Sunday, May 27, 2007

The future of online text - looks a lot like poetry

Earlier this month VentureBeat reported findings by Walker Reading Technologies regarding the inefficiency of conventional linear text, the kind you're reading right now.

Since "the natural field of focus for our eyes is circular," they say, our effort to focus on a single line, our brains are force "to a wage a constant subconscious battle with itself to filter and discard the superfluous inputs" from the lines of words above it and below it.

So Walker Reading Technologies has unveiled its LiveInk program that analyzes "written language for meaning and language structure, and then applies algorithms that reformat the text into a series of short, cascading phrases. It breaks complex syntax into simpler syntax, which makes it easier for the brain to absorb the material."

The resulting lines of text, which they illustrate in a jpeg, are remarkably similar to free verse, or simple found poetry.

Poets, of course, liberate their language from the forced march of prose linearity by breaking lines, to indicate both the natural pause of the human voice taking a breath, and to reveal deeper semantic and syntactic levels of utterance. It's coincidental that a program is developed to break prose into poetic lines at the same moment when contemporary poetry is moving from the printed page into what is often spontaneous and unique oral performance.

The company claims that LiveInk increases reading comprehension by "10-15 percentile points on nationally standardized reading tests." If their claim can be substantiated by educators, LiveInk could unleash the potential of the e-textbook at all levels of education. The great objection to online and electronic text is that it's difficult to read, because of the limited resolution possible on the screen or monitor, in comparison to the high resolution of the printed page.

But the physical book is limited by practical considerations of physical space, the size and number of pages that can reasonably be bound and carried -- a limitation that doesn't apply to hypertext, since the formatting of lines will have minimal effect on the size of the file or its demand on memory space.

If LiveInk truly enhances comprehension and improves comprehension, it will mark a revolution.

The one question is whether students will resist LiveInk's reformatting of the line. After all, it looks suspiciously like poetry, a form of writing that most students in my classes over the past 35 years have rejected as being too "weird-looking" to understand.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

More about online campaigns

Following up after yesterday's post regarding online campaign strategies, I recommend Michael Scherer's piece called "Power to the people, 2.0," at Salon.

Scherer's focus is on the lessons that John Edwards and Barack Obama learned from Howard Dean, about using the Internet to build an authentic political community. He quotes Joe Trippi, formerly Dean's manager who's now in the Edwards team: "People want to belong to something. They want to belong to a community that goes back to that notion that there is something bigger than yourself."

In service of building the social network, campaign managers are even taking the unconventional step of shifting attention away from the candidate's image and toward the supporters' active involvement in local issues. "On Tuesday, the home page of Obama's campaign Web site did not even feature a head shot of the candidate." (Doesn't Obama know that the Internet is only for narcissists?)

Hillary Clinton's camp, by contrast, is using her web presence to position her publicly, with relatively meager efforts to solicit active involvement. The Republicans, Scherer notes, "have treated their online operations more or less like an electronic form of direct mail campaigning. The campaigns rarely seek to involve supporters through online outreach in anything beyond traditional volunteer work and fundraising."

The article ends on a note of caution, reminding readers that Dean's Internet savvy failed to deliver his New Hampshire victory. The point is well taken. However, the Dean campaign is now several years in the past. Social networking is a more influential, more pervasive phenomenon today, far better understood than the nascent movement it was in the 2004 campaign.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Democrats turn out to be good at "doing" the Internet

Jose Antonio Vargas, in yesterday's (May 21) Washington Post, gave an insightful commentary on politics and new media, pointing out that "the culture of Democrats is a much better fit in the Internet world" than Republican culture.

The Republican party's greatest strength in decades past has been their disciplined technique of staying unified in the delivery of its message. The standard procedure is to formulate the message at the top, at the level of the RNC or the White House, then distribute that message downward through various media outlets.

But that process doesn't work in "the often chaotic, bottom-up, user-generated atmosphere of the Internet."

The less discipline, more fractious Democratic party is being invigorated by the free forum chaos of Web 2.0, according to Peter Leyden of the New Politics Institute: "All this talking and discussing and fighting energizes everyone, involves everyone, and gets people totally into it."

The few Republican triumphs online that Vargas chronicles, which include 2004 attacks on John Kerry and Dan Rather, were still top-down, coordinated projects rather than grassroots initiatives by cadres of amateur politicos, as has generally been the case with the notable Democratic successes, such as the YouTube broadcast of George Allen's regrettable "Macaca" comment.

Republicans have had astonishing success on radio, which McLuhan called the "tribal drum." The advent of Web 2.0 offers a new, radically different form of participatory community where the voices of Democrats and Progressives may speak the loudest.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

In praise of paper, in hope for hypertext

I've just finished reading Matthew Sharpe's dark, hilarious novel Jamestown, in which one of the multiple narrators wonders at himself in the act of recording his thoughts on "humankind's flimsies and least likely invention, paper."

My own feelings about paper are untinged by irony, but hypertext has complicated my relationship with it.

Last month, I spent an afternoon sorting through some boxes I'd left unopened in the basement for over a decade, and discovered a folder containing yellowed typescripts of poems I'd assumed lost after a hasty division of personal effects when my first marriage suddenly ended. My only other copies existed as WordPerfect 5.1 files on a 5.5" floppy -- irretrievable, corrupted documents on antiquated technology.

Our electronic files are fragile, in danger of obsolescence. Paper lasts. Even when the individual page disintegrates with age, the technology remains constant, unchanged for thousands of years. All hail to paper.

A few weeks ago at Salon, Laura Miller reviewed David Damrosch's The Buried Book, which is an account of how the Epic of Gilgamesh lay "buried in the ruins of a Mesopotamian palace" for almost 3000 years before being unearthed by archeologists in the 19th century. The story, of course, was recorded in cuneiform and baked onto clay tablets -- an even hardier medium than paper.

I have no idea what expectations the Gilgamesh scribe might have entertained about the future, the longevity, of his efforts. It's clear, though, that papyrus and then paper enticed writers to visions of immortality. The paper text offers the advantage of being easily reproduced, whether by scribe or (later) by press. This possibility of such permanent, portable, reproducible records led the Roman poet Horace to predict (rightly!) that his poems would outlast bronze monuments ("Exegi monumentum aere perennius"), a sentiment echoed by Shakespeare ("Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme") and other writers through the ages.

I continue to work in the medium of the printed page, almost every day, pursuing every writer's dream of a finished, published piece that will live beyond my allotted years. This morning I taught a Business Communication class in a computer lab where two editors from Columbus State's student literary magazine, Spring Street, were compiling manuscripts for this year's edition. Watching them work, I felt the old romantic thrill of bringing the work into print, birthing it into paper.

Hypertext, the electronic document, is impermanent. We bloggers and web writers commit our thoughts to binary code, electronic files, servers, and pixels on monitors -- all technologies that may be as useless in the next decade as my old 5.5" floppy is now. What we write today may be (will likely be) unavailable to a future audience in any form.

But its singular appeal is its novelty. Unlike paper, hypertext isn't freighted with millennia of cultural history, social associations or artistic expectations. It's a radically new medium, with potential that's we've just begun to realize.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The crisis in newspaper book reviews

Novelist Richard Ford has never read a literary blog, but he's ready to critique them anyway.

In a May 2 New York Times story about the decline of the book review in papers across the nation, Ford remarks that "“Newspapers, by having institutional backing, have a responsible relationship not only to their publisher but to their readership, in a way that some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute maybe doesn’t.”

While I'm reluctant to second-guess one of our greatest living authors (and a fellow Mississippian, as well), such high-brow stereotyping of the blogger lacks understanding and gratitude for the contributions the blogosphere has made to the book industry, and to individual authors such as Mr. Ford.

The crisis of the newspaper book review was a topic of conversation on yesterday's Talk of the Nation, when John Freeman of the National Book Critics Circle was a guest. Economics are at the root of the problem, with publishers struggling to cut costs in the face of market uncertainties, in part brought on by Internet competition. Seemingly no one views this as a welcome development, and no one with an ounce of sense is about to claim that the blog can replace the traditional book review.

But book bloggers are a major force for good for the publishing industry, and for authors. Motoko Rich of the Times mentions the case of the short story collection This Is Not Chick Lit, which was largely overlooked by print reviewers but received a great deal of support and attention in the blogosphere. The result? The book "is now in its sixth printing with 45,000 copies in print."

I hope that Mr. Ford, a man of great sagacity, will reconsider and sample at least a few of the book blogs where 'guys sitting in their basements' have been promoting his work for years. I myself stand second to no one in my love of the old-fashioned book review, and I hope for its rescue.

However, if it goes the way of extinction, the blame will fall on the newspaper publishers who have abdicated their responsibility to the literary community -- a responsibility that the literary bloggers seem happy to assume.