Monday, October 31, 2011

Exploring the Small Demons of Books

When discussing the differences between high mobility/low mobility knowledge constructs, I often invoke the book as an exemplar of the latter given its general property of being unable to undergo modification through transmission.  You and I may have different copies of the same book, but the words, characters, jokes and cultural references (to only name a few) remain the same even if we loan the book to a friend or find a stranger on the subway reading a copy of foreign origin.  This singular property, its immutable character, makes the book a superb transmitter of stable knowledge.
And while I am far from an authoritative source of knowledge on the history of books, a la Adrian Johns, the low mobility potential of the book (as I have defined it) continually proves to be a fascinating intellectual investigation.  That's probably why I found the following tweet from James Bridle, author of the blog and general commentator on the intersection of technology and literature (in addition to 'book futurism' as he states on his blog), to be very interesting with regards to my evolving thoughts on the mobility potential knowledge in books possess.

Tweeting from the 'Books in Browsers' 2011 conference, Bridle added the following thought tweet a day after the above came into came into existence:

Both of these thoughts explain, in their own way, what I have come to see as the interaction of high and low mobility found in knowledge constructs.  In a real sense, the beginning portion of Bridle's first tweet is entirely correct; books do not need a network.  But when brought under the lens of mobility potential, books do need a human network in order to not only transmit their stable knowledge but also facilitate the creation of high mobility knowledge constructs- reader's thoughts, interpretations and influences- that produce a full range of what we might call 'culture', expressed in a variety of forms.  In this interpretation, the second half of Bridle's initial tweet fully affirms the role low mobility books play in the creation of a diversified field of culture, made up of both high and low mobility knowledge potentials- other books, essays, rumors, stories, tweets, blogs, art, music, etc…

Bridle's second tweet affirms this interpretation.  In a good example of circular reasoning, books are products of culture which, when transmitted- networked- produce additional iterations of culture which have the potential to produce other books, and so on.  Whereas in the past, when interaction between knowledge constructs of high and low mobility often produced disruptive asynchronous effects (think the interaction between written documents and oral rumors disputing their contents), thanks to the facilitation of digital networks new forms of knowledge interaction, which I label 'transition points', are engendering greater interaction with knowledge constructs of both high/low mobility with decreasing degrees of disruptive asynchronicity.  In a previous post, I demonstrated how Wikipedia was one such 'transition point' involving both high and low knowledge constructs in the process of certifying encyclopedic knowledge.  I have recently discovered a website that I feel is another 'transition point', this time for analyzing books; Small Demons.

Here is a video explaining, in part, what Small Demons is trying to do:

I recently received a beta invite to use the service (you can register for an invite from the Small Demons main page) and while it is still very rudimentary in many respects, there is a lot of potential for the service as it continues development.  

The reason I qualify Small Demons as a 'transition point' is the way it essentially helps users pick apart the details, perhaps uncovering the influences an author selected when creating their low mobility literary work, and then transfer those users reactions to these details in a high mobility manner.  Engaging in a limited 'reverse-engineering' of 'cultural' sources (it cannot reveal the mystique of writing, only the sum total of references in the work), Small Demons gives glimpses, shadows perhaps (thus the Demons reference?), of the high mobility knowledge constructs- i.e. thoughts, influences, culture- that entered the minds of writers as they produced works dissected by the website.  People can comment via the 'like' function on various ephemeral bits uncovered- a map location, or weapon, or music album- and create their own interpretation of the work, in a very low mobility way (the likes don't change via transmission), that nonetheless acknowledges the extreme high mobility thought process that spurred the 'like' expression people find attachment to in a book.  The asynchronous effect between the interaction of low mobility books and references and high mobility thought-reactions is reduced to the extreme in Small Demons, if only because people can state what attracted them to the work, revealing what part of the creative mystique drew them into the words, in a way that is stable and yet capable of creating high mobility spin-offs.  This is accomplished through debates on the selected book or influences facilitated by the act of reading (see Bridle's first tweet above), further discussions brought about via the 'share' button linking to Twitter or Facebook, or in the soon to be implemented 'curation' option whereby particularly knowledgable people who add details to the site can moderate discussions or review incoming contributions.

Because the website is stability based- there is little to no modification of the works presented- Small Demons embraces the low mobility defined by the books it covers, yet the capacity for high mobility discussion and the examination of the sources used in literary works allows the site to become a 'transition point'.  Increasingly, digital portals and structures are being developed that fuse high & low mobility knowledge constructs in way that augment the presence of both without producing the often disruptive asynchronous effects observed in previous analog or textual conceptions.  Small Demons is more than just a book lovers 'nerd-out' site- it is emblematic of a new type of knowledge production 'augmented reality', reshaping the way we both produce and consume cultural content.


  1. Having not yet tried Small Demons myself, I feel I must limit the scope of my comments to some basic suspicions, for which I must beg everyone's forgiveness. Nevertheless, I'd like to air these suspicions out.

    First, what does Small Demons accomplish, as a transition point, beside making book trivia available -- or navigable? I mean, maybe it's too early to tell what emergent cultural or practical quality this service will have once it, too, becomes (or fails to become) "networked." So, in fact, it may be too early to ask such a question. Still, I do want to harp on the notion of trivia here -- and I wonder if I simply mean trivia in the sense of contextual tidbits preserved in quasi-bullet-point form.

    What I mean is that, as with watching movies for example, once a movie gets old enough, the charisma of a previous generation's stars -- to give just one form of contextual currency -- becomes largely inaccessible on an affective, truly high-mobility level for the current generation. In other words, once one generation's cultural context fades away, what remains of it except dry facts? For example, I may still be able to extract affective meaning from an expression or statement made by Walter Matthau, but I have to be that much more well-read, so to speak, to do the same with Buster Keaton. Even once I do convince myself that I've developed a true Buster Keaton affect, I'm stuck with the dilemma of whether this affect is the same as that of the generation for whom Keaton was new, or the next generation for whom Keaton was established, or for another generation form whom Keaton was a saint. Likewise with Matthau, actually. Is my reception of the Matthau expression the same as my father's? The same as my grandfather's? And if such details are saved as clouds of online media, will any significant original affect be accessible at all? Maybe this is a very simple issue, I now think. Maybe my concern is trivial.

    My main complaint here is this: I feel I need this idea of a transition point characterized more fully. Indeed, considering the development of academic historical perspectives takes time, I may very well simply be serving the role of little more than cheerleader here. Or I may simply be whining. Still, I wonder: What can you say about transition points in older, more established, but still recent enough high (or is it mid?) mobility media, such as radio or television, that might help this transitional idea seem more well-grounded? Can these be used to characterize your idea more fully somehow? Your example of edicts from the Czar is informative, to be sure, but I wonder if I'm missing some deeper significances here.

    Being insufficiently well-read myself, and being a general cynic, I wonder if a recasting of older thoughts about radio and television in this new "transitional" light, even a passing reference to them, would help at all. I worry that I'm making unfair and constricting criticisms here. Or even if I'm making any sort of reasonably clear point. Let me know if I am or not. I'm really trying to wrap my head around your idea. Maybe the idea is simply not yet "networked" for me, not yet given social currency. Can I get a bit of help?

  2. Ishai,

    Thanks for the comments and questions- working through these helps both of us understand the issues in a more meaningful way.

    Regarding your first point, the trivializing of knowledge and fading of cultural context, I believe you are expressing a valid concern when it comes to archiving sources in general. First dealing with trivia- what is interesting to me, regarding how Small Demons presents this information, is that people can begin to see a networked effect of how tidbits of cultural heritage stand out in a variety of works produced over a variety of years. It might be possible for people to view the sudden emergence of a product or see the various ways authors used the trivial facts/objects as carriers of metaphor or narrative. It has the potential for uncovering some of the shared feeling an author draws upon from their own milieu when writing a novel. Of course, this is a very high-minded 'potential' but one that could be allowed by the way the site makes such trivia navigable.

    Second, on cultural context, you are absolutely correct that knowledge constructs of the past- movies, novels, poetry, art, etc… - become more difficult to fully interpret as time passes. However, more than dry facts remain from these works because they capture, in their own way, an inspiration or feeling that speaks to the larger sense of the person viewing/reading the work. Your view of Buster Keaton is just as valid as a view from someone contemporary to Keaton's work being released. The temporal divide between you and them might make Keaton more difficult to grasp in a time-sensitive accurate manner, but this divide does not make either view superior to the other. Also, in my analysis of high and low mobility I avoid the issue of knowledge content entirely- my central concern is how the information is transmitted and to what degree that information can be modified on subsequent transmissions. Content is important, and vital, yet I've tried to not address that issue until after I've thought out some of the more basic assumptions. But your concerns, I believe, find echo in similar thoughts expressed by Federico Giordano in his essay 'Almost the Same Game'. It used to be online, but has since disappeared. I know Google has a cache of it, and I can also send you my copy if you are interested.

    About further definition of 'transition points'- as you might have guessed, this are some very new ideas I'm exploring through posts on the blog. Because of this, I am still investigating what exactly constitutes the workings of various 'transition points'. Don't think you are missing deeper significances- I'm still working out if there are truly deep significances to be found. I need to spend more time looking at the earlier, textual, models of information sharing to give the analysis some firm grounding before I want to tackle more modern media types like television or radio. Off hand, I would say that radio would be the more interesting media type to examine under a mobility potential framework as users have pretty much had a lot of 'free space' to experiment and utilize the medium in ways television never allowed. It definitely deserves more attention.

    Your points are clear- no worries there. Stay tuned here for more posts as I try to work out these ideas.

  3. Thanks for the response. I must say that television still interests me in terms of mobility potential, especially because of the firm control of networks on transmission within/through it. Radio, too, for the opposite reasons -- which you properly sum up under the (relative) term 'free space.' TV, then, to my mind, is merely a more dictatorial form of 'transmission point,' a 'colonized space,' a real panoptic tower. Radio, in contrast, -- more subverted. Likewise, you might say that some transition points on the internet are more 'colonized' and others more 'free.' But indeed, as we both seem to agree, more thinking is required here.

    In the meantime, yes, please send me a copy of the Giordano essay. Thanks again.

  4. Correction: I said 'transmission point,' when I actually meant 'transition point' -- the topic of our discussion, right? Okay: 'Transition point.' Carry on.