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Attention span is overrated

Recently I finished the gigantic Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson — a monumental tale of the struggle for sustained progress in an age unaccustomed to it. And by that I mean my reading was such a struggle. 3000 pages — more if you count the 900+ “sequel” published in 1999– is a hell of a task, even for a bibliophile like me. With other reading priorities, book clubs not to get kicked out of, magazines piling up, movies to watch, blogs to cover, and TiVo to play catch-up with I bet it took me two-and-a-half years to read it all. Like Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle was a fantastic, mythopoeic intertwining of real events and people with fictional threads. Not quite historical fiction, not quite science fiction, just geek epic. (Quick test: if this intrigues you, you’ll like the book.) But long. Way long. And long enough that more than a few people I know just said screw it. I’m glad I didn’t. Back to this in a sec.

Right after I finished the last volume, The System of the World, I eagerly began Steven Johnson’s long-deferred Everything Bad Is Good For You. Johnson’s book took me less than a week to finish, mostly on the train. Having followed Johnson’s blog throughout the book’s writing I felt I knew its argument going in. Johnson targets the cherished piece of conventional wisdom which holds that popular culture seeks the lowest common denominator, that it dumbs-down content to hit the widest possible audience. He effectively argues the reverse, that today’s television shows, videogames, computer interfaces, and movies to some degree are all much more complex entities than they were 20 or 30 years ago and that this complexity — the storyline of an episode of 24 or gameplay in Sim City — makes us smarter or, at the very least much better at problem-solving, pattern-matching, and long-term recall. Actually Johnson retains the “largest possible audience” part of the equation, but he suggests that the complexity of contemporary pop culture is aimed at creating that large audience through repeat viewings over time rather than during a single moment of programming as in the past. For example, Johnson argues that the complexity of a single episode of Seinfeld or The Simpsons rewards repeat viewing far more than one of Starsky and Hutch. This argument reminds me of author Michael Joyce’s admonition that these days “a sustained attention span may be less useful than successive attendings.”

Something I’ve not seen addressed in commentary on Johnson’s book is the short section that deals with what he calls the “peripheral effects” of pop culture’s current state that may be seen as “less desirable”. Johnson writes:

Thanks to e-mail and the Web, we’re reading text as much as ever and we’re writing more. But it is true that a specific, historically crucial kind of reading has grown less common in this society: sitting down with a three-hundred-page book and following its argument or narrative without a great deal of distraction. We deal with text now in short bursts, following links across the Web, or sifting through a dozen e-mail messages …. But there are certain types of experiences that cannot be readily conveyed in this more connective, abbreviated form.

He means novels, of course.

You have to commit to the book, spend long periods of time devoted to it. If you read only in short bites, the effect fades, like a moving image dissolving into a sequence of frozen pictures.

Which brings me back to The Baroque Cycle. I’ve already admitted that it took an effort bordering on masochistic to complete such a long work when I rarely have more than a few minutes of time that something else isn’t forcing itself into my cognitive foreground. But what’s interesting is that I experienced Stephenson’s magnum opus exactly as Johnson suggests a novel shouldn’t be: in short bites, short bursts, successive attendings — and I still loved it. Were the The Baroque Cycle a monothematic, page-turning best-seller I probably couldn’t make this claim. But the sheer density of arcs, allusions, ideas, and characters allowed me (or, perhaps drove me unwillingly) to return to it consistently.

This drive didn’t come from a longing to know what happens next — in a story of such complexity things happen somewhat slowly. I’m pretty sure what kept me going was the complexity itself, the likelihood that, even if I could not remember where I was in the storyline (which gotta admit was often), some allusion would trigger a memory from hundreds of pages ago, like picking up on a reference in a Seinfeld episode from one many seasons before. This is Johnson’s precise argument in Everything Bad, but he stops short of extending it to contemporary novels. As with movies, where Johnson notes that only a subset of overall output provides viewers with the structural complexity that most kinds of pop culture demonstrate, Johnson reels in his argument when it comes to today’s written fiction. And I’m not sure why. The Baroque Cycle is an extreme example, but I think, like film, complex narrative exists and, while it might not be the dominant form (thank you Oprah, et al) it certainly partakes of the trend that Johnson describes. More succintly: believe it or not, certain forms of contemporary literature, heirs of the dense novels of the past, actually fit quite nicely into the hectic, multimedia culture of today. Their complexity rewards successive attendings as well as sustained attention.

Sidenote. As I am writing this I see that Kottke posted about Stephenson and Johnson too, though not with quite the same slant.

See also: Urban Library | Wheels and Towers

“Heresy” after a decade

Ten years ago I wrote a paper for a small graduate school conference that in retrospect marked a real turning point in my life. The Heresy of Hypertext: Fear and Anxiety in the Late Age of Print was a bit of a personal manifesto, an attempt to bring my literary critical skills (my day job) to bear on the new media of hypertext (what I obsessed about most of the rest of the time). But, in truth, it was actually an extended rant to my English grad school professors about the importance of hypertext and digital text. Great scholarship “Heresy” wasn’t — and oh my how saturated it is in gradschool-speak neologisms! — but it is still the most linked-to part of any site I have ever had. It has even been anthologized and translated.

But ten years is a long time when you’re writing about new media. Let’s see how it holds up.

Just as bibliographers regard 1501 as the year that printed books emerged from the “cradle” of their post-Gutenberg nativity, the first year of the coming millennium will likely serve as a convenient demarcation point for the end of the beginning of electronic textuality.

True enough. By 2001 blogging was in full swing, putting to rest any notion that the written word and electronic media were somehow incompatible. Though literary hyperext was not a mainstream phenomenon in 2001 (and is not now) I think it is fair to say that by 2001 most would agree that electronic textuality had matured to the point where the distinction between it and the printed word was largely academic — a sure sign of cultural assimilation.

Though this new textuality promises to level hierarchical distribution of and access to even the most esoteric data, we should not make the mistake of equating the leveling with a reduction in the standards of professional scholarship. In fact, in such an intraloquial and interactive scenario, shoddy work quickly draws attention to itself, succumbing to the necessarily higher standard of excellence in a web of virtual collaborators and competitors.

Mostly true. Wikipedia is a great example of this kind of collaborative weeding-out of shoddiness. A web of casual editors does expose deficiencies in rigor and quality faster than in other media. But the very anonymity, publishing reach, and fungibility of electronic text also makes fraud a hell of a lot easier.

To the mind weaned on the indelibility of the printed word, electronic text seems unstable, less epistemologically graspable. I submit that this mostly unconscious perception of instability generates anxiety in the reader, anxiety of the type usually written off to the “it just feels different” category.

I think I missed on this one. Perhaps it was true in 1995, but I’m now of the opinion (largely because of Matt’s work) that the immateriality/instability was an illusion. The “just feels different” aspect, I suspect, was mostly a function of screen resolution.

Not a bad little paper, after all. Overwrought to be sure, but a personal milestone and one that I will always look to as the springboard that launched me into the arc that I am still on.

Maximizing reading time

Recently, anticipating a dull drive into downstate Illinois, I purchased Freakonomics as a digital audiobook from iTunes. Well-blogged and approaching supermeme status, Freakonomics was an excellent book. My only criticism was in the format. Some of the data-heavy parts of the narration (lists, recitation of percentages, etc.) didn’t work so well in the format of an ever-onward audio stream.

But the audio format did give me an idea. Smartly, the iPod and iTunes synch virtual “bookmarks” so that you can always know where you left off. But what I’d really like is the ability to tell an audiobook on the iPod which page I left off in the print version of the book (and vice versa, to have the iPod tell me where I would be in print). Why? I would like the ability to seamlessly switch reading modes — visual and audiotory — as the environment around me dictates. The most common scenario I envision is on my commute, the precious time when most of my day’s reading happens. I carry my book with me on the walk to the L train so that I have it out when I reach the platform, but that walking time is time I could be reading if I didn’t have to be heads-up negotiating traffic on my stroll to the L. But since I always have my iPod headphones on (for music) it would be great if I could tell the iPod where I left off in print. I’d gain an extra few minutes of reading time. Likewise, if the train was too crowded to comfortably open a book I could revert to the audio format. I still highly value the physical phenomenon of reading a book and would not want to give that up, but it seems to me some fluidity of output would increase my reading efficiency greatly.

Practically this would be problematic. For one, audiobooks are expensive. Owning hard copies in addition to audio versions seems excessive. Also, with so many versions and paginations of a single book title — no to mention abridged and extended audio versions — the synching would be very difficult. Lastly, and I suspect this is the real deal-breaker, I bet it would be somewhat jarring cognitively to switch back-and-forth between reading modes. Reading a book normally simply takes more work, a greater level of engagement, than sitting back and having it read to you. Maybe I underestimate our ability to do this. People switch between reading, watching TV, and carrying on a conversation all the time. But I think it is the fact that these tasks are all different as opposed to being an identical narrative in different modes that allows us to make the cognitive switch.

Guess I’ll have to test it out and report back.

Corporate Lingo Watch

Got smacked with a new flavor of corporate metaphor this week. This is so meta it deserves a post-modern critique.

Guy is referring to a business deal that is taking longer than it should. The metaphor here is that it doesn’t have much energy. Running out of steam. Batteries are low. That kind of thing. What does he say? “This deal is low blood sugar.” After the split second what-did-he-say? I next wondered if there were any diabetics on the line.

Also, please do not use “uptick” and “downselect” in the same sentence. Makes me need to grab the desk to steady myself.

Idiot and the Odyssey

As I am getting on the elevator at work today a gaggle of dronish businessmen get off on my floor. Clearly they don’t work on the floor and are looking for a meeting. I hear one guy say “Odyssey. We’re looking for the Odyssey room. I wonder where that is.” Some other guy snickers “Next to the Caravan room, maybe.” Consensus chortling and I think even a ha-ha backslap ensue. I spend the elevator ride wondering what the hell he means. Some obscure Homeric allusion? Then it hits me. A minivan joke. The guy made a minivan joke, for the love of god.

Oh suburbia, is there any limit to the ways you enrich our culture?


Matt Kirschenbaum has uploaded a really smart essay challenging the common notion of electronic text as impermanent or less stable than the printed word. He argues that the physical trace evidence of supposedly erased data force us to question the prevailing mental models of electronic text and also suggest a range of skills that will be needed of future bibliographers. Can’t wait for his book.

Combine this mode of investigation with the “literary forensics” popularized by people like Donald Foster and the potential for a completely new field of inquiry in new media opens up. The opportunity for a meaningful digital paleography arises precisely because electronic documents are considered so volatile and impermanent; rarely is the effort expended to truly expunge unwanted data. Somewhat boggling (and exciting) to consider what lies undiscovered at the level of the magnetic dipoles.

In a kingdom by the sea

I rediscovered this poem this weekend. Forgot how much I loved it.

Annabel Lee, by Edgar Allen Poe

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea
That a maiden there lived whom you may know.
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love —
I and my Annabel Lee —
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this is the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me —
Yes! — that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we —
Of many far wiser than we —
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the Beautiful Annabel Lee:
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the Beautiful Annabel Lee:
And so, all the night tide, I lay down by the side
Of my darling — my darling — my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea —
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Thanks, Anabeli!

A picture isn’t worth a thousand lines of code

I like to prattle on about poetry and code-writing. I’ve been known to do the same about images and poetry. But I’ve never invoked the transitive property to claim that painting and code-writing are kindred activities. Honestly, it never ocurred to me. Maciej Ceglowski ruminates on why this is such an awful analogy.


It’s not hard to see the similarities between computer code and poetry. Like code, poetry is highly formalized and structural and almost all poems attempt to effect an experience greater than the sum of their words. Call the best of each examples of very artful data compression.

Perlgeeks have been re-writing poems in code for years. Some of it is really quite good, though none of it achieves the grail of actually executing something that might be meaningfully related to the poem. (How cool would that be? A poem turned into an executable program whose runtime output was some kind of answer or manifestation of the poem subject?)

Two gents at MIT have created an application that takes this idea one step further. Metafor is a system for visualizing the “programmatic” nature of the English language. Basically the app takes standard language and creates what looks like a a formalized program. The idea is to use this method of “scaffolding” natural language as a stepping-stone to the ideal of being able to program in plain English. This is sentence diagramming on overdrive.

INPUT: “There is a bar with a bartender who makes drinks.”


def __main__():
class bar:
the_bartender = bartender()
class bartender:
def make(drink):

There’s also a great video available that makes the process clear.

Like the Perl-ified poems, this code does not actually do anything. And I fear that this method of translation will come crashing down (so to speak) when it encounters allusion, metaphor, or any of the myriad other figurative fossils embedded in the strata of English. But I like the exercise.

See also: E-mailing Richard Powers

Urban library

A line in Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World comparing the streets of London to bookshelves crystallized something I had been thinking about in an informal way since I first played with the A9 Yellow Pages Search. Well, a few things. First, seen edge-on a shelf full of books does in a way resemble the variegated facades of an urban streetscape. But more than the physical resemblance, there’s a kind of functional similarity. The front of a building, like the spine of a book, is both its human interface and its metadata. Not only do you judge a book (and a building) by its cover, but you must. This is how we apprehend reality, at least initially. One of my favorite tricks in a library is finding the location of a book I think I want then browsing in the region of the book once I find it. Kind of a physical fuzzy search. Same thing with urban streets, especially where businesses cluster based on some similarity (wares, targetted demographic, etc). And this is why the A9 Yellow Pages search is so cool. Amazon merely used the experience of bookshelf scanning as a model for browsing businesses by their building facades. (Though, strangely, you can’t browse Amazon’s book collection this way.) Seems that, at heart, Amazon’s still a bookstore. And I love that.

Anyone know of any other city-as-bookshelf conceits out there? Seems ripe for exploration, especially considering the many relationships between cities and narratives. Also, if urban streets resemble a bookshelf what about suburbia? How can we tweak the analogy to account for strip malls and parking lots?

UPDATE: OpenPlans has an office-length bookshelf that is a map of Manhattan, complete with a Central Park full of wall-hung plants.

See also: Virtual flâneur | The Pavilion of Literary Profundity