What do Riots have to do with eBooks?


The London riots were set off by the suspicious shooting of Mark Duggan, but it rapidly became clear that something deeper was amiss… Personally, I blame ebooks.

Of course, we’re moving into an information society – we’ve been doing it for at least a decade now with the digitalization of the music and film industry, but it’s really picking up steam now that books and journalism are undergoing the transformation. In a recent piece for the Guardian, the writer Ewan Morrison gives authors (and the publishing industry) 25 more years, tops.

The crux of the argument is this: The value of creative information or ‘content’ trends towards zero when it becomes digitally transferable and is no longer contained in something like a paperback book or a CD. Once it becomes free, of course, no body gets paid to produce it. So ends publishing as we know it (and full-time writers, musicians, etc…) The rebuttal to his piece missed the point; when you take the long view, the twenty-five year view, content must always adapt to medium that contains it.

Most of what a developed society produces is content. Especially youth and especially today. We create youtube. We write fanfiction. We write blogs and webcomics and wikipedia… We create the internet every day, and we do it all for free.

And we create all of this because we need it. There was a recent report on Fox News report (citing the US census) about how 99.9% of the ‘poor’ have refrigerators, 65% have cable tv, and so on… Aside from this being a striking example of right-wing callous, it speaks to a very real truth: space is finite, the planet and its resources are finite, and yet capitalism relies on infinite growth. Capitalism works when people need refrigerators… But when everyone already has one (and there’s only enough room in your apartment for one fridge anyways) what do we consume?

Free time is infinite. As societies develop and become more efficient, it’s also growing. And content fills time. Content is the only growth economy. Creativity makes content, but most creativity is not remunerated – and even many traditional forms (music, indy films, books) are trending towards the free.  This is not a new concept — Buckminster Fuller called it ephemeralization and saw it happening with the factory assembly line.

It used to be that to fill time, you’d have to buy a CD or a paperback book. Now you download or stream it of find it on facebook – usually for free. Except that we have to pay the service providers for our internet hookup, cell phones, Netflix and such – when all they do is ship our content around. We have created a new system of slavery – expect that instead of free work, we have become creative slaves in the service of ISPs and search engines. The information economy is based on slave labor.

We know how to create an economy based on stuff – do we know how to build one based on time?

Right now, strictly as a business proposition, no one makes a living wage by writing poetry. And yet who could argue that society doesn’t benefit more from poets than it does from the angrily unemployed?

The trick is: creating a set of economic rules that reward creativity. Should it be up to individuals to do this? Corporations? Governments? How do you measure how creative someone is? Should people be paid to write code / music / literature? Should new collectives be formed based on the labor unions that revolutionized the industrial workplace around the turn of the century? I think we’ve got the makings of a few solutions out there – but we also need to define a cohesive ideology to help galvanize the political movements of the early 21st century the way that socialism galvanized those of the 20th: For capitalism be allowed to continue it’s course of infinite growth, human creativity must be financially compensated.

Its not like the rioters were out chanting ‘pay for poetry’ – and I don’t want to trivialize the very real and very moving calls for freedom that have resounded throughout the Middle East and North Africa, but the interesting question is: What do the London riots have to do with the Arab spring? Could the underpinnings of both be an expression of the spiritus mundi that something is not quite right with the global economic infrastructure? Could the Tea Party, the most organized American political movement in decades, have similar roots? Egyptian protesters had a despotic government to blame; the Tea Party, with calls to abolish the Fed (an organization that creates money from thin air), default on our debt and return to the Gold Standard, seeks to make capitalism ‘real’ again – despite the fact that the vast majority of economists believe this to be impossible; while the rioters just have their own rage. To oversimplify: In Europe, people feel they should be doing better; in the Arab world, that they can be better; in America, that they deserve better.

So are the three major political movements of the early 21st Century reactions to capitalism’s failure to create growth in these three regions (Europe, America, the Arab Middle East) or are they results of the transition from coin-based (real) to credit-based (virtual) currency, as suggested by Anthropologist David Graeber’s Debt: The first 5000 Years? It almost doesn’t matter – the result is the same – a crisis of faith with the stakes so high is a scary scenario indeed.

Governments are easy targets – but economic systems, like all ideologies, draw strength from collective belief (and its ability to reward that belief). To paraphrase Philip K. Dick: when stop believing in something that isn’t real, it ceases to exist. So if capitalism is to persist, we must devise reasons to keep believing in it, and allow it to reward our creativity. ‘Content’ is the ‘goods and services’ of the information age – and the same way that the post-slavery world financially rewarded work must be done for creativity.

There is growth. Tons of it… Just look at wikipedia. And wealth is being derived from this productivity. Tons of it… Just look at Mark Zukerberg. It’s all make believe, of course, but so is a currency created from thin air. But how do you hold Google hostage? How do you riot against Facebook?

Over the last two-hundred years we have created copyrights and patents to ensure that intellectual work was fairly compensated; worker’s compensation, child labor and the five-day work week to ensure that physical labor was fairly compensated. Casual creativity and virtual work are next on the list.

Of course, that would make life seem even more like we’re living inside a video game. And a lot of people won’t like that, either. But the alternatives look grim: the last time a global economic system unraveled left humanity with a four-hundred year-old dark age. And they hadn’t even wrecked the planet back then…

A Complete Digital Experience

A Complete Digital Experience

A couple weeks ago I had a meeting with an extremely bright VC at one of the region’s top firms and, about ten minutes into the conversation he said, ‘oh, I get it, you guys provide publishers and authors with a complete digital experience.’ At the time, it seemed a little like newspeak, but I’ve found myself coming back to that phrase again and again – and not just when we speak to publishers, but to broadcasters, authors, non-profits, and anyone else that we find ourselves working with.

Ninety-one percent of broadcast executives say they’re not taking advantage of the opportunities that digital creates. It has ‘got to be mobile and has got to be tablet.’ And that’s true, of course, but there’s a real danger in pointing to the mobile / tablet space and saying: ‘This is our strategy. We’re going to make an app.’ Sure you need an app. But you also need a website. Even more importantly – you need the two to work together – and to tell the same story.

So are we moving towards a moment in the culture where mobile is taken for granted the way that websites are? I was looking for apartments this past weekend in New York and, of course, I turned to craigslist first. But then, a couple hours into the hunt, I looked up apartment-finding apps. Craigslist, broker websites, apps, youtube videos, email lists – this is all part of the digital experience of looking for an apartment. And none of it replaces walking around a neighborhood and bugging my friends to ‘keep their ears open.’

Putting together a digital strategy for a web-series or a cause or a book can be fun, but it’s also full of challenges – most of them financial. From the outset, we have to think multi-platform, not ‘let’s make an app.’ We target alternate distribution channels and niche audiences. Look for viral subject matter. Above all – we must tell good stories, tell them well, and connect them with the audiences who will feel strongest about them. And all of this costs money – especially on the technical end. But for many execs, the complete digital experience is something that exists outside and in opposition to their ‘core business.’ It is something amorphous and with potential, but which hasn’t really been monetized.

I think there’s a bigger picture here, though… Storytelling in general is becoming more holistic. Increasingly, we are blurring the lines that separate the ‘official’ or ‘canon’ release of a book, tv show, or whatever, from the online ‘extras.’ The ‘article’ and the ‘comments’ are becoming one. The behind-the-scenes footage becomes just as much a part of the show as the audience vote, or the user-generated content. When we talk about the complete digital experience, we’re not talking about a website or an app or a marketing campaign that goes along with a story. We’re talking about the story itself.

The idea that ‘Broadcast Executives Say Digital Brings Opportunities’ is great, I guess, but it also misses the point… There is a complete digital experience to everything that these broadcast executives are doing, the only question is whether or not they want to have a say about what that is.

Before the Internets: Mujahideen Propaganda

I got this email from my friend Tommy Wide who’s currently in Kabul doing some work with the BBC.  It’s an interesting story in its own right, but even more so because it reminds us of yet another function that once was filled by print media and that has now become almost entirely digital.  The journalist in the story below is kind of a living google for Afghan publications from 1979-present…  And, obviously, the kinds of propaganda photos shown below can be found all over the internet on mujahideen  message boards and the like — what’s interesting to me is how similar their printed precursor is.
Full post reprinted below — but go check out his blog for more cool stuff.
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“Today I went to visit Ahmad Shah Wahdat, a very brave journalist who ran newspapers in Peshawar during the Jihad against the Soviets.  He has been collecting every magazine since that time, right through the Taliban years up to today.  He has the most unrivalled archive of 1979-present day print journalism in the world – and hardly anyone has seen it.  He lives very simply, without much money, in a poor area of town.
He took me to his house down this little backstreet:
In his house he had all these incredible colour magazines called things like ‘Blood Pact’ which glorified the Mujahed Masoud:
One of them, which was full of pictures of dead Soviets and blown up tanks looked like this:
This magazine, in full colour, was funded by Osama Bin Laden’s teacher, and mentor, the Palestinian Islamist Abdullah Azam (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abdullah_Yusuf_Azzam).  This newspaper was written in Arabic and was designed to get support both from Arabs in Pakistan, but more importantly from abroad (saudi Arabia etc.)  It even had little applications where you could send money and ‘get involved’.  One sees here how this localised war in Afghanistan became a global war, which we are still living with today.
Ahmad remembers Abdullah Azam from his time in Peshawar before he was assassinated in 1989.  Here is the man photographed in his own magazine – you can see how he wanted to be portrayed as no cloistered intellectual but a real fighting man:

Ahmad Shah Wahdat returned to Afghanistan in the civil war era, and was later imprisoned by the Taliban for a single cartoon he drew, showing how the Taliban mistreated women.  This is it:

Digital Storytelling — A Guide

I was looking for something like this everywhere, but couldn’t find one — so decided to put something together myself.  I’d like this to be inclusive, so if I’m missing anything, please feel free to add a comment or email me.

With every new development in technology, the art of storytelling has changed… With the rise of mobile devices – that is, an interactive screen that is just as comfortable with text as it is with any other form of media, we can assume that new forms of storytelling will arise. In fact, at Arcade Sunshine, we’re sort of counting on it. The message is always shaped by the container – one reason why, for example, Emily Dickenson wrote such short, pithy poems was because she wrote them all on such small sheets of paper. But despite some seriously good efforts, we haven’t seen the kind of sea-change that accompanied the advent of the printing press or the written word. But maybe these things take time… I’ve heard that there are entire warehouses full of still-untranslated Assyrian clay tablets because for every Epic of Gilgamesh, there are around 10,000 receipts – and no one want to sit around all day translating receipts. Anyways – what are some of the more adventurous efforts out there, and do any of them show more promise than the hypertext novel?

 

Text Adventures / Interactive Fiction.

These have been around for a long time, but they may be making some type of comeback with the mobile device – as they’ve always been read rather than played. There’s a pretty active online group dedicated to creating and promoting new games, and I definitely recommend checking it out and playing one or two.

These have a history that goes back to the early 80s – I remember Zork, from when I was a kid and, even more fondly, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But I don’t remember finishing either one. I think the audience for these are going to remain pretty small – the problem is that, even when played on a mobile device, they aren’t immersive enough to fall into, the way you would a good book, and they aren’t fun enough to truly play. There’s also a documentary that I’ve been meaning to watch about the golden age of text adventures awesomely called Get Lamp.

 

Game Books.

Another great throwback to my childhood. Choose Your Own Adventure books, I’d argue, have had a powerful impact on current efforts to experiment with the genre, and mobile devices are perfect for them. Naturally, many of the classics from the 80s have been reissued for the iPad, and are fairly successful. There’ve also been a few attempts to make the format suitable for adults – the fiction book Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar and the non fiction History of Bombing by Sven Lindqvist are two of the best examples.

But with both of these attempts, no matter how you begin, you tend to end up returning to a chronological reading – so that you don’t miss any of the story. Maybe with tablets, this won’t be an issue any more, because the machine can keep track of what you’ve read already. Some similar mobile experiments, like the NYPL’s awesome Biblion app suffer from the same issue – they are easy to put down because it’s too easy to lose your place without a clear, chronological progression to the story.

 

The Mongoliad.

I really want to love this. Neal Stephenson, who has created some great, genre-bending fiction; a communal storytelling atmosphere; optimized for cross-platform and mobile devices; a carefully created business plan… But honestly: I have no idea what this is. I’ve downloaded it, gone to the website, read some of the stories, watched some of the animations – but I’m lost. Now, it just sits on my iPad, occasionally letting me know by virtue of a little red bubble, that somewhere, somehow, something is happening here and that I will probably never understand what that is.

If there are any huge Mongoliad fans out there, or if I’m doing something wrong, let me know. Otherwise: beautiful, strange, fail.

 

Dating Sims / Visual Novel.

Here’s something that holds some real promise. I heard once that the most populat form of video game in Japan, and by extension some of the best-selling video games in any genre are Japanese dating sims. If you’ve never heard of these, you can check out a few here. For the most part, they’re picture books with music, sometimes spoken dialogue, and the occasional reader-decision. Clearly, the story here is the key – these are meant to be read and experienced more than played.

The subject matter and content of all the ones that I’ve seen, though, are dominated by Manga-type themes… The dating lives and social games of high-school children, angst, and fantasy are all well-represented.

Still, there is clearly an audience for this type of storytelling so maybe it’s just a matter of time before we start to see some fiction and/or non-fiction title made for western audiences.

 

Transmedia.

Kind of a catch-all for genre-crossing storytelling – usually involves multiple platforms working together to tell a single story, often with a real-world component (go here, look for this, dial a number). So far, there have been a few modest successes – but, because it’s so expensive to produce across multiple platforms, corporate sponsorship tends to play an important role in creating really interesting transmedia stories – especially those that involve real-life ‘Alternate Reality Games‘. Because of this, a cool transmedia story can sometimes seem indiscernible from well-designed advertising campaign. Also, because corporations like to use the same people and companies again and again, there are really only a few people who make a living, full-time, as transmedia producers. But there are a lot of people who would like to. And even more who have written PhD theses about it.

Good work if you can get it – but until the costs come down, a tough act for the struggling artist seeking a platform to tell his/her story.

 

Wikipedia / Collaborative Writing.

Obviously the greatest example of collaborative, non-fiction storytelling is wikipedia. An unmitigated success. Because this is an effort to tell the ‘whole story,’ and because it has enough contributors to create an official story, it may not be duplicable to smaller topics… Although there are, of course, lots of great wikis – wikis for programming codes, wikis for ideologies, and even some fictional world-building wikis – aside from wikipedia itself, and niche-wikis designed for passionate insiders, I don’t know of any that you can really lose a few hours to. But let me know if I’m wrong on this – the wiki format clearly has potential.

I’d also like to see some multimedia wikis – so if there are any good examples out there, let me know.

 

Highly Narrative Video Games – Like Myst, LA Noire.

Where do you draw the line between playing a video games and listening to / experiencing a story? I don’t know and it’s probably arbitrary. But these examples are on the other side of that line (and I also don’t know much about them other than what I’ve read).

 

Metaverse / Second Life.

Held so much promise… A new platform for storytelling and user-generated content. I still think there’s something there, but these will probably be remembered as the CD ROM encyclopedia of their day – useful for some people, a harbinger of things to come, but also kinda silly.

 

Multimedia Books.

Over the past couple years, a few companies like ourselves, 955 Dreams, Push-Pop Press, Gameloft and a couple others have been championing the idea of interactive, multimedia, adult-oriented multimedia books. So far, the best examples have all been non-fiction, but we’re working on a few ideas to expand that as well. There’s a good list of the ten best examples out there over at appadvice, in case you want to check them out. Still young, and the market’s unproven, but showing potential.

 

Children’s Books

Well here’s where things have just blown wide-open. Multimedia, interactive children’s books are getting better, getting cooler, and threatening to change the entire children’s publishing landscape. But the questions arise: Are these toys or stories? What is the grown-up equivalent to flashy lights and cute sounds? Are these ebooks and apps going to be like pop-up books? Awesome when you’re eight, a little less awesome when you’re eighteen? I look forward to finding out…

Who Will Save Poetry?

or The Start-Ups We’ve Got vs. The Start-Ups We Need

 

It’s sometime in the late 1950s and Willem de Kooning and John Cage are sitting at a diner having lunch. De Kooning makes a frame with his fingers, he puts it around some breadcrumbs that had spilled onto the counter, and he proposes a thought experiment: “If I put my fingers around these breadcrumbs, it doesn’t make it art,” he says. Cage disagrees. Sixty years later and lets move past the question and continue the thought experiment: If I had those very same breadcrumbs, preserved, in a glass case on my coffee table, how much money would they be worth today? Could anyone question their value or their artistic merit?

 

The frame is our attention – and it roughly correlates to the size of the audience for a particular piece of art or music or film. So if business models today are only focused on the profitability of two types of frames: the massive mass-market and the and the tiny micro-niche, then there might be some rough waters ahead.

 

Anyone, anywhere, can listen to Britney Spears, at any time. Culture’s going digital, and as it does, the physical and economic boundaries that once constrained a movie or book or CD – limiting exposure to places where the objects could be bought, and limiting their use to those who can afford them – these boundaries are disappearing. New businesses are being designed to optimize search and to create perfect recommendation engines. By creating a single, massive, interconnected audience, we monetize culture by either connecting huge numbers of people to a few mega-hits – like hollywood blockbusters and Lady Gaga – or by maximizing the profitability of huge amounts of highly-niche ‘long-tail’ materials.

 

The danger is that we lose the middle. The artistic achievements created by full-time artists and creatives aimed at an audience in the thousands or tens-of-thousands. And these middle-market producers are, possibly, the entire reason that we create.

 

It’s quite a moment for us in the culture-for-sale factories. The 20th Century culture-pedlar like, say, Random House, could never get off the ground today’s digital markets. Just imagine the pitch: “We want to publish a little of this, a little of that. You know, publish things we like, at random.” Forget the fact that the company would rely on shipping massive amounts of wood pulp, all over the country – the very principle of a randomly curated culture industry is completely ‘unscalable’ in today’s marketplace.

 

Because selling culture is really just putting a frame around it, companies like Random House (or Hollywood Studios, or TV news) could be successful frame-makers simply by controlling the access to distribution, bookstores, critics, printing-presses, bandwidth and so on. Now that those control are eroding, anyone can start a frame-shop… So why aren’t we witnessing an explosion of independent media? Why aren’t, for example, new publishing houses making headlines with the latest bestseller?

 

‘Scalable’ is a good hot topic worth hating. Every new media business plan seems focused on being the next Facebook, and not the next Shakespeare and Co.. We’re spending countless hours trying to innovate ways for everyone to have access to the same handful of songs, rather than seeking ways to make an economically viable band that has a few thousand fans. Ever since google proclaimed itself a ‘media company’ it been going down hill…

 

Well, except for music. There, the big companies screwed things up so royally that they forced a regime-change and created some real openings for independent media.

 

One of the more interesting movements taking place today in the music is to price products that try and take advantage of the entire demand curve and appeal directly to small groups of passionate supporters – often friends and family. Kickstarter may have been one of the first ‘fan sourced’ companies, but my friend (and cousin) Benji Rogers over at Pledge Music has really refined the system for music acts. Basically, the way that such sites work is by creating numerous levels that people can contribute towards a artifact (book, film, record, etc…). For $5 I can get a .pdf or an .mp3 of the final product, for $50 I can get a signed LP, for $500 I can come to the recording session. Originally, they thought the average contribution, per fan, would be somewhere in the $10-$20 range – they have since discovered that its higher. In many cases, much, much higher.

 

The other interesting thing about fan-sourced culture is that it seems to take us back to a more ancient and possibly authentic place in the history of art. When cavemen drew bisons on their walls, they weren’t doing it for a million strangers all over the planet, but for their friends and families and the few hundred or thousands they imagined would see them there. With Pledge Music, an album is supported by the few hundred or thousand people who are friends, family, and fans of the band. The people who already know the band’s story, and who want to be part of it, contribute. By contributing, I take a part in the creative process.

 

And I think this is important. I think it might even fulfill some deep evolutionarily derived instinct in human nature. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. After we are healthy, safe, social and psychologically secure, we are programmed to be creative. Perhaps this itch can be scratched by outsourcing – the way that I, for example, outsource my views on Israel/Palestine to my cousin Ali because I can’t possibly keep up with all the material and because he does…

 

Maybe we can start dreaming up more business models that allow wealthy patrons to subsidize the economic realities of creatives – bring back the patronage model, in a sense. It never really went away (German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein provided sizable stipends to numerous poets and artists to subsidize their work – without his patronage, we might not have Trackl’s poetry or Rodin’s sculptures) but we need new start-ups that allow people with considerable disposable incomes to discover and subsidize those who are engaged in full-time creativity. It would also, incidentally, be good for domestic unemployment.

 

So we should stop thinking of content as a scaleable enterprise, and start trying to innovate and encourage ways to create conversations (around any kind of culture) that number in the thousands. Digital capitalism has a tendency to aggregate businesses towards the blockbuster and the very niche at the expense of the middle – so we need new, walled markets that promote that center space.

 

As a warning, think about poetry. For most of human history, poetry was the highest of arts. Today, you can count on one hand the number of working poets who are neither part-time teachers nor independently wealthy. And you probably wouldn’t need your thumb or index-finger.

 

Poetry is neither niche-enough to be provided for by fringe grants and specialist publications, nor mainstream enough to be ‘scaleable.’ It’s somewhere in the middle – and it’s in trouble.

 

We’re in danger of loosing that middle. That place where society takes a turn for the weird, tries new things out… The place where subcultures are born. Get too few people involved in a conversation and it’ll turn to inside baseball or discussions of aunt Alice’s pumpkin pie. Too many people, and it’s just becomes vapid. Somewhere in the middle of this demand curve, with just the right number of people involved, and cultural can serve the function that it was evolutionarily designed to serve. It can become more than a song – it becomes a possible future. That is, if it excites the right group of people at the right time, culture can become a subculture, or an ideology, or a movement.

 

Remember – I’m talking about audience and market-share here – these are the things that culture is made of – and not about any mythical properties of beauty or aesthetics. Cage proved it with his breadcrumbs, and it’s even more elegantly displayed in the youtube clip of his 4’33 performed at the Royal Albert Hall (go check it out – be sure to watch the whole thing). There, silence (or nothing), marketed appropriately, is elevated to the highest of arts. Since all content is more-or-less the same, I’m really talking about the size of the frame that’s in danger – and that our business models need to consider.

 

Think of the polynesians for a minute. There they are, in this gorgeous island paradise, surrounded by coconuts and dolphins and great surfing and fresh shellfish and a group of them gets together and decides, ‘Fuck it – let’s build some canoes and sail off in some random direction for gods-know how long on the off chance that we just might find another empty, gorgeous island paradise.’ Hundreds of miles, in open outriggers, through shark-infested waters. And they did it again and again – settling almost the entire South Pacific in a few hundred years. A lot of small bands of Polynesians probably died along the way… But imagine if the whole lot of them went in the same direction at the same time (or just one or two)… The result would’ve been pretty different.

 

If culture is the exploratory arm of human progress, if it builds the frames that we use to understand our possible futures and better appreciate our present, then it may not matter what the contents are as long as we have all different sizes of frames.

 

In music, the failure of large labels to adapt quickly enough opened a huge opportunity to reverse the trend of the late-nineties and revive numerous mid-frame industries and business models. Independent labels cater to smaller audiences and sell fewer albums, while bands supplement a larger amount of there income through touring. New web-business like Pledge Music are creating other interesting ways to fund mid-framed music. Today, despite album sales that are less than half what they were just ten years ago, we’re experiencing a renaissance of interesting, independent music and musical forms. But will the same hold for books or independent films or any of the smaller culture industries that are yet to undergo the digital transformation?

 

Although some companies, like O/R Books ,are beginning to rise to the challenge, we haven’t quite figured out how to encourage and support the small- to medium-scale writers. And we certainly haven’t figured out how to save poetry. The human instinct for creativity, combined with our unquenchable need to waste time and talk about it, will always ensure that there is money out there to support independent arts – and it will ensure that there are always artists. Entrepreneurs, however, need to stop trying to be the next Facebook and focus on creating pathways that will allow investors, and those with large amounts of disposable income, to outsource their creativity. To support the middle section of the demand curve, to create new ideas and new subcultures, and to explore our collective future.

We’re Taking Pitches!

Got an idea for an interactive or digital book?  Got a story to tell and words alone won’t tell it right?  Arcade Sunshine is now open to pitches from independent authors, journalists, documentarians and the like…  We’re interested in new forms of narrative, non-fiction storytelling, and experimenting with interactivity — so if you’ve got a cool idea, give us a shout and let’s build a better book together.