Two Early Internet Theory Books

At the end of the 20th century, I was writing and publishing a lot of books about the Internet. (Everybody has to pay the rent somehow.) Some parts of these books still hold up reasonably well; others are misguided and flat-out wrong in ways that make me wince openly. But that’s the way it is with things you wrote nearly a dozen years ago.

CommonSpace, an Internet theory book I co-authored with Mark Surman, is interesting because we were searching for a term for what we now call social media — various technologies that allowed people to write back to the Web, which was, for the most part, static in those days. At some point I’m going to write a “CommonSpace Revisited” essay and flag the useful bits, but what strikes me when I reread it is how much fun we had when we were writing it. Parts of it are still pretty funny, but there’s a lot here that’s of historical interest too. It may be hard to imagine now, but there was a time when it was possible for the official slug line of Blogger to read “Amphetamines for Your Website.”

FREE as in speech and beer, which came out a couple of years later, holds up a little better, as it’s mostly an intellectual history of the notion of freedom as it pertains to sharing on the Internet. The book outlines the difference between “free as in rights and liberties” of Richard Stallman and company, and the “free as in getting something for nothing” that still drives file-sharing today, and contextualizes them in terms of the theory of potlatch and the general economy. Again, it was a lot of fun to write, and it may be of use to those too young to remember that Napster really wasn’t invented by Justin Timberlake.

The rights to both books reverted to Mark and me several years ago, so they are now available as PDFs. Enjoy.

James Gleick’s The Information

My review of James Gleick’s new book, The Information, recently appeared in the Globe and Mail.

Like all good storytellers, Gleick begins in the middle, with Claude Shannon. Along with Warren Weaver, Shannon is one of the creators of what we now call the Shannon-Weaver “Mathematical Model of Communication.” This model was a direct product of the American military-industrial complex assembled by Vannevar Bush during (and immediately after) the Second World War, with the goal of speeding up data processing to aid the Allied war effort. Gleick contends that the development of the Mathematical Model was more important even than the production of the transistor, which occurred during the same period.

What was – and remains – radical about the Mathematical Model of Communication is that it asserts that information is a measure of quantity, not meaning. On one hand, this degree of abstraction allowed engineers to imagine new techniques for manipulating data as systems, which helped to bring about contemporary networked society. On the other hand, the notion that information has nothing to do with meaning is a stark reminder that communication can and does take place all the time without any human input whatsoever, at speeds too fast to comprehend and scales too small to observe.

The rest of the text is here.

Goodbye To All That: The Death of Bookstores

“Poetry laments the loss of physical space not only for book stores, but for actual physical space: it is not ready for virtual.”
— Sina Queyras

The last year of the first decade of the 21st century will be remembered as the year the bookstores died in Canada.

Today is December 29th, 2009. In Winnipeg, McNally Robinson Booksellers has just filed for bankruptcy protection, and is about to close its Polo Park location and its brand New Don Mills (Toronto) store. In August 2008, they closed their Calgary location. That leaves one location in Winnipeg and another in Saskatoon. If the bankruptcy protection application is approved, they’ll survive, along with a web store.

Eight days ago, the CBC reported that the Toronto Women’s Bookstore is also in jeopardy. Founded in 1973, the store does not have the money to pay its January bills, and is seeking help with fundraising to sustain it for the next year. Since 2004, women’s bookstores in Calgary, Saskatoon, Hamilton, London and Sudbury have all closed. According to the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, there are only 21 women’s bookstores left in the entire world.

These two events add insult to the injury of a very bad year for book retail. In Toronto in particular, 2009 was a bookstore bloodbath. Marc Glassman’s venerable Pages Books & Magazines closed its doors after 30 years. Atticus Books, a vast cave crammed full of used scholarly and art books, declined to renew its lease and went Internet-only. In February, David Mirvish Books went dark.

This is not to say that there are no independent booksellers left. In Toronto alone, there’s the Book City chain, This Ain’t the Rosedale Library (safely ensconced in its new Kensington Market digs), Type Books and Ben McNally Books for starters. But it’s worth noting that the cultural landscape of Canadian cities is changing for the worse.

The roots of this situation have to do with more than the rapid growth of digital media. The incursion of big-box book retail at the beginning of the decade, which was initially received as a boomtime blessing, had a lot to do with it. Small publishers experienced unprecedented sales as their books were used to fill the shelves of cavernous stores scattered across the Power Centres of the nation. After several years of people were so besotted with big-box bookstores that some were seriously arguing that they might soon replace the function of public libraries. Libraries, moreover, traditionally do not have a Starbucks in the building.

All of the sales that small publishers were making to the big-box chains quickly turned into an avalanche of returns. Profits from the initial sales, used to print larger runs for subsequent seasons of books, were clawed back by Chapters and Indigo as credit for returns — credit which they then used to finance new shipments of books for which the publishers could suddenly no longer afford to pay their printers. As long as the bookstores were in expansion mode, their investors were satisfied, but as soon as the stores actually had to make money, thpue whole system collapsed into a frantic shell game, complete with thinly disguised government bailouts for the publishers.

What happened next would have seemed surprising to someone who didn’t know that Chapters had lost complete control of their inventory system at least once and probably twice. At the behest of managers frantic to reduce store inventory levels, employees packed skids of books according to publisher alone and sent semitrailers full of them back to the distributors. The smaller but wilier Indigo reared up and swallowed a weakened Chapters like a python eats a pig.

Over the middle years of the decade, Indigo’s purchasing agents scaled back drastically on orders of small-press titles, concentrating instead on larger orders of books that they could sell like picture frames, scented candles and translucent plastic household widgets from Umbra. (Oprah’s Book Club and even Canada Reads have much to answer for in this respect: the homogenization of international reading tastes may result in the sales of larger quantities of books, but what makes a good bookstore is variety, not quantity.)

The result is a national chain with a near-monopoly on book sales where, despite the size of the actual retail space, the variety of actual books on sale is dismally limited, and not just in terms of small-press literary titles. Last month, I couldn’t find a single Raymond Chandler book in the Mystery section of a Kitchener IndigApters store. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: we get the culture we deserve.

On the Internet, there are more independent writers than ever. There are places that digital writing can be had freely, both legally and illegally. But I find it depressing to note that the consolidation of books into the hands of one or two large gatekeepers has occurred in digital space even more rapidly than it occurred in physical space.

So the Internet is both poison and cure for this moment in the history of print culture. Not all independent booksellers will vanish, any more than all books will themselves totally sublimate into digital data. But public space will be different forever. Since I was a child, I have habitually learned the space of new cities by the locations of their bookstores. What I know about the culture of a place I have learned at least in part from what I found inside those stores. Those markers are fewer and farther between now, and we’ll be needing a new set of waypoints.

Originally published as “Alienated 15: Goodbye to All That,” Matrix, December 2009.

Feature image by Shira Golding.

Status Update: “Literature for the Focus-Challenged”

Brian J. Davis wrote a great piece on status update in the Globe Books section online:

Status update: ‘Emily Brontë and her Playstation are overly friendly these days’

Facebook’s status update bar may be its most popular, enduring and influential feature (given the rise of Twitter’s real time fixes for the focus-challenged). For writers Darren Wershler and Bill Kennedy, status updates are also poetry. Or, rather, it becomes poetry after the RRS feeds of thousands of Facebook users have been harvested, shorn of the user names and attached to the names of dead poets or writers.

Wershler and Kennedy’s site statusupdate.ca performs that task with each visit, thereby creating an alternate universe where the famous and the obscure are alive, well and reveling in the banal. Thus, Samuel Johnson’s “socks keep falling down. Day after day, sock after sock. WHY?!?!” and “Ted Hughes is not a number! I am a free man!” Should you become fascinated by the fact that Kingsley Amis is “watching Serenity for the second time,” each dead writer’s name has its own RSS feed.

Some of you may note that Wershler and Kennedy are the same digital hooligans behind the poetry-generating website and book Apostrophe. statusupdate.ca does the idea of generated poetry one better by working on several levels simultaneously. First, and most important, it’s flat out funny and endlessly readable. Yet dig deeper and Wershler and Kennedy’s cheeky appropriation of Facebook’s purposefully “neutral” look also reminds us that Facebook is wholesale appropriating your information for all manner of data-harvesting, 140 characters at a time. By attaching the name of a writer to effectively anonymous lines, Statusupdate.ca lessens the bite of social networking economics.

If I can paraphrase an old radical slogan, “Users! One more step to be creators.”

Reposted with permission of Brian J. Davis. Featured image by ~!.

Ruby Slippers and Yellow Brick Roads

According to the Optical Society of America, it is possible to identify somewhere between 7.5 and 10 million distinct colours. “Ruby” is presumably one of them, but how would we agree on which one it is? In his essay “How Culture Conditions the Colours We See,” Umberto Eco notes that the majority of attempts to discriminate between colours fail dramatically. In the Farnsworth-Munsell test, which involves categorizing 100 different hues, 68% of the test subjects (colourblind people excluded) make betwee­n 20 and 100 errors; only 16% of subjects make fewer than 16 errors. {{1}}

Even if we could agree on a particular shade like “ruby” (a dubious proposition, evidently) odds are that we wouldn’t be able to discuss it. After pointing out that the majority of the Farnsworth-Munsell test subjects lack the linguistic means to identify even the hundred colours in the test, Eco observes that the largest collection of colour designations in English, A. Maerz and R. Paul’s A Dictionary of Color (New York: Crowell, 1953), assigns names to only 3,000 hues, and that of these 3,000 names, only eight occur in common usage. In other words, “a­verage chromatic competence is better represented by the seven colors of the rainbow.”{{2}}

“The names of colours,” concludes Eco (from these and other scientific, linguistic, and philosophical observations), “taken in themselves, have no precise chromatic content: they must be viewed within the general context of many interacting semiotic systems.” {{3}} So any useful discussions involving the status of “ruby” must immediately move over (the pun is irresistible) the rainbow and into the realm of systems of cultural meaning and exchange.

Which brings us to the Ruby Slippers, the most immediately identifiable North American cultural icon associated with the colour ruby since the making of the film The Wizard of Oz in 1939. But if we can bracket Judy Garland and camp, and the burning question of whether or not there were more than seven pairs of slippers made for the movie for just long enough to compare the film to the source text, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, something much more interesting becomes apparent: the ruby slippers were originally silver.{{4}} This disjunction leads to an examination of the semiotic values of ruby, silver, and gold as signifiers of financial exchange, and how the reading of a key cultural text shifts dramatically because of the seemingly innocuous decision made by one Noel Langley, a screenwriter for MGM, to substitute one of these hues for another.

This isn’t just quibbling over details; there’s a serious argument to be made for reading Baum’s Oz as a complex symbolic allegory describing William Jennings Bryan and the Free Silver Movement of the 1890s, and it all hinges on the fact that Dorothy’s slippers are silver, not ruby.

William Jennings Bryan believed it was unnecessary for the government to maintain gold reserves equal in value to all the paper currency in circulation. During his presidential campaign, Bryan advocated the coinage of silver at a fixed ratio with gold (16 ounces of silver coin for every ounce of gold reserve), which he hoped would break the Eastern banks’ monopoly on gold-based currency, and simultaneously inflate the meager prices that farmers received for their crops, easing their debt burden.

So then: Is reading Oz as a pro-Bryan allegory dabbling in economic conspiracy theory pseudo-criticism worthy of Ezra Pound? Let’s weigh the evidence.

“Oz” is the abbreviation for “ounce,” the official unit of measure for gold and silver. The road to the Emerald City, the seat of fiscal and political power, is made of, um, yellow bricks. You’re beginning to get the idea.

The allegorical reading of Oz was first suggested by historian Henry M. Littlefield in his article “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism.”{{5}} Littlefield argues that the characters also lend themselves to allegorical interpretation. Dorothy (everywoman from the Midwest) inadvertently slays the Wicked Witch of the East (the bankers), then heads down the golden road in her new silver shoes (means of circulation) to free the “little people.”

Dorothy accomplishes her task with the help of the Scarecrow (an uneducated farmer), the Tin Woodman (an industrial worker and the epitome of alienated labor. The Woodman was originally a human being, but the Wicked Witch of the East cast a spell on him that caused him to chop off part of his body every time he swung his axe; his flesh was gradually entirely replaced by metal prosthetics that rusted and failed—as did the factories themselves in the 1893 depression) and the Cowardly Lion (Bryan himself, a committed pacifist and anti-imperialist). The Wizard (President) turns out to be a carpet-bagging opportunist, carny, and master of illusions who is eventually debunked by the scarecrow, educated by his recent experiences. Dorothy drowns the Wicked Witch of the West (wiping out the drought) and the Wizard flies away in a balloon full of his own hot air, leaving the government of the land of Oz in the hands of the enlightened triumvirate of Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion.

As with all allegorical interpretations, it’s difficult to know where to draw the line with Oz (as David Antin notes, “Allegory is a very corrupt figure, a figure notably incapable of supporting fact”).{{6}} Over the years, scholars have suggested, with diminishing credibility, that the Flying Monkeys represent the First Nations (“‘Once,’ began the leader, ‘we were a free people, living happily in the great forest, flying from tree to tree, eating nuts and fruit, and doing just as we pleased without calling anybody master.'”), Winkies represent the people of the Philippines (under US control after the Spanish-American War), and even that Toto represents the teetotaling Prohibitionists.{{7}}

Tenuous associations aside, problems with reading Oz as a pro-Bryan allegory arise when scrutinizing Baum’s actual politics. L. Frank Baum was not a particularly political animal, but was known to have marched in several torchlight parades promoting Bryan’s presidential campaign.

The flip side of the coin, though, is detailed in David B. Parker’s article “The Rise and Fall of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a ‘Parable on Populism.'”{{8}} Parker provides two pieces of evidence that suggest that Baum was actually a Republican, not a Populist. The first is that in 1890, Baum bought a small newspaper, the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer. Parker remarks that “the Pioneer was obviously a Republican paper. During the municipal elections that spring, Baum editorialized in support of the Republican candidates; after they won, he wrote that ‘Aberdeen has redeemed herself… [a]fter suffering for nearly a year from the incompetence of a democratic administration.'” Later that same year, Baum editorialized against the Independent movement that evolved into the Populists.

The second piece of evidence Parker provides is that on 12 July 1896, the year of the election that would mark what has been called “the Climax of Populism,” Baum published the following anti-silverite poem in the Chicago Times Herald:

When McKinley gets the chair, boys,
There’ll be a jollification
Throughout our happy nation
And contentment everywhere!
Great will be our satisfaction
When the “honest-money” faction
Seats McKinley in the chair!

No more the ample crops of grain
That in our granaries have lain
Will seek a purchaser in vain
Or be at mercy of the “bull” or “bear”;
Our merchants won’t be trembling
At the silverites’ dissembling
When McKinley gets the chair!

When McKinley gets the chair, boys,
The magic word “protection”
Will banish all dejection
And free the workingman from every care;
We will gain the world’s respect
When it knows our coin’s “correct”
And McKinley’s in the chair!

Prominent Baum scholar Michael Patrick Hearn quoted this poem in a 1991 letter to the New York Times (20 December 1991), arguing that there is “no evidence that Baum’s story is in any way a Populist allegory” and that Littlefield’s allegory “has no basis in fact.” A month later, Littlefield himself recanted and agreed with Hearn, writing that “there is no basis in fact to consider Baum a supporter of turn-of-the-century Populist ideology.” (New York Times, 7 February 1992).

The real irony, though, doesn’t lie in Parker’s partial deconstruction of Littlefield’s allegory. It lies in the fact that rather than recontextualizing Oz as an ironic or parodic allegory, or pushing the whole argument into a kind of De Manian treatise on allegory and unknowability, Parker turns around and contends that Oz is, in actuality, a Theosophist allegory.{{9}}

Don’cha love academics?

[[1]]Umberto Eco, “How Culture Conditions the Colours We See,” in On Signs, ed. Marshall Blonsky (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), p. 167.[[1]]
[[2]]Ibid., pp. 167–168.[[2]]
[[3]]Ibid., p. 173.[[3]]
[[4]]For information on this history, visit the following websites: www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Hills/6396/rubyslip.htm (dead link.) www.ukans.edu/carrie/kancoll/books/baum/oz02.htm (dead link.).[[4]]
[[5]]Henry M. Littlefield, “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism,” American Quarterly, no. 16 (1964), pp. 47–58. The entire text is available online at www.amphigory.com/oz.htm (dead link.).[[5]]
[[6]]David Antin, Talking at The Boundaries (New York: New Directions, 1976), p. 149.[[6]]
[[7]]See www.ukans.edu/carrie/kancoll/books/baum/ oz14.htm (dead link.) and www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/ 6641/ozpopul.html (dead link.).[[7]]
[[8]]David B. Parker, “The Rise and Fall of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a ‘Parable on Populism,'” Journal of the Georgia Association of Historians, vol. 15 (1994), pp. 49–63. The complete text is available at www.geocities.com/ Athens/Parthenon/6641/ozpopul.html (dead link).[[8]]
[[9]]See David B. Parker’s “Oz: L. Frank Baum’s Theosophical Utopia,” available at www.geocities.com/Athens/ Parthenon/6641/oztheos.html (dead link).[[9]]

(Originally published as “Colors: Ruby (and Beyond)” in Cabinet 4 (Fall 2001).