invention of facts. Facts, in fact, were invented. Not by science but by the European legal system, in the 1500s. In court lawyers had to establish agreed-upon observations as evidence that could not shift later. Science adopted this useful innovation. Over time, the novel ways in which knowledge could be ordered increased. This complex apparatus for relating new information to old is what we call science. (338)

Maybe it’s adequate for Kelly to trace the origin of “facts” to Europe in the 1500s. But I read this and feel unsatisfied, fatigued: the linkage is too crude. Again, this is in a brief section called “Structure,” which is, in effect, a tale of science as beholden to the Technium’s build-up. And that I am impatient with the idea of facts being invented the way Kelly says they were is all the more aggravated by the unnecessarily grandiose flourishes in the book’s concluding chapter, e.g., where this theory inflates to include (or assume correspondence with) God: “If there is a God, the arc of the technium is aimed right at him. I’ll retell the Great Story of this arc again, one last time in summary, because it points way beyond us” (354). The circuit from science to facts to God: that’s a lot to expect from one unifying theory of technology.

Documenting The Week That Was In A Single Photo

Ice Cream

The week? Well, as you can see, there was ice cream. As for the ice cream, I neither stepped in it while trying to get into the car nor had a taste of it before it was discarded so carelessly as you see it here. In fact, I don’t even know whose it was.

So as not to seem like I am chronicling woes, this short list will give you some sense of things: an undelivered (i.e., lost) package of books from, a visit to City Auto to have a repair estimate on the parts of the Element affected by a basketball hoop blown into it by last Saturday’s intense winds (think: duct tape is holding parts on the car right now), and a missing teaching station (i.e., computer cart) in my first class of the new semester. Fortunately, family, friends, and colleagues have been singing variations of “The sun will come out, tomorrow,” so persistently that I have been mesmerized into an optimistic outlook on next week, a week in which, if I am lucky, there will be more ice cream and fewer half-eatens chucked aside to melt in the place where I must step to get into the car. Plus: emailed me to say they are re-sending a package of the same books; insurance is covering the damages to the Element (even if it will be a five-day repair); and, I carried my own cords, bubble gum, and a piece of duct tape to the classroom and tested the projection system this afternoon, and it worked perfectly.

Note: It’s a small wonder that this is not the first I have alluded to this Annie song, considering I’ve never sat through Annie, movie or musical.

Quickly, Quickly

Spring Break begins tomorrow. No beach-side cabana and umbrella-garnished cocktails in my foreseeable future. Just life at a slightly altered (i.e., re-charging) pace until classes resume on March 8. I believe this is the earliest Spring Break I’ve ever had.

In classes, we wrapped up a three-week unit on wiki writing today. The assignment went something like this: for twenty-one days, assume various roles in the production of a wiki–facilitation, discussion, research, entry writing, editing, and coding. Last semester I set up groups. This semester I didn’t. My aim with the wiki assignment has always been to immerse in the mess, to dive in, or, for the more cautious, to wade through some quick compositional emergence, or distributed, self-paced, collaborative writing. All the while, we should keep in mind the question of what is stylistically available in wiki writing. There is no single answer to this, of course, but it seems like wiki writing often (I am tempted to say “always”) returns to an “average effect,” more studium than punctum.

I’m not sure we fully achieved the mess I had in mind. A snow day on February 10 threw off the early development of the project. Facilitation and early discussion was cut short. Twelve days into the project I brought graphs to class–a simple activity distribution curved, as you might have guessed, like a long tail. A few had done much work; many had done much less, just like on Wikipedia. Also, the graph reflected two data-sets, one for number of edits and one for frequency of logins. So that everyone processes the assignment by a distributed pace rather than a climactic pace, the prompt encouraged logging in and making identifiable contributions every other day or so. Halfway in, this wasn’t quite working. But the graph confronted us with the problem, and, consequently, it moved us collectively nearer to the quick-writing messiness I had in mind. For the remaining nine days, the wiki came alive–to the tune of 38 contributors, an impressive blur of edits, revisions, and rearrangement.

Certainly we gained some experience with wiki writing–wiki writing connected with our continuing inquiry into style and technology. And, for the most part, I stand by this approach (i.e., will try it again), even if it still has a few wrinkles to smooth out. I prefer it to a common alternative, which is something like wiki-as-showcase, where the wiki functions as a platform for sharing individually authored pieces, where collaboration is predefined, where discrete contributions carry over into some kind of portfolio or autonomous collection of best works (many variations on this, to be fair). The showcase approach to wiki writing is fine, but I want to continue to think through the near-aleatory, massively collaborative chaos available in wikis and to think through the this chaotic approach for a school assignment and for the question of what is stylistically available. How? I’ll begin by reading and commenting 36 or so reflective essays over the next couple of days.

Verbal Sauce

I’m between classes: two sections of ENGL328: Writing, Style, and Technology. Today was our third meeting in the first section. The third meeting of the second section happens in 90 minutes. The only trouble with teaching two sections is that the session details collapse into one another. That is, I reconstruct an approximately full experience from bits of each, roughly as if the 150-minutes, divided in two, amount to a singular 75-minutes of layered memory. A memory so blended, so woven I cannot account for what happened in one section distinct from the other. No, I’m not complaining. Not that at all. I am taking the long way, the curving route to say that the 90-minute window between classes is the only time I can keep the sessions separate-in-mind. Confusion creeps in after.

I walked up from the third floor a few minutes ago thinking about the idea that a first class session is insufficient for grounding an initial impression. I mean, I left those first meetings last week with a reasonably strong, favorable impression of each group (perhaps I recalled them only after, in a “best of” blend). Seriously, the initial impression takes three sessions. After three meetings I can remember many names. We have a sense of the mood, the pace, the projects, and so on.

Verbal sauce? Well, preparing to teach this course has required for me quite a bit of reading on style. I’m learning a lot. And I’m really working to approach the course as an inquiry into the style-technology hyphen: their pedagogical-practical-experimental linkage(s). Style: from the fluff-stuff distinction, from perpetual literacy crisis alarmism, from its attachment to syntax or design. And technology: from the aging-unseen apparatuses, from technology as panacea, and from the onset of electrate logics. Create a collision, an encounter between style and technology, then understand it from the inside, by writing through it.

Twitter Totter

I sure hope Maureen Dowd’s optometrist didn’t read what she wrote at the end of her Tuesday newspaper column, “To Tweet or Not to Tweet”:

I would rather be tied up to stakes in the Kalahari Desert, have honey poured over me and red ants eat out my eyes than open a Twitter account. Is there anything you can say to change my mind?

My guess is that a honey-sweetened eye-flesh-eating episode would not bode well for the continuation of her syndicated column. Opening an account is worse than this? No. Dowd’s position is ridiculous, and this hypothetical alternative to opening an account would prove painful and unwise. Nothing against red ants; I’d take Twitter over Dowd’s daring stunt in the Kalahari any day of the week.

Of course, Dowd is laying bait for the twittersphere in her diatribe “interview” with Twitter creators Evan Williams and Biz Stone. The truth is, I’d have missed Dowd’s column altogether had it not been for Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG’s retort, “How the Other Half Writes: In Defense of Twitter,” an anti-Dowd rant that takes exception with a few points in the editorial, which Manaugh describes as “brain-dead.”

Manaugh basically identifies Twitter as a “note-taking technology” that can be put to many different uses. He might be right, but I don’t think of Twitter as a note-taking technology exactly. I mean, if that’s what it is, aren’t there better ones? Second, Manaugh answers at length Dowd’s comment about Twitter being designed “for bored celebrities and high-school girls,” as he goes on to reframe Twitter as a tool for everyday writing. Finally, he compares Twitter to private journals. With this line of argument, he downplays the social aspects of @directed tweets and says he has no use for or interest in them. If you glance the entry’s 70+ comments, you’ll see there has been a fair amount of objection to this third point, perhaps the most dubious of his positions in response to Dowd.

For me, the gem in Manaugh’s response was this:

You take short-form notes with it, limited to 140 characters. The clichéd analogy here has been with Japanese haiku, but perhaps we might even reference the Oulipo: in other words, Twitter means that you are writing, but you are writing within constraints.

I was well aware of the 140-character limit, even familiar with the analogy to a “less is more” aesthetics. But I hadn’t heard of Oulipo, a group of French writers, thinkers, and artists, including Raymond Queneau, who worked at deliberately constrained projects. Queneau’s Exercises in Style is perhaps the best-known example of a project produced according to this group’s constraint-bounded undertakings. Thus, the suggested tie between Oulipo and Twitter sparked a few ideas for me. I’ve been thinking off and on lately about the relationship between style and technology because I will be teaching a pair of classes in the fall concerned with their intersection. Where style and its close counterpart genre introduce explicit constraint-affordance capacities, they are, arguably, technological, and I find this to be especially conspicuous with a platform like Twitter, even if I have not used it all that much. Because it is conspicuous, it might be a good place to first address the style-technology relationship. I mean that Twitter and its 140-character limit is a good, simple case for grasping style-technology interdependence. I want to say more about this, but I am short on time for now. The style-technology relationship, however, is going to be on my mind over the next couple of months.

One last point about Manaugh’s answer to Dowd: I think they also stand as solid examples of the distinction Richard Lanham draws between strong and weak defenses. Dowd’s is a weak defense, it seems to me, in that she gets caught up in a moralistic binary: her anti-Twitter way is superior to any other that would use Twitter at all, much less take it seriously, engage with it productively, and so on. Manaugh, on the other hand, leverages a strong defense because he allows for an unfolding process through which its uses will determine its many different values (also values yet-to-be). Both are
worth holding onto for this reason, if not for the stuff on constraints.

After the Camp

Tech Camp 2008 ended on Thursday after three days of entirely worthwhile,
invigorating stuff tied to imagework, web writing, and video.

I was asked to open the morning’s discussion on day three, and I did so by writing a short
list of openings and provocations on the marker board at the front of the room.
I felt most uncertain about the first item because I’m not sure I’ve considered
it from enough angles. I was thinking about the rock and the hard place
for new media in rhetoric and composition: critique, on the one hand, and technology grand narratives, on the other.
Critique, as I think of it, rears its head where the focus is on reading and
analyzing new media objects. Visual rhetorics often gravitate in this direction,
too, toward a consciousness-raising hermeneutics of thorough noticing performed on
images and objects made by others. Critique includes conversations about
access to technology, which are relevant and important, but do not serve well as ends in
and of themselves. Access-based critiques of technology cannot be not easily singled
out from that same predicament–is it an inevitability?–for literacy and orality,
nor have enough of them gone beyond commentary (even moralizing) into
action–grant writing, creative workarounds, and putting computers on desks.

If critique (i.e., the rock) is loose and inclusive, sweeping narratives
(i.e., the hard place) are even more capacious and also sticky (a Great Katamari;
look out!). Woes of technological imminence prevail here: it makes us
stupid, it is anti-intellectual, it atrophies muscles, etc., often in unfortunately broad

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Moving Meditation

I was out of town and more or less offline late last week when the
July/August Atlantic Monthly hit newsstands with its front cover blazing
the title of Nicholas Carr’s
article, “Is Google
Making Us Stoopid?” (the “Stoopid” is much sexier on the actual cover than it is
here because the letters are done colorfully and in the Google font).
Jeff and

posted thoughtful responses, and I am sure there will be more.

Carr’s article, if you have not read it yet, hops along like Level 1 on
Frogger (which, coincidentally, was released in 1981): without much exertion,
the argument leaps from personal anecdote to the role of media in shaping
cognition to the insidious effects of too much easy access to information via
Google: drumroll…

“[A]s we come to rely on computers and increase Data science staffing immoderately, to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence” (63).

Carr welcomes skeptics but also fends off all-out dismissals of his deep
wariness of the changes he has experienced first-hand. He begins the article
with his own reasons for believing this “flattening” to be endemic and imminent
for Google users: 1.) he is more and more easily distracted in his own attempts
to read anything longer than a couple of pages and 2.) what was once
pain-staking research is now available to him almost instantaneously. With a
simple search, he can quickly summon great heaps of material on [enter search
terms]: “And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for
concentration and contemplation” (57).

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