Tag Archive for mobile technologies

The Internet of Words

A piece I just penned, “The Internet of Words,” is now out in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In part, it’s a review of two wonderful new books about social media: Alice E. Marwick’s Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age, and danah boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked TeensBoth books were published within the last year by Yale University Press.

But the piece is also a meditation on words, taking the occasion of both books to think through the semantics of digital culture. It’s inspired by Raymond Williams‘ Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976; 2nd ed., 1983), looking closely at how language shifts accompany, and sometimes precede, technological change. Here’s a snippet:

Changes in the language are as much a part of the story of technology as innovative new products, high-stakes mergers and acquisitions, and charismatic corporate leaders. They bear witness to the emergence of new technological realities, yet they also help facilitate them. Facebook wouldn’t have a billion-plus users absent some compelling features. It also wouldn’t have them without people like me first coming to terms with the new semantics of friendship.

It was great having an opportunity to connect some dots between my scholarly work on algorithmic culture and the keywords approach I’ve been developing via Williams. The piece is also a public-facing statement of how I approach the digital humanities.

Please share—and I hope you like it.

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Digital Natives? Not So Fast

I’m about the enter the final week of my undergraduate “Cultures of Books and Reading” class here at Indiana University.  I’ll be sad to see it go.  Not only has the group been excellent this semester, but I’ve learned so much about how my students are negotiating this protracted and profound moment of transition in the book world — what I like to call, following J. David Bolter, “the late age of print.”

One of the things that struck me early on in the class was the extent to which my students seemed to have embraced the notion that they’re “digital natives.”  This is the idea that people born after, say, 1985 or so grew up in a world consisting primarily of digital media.  They are, as such, more comfortable and even savvy with it than so-called “digital immigrants” — analog frumps like me who’ve had to wrestle with the transition to digital and who do not, therefore, fundamentally understand it.

It didn’t occur to me until last Wednesday that I hadn’t heard mention of the term “digital natives” in the class for weeks.  What prompted the revelation was a student-led facilitation on Robert Darnton’s 2009 essay from the New York Review of Books, on the Google book scanning project.

We’d spent the previous two classes weighing the merits of Kevin Kelly’s effusions about digital books and Sven Birkerts‘ poo-pooings of them.  In Darnton we had a piece not only about the virtues and vices of book digitization, but also one that offered a sobering glimpse into the potential political-economic and cultural fallout had the infamous Google book settlement been approved earlier this year.  It’s a measured piece, in other words, and deeply cognizant of the ways in which books, however defined, move through and inhabit people’s worlds.

In this it seemed to connect with the bookish experiences of my group purported digital natives, whose remarks confounded any claims that theirs was a generationally specific, or unified, experience with media.

Here’s a sampling from the discussion (and hat’s off to the facilitation group for prompting such an enlightening one!):

One student mentioned a print-on-paper children’s book her mother had handed down to her.  My student’s mother had inscribed it when she herself was seven or eight years old, and had asked her daughter to add her own inscription when she’d reached the same age.  My student intends to pass the book on one day to her own children so that they, too, may add their own inscriptions.  The heirloom paper book clearly is still alive and well, at least in the eyes of one digital native.

Another student talked about how she purchases paper copies of the the e-books she most enjoys reading on her Barnes & Noble Nook.  I didn’t get the chance to ask if these paper copies were physical trophies or if she actually read them, but in any case it’s intriguing to think about how the digital may feed into the analog, and vice-versa.

Other students complained about the amount of digitized reading their professors assign, stating that they’re less likely to read for class when the material is not on paper.  Others chimed in here, mentioning that they’ll read as much as their prepaid print quotas at the campus computer labs allow, and then after that they’re basically done.  (Incidentally, faculty and students using Indiana University’s computer labs printed about 25 million — yes, million – pages during the 2010-2011 academic year.)

On a related note, a couple of students talked about how they use Google Books to avoid buying expensive course texts.  Interestingly, they noted, 109 pages of one of the books I assign in “The Cultures of Books and Reading” happen to appear there.  The implication was that they’d read what was cheap and convenient to access, but nothing more.  (Grimace.)

Finally, I was intrigued by one of the remarks from my student who, at the beginning of the term, had asked me about the acceptability of purchasing course texts for his Kindle.  He discussed the challenges he’s faced in making the transition from print to digital during his tenure as a college student.  He noted how much work it’s taken him to migrate from one book form (and all the ancillary material it generates) to the other.  Maybe he’s a digital native, maybe he isn’t; the point is, he lives in a world that’s still significantly analog, a world that compels him to engage in sometimes fraught negotiations with whatever media he’s using.

All this in a class of 33 students!  Based on this admittedly limited sample, I feel as if the idea of “digital natives” doesn’t get us very far.  It smooths over too many differences.  It also lets people who embrace the idea off the hook too easily, analytically speaking, for it relieves them of the responsibility of accounting for the extent to which print and other “old” media still affect the daily lives of people, young or old.

Maybe it’ll be different for the next generation.  For now, though, it seems as if we all are, to greater and lesser degrees, digital immigrants.

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The Indies and the E’s

OR, HOW TO SAVE INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES ONE E-BOOK AT A TIME

Several weeks ago I mentioned the “Cultures of Books and Reading” class I’m teaching this semester at Indiana University.  It’s been a blast so far.  My students have had so many provocative things to say about the present and future of book culture.  More than anything, I’m amazed at the extent to which many of them seem to be book lovers, however book may be defined these days.

Right now I’m about midstream grading their second papers.  I structured the assignment in the form of a debate, asking each student to stake out and defend a position on this statement: “Physical bookstores are neither relevant nor necessary in the age of Amazon.com, and U.S. book culture is better off without them.”  In case you’re wondering, there’s been an almost equal balance between “pro” and “con” thus far.

One recurrent theme I’ve been seeing concerns how independent booksellers have almost no presence in the realm of e-readers and e-reading.  Really, it’s an oligarchy.  Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and to a lesser extent, Apple have an almost exclusive lock on the commercial e-book market in the United States.  And in this sense, my students have reminded me, the handwriting is basically on the wall for the Indies.  Unless they get their act together — soon — they’re liable to end up frozen out of probably the most important book market to have emerged since the paperback revolution of the 1950s and 60s.

Thus far the strategy of the Indies seems to be, ignore e-books, and they’ll go away.  But these booksellers have it backward.  The “e” isn’t apt to disappear in this scenario, but the Indies are.  How, then, can independent booksellers hope to get a toehold in the world of e-reading?

The first thing they need to do is, paradoxically, to cease acting independently.  Years ago the Indies banded together to launch the e-commerce site, IndieBound, which is basically a collective portal through which individual booksellers can market their stock of physical books online.  I can’t say the actual sales model is the best, but the spirit of cooperation is outstanding.  Companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple are too well capitalized for any one independent store to realistically compete.  Together, though, the Indies have a fighting chance.

Second, the Indies need to exploit a vulnerability in the dominant e-book platforms; they then need to build and market a device of their own accordingly.  So listen up, Indies — here’s your exploit, for which I won’t even charge you a consulting fee: Amazon, B&N, and Apple all use proprietary e-book formats.  Every Kindle, Nook, and iBook is basically tethered to its respective corporate custodian, whose long-term survival is a precondition of the continuing existence of one’s e-library.  Were Barnes & Noble ever to go under, for example, then poof! – one’s Nook library essentially vanishes, or at least it ceases to be as functional as it once was due to the discontinuation of software updates, bug fixes, new content, etc.

What the Indies need to do, then, is to create an open e-book system, one that’s feature rich and, more importantly, platform agnostic.  Indeed, one of the great virtues of printed books is their platform agnosticism.  The bound, paper book isn’t tied to any one publisher, printer, or bookseller.  In the event that one or more happens to go under, the format — and thus the content — still endures.  That’s another advantage the Indies have over the e-book oligarchs, by the way: there are many of them.  The survival of any e-book platform they may produce thus wouldn’t depend on the well being of any one independent bookseller but rather on that of the broader institution of independent bookselling.

How do you make it work, financially?  The IndieBound model, whereby shoppers who want to buy printed books are funneled to a local member bookshop, won’t work very well, I suspect.  Local doesn’t make much sense in the world of e-commerce, much less in the world of e-books.  It doesn’t really matter “where” online you buy a digital good, since really it just comes to you from a remote server anyway.  So here’s an alternative: allow independent booksellers to buy shares in, say, IndieRead, or maybe Ind-ē.  Sales of all e-books are centralized and profits get distributed based on the proportion of any given shop’s buy-in.

There you have it.  Will the Indies run with it?  Or will all of the students enrolled in my next  “Cultures of Books and Reading” class conclude that independent bookselling has become irrelevant indeed?

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Hacking the Real

Lest there be any confusion, yes, indeed, you’re reading The Late Age of Print blog, still authored by me, Ted Striphas.  The last time you visited, the site was probably red, white, black, and gray.  Now it’s not.  I imagine you’re wondering what prompted the change.

The short answer is: a hack.  The longer answer is: algorithmic culture.

At some point in the recent past, and unbeknownst to me, The Late Age of Print got hacked.  Since then I’ve been receiving sporadic reports from readers telling me that their safe browsing software was alerting them to a potential issue with the site.  Responsible digital citizen that I am, I ran numerous malware scans using multiple scanning services.  Only one out of twenty-three of those services ever returned a “suspicious” result, and so I figured, with those odds, that the one positive must be an anomaly.  It was the same service that the readers who’d contacted me also happened to be using.

Well, last week, Facebook implemented a new partnership with an internet security company called Websense.  The latter checks links shared on the social networking site for malware and the like.  A friend alerted me that an update I’d posted linking to Late Age came up as “abusive.”  That was enough; I knew something must be wrong.  I contacted my web hosting service and asked them to scan my site.  Sure enough, they found some malicious code hiding in the back-end.

Here’s the good news: as far as my host and I can tell, the code — which, rest assured, I’ve cleaned — had no effect on readers of Late Age or your computers.  (Having said that, it never hurts to run an anti-virus/malware scan.)  It was intended only for Google and other search engines, and its effects were visible only to them.  The screen capture, below, shows how Google was “seeing” Late Age before the cleanup.  Neither you nor I ever saw anything out of the ordinary around here.

Essentially the code grafted invisible links to specious online pharmacies onto the legitimate links appearing in many of my posts.  The point of the attack, when implemented widely enough, is to game the system of search.  The victim sites all look as if they’re pointing to whatever website the hacker is trying to promote. And with thousands of incoming links, that site is almost guaranteed to come out as a top result whenever someone runs a search query for popular pharma terms.

So, in case you were wondering, I haven’t given up writing and teaching for a career hocking drugs to combat male-pattern baldness and E.D.

This experience has been something of an object lesson for me in the seedier side of algorithmic culture.  I’ve been critical of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and other such sites for the opacity of the systems by which they determine the relevance of products, services, knowledge, and associations.  Those criticisms remain, but now I’m beginning to see another layer of the problem.  The hack has shown me just how vulnerable those systems are to manipulation, and how, then, the frameworks of trust, reputation, and relevance that exist online are deeply — maybe even fundamentally — flawed.

In a more philosophical vein, the algorithms about which I’ve blogged over the last several weeks and months attempt to model “the real.”  They leverage crowd wisdom — information coming in the form of feedback — in an attempt to determine what the world thinks or how it feels about x.  The problem is, the digital real doesn’t exist “out there” waiting to be discovered; it is a work in progress, and much like The Matrix, there are those who understand far better than most how to twist, bend, and mold it to suit their own ends.  They’re out in front of the digital real, as it were, and their actions demonstrate how the results we see on Google, Amazon, Facebook, and elsewhere suffer from what Meaghan Morris has called, in another context, “reality lag.”  They’re not the real; they’re an afterimage.

The other, related issue here concerns the fact that, increasingly, we’re placing the job of determining the digital real in the hands of a small group of authorities.  The irony is that the internet has long been understood to be a decentralized network and lauded, then, for its capacity to endure even when parts of it get compromised.  What the hack of my site has underscored for me, however, is the extent to which the internet has become territorialized of late and thus subject to many of the same types of vulnerabilities it was once thought to have thwarted.  Algorithmic culture is the new mass culture.

Moving on, I’d rather not have spent a good chunk of my week cleaning up after another person’s mischief, but at least the attack gave me an excuse to do something I’d wanted to do for a while now: give Late Age a makeover.  For awhile I’ve been feeling as if the site looked dated, and so I’m happy to give it a fresher look.  I’m not yet used to it, admittedly, but of course feeling comfortable in new style of anything takes time.

The other major change I made was to optimize Late Age for viewing on mobile devices.  Now, if you’re visiting using your smart phone or tablet computer, you’ll see the same content but in significantly streamlined form.  I’m not one to believe that the PC is dead — at least, not yet — but for better or for worse it’s clear that mobile is very much at the center of the internet’s future.  In any case, if you’re using a mobile device and want to see the normal Late Age site, there’s a link at the bottom of the screen allowing you to switch back.

I’d be delighted to hear your feedback about the new Late Age of Print.  Drop me a line, and thanks to all of you who wrote in to let me know something was up with the old site.

 

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Who Speaks for Culture?

I’ve blogged off and on over the past 15 months about “algorithmic culture.”  The subject first came to my attention when I learned about the Amazon Kindle’s “popular highlights” feature, which aggregates data about the passages Kindle owners have deemed important enough to underline.

Since then I’ve been doing a fair amount of algorithmic culture spotting, mostly in the form of news articles.  I’ve tweeted about a few of them.  In one case, I learned that in some institutions college roommate selection is now being determined algorithmically — often, by  matching up individuals with similar backgrounds and interests.  In another, I discovered a pilot program that recommends college courses based on a student’s “planned major, past academic performance, and data on how similar students fared in that class.”  Even scholarly trends are now beginning to be mapped algorithmically in an attempt to identify new academic disciplines and hot-spots.

There’s much to be impressed by in these systems, both functionally and technologically.  Yet, as Eli Pariser notes in his highly engaging book The Filter Bubble, a major downside is their tendency to push people in the direction of the already known, reducing the possibility for serendipitous encounters and experiences.

When I began writing about “algorithmic culture,” I used the term mainly to describe how the sorting, classifying, hierarchizing, and curating of people, places, objects, and ideas was beginning to be given over to machine-based information processing systems.  The work of culture, I argued, was becoming increasingly algorithmic, at least in some domains of life.

As I continue my research on the topic, I see an even broader definition of algorithmic culture starting to emerge.  The preceding examples (and many others I’m happy to share) suggest that some of our most basic habits of thought, conduct, and expression — the substance of what Raymond Williams once called “culture as a whole way of life” — are coming to be affected by algorithms, too.  It’s not only that cultural work is becoming algorithmic; cultural life is as well.

The growing prevalence of algorithmic culture raises all sorts of questions.  What is the determining power of technology?  What understandings of people and culture — what “affordances” — do these systems embody? What are the implications of the tendency, at least at present, to encourage people to inhabit experiential and epistemological enclaves?

But there’s an even more fundamental issue at stake here, too: who speaks for culture?

For the last 150 years or so, the answer was fairly clear.  The humanities spoke for culture and did so almost exclusively.  Culture was both its subject and object.  For all practical purposes the humanities “owned” culture, if for no other reason than the arts, language, and literature were deemed too touchy-feely to fall within the bailiwick of scientific reason.

Today the tide seems to be shifting.  As Siva Vaidhyanathan has pointed out in The Googlization of Everything, engineers — mostly computer scientists — today hold extraordinary sway over what does or doesn’t end up on our cultural radar.  To put it differently, amid the din of our pubic conversations about culture, their voices are the ones that increasingly get heard or are perceived as authoritative.  But even this statement isn’t entirely accurate, for we almost never hear directly from these individuals.  Their voices manifest themselves in fragments of code and interface so subtle and diffuse that the computer seems to speak, and to do so without bias or predilection.

So who needs the humanities — even the so-called “digital humanities” — when your Kindle can tell you what in your reading you ought to be paying attention to?

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Rent This Book!

I’ve been struck this start of the school year by the proliferation of textbook rental outfits here in Bloomington, Indiana and elsewhere.  Locally there’s TXTBookRental Bloomington, which brokers exclusively in rented course texts, as well as TIS and the IU Bookstore (operated by Barnes & Noble), both of whom sell books in addition to offering rental options.  The latter also just launched a marketing campaign designed to grow the rental market.  Further away there’s Amazon.com, which isn’t only offering “traditional” textbook rentals but also time-limited Kindle books.  These are “pay only for the exact time you need” editions that disappear once the lease expires.

There’s been a good deal of enthusiasm about textbook rentals.  Many see them as a welcome work-around to the problem of over-inflated textbook prices, about which many people, including me, have been complaining for years.  Rentals help to keep the price of textbooks comparatively low by allowing students the option of not having to invest fully, in perpetuity, in the object.  Indeed, the rental option recognizes that students often share an ephemeral relationship with their course texts.  Why bother buying something outright when you need it for maybe three or four months at most?

My question is: are textbook rentals simply a boon for college students, or are there broader economic implications that might complicate — or even undercut — this story?

I want to begin by thinking about what it means to “rent” a textbook, since, arguably, students have been doing so for a long time.  When I was an undergraduate back in the early 1990s, I purchased books at the start of the semester knowing I’d sell many of them back to the bookstore upon completion of the term.  Had I bought these books, or was I renting them?  Legally it was the former, but effectively, I believe, it was the latter.  I’d paid not for a thing per se but for a relationship with a property that returned to the seller/owner once a period of time had elapsed.  That sounds a lot like rental to me.

So let’s assume for the moment that the rental of textbooks isn’t a new phenomenon but rather something that’s been going on for decades.  What’s the difference between then and now?  Buyback.  Under the old rental system you’d get some money for your books if your decided you didn’t want to keep them.  Under the new régime you get absolutely nothing.  Granted, it wasn’t uncommon for bookstores to give you a pittance if you decided to sell back your course texts; more often than not they’d then go on re-sell the books for a premium, adding insult to injury.  Nevertheless, at least you’d get something like your security deposit back once the lease had expired.  Now the landlord pockets everything.

Some industrious student needs to look into the economics of these new textbook rental schemes.  Is it cheaper to rent a course text for a semester, or do students actually make out better in the long run if they purchase and then sell back?

If I had to speculate, I’d say that booksellers wouldn’t be glomming on to the latest rental trend if it wasn’t first and foremost in their economic self-interest — even if they’re representing it otherwise.


Coming next week: textbook rentals, part II: what happens when books cease being objects that ordinary people own and accumulate?

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A Second Age of Incunabula

What a difference a few years can make.  I’m talking about the proliferation of e-reading devices among my Indiana University undergraduates — devices that were virtually non-existent in their lives not so very long ago.  Let me explain.

In 2006, I piloted a course based loosely on The Late Age of Print called “The Cultures of Books and Reading.”  We ended, predictably, with a unit on the future of books in an age of digital media.  We read (among other things) a chapter or two from Sven Birkerts’ Gutenberg Elegies, in addition to Kevin Kelly’s provocative essay from The New York Times Magazine, “Scan This Book!”  The materials provoked some intriguing thoughts and conversation, but it seemed to me as if something was missing; it was as though the future of books and reading wasn’t palpable yet, and so most everything we talked about seemed, well, a little ungrounded.  Remember — this was about a year before the first Kindle landed, three years before the Barnes & Noble Nook, and a full four years before the release of the iPad.  We’re talking ancient history in today’s technological terms.

When I taught the course two years later, things had changed — somewhat.  There was genuine curiosity about e-reading, so much so that a group of students asked me to bring in my Kindle, hoping to take it for a test drive.  I did, but didn’t realize that the battery had died.  The demonstration ended up being a bust, and worse still, it was the last day of class.  In other words, no do-overs.  Still, that didn’t stop some of the students from writing papers about the possibilities e-readers held for them and their peers.  While I appreciated the argument — and indeed, the earnestness — I ended up being a little disappointed by those papers.  On the whole they were flatly celebratory.  The lack of critical perspective was, I believe, a function of their having had little to no actual interaction with e-reading devices.

Now it’s 2011, and I’m teaching the course once again.  Boy, have things changed!  On day one I asked the group of 35 if any of them owned an e-reader.  I expected to see maybe a few hands, since I’m aware of the reports stating that these devices have had more uptake among older users.  Much to my surprise, around half the class raised their hands.  We’re talking mostly 20 year-olds here.  I had to know more.  Some told me they owned a Kindle, others a Nook, and still others said they were iPad people who read using apps.  In a couple of instances they owned more than one of these devices.  They especially liked the convenience of not having to lug around a bag full of heavy books, not to mention the many public domain texts they could download at little or no cost.

There I was, standing in front of a group of students who also happened to be seasoned e-book readers.  Because they’d self-selected into my class, I knew I needed to be mindful about the extent to which their interest in electronic reading could be considered representative of people their age.  Even so, it was clear on day one that our conversations would be very different compared to those I’d had with previous cohorts in “The Cultures of Books and Reading.”

At the end of class a student approached me to ask about which version of Laura Miller’s Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption, one of the required texts, he should buy.  Old analog me assumed he was referring to cloth or paper, since I’d brought in my hardback copy but told the group I’d ordered paperbacks through the bookstore.  My assumption was wrong.  He told me that he wanted to purchase the Kindle edition but had some hesitations about doing so.  How would he cite it, he asked?  I said he should go ahead and acquire whichever version most suited him; the citations we could figure out.

A very different conversation indeed — one that I expect will become much more the norm by the time I teach “The Cultures of Books and Reading” the next time around.  For now, though, here go the 36 of us, slouching our way into a moment in which analog and digital books commingle with one another.  It reminds me a little of the first 100 years of printing in the West — the so-called “age of incunabula,” when manuscripts, printed editions, and hybrid forms all co-existed, albeit not so peaceably.  I wonder if, at some point in the future, historians will begin referring to our time as the second age of incunabula.

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Critical Lede on “The Abuses of Literacy”

My favorite podcast, The Critical Lede, just reviewed my recent piece appearing in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read.”  Check out the broadcast here — and thanks to the show’s great hosts, Benjamin Myers and Desiree Rowe of the University of South Carolina Upstate.

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How to Have Culture in an Algorithmic Age

The subtitle of this post ought to be “apparently,” since I have developing doubts about substituting digital surveillance systems and complex computer programs for the considered — humane — work of culture.

Case in point: about six weeks ago, Galley Cat reported on a new Kindle-related initiative called “popular highlights,”which Amazon.com had just rolled out onto the web for beta testing.  In a nutshell, Amazon is now going public with information about which Kindle books are the most popular, as well as which passages within them have been the most consistently highlighted by readers.

How does Amazon determine this?  Using the 3G connection built into your Kindle, the company automatically uploads your highlights, bookmarks, marginal notes, and more to its server array, or computing cloud.  Amazon calls this service “back up,” but the phrase is something of a misnomer.  Sure, there’s goodwill on Amazon’s part in helping to ensure that your Kindle data never gets deleted or corrupted.  By the same token, it’s becoming abundantly clear that “back up” exists as much for the sake of your convenience as it does for Amazon itself, who mines all of your Kindle-related data.  The Galley Cat story only confirms this.

This isn’t really news.  For months I’ve been writing here and elsewhere about the back up/surveillance issue, and I even have an academic journal article appearing on the topic this fall.  Now, don’t get me wrong — this is an important issue.  But the focus on surveillance has obscured another pressing matter: the way in which Amazon, and indeed other tech companies, are altering the idea of culture through these types of services.  Hence my concern with what I’m calling, following Alex Galloway, “algorithmic culture.”

In the old paradigm of culture — you might call it “elite culture,” although I find the term “elite” to be so overused these days as to be almost meaningless — a small group of well-trained, trusted authorities determined not only what was worth reading, but also what within a given reading selection were the most important aspects to focus on.  The basic principle is similar with algorithmic culture, which is also concerned with sorting, classifying, and hierarchizing cultural artifacts.

Here’s the twist, however, which is apparent from the “About” page on the Amazon Popular Highlights site:

We combine the highlights of all Kindle customers and identify the passages with the most highlights. The resulting Popular Highlights help readers to focus on passages that are meaningful to the greatest number of people.

Using its computing cloud, Amazon aggregates all of the information it’s gathered from its customers’ Kindles to produce a statistical determination of what’s culturally relevant. In other words, significance and meaningfulness are decided by a massive — and massively distributed — group of readers, whose responses to texts are measured, quantified, and processed by Amazon.

I realize that in raising doubts about this type of cultural work, I’m opening myself to charges of elitism.  So be it.  Anytime you question what used to be called “the popular,” and what is now increasingly referred to as “the crowd,” you open yourself to those types of accusations. Honestly, though, I’m not out to impugn the crowd.

To my mind, the whole elites-versus-crowd debate is little more than a red-herring, one that distracts from a much deeper issue: Amazon’s algorithm and the mysterious ways in which it renders culture.

When people read, on a Kindle or elsewhere, there’s context.  For example, I may highlight a passage because I find it to be provocative or insightful.  By the same token, I may find it to be objectionable, or boring, or grammatically troublesome, or confusing, or…you get the point.  When Amazon uploads your passages and begins aggregating them with those of other readers, this sense of context is lost.  What this means is that algorithmic culture, in its obsession with metrics and quantification, exists at least one level of abstraction beyond the acts of reading that first produced the data.

I’m not against the crowd, and let me add that I’m not even against this type of cultural work per se.  I don’t fear the machine.  What I do fear, though, is the black box of algorithmic culture.  We have virtually no idea of how Amazon’s Popular Highlights algorithm works, let alone who made it.  All that information is proprietary, and given Amazon’s penchant for secrecy, the company is unlikely to open up about it anytime soon.

In the old cultural paradigm, you could question authorities about their reasons for selecting particular cultural artifacts as worthy, while dismissing or neglecting others.  Not so with algorithmic culture, which wraps abstraction inside of secrecy and sells it back to you as, “the people have spoken.”

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The End of Publishing (Books Are Dead and Boring)


I heard about this video from the good folks over at BoingBoing and just knew I had to share it with all of you here at The Late Age of Print.  Now, I generally don’t make a habit of posting corporate promotional videos, but this one’s a gem.  Truly.

DK, a subsidiary of Penguin, originally created this ingenious short for a sales conference.  Spoiler alert: it plays upon and then completely reverses a host of misconceptions people have about so-called “digital natives.”  Be sure to watch the whole thing through, because there’s a good bit of misdirection going on in the first half.

I’m working on something BIG at the moment related to Late Age, and so I’m not going to blather on at length about the video.  Just enjoy it, and consider it a little something to tide you over.  Hopefully I’ll be able to roll out the big news in a week or so.

One other quick announcement: Columbia University Press, my publisher, is currently holding its annual spring sale. The Late Age of Print is 50% off the cover price, which is a steal.  Stock up and save!

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