“So literature collapses before our eyes” –
Non-Commodity Production

private authorship, the competitive goal-oriented individual
tribal elitism, charmed circle, cf. the “neck verse”


With flip from manuscript into mass production via print comes the corporate reading public and the historical sense
slang, dialects and group identity, separates composition and performance, divorces eye and ear

McLuhan’s tetrad-model: four aspects of the effect of media on culture and society. This example Print and the second one Xerox are quoted from “The Global Village” by McLuhan and Powers, Oxford University Press 1989.

The idea of copyright – the right to retain publication of one’s own words – is much younger than other forms of intellectual property laws. Patents to protect the economic exploitation of technological invention, for example, have been granted by the city’s sovereign since the times of ancient Greece. But not sooner than in the 18th century the perceived value added to a society and its economy by the written word would justify a legal concept to aliment writers. The first copyright law clearly formulates this goal in its title: “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned“, also called the Statue of Anne.

Yesterday, Bruce Sterling cried out his concern about the future of literature in three Tweets:

“*Economic calamity that hammered music hits literature. The “solution” for writers? There isn’t one.
So literature collapses before our eyes, while the same fate awaits politics, law, medicine, manufacturing… finance and real estate…
Diplomacy, the military… we’re not gonna die of this, but man, the deeper 21st century looks like nothing anyone ever imagined.” (1,2,3)

The catch-all political party, trade unions, music industry, newspapers, advertising and even the production of art and literature – all are effected by this changing culture to the core. I think we can identify two main drivers for this change if we consider what the function of these mass-cultural phenomena had been in the past.

speed of printing process
oral tradition, the committee

(could be “digital print as well”)
everybody a publisher
assemly-line book

The first I would call retribalisation (following the term used by McLuhan).
The concept of society was defined in opposite to community by Hermann Thönnies in his famous foundation of sociology “Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft” in 1887. A community is tied together by something held in common – normally the fate shared by living in the same village. People living in a community know each other in person and information is distributed mostly by word of mouth. Thus oral culture and a common set of allegories give the ground for communication. The mass-alphabetisation brought the mass-society. The man of the crowd was coined by Edgar Allen Poe in his famous short story of this title in 1840. The actor of this modern, industrialised society is no longer a person, it is the individual. The characteristics of an individual can thus be derived from objectives that can be observed from outside. In the modern society of the industrial age, nearly everything you had to know to measure someone would have been their job. The goods that people would exchange became commodities. Mass media – which I shall use as an umbrella for all these topics lined up above – homogenise a society by reaching out to everyone simultaneously. Since the 1950, this has changed dramatically. Social strata or milieu would no longer account for consumption habits. Two individuals of the same socio-demographic profile might have completely different styles of living, preferences in music or consumer brands. What brings people together is no longer social position but to have something in common – the return of the community, but no longer defined by common destiny but much weaker, by some common interest that is highly dependent to the momentary mood and situation in which people find themselves. The Web is the perfect means to organise, inform and entertain such loosely knit communities globally.

The second was sketched by Bruce Sterling earlier: atemporality as he calls it; the end of the great narrative, end of progress, or even end of history. The consequences for creative artists that he sees are dire: the choice of re-arranging findings from the past, eclecticism or “the Gothic castle” as he calls this artistic approach, Punk, the bricolage. Or alternatively generative creation, aggregating small contributions of a large group of people; favela chic in Sterling’s words.

Both developments had been foresighted by some thinkers right after WWII. Most prominent are Herbert Marshall McLuhan and independently from him Vilém Flusser. Both see the decline of written word in favour of the rise of a new oral culture, globally organised in tribe-like structures, tied together by a common set of allegories. The breakup of copyright is the direct consequence to this.

The “solution” for writers? There isn’t one.‘ If we use the tetradic set of questions, shown above, on copyright we could get a glimpse on how copyright (and its projected fading away) may affect the publication process:

1. What does the medium enhance?
2. What does the medium make obsolete?
3. What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
4. What does the medium flip into when pushed to extremes?

Copyright enhances private authorship and leads to a ‘bourgeois’ creative who is paid for his word. The dilettante, the aristocratic amateur enthusiast are rendered obsolete. The professional writer however shares some aspects with the scriptor, the cleric scholar who was funded by the monastery to perform his art. Regarding the forth tetradic questions: by the ecstasies of claiming ownership on intellectual property as seen in the plethora of cease-and-desists fired into the crowed by some corporations to claim their intellectual property rights against bloggers, or the “three-strikes-out”-initiative into which the European Commission was driven by the publishing industry’s lobbyists, the copyright, originally made to foster broad accessibility of knowledge, makes this knowledge less accessible again and creates elites, that still want (or are able) to afford to buy the publications. – Just to make it clear: I personally am opposed against the notion of regarding everything in the Net for free; but to see the consequences of this cultural development, we have to take a neutral angle. – I am convinced that the decay of the royalty-system for authors based on copyright is even accelerated by this effort to defend it.

Some hope might be found in long-tail distribution-systems like iTunes or Amazon which cut out the publisher and in theory directly connect the producers with their clients. But I think, that we already see the margin left for authors as well as the number of possible sales are to be expected to stay rather small. And at the same time, there is so much that can be obtained completely for free in the Internet, that to buy something becomes even less attractive. “The dark side of the free and open” is the decline of the classic publication economy, as Geert Lovink remarks. This leads to the end of handling publications as a commodity. How to make a living from non-commodity-production, from giving your work away for free? On the other hand: how many authors, musicians, composers etc. have been able to make their living by their arts in the past!

Nevertheless: walking down McLuhan’s tetrad, we can expect to get back into a culture of more or less sophisticated dilettantism as seen in most parts of the blogosphere. Small contributions, often highly specialised, often collaged and Punk-style, like Bruce Sterling describes in his post. But on the other hand, we see the return of the scriptorium. Corporate publishing, PR, corporate or brand storytelling; authors, writing to support their consultancy-work and other freelance businesses I would also take into this category. Both live-forms of the future-author, the dilettante and the scribe do no longer support the individual “artist-creator” who can be attributed as the sole author of his work and thus gets paid by royalties.

We will see publications and creations of art, perfectly adopted to the preferences and needs of very small communities; new publications emerging fast, drawn to existence by monitoring, google alerts and inspiration to write something through tweets, just noted by chance.

A possible form of organising these micro-publications is a content network, doing for content, what an ad network does for ads. Bringing all together, corporate publishing, advertising and the user’s still existing desire to get entertained and inspired, might even lead to some monetary compensation for the participating authors.

A second path could lead into creating a new area of public space in the Internet, funded by tax-like fees as to be seen in Europe’s public broadcasting landscape. This public space should be curated in a way, ensuring to maintain cultural productions of high class.

All told, I truly acclaim to Bruce Sterlings speculation: “we’re not gonna die of this, but man, the deeper 21st century looks like nothing anyone ever imagined.”

Further reading:
Memetic Turn
Modernism is our Classical Antiquity
The End of History – for Creative Professionals
Virtual Broadcasting

TEX – Digital Typesetting

[Original Post in German]

Facsimile of the 42-line Gutenberg bible from the copy at Berliner Staatsbibilothek Preuss. Kulturbesitz. Peagant, NY 1964

“Gutenberg has in fact invented nothing: Already in the middle of the second millennium BC it would have been possible to print books in that sense. All technical requirements (presses, ink, pagelike pads, also the art of casting negatives into metal) had been in place then. Nobody printed yet because they were not conscious that they would handle type when drawing letters.” Vilém Flusser, “Schrift”

The 42-line bible from Gutenberg’s printing shop is regarded as the first book to be printed with the newly invented book printing with movable type. Until today at least 48 copies have survived. The typography of this world-changing book is still viewed as one of the most beautiful to be typeset – if not the most beautiful.

Gutenberg’s typography shows indeed a significant difference to later typesetting: while later typesetters would use leading – small wedges of lead or brass – to adjust word-spacing to the length of the line, Gutenberg used a total of 290 different types, several for each letter, differing slightly in width. In respect to the page layout, Gutenberg kept thus much closer to the manuscript than later typesetters; aesthetically superior but far less efficient.

Above and below: Typography of the famous font-designer Hermann Zapf – set with TEX (Images from http://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~uno/).

When I studied mathematics in the early nineties, many of the newer text books were so ugly that I had difficulties to comprehend their content; the shabby quality of typography and reproduction in those times made the nerdy science of maths even more unattractive. The reason for this decline in publication culture lies in the change from hot type to photo setting. In the modern setting machines – still partly mechanic or based on not-so-fast computers –  creating such complicated formulae, multi-lined by indexes and superscripts, that characterise mathematics was not provided or just impossible. So usually it would be copying and binding simple computer prints or typewriter scripts with the formulae put in handwriting or drawn with a stencil. For the first time in 500 years publishers had departed from Gutenberg’s technology and some contemporary thinkers like Vilém Flusser even heralded the end of printing.

But not all books were that ugly. From time to time there appeared real pearls of typographic culture amongst the new editions – also in niche fields, in very small circulations, even with doctor or master theses there was a sudden surge in quality – at least regarding the look of the texts.

This is the merit of Donald E. Knuth:

His book “The Art of Computer Programming” gave the occasion for Donald E. Knuth to systematically explore digital typography. The result justifies the labour!

Knuth – on of the pioneers of computer programming – in a decade’s work had written a typesetting software, from which he requested at least the same power and quality as from the great Monotype hot-setting machines. The story of this software is told by Donald Knuth himself: disappointed by the bad quality of his book’s second edition, he had begun to work into typography and printing and not stopped before he would have been able to present the perfect solution – which he published under permissive Free Software Licence.

The notation of complicated formulae in TEX is easily to be learnt. The special characters are preceded by a \-tag. Superscripts and subscripts just come one after the other.

\sum makes the summation-sign Σ
\int the integral ∫
Greek letters likewise: \alpha makes α etc.
It is not difficult to create custom commands or macros in TEX – meanwhile there should be almost every alphabet of the world available as font for TEX

Here is an example for the simplified TEX-version built into Wikipedia: Riemann’s ζ-function.

In TEX-Code:

\zeta(s) = \sum_{n=1}^\infty\frac1{n^s} =1+\frac1{2^s} +\frac1{3^s} +\frac1{4^s} +\cdots

results in the image:

… or for s=2, with the famous relation to the circle:

\zeta(2) = \sum_{n=1}^\infty \frac1{n^2} = \frac{\pi^2}6

What is special about TEX in my view is not so much its easy way to insert mathematical formulae into the text to look just like they did when engraved into steel. TEX typesets the pages in such an aesthetic way like the best hot-set compositors where able to do manually, and that with any type, font, symbol, right to left – just like the text would require.

Aside from the actual typesetting software, TEX comes with a tool for font management: METAFONT. Knuth represented – in difference from his predecessors – the letters not as bitmap, that means as grid of black and white squares, but describes the types as mathematical equations, as curves of functions. This approach is now followed by all typesetting systems – Adobe’s Postscript and pdf as well as Microsoft’s Truetype – with an important exception: in these the outline of the letter are prescribed by the curves, while Knuth prescribed the “stroke of a brush” – a centerline and the outline of the brush in the form of an ellipse.

“The Art of Computer Programming” by Donald E. Knuth is not only printed nicely but also bound nicely – cloth binding with thread-stiching, as it is good manners …

Typography was the most important and most demanding part of book production in all the five hundred years since Gutenberg. This had not been changed by the mechanisation with Linotype or Monotype – it was fine art to produce text with machines in a way that would at least cope with the value of the content. To command technology – and not the other way round – is as prevailing today as in Gutenberg’s time. TEX translates the essentials of this technology into digital media production.

After the content, good typography and layout are the second step, necessary for a valuable text. Then comes the actual production – from paper production, printing, to binding – respectively the display on screen – and the distribution. all theses steps pay into the value of a medium. In every of these carefulness is worthwhile.

“Never before, the progress has been so breathless as since the invention of the imaging contraptions.”
Vilém Flusser: “Schrift”

(the picture is taken from Donald E. Knuth, Digital Typography)

The Brand Eins

[See german post and comments]

„To me“, that is what my friend Anna said, „to me slow media is brand eins.“ Everytime she is at home at her friend Peter’s house – who subscribes to the magazine brand eins for years – and everytime she has time and quiet to do so, she reads a brand eins. And everytime she likes it, she says. “No matter whether it’s the current issue or from the last year. Even if I do not agree to every article, brand eins is always well done and worth reading.” This describes exactly what I want to call media sustainability. The articles published in brand eins are longlasting and stay fresh over months and years. Their effect does not stop with actuality, nor does it stop at one single reader. A brand eins is enough for several readers.

Behind Slow Media are real people, that is what we say, and you can feel that. And that is how you feel behind brand eins the people who make it, people who always believed in this magazine. Even after the failure of Econy, the forerunner of brand eins, they believed in bringing close economy and ethics. And in including high-end Editorial Design (still cared of by Mike Meiré). Of course the chief editor Gabriele Fischer and her team do not write all the articles themselves. But their way to look at the world, the values they share and their attitude towards their readers speak to us throught their magazine.

This is not just showing-off, something they only say or pretend to be. You find these values – without getting too much into details – also in the contracts with their authors. Of course authors also give away their rights of use, just as in other magazines. But – and that is a big difference – they are spoken to as respected partners who add value to a valueable content. Trainees are told to write articles that are worth reading even after an year. So what my friend Anna told me was no coincidence. This after-effect is a declared aim. This luxury of quality is not only focussed on hit and run selling but on longterm effect. The ambition is being read and inspiring people, not just selling. It’s about bonding with the readers. And that creates loyality.

This attitude allows courageous decisions. For example the Special Edition April 2000 (sustainability until now: over 10 years). The first 30 pages are dedicated to the Cluetrain Manifesto and its 95 theses concerning the change of the markets driven by the internet. The Cluetrain Manifesto is now known to have been visionary. It has still unbroken, even increasing actuality (itself a perfect example for slowness). At that time is was unknown and strange. Everyone else was happy with the dotcom-boom. It was not evident to talk of markets being conversations and of the end of fast profits. But the manifesto touched the brand eins team and they decided to follow their inspiration with a special edition. This was exactly while the boom peaked in mid march 2000. “Didn’t we – despite all enthusiasm for the founding boom – expect more from the New Economy than just more and still more millionaires?”, asked Gabriele Fischer in the preface of that special edition. Managers and politicians didn’t want to answer, their press officers where told to say they didn’t have time to answer that sort of questions. Well, but the brand eins wanted to look for answers.

When did they finalize the april issue? Before the crash? At the peak? After the crash? Anyway. An opposite position like that was courageous and risky. You don’t do this when you just want to sell your edition.

So here is good news for those who think “slow” might be just romantic and far from reality: Users feel the mindset behind media. They notice the ambition behind it – like my friend Anna – and they are ready to pay for it. Slow Media can be well done and profitable.

You might say that Anna herself did not pay for the magazine – so inspiration does not necessarily create profit. Here is my answer: Her friend Peter does not have time enough to read the brand eins, but he still subscribes it. He would never cancel his subsription of brand eins just because he does not have time to read it. He stands by his magazine, he told me, no matter how short time is. That is loyality between readers and their magazine.

Additional note:

Gabriele Fischer just answered the question “When did they finalize the april issue?”: The april issue was already produced when the dotcom-boom was still blowing up. The Cluetrain-Special-Edition of the brand eins was in the printing process when the dotcom-boom turned into a bursting bubble on March, 13th.


Other articles on magazines on the english Slow Media Blog:

Wired Magazine

Scientific American