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Writing in Public 

We like to watch, er, read

Wednesday, Jul 5 2006

Afew months ago, McKenzie Wark began to do something in public that’s normally done in private. He began to write a book. Online.

Unlike the bloggers among us, Wark didn’t hop on TypePad or Wordpress and start cranking out daily entries. Nor did he set up an online working space in the form of a wiki, or make a nifty Web page featuring book excerpts and his bio. Instead, in collaboration with Bob Stein and others at the Institute for the Future of the Book, he created a unique form that allows readers to comment, takes advantage of the specific features of a network and suits the nature of his new book, GAM3R 7H3ORY. Stein calls the new form a “networked book.” Wark, jokingly, calls it career suicide. In either case, together they’re inventing new ways to write that accommodate both new ways of reading and a culture that is busy rethinking ideas of creativity, collaboration and commodities.

The project began when Stein approached Wark to see if he could imagine working on a book online, with readers watching the creative process. Stein has been exploring concepts of the book for more than two decades, with the desire to create a form that mixes media and allows reader interaction. As a co-founder of the Voyager Company, Stein created some of the first electronic books, and since the mid-’90s, he’s been working on software applications that facilitate the easy mixing of text, images, sound and video, first in a program called TK3 and now in a free, open-source application he’s developing called Sophie. But he also wanted to think about an evolving form that uses the attributes of online networks.

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“There’s a lot of work that goes on before a book gets printed in terms of research, editing and discussion, and then it gets reified as a finished commodity,” explains Stein. “But we think it’s interesting to see the process. In a sense, we’re upending the rhythms and hierarchies of print in a way that hasn’t been possible before.”

Wark, a professor of cultural and media studies at the New School in New York and author of several books, including A Hacker Manifesto, says he doesn’t see himself as the obvious choice for the experiment. “It was very strange that these guys wanted to collaborate with me because I’m one of those very shy authors who doesn’t show anything to anyone when I’m writing,” he says. “Some writers workshop their writing and do it all in public — I just don’t do that.”

But Wark was also a natural fit in the sense that he’s passionately interested in the relationship between form and content, and he’s inspired by the writing of modernist cultural philosophers such as Theodor Adorno, whose Minima Moralia from 1951 consists of a series of aphorisms that add up to a scathing cultural critique, and Walter Benjamin, whose groundbreaking 1928 text One Way Street includes typographical design experiments. “Each heading in each section looks like a street sign,” explains Wark. “Benjamin was trying to grapple with the modern textuality of the city.”

GAM3R 7H3ORY examines gaming as a series of allegories for daily life, and rather than chronicling the deleterious features of gaming (the mindless mayhem, for example), Wark considers game space as a kind of utopia. He opted to write the book not as a linear argument in traditional academic form, but, rather, in a very modular way, with a set of rules that dictate the form. So, each of the book’s nine chapters contains 25 paragraphs, and each paragraph contains 250 words. Each chapter has its own color, and they appear as cards in stacks. Readers are invited to comment on each card, and the comments appear alongside the text. As a result, readers can read the book either as a book, moving through the stacks of cards in order, or as an evolving conversation. Readers can also subscribe to the book as an RSS feed and receive five chapters a week, and they can view what’s called a “topic pool,” which graphically indicates the book’s current interests.

Stein acknowledges that “this form, with the comments, challenges the authority of the author. Generally, writing gives us an authoritative godhead and a group of readers who are receivers of the writer’s wisdom, but when a book goes on the network, the author is more a moderator or an initiator of the discussion.” He notes a recent reader comment, which suggested that “ ‘it’s no longer the author speaking through the book but instead the book is speaking, and the book is the sum total of the author’s voice and those of the commentators.’ ” Stein agrees: “The sense that the book is dynamic is palpable — when you come to a page without comments, it seems naked. No one has engaged with the material yet.”

Wark says that the hardest parts so far have been coming up with a design that felt appropriate to the book, and dealing with the anxieties of writing in public. “For a lot of writers, any editorial change is like chopping fingers off your child. But to write this way, you really can’t be precious.” The elements that make the process worthwhile, he adds, are the interaction with his readers now instead of following publication, as well as the sensitivity of his readers. “There’s such an attitude of good will. Readers recognize that the book in this form is a gift, and they respond with that in mind.”

The Institute for the Future of the Book currently hosts another networked book, Mitchell Stephens’ examination of atheism, Without Gods: Toward a History of Disbelief, which he is composing in blog form. Several other projects are lined up for the near future. Each emphasizes the creative possibilities of collaboration and the importance of process, and they contribute to an ethos of intelligent public discourse. And, to an extent, they offer alternative definitions of reading and writing, and of individuals and collectives. “There’s a really interesting interplay between the individual voice and the collective voice,” says Stein. “And that contradiction or struggle can really drive creative work as we find out how to be individuals in this new collective, creative environment.”

To see version 1.1 of GAM3R 7H3ORY, go to www.futureofthebook.org/gamertheory.

  • We like to watch, er, read

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