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The Feb. 13, 2012 cover of the New Yorker featured a blown-up image of the magazine’s icon—the statesman with top hat and spectacle—blurred and tucked under the ubiquitous iPad loading wheel. It was a clear statement that the magazine as we know it could soon be gone.
The tablet edition of the New Yorker was released with a bang on Oct. 4, 2011 in the midst of its annual and highly attended festival of panels, screenings, and events. Attendees of each of these events were greeted with a video advertisement for the tablet edition starring Jason Schwartzman and directed by Roman Coppola. A visibly hungover Schwartzman goofily points out features of the tablet app while showering, playing the piano, lounging nakedly, and pouring himself whiskey.
Even under his blasé front Schwartzman seems reasonably awed by the features of the tablet app: Many are embedded with video and audio, tapping on a cartoon leads to a blown-up slideshow of every cartoon in the issue, and there are numerous ways of navigating between articles. With its horizontal and vertical scrolling and quick-access menus, the tablet edition is markedly more navigable than the paper one. The first tablet issue featured an animated, iPad-drawn cover by David Hockney, of which print readers could only see a still frame. Since then, the New Yorker has released seven tablet-only thematic anthologies, expanded tablet access to all print subscribers, and advertised the tablet heavily both in print and online. The magazine’s e-reading foray seems far from regrettable, if not a downright victory.
A note from the editors in that first edition expresses their feelings on the step: “We’re at once delighted and a little bewildered about this latest digital development and our place in it: delighted because of the quality of what the tablet provides and the speed with which the magazine can be distributed, but bewildered, too, because we’d be liars if we said we knew precisely where technology will lead,” they write. “These are early days.”
In the face of this change and uncertainty, the editors declare their commitment to the goals of the magazine and writing itself. “The one thing we are sure of is the purpose of the magazine,” they write. “The New Yorker will always be foremost about free expression, about the written word, about reading. Technology, the means of delivering this writing, is a very important, but secondary, matter, and we intend to keep providing the magazine in whatever form seems to work.”
The experience of reading is evolving in the digital landscape. “The sort of reading done on screens tends to be very different than the sorts of reading done with print,” Dan Visel of the Institute for the Future of the Book says in an email. “It could be characterized as less concentrated: on a screen, there’s almost always some distraction waiting for you, sometimes on the same screen as you’re trying to read (ads, for example). Long-form reading has had a hard time finding purchase online.”
Blog posts, as opposed to New Yorker articles, are designed to be read quickly. In a blog post written for Reuters on Feb. 10, 2012, Felix Salmon calls out the increasingly blog-oriented New York Observer for publishing mediocre writing but then goes on to praise the quantity-over-quality strategy. “The great is rare; the dull quite common. But—and this is the genius of the online format—that doesn’t matter, not any more, and certainly not half as much as it used to,” he writes. “When you’re working online, more is more. If you have the cojones to throw up everything, more or less regardless of quality, you’ll be rewarded for it—even the bad posts get some traffic, and it’s impossible ex ante to know which posts are going to end up getting massive pageviews. [original emphasis]” As Internet reading becomes more ubiquitous, Salmon’s assessment is a highly cynical one: The Web—already an unfathomably large heap of information—will keep expanding with things to read, but less and less of it will be worth reading.
Visel argues that this proliferation of information has made literacy more central. “There’s been an explosion of reading,” he says. “People read much more now than they did fifteen years ago, though people don’t think of time spent on Facebook or Twitter as reading. In a weird way, the screen privileges literacy much more than the page did—if you can’t read, you’re now excluded more than ever before.” The challenge for publishers, it seems, is to harness this enormous rapt audience of people looking at screens and provide them with compelling material that they won’t scroll over.
Triple Canopy: The Internet as Medium
Salmon’s comment on the blogosphere highlights the importance of publishing as quickly and as much as possible—a trend indicative of a culture emerging from print. One of print’s limitations is space—a newspaper or magazine can only reasonably print so many articles, which has increasingly been the case as print publications shrink operations or cease to exist altogether. The Internet very clearly solves this space limitation—there are no restraints on the amount one can publish. But is an endless blogosphere any better than just a long scroll of paper? Perhaps online writing often falls flat because it fails to exploit the unique advantages of its medium.
Our culture has certainly explored what it means to produce and handle something in print—the book, the magazine and the newspaper all make sense to us as forms. The Internet, however, remains somewhat of a void. Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase “The medium is the message,” argued that in terms of social function, content is secondary to the medium that carries it. McLuhan, who predicted the invention of the World Wide Web even though he died 11 years before it was invented in 1991, has a cult following in the field of electronic publishing, and with good reason—he had a lot to say about periods of technological transformation. His comment on television in a 1960 interview is remarkably germane to the possibilities of the Internet: “We’re just trying to fit the old things into the new form instead of asking, ‘What is the new form going to do to all the assumptions we had before?’”
In this light, concerns over the content of the blogosphere are misplaced. Online publications are not just disseminating information through wires and onto screens—they are beginning to carve out the function of the Internet and the precise human experience of reading on a screen. At a point when devices with touch screens and constant Web access have gone from novelty to ubiquity in the course of a few years, it would be ignorant to argue that the Internet’s social function is somehow avoidable or unimportant.
Triple Canopy emerged in 2007 from a group of individuals who grew up with the Internet but found it lacking in good reading material. The moment of founding is described in the editors’ introduction to the first issue: “Before the magazine had a proper name, format, or URL, fifteen or twenty of us were gathered in a living room in Fort Greene, Brooklyn—others were as far-flung as Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Sarajevo, and Maputo—stumbling over the question ‘Which websites do you not only visit regularly, but actually read?’ We named a few blogs, some digitized print publications, choice archives and reliquaries. Then, a long silence.”
Triple Canopy has done a great deal to fill that silence. It recently released its 15th issue and last month opened a storefront in Greenpoint, Brooklyn for public programs. Its sleek website is rife with rich multimedia content and, of course, text. Readers experience each article by scrolling horizontally, rather than vertically, and short columns of text operate in tandem with multimedia content. The magazine’s areas of coverage are highly diverse. Reasonably, it regularly covers Internet culture—the last issue included several pieces on anonymity in digital space. But it has also done extensive pieces on topics ranging from Mark Rothko to Nova Scotia.
The most recent issue included a tour, led by artist Lisi Raskin, of former Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito’s bunker. Readers begin by viewing a slideshow of photos of the drive up to and walk into the bunker, accompanied by a soundtrack of that experience. Then there’s a short description of the project followed by a map of the bunker. To the right of the map, there’s an index of pages on all the rooms in the bunker. Each link leads to text, photo, and audio that create an enriched, reader-directed experience.
Issue 14 marked a unique foray into Web literature. Each contributor made use of the ability to insert imagery and sound into their work by pushing their narratives in directions not possible in print. James McCourt’s ribald text-message tribute to youthful masculinity, “The Canticle of Skoozle,” could perhaps only be better suited to the phone screen—though a gloriously tacky, full-screen collage of clips of muscled boys opens the piece. It opens, “SKOOZLE, SKOOZLE, WHAT A BEAUTIFUL GORGEOUS HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL LINEBACKER EARTH ANGEL BOY U WERE…” and goes on for dozens of columns in dated phonescreen font (think Nokia).
Triple Canopy’s mantra is “slowing down the Internet.” While the Internet races forward ever more quickly, Triple Canopy finds fertile ground in the Internet’s potential for collaboration and exploration of what lies just outside a text. While a print article is limited to verbal references in its ability to incorporate supplementary material, the Web article is empowered to link to and make visible the influences and forces that precede (and follow) its publication. Triple Canopy calls this “the expanded field.”
“We work with contributors from the initial, conceptual level of a project, collaboratively developing ideas, determining the form those ideas will take, and figuring out how to execute the project within our format, which involves designers and programmers,” editor Alexander Provan says in an email. “To us, this notion of an expanded field has to do not just with the various forms the work can take—online project, book, print edition, film, application, etc.—and the contexts and audiences associated with those forms, but with the different discursive spaces the work can occupy and generate. In that sense the editorial relationship often encompasses public presentations of the work, or of the work in progress, as a class or screening or discussion.”
The apparent collaborative and expanded nature of Triple Canopy’s project marks a departure from the patterns of print publishing. “Many of us have done time at magazines and been chagrined by their lack of interest in using the Web to do anything but monetize content,” the magazine’s editors said in a recent dialogue published on the New Yorker’s website. “To that end, we want to collapse the old model of the print publishing industry, with its assembly-line approach and its walls between author, designer, publisher, and distributor. For those of us living through the collapse—or forced transformation—of the publishing industry, the experience has been instructive. We’re committed to sustainable publishing that isn’t dependent on advertising, search-engine optimization, the constant circulation of ever more ephemeral content produced for lower and lower rates.”
Triple Canopy made its first foray into print last month with Invalid Format, a book-form anthology of material from the website. The move is an interesting one for a publication that, until recently, made it impossible for readers to print content. It also presented a design challenge new to our times—how to repurpose Web content for print. “Invalid Format uses tropes that are familiar from electronic media: page spreads flow vertically and horizontally, just like on the iPad,” the editors told the New Yorker. “The book and the online magazine are distinct objects, each with their own design constraints and challenges, but we’re trying to navigate and reinforce the relationships between them, and by doing so highlight the persistence of a certain kind of artistic and literary culture that is built around the collision of such forms.”
Despite the vitality of Triple Canopy’s online format, Invalid Format points to lingering anxieties about Web content. For one, the anthology extends an olive branch to those unable or unwilling to read on the Internet. More pressingly, it is a means of guarding against the rapid obsolescence of digital formats. The magazine hopes, however, to keep up with technological advancement as much as possible.
“We’ve begun an extensive and long-term effort to archive our own materials, in all of their forms; from the code used to make an article to all of the raw materials of that article (documents, media, etc.),” creative director Caleb Waldorfwrote in an email. “Our hope is that the material we generate will be accessible in some form in the future and will not become obsolescent ... We haven’t considered how a Triple Canopy article will look in a Minority Report style interface, but when that interface is created, we hope to have our materials ready to plug in!”
Triple Canopy appears ready to take on an ever-digitized future with its Web interface, but what can be said for the future of the book and its literary companion, the novel? During a talk this month at the School of International and Public Affairs, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan said, “There needs to be a way for books to live in e-culture, or I’m afraid they’ll really die.” Despite this fear, Egan remains optimistic about the novel as a form. “The only way in which that could really be so [the disappearance of the novel] is if there were any medium that could do what the novel does and do it better,” she said. “The novel was designed to be a crazy grab-bag that could pull anything in—it’s a flexible, strong, swaggering form and I have a lot of faith in that.” Egan’s most recent novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, includes a chapter written in PowerPoint. Innovations such as this and those in Triple Canopy demonstrate the flexibility and persistence of literary form.
Badlands Unlimited: New Frontiers in E-Publishing
E-book sales surpassed print book sales on Amazon last year, and best-seller lists reveal that people are reading largely the same kinds of things on their Kindles as they do in print. New York-based publisher Badlands Unlimited, established in 2010, explores the unique characteristics of the e-book medium. “They made great books, no doubt ... but they couldn’t see that the historical distinctions between books, computer files, and artworks were rapidly dissolving,” Director of Operations Ian Cheng says in an interview with Hydra Magazine. “Badlands was started as a way to publish books and works that embody the spirit of this dissolution, and moreover, books that we really wanted to read and experience but that didn’t exist yet.”
Last summer, Badlands published a short picture book called Mans in the Mirror exclusively for iPad and iPhone. Made collaboratively by staff under the influence of mescaline, the book is a series of warped, eerie images of human forms, Web browser screenshots, and abstract forms designed for viewing with 3-D glasses. As the website states, the book “reflects the visual preoccupations of a generation of artists and writers in touch with and out of mind of a certain reality.” Mans in the Mirror evokes the sort of dream-state brought about by gazing into screens—static images are blurred as they are when we scroll down screens and the boundary between text and image is interrupted. “Part of being a new young publishing house is to constantly maintain a coefficient of vulgarity in everything we do,” Cheng says of Mans in the Mirror. Perhaps the work of Badlands is less vulgarity than a desire to explore the digital realm’s dissolution of established boundaries.
Badlands, like the New Yorker and Triple Canopy, stands firmly by the activity of reading, albeit in a less orthodox way. “We recognize this infancy [of the e-book] as a moment of freedom, an opportunity to re-imagine how text, image, and sound can come together to expand the fundamental activity of reading. What that actually looks and feels like is the question we are asking, in the form of the books we make,” Cheng said.
The opening page of the e-book edition of Paul Chan’s 2010 The Essential and Incomplete Sade for Sade’s Sake, published by Badlands, commands: “Please turn off all other electronic devices, including mobile phones, pagers, electronic games, media and music players, and delink from all connections that may interfere with the reading experience.” He calls for an immersion in the screen, an object that is typically associated with distraction from everything else. The irony in the mandate points to the uncertainty in what e-reading means for human habit. “Digital space is both glorious and horrifying because desire can be enacted so immediately—desire for information, counter-information, images, contact, response, pleasure—(although not necessarily fulfilled). On the other hand, activities that demand sustained focus—art-making, writing, exercising, watching a movie, even getting to sleep—all require their own set of rituals to prime you,” Cheng says.
Cheng’s statement that digital space is both glorious and horrifying opens up two kinds of visions for a digitized future. This first is a utopian one of more democratic access to information, more flexible means of communication, and more ways of actualizing creative ambitions. The second is its opposite—a dystopian vision of excessive distraction, hollowed-out channels for human connection, the irrevocable triumph of corporate branding, and a stymied capacity for creativity.
DIS Magazine: Reveling in a Digital Dystopia
DIS, an online fashion, art, and commerce publication based in New York, toys with the dystopian vision in its title. While it avoids dividing its content into sections, its website engages various connotations of the prefixes “dis-” (expressing the opposite or absence of something) and “dys-” (meaning “bad”). It treats “distaste,” “dystopia,” and “dysmorphia” on the same plane as “discover,” “discussion,” and “disco.” In theory and practice, DIS deconstructs the dualistic anticipation of the future as “utopian” or “dystopian” and promotes a simultaneously celebratory and critical reading of culture on the Internet.
DIS, like Triple Canopy and Badlands, operates as a collaborative and, as a result, answered questions collectively via email. “Like the prefix, DIS is oppositional. In the beginning it appeared that DIS would operate solely in the negative, but as we grew we realized more and more that we wanted to offer alternatives and open doors,” the staff says. DIS’s Web design is elegant. Images linking to content, which is released on an almost daily basis, form a grid over a mostly white background. Downward scrolling continues until the reader reaches its oldest content, from March 2010. Unlike a print magazine, DIS allows for gapless viewing.
Viewers might find much of the imagery on the website to be haphazard, if not garish—there are lots of GIFs, crude digital renderings, showy clip art fonts, and strange fashion accessories (there was recently an editorial on “.jpeggings,” or “realer-than-real” jeggings). The magazine’s “about” section states, “DIS does not distinguish between disciplines nor conform to aesthetic value systems. DIS explores the banality and novelty of product and image making.” At DIS, the act of breaking down aesthetic hierarchies is a fundamental pursuit. “It’s about questioning almost everything, the things that we love or we hate, and questioning ourselves,” the staff says. “It’s also a way of negotiating with aesthetic things that for whatever reason you dislike but you can’t get out of your mind.”
This attitude is pertinent as the Internet becomes the central source of image consumption. While we’re free to navigate the Web as we please, a frenzied and heterogeneous bombardment of images is inevitable. Just think of a Facebook newsfeed: Many of the photos, videos, and blurbs of text you see may not suit your taste, but you look at these things again and again. You may even begin to like them—or “like” them by clicking a button. The whims and distractions of the Internet have made momentary abandonments—or redefinitions—of personal taste the norm, and DIS provokes and explores these deviations rather then casting them out.
While the print object is about the contained and the final, the Web shuns all these limits. “We love and thrive on the immediacy of the Internet; everything is amendable, editable, and extensible. In print, even an error of fact takes at least a month to correct,” DIS says. “It’s slow and no longer congruous with the vitality of the world or mentality of its people. It’s part of this culture of scarcity of time where being online is the only place to engage people.”
DIS, like Triple Canopy and Badlands, represents an attitude towards publishing—and the dissemination of information—unique to a generation that grew up bombarded by a frenzy of images while using the Internet and electronic gadgets. “We simply aim to strike a balance between critique and entertainment,” the staff says. “There’s been a creative and consumer vertigo induced by all this focus on the so-called ‘high’ and ‘low.’ We’re not interested in high or low—we’re interested in the middle. That’s where the fertile, untrodden ground is for us, which is why we like to dip into seemingly frivolous subjects.” This fearless attitude toward the frivolous allows DIS to cover topics that few others do. It recently covered, in its characteristic humorous and critical style, a music video by Nigerian rapper Danny Young, artists’ social lives on Facebook, and the massive online T-shirt database Zazzle. These topics are linked in their pertinence only because of the Internet, which in a way makes everything pertinent—or at least open for exploration.
Electronic content needs no raison d’être on the web, for it exists only in virtual space. It follows that there’s less of an impulse to define against frivolity and vulgarity. Publishing on the Web is not an act of bringing something new into the world—it is an act of contributing to an unfathomably vast sea of information, much of which is lost or rarely viewed. The challenge, then, becomes to use the medium of the Web to produce content that goes beyond the trillionth blog post.
If we’re living in the so-called Information Age, our generation will be defined largely by the ways in which we read that information. It’s clear that much of that reading will be done on screens and even in physical books inspired by screen culture. We’ll also be reading in more ways than any generation before us—just think about a Lit Hum class where you’re looking at a physical copy of Don Quixote, your phone screen, and maybe a projected PowerPoint or YouTube video all at the same time. We encounter many distractions while reading, and the boundary between text and image is dissolving. Triple Canopy, Badlands and DIS thrive on the premise that these “distractions” provide a platform for innovation. The “expanded field” and the Web-generated middlebrow open up new ways of generating and exploring knowledge. “We don’t know where the Internet is headed. We suspect that we are in a very primary/primordial moment,” DIS says. The future is uncertain, but it’s clear that engaged writing and reading will persist.
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