July 21, 2006


GAM3R 7H30RY is McKenzie Wark's experimental online book, created with the Institute for the Future of the Book. I've always found Wark's writing both fascinating and infuriating and what little I've read of this work keeps up the pace. But what is far more interesting is just accurately the digital book format mirrors the same sort of fascinating/infuriating oscillation.

In the end the format both fails and succeeds in big ways. Like Bruno Latour's similar, yet less ambitious experiment Paris: Invisible City, the content is just incredibly ill suited to be read on a computer screen. Part of the problem is resolution, computer screens today tend to have resolutions around 100 pixels per inch. Reading comprehension off a screen apparently doesn't match that of printed matter until the resolution is about 200 pixels per inch. When you are reading the news, or some blogger, or the sports scores this does not matter much. But when you are trying to grok a complex academic text, forget it. I once read the entirety of Hardt and Negri's Empire on my "smartphone". I enjoyed it completely, yet I could not recall a single thing from the text.

The other side of the problem is posture, academic texts are also not meant to be read while sitting upright at a desk, and putting a hot laptop on your lap is not exactly the same as curling up with a good book, is it? But this again is ultimately a technical issue, and like with the screen resolution issue odds are it will be solved soon enough. Which brings us to the good stuff.

What's great about GAM3R 7H30RY is the incredible amount of commentary it is generating. It is pretty much the most dynamic feeling text out there. Lots of call and response going on and it makes it all feel very alive, like a breathe of fresh air in a stagnent library. Not only does it capture the vibrant energy that occurs in good blog powered exchanges, but thanks to it's ajax interface it actually pushes past into something even better.

The real question I have, and it's one I seem to ask all the time, is how much of this scales? How much of this is repeatable and how much is just a function of time, place and circumstance. There certainly might be some first mover advantage here, the novelty generates interest, which generates more feedback than the next experiment will get. Then there is the matter of the books structure. Wark is a highly stylized writer, and he loves playing with form. In this case the form is an almost ritualized structure of rather discrete paragraphs. Chunks of text that do not need a huge amount of context to be understood.

I suspect this structure is extremely helpful in fascillitating feedback. The pauses between paragraphs are so big and so deliberate, it makes it very easy to pause to type out a comment. You actually need to actively click to get the next paragraph, so it's pretty much a choice of two actions, react or continue on. The big question here is whether that amounts to something more like a parlor trick, or a writing tactic that can be replicated with relative ease. Or maybe it's a red herring, but then again maybe every academic book in some future will be written in these little chucks, explicitly to provoke feedback.

In the end though, I'm still waiting for the printed version to read this thing...

Posted by Abe at July 21, 2006 05:10 PM

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