for the love of bot, end already!

My initial plan was to actually write the whole remix/adaptation/whatever you want to call it implied by the title of James Bridle’s “We Fell in Love in a Coded Space” presentation, with links going out from lyrics to other articles dealing with things like code in semiotics and expanding on the theory of code/space and other like things.

But I didn’t understand it well enough to actually do that, so I decided to just awkwardly reference a bunch of stuff at the beginning of my post and let you wade through them, or not, as you were inclined.

Job done.

Except for the point-making part, I mean.

So, my point, in 1000 words or less

The overarching point of the James Bridle video is that, more and more, we exist in coded spaces. We navigate through these spaces with the help of software. “Space” is not necessarily physical but more of an environment governed by structures and rules. He gives the example of the airport check-in lounge (here-ish) and how it is governed by all of these rules that everyone knows how to operate within, but that if the structure were to fall apart, if the software were to fail, it would just be a warehouse full of angry people.

Publishing is becoming a bit like a warehouse full of angry people. We had systems that worked, and if they didn’t work perfectly at least we sort of understood them. But now we’re existing in a space that is operating on a code that we don’t understand, a polari we’re not privy to. I don’t think I used that word properly, but click the link and get the gist.

Or so some think. I don’t really believe that things are all that different than they ever were. We’re still selling books to a market saturated with other media, one that often seems largely apathetic. If the radio and film and television and video games failed to kill the book, if the internet hasn’t killed the book yet, I don’t think anything will. Because the book offers something that isn’t embodied in other media, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Publishing is also not at a something that will disappear. If anything, good publishers are needed more than ever given the sheer volume of texts being produced. Publishing is feeling pressure to orient itself in the digital world. eBooks, the arguable catalyst for publishing’s quarter-life crisis, don’t deserve nearly the attention that they get from publishers as vehicles of change. They are still just books. Books with interfaces, books with eInk bought at virtual storefronts, but books. Publishing is in the business of books, so the eBook, the silo of modern story-telling, operates in the same code/space that publishing always did when you get right down to it. The structure that existed still exists but in a different iteration. We have always existed in coded spaces. It is how we’ve always been able to understand each other.

The issue for publishing is the internet.

The Problem with the Internet

The internet exists as an extension of the reality that we have always existed in, and as a result it mimics it’s structures. But the internet has a problem, and as a result so do digital stories, and publishing should it ever truly try to go digital-native.

The problem is one of endings.

“…a problem that we have for our digital stories is we don’t know how to end anything we put online, and that’s kind of a problem with the medium…we deal with endings badly, the canonical example being Geocities.”

When you google “endings online,” “endings in digital stories” or “endings in cyberspace,” you are met with, among other things, links to the TV show Happy Endings, an old press page for a short film festival, and, appropriately enough, The Never-Ending Story.

Things online don’t end. Geocities didn’t end. Geocities is in the fossil record of the internet. It exists as dead links on old websites and in the nostalgia of people who were part of the early days of the internet. Every now and then, you click a link on a webpage and are redirected to the error page for a defunct geocities site.

The internet doesn’t do endings very well. Every now and then, it wipes things out, but it can never quiet manage to do a clean sweep. Nothing is ever completely eradicated online. We are left with phantom links and truncated limbs, blogs that update regularly for months and then abruptly stop sometime in 2009. Because time is compressed online, the past is often as immediate as the present. The present is whenever you are finding something. The future never comes. And nothing ever really ends. The internet is not yet a place for closure, or conclusions. It is the beginning and the middle, but not the end.

Publishing is used to selling the package. The novel, in particular, has trouble operating in this medium because print is the package, the story as silo, the act as the artifact, and any other alliteration I’m able to adequately actualize. What I’m saying is that one of the great things about a great work of fiction is that it concludes. Literature offers closure, something often notably lacking in day-to-day life.

Even magazines, which are arguably more suited to the monthly/weekly/daily posting made possible by the internet, offer a container. They offer curation which yields something that, when looked at as a package, could be viewed as a finished product. There aren’t (usually) articles in online magazines that stop somewhere in the middle, to be picked up at a later date. The conversation about an article might go on forever, but the article itself concludes. When the magazine ends, issues and articles can be held up, can stand on their own merits. Publishing online still offers the package, but there are realms in which the package is difficult to offer.

Transmedia storytelling, or collaborative storytelling, stories that never end but go on as along as there are people interested in continuing them. And how to sustain that stuff? Or how to make it self-sustaining, so that the humans don’t have to be constantly monitoring engagement with a story that never ends. How to tell a story that never ends?

Bridle makes an interesting point, right about here, about the work of bots on Wikipedia. He points out that about 2/3 of the top editors on Wikipedia are bots, and that those bots do everything from temporarily locking down pages to keep users from getting into “edit wars” to hunting through Wikipedia for orphan pages and adding public domain images to articles. They make Wikipedia function better.

Maybe, down the line (or possibly right now, I’m not up on bots), they will make things function better on the internet as a whole. Tie up loose ends. Offer up some stilted sense of closure. “Since last night I am finding no more articles. Good-bye!” Or something like that.

Probably not, though. The internet wasn’t made for endings. Maybe when net neutrality falls and we’re all forced onto Internet 2.0, we’ll sort endings out.

I don’t know if I made the point I wanted to make. We should talk about it.

One Reply to “for the love of bot, end already!”

  1. I can certainly see why JMax pointed me to your paper (good one John)! My paper addresses a somewhat similar notion and hopefully you’ve been reciprocally assigned to comment on it. We’ve sort of come to one similar conclusion, but looked at the problem completely differently.

    In fact, I largely disagree with what you’ve said about endings in *most* cases—particularly if we’re talking about ebooks. For the most part, we read ebooks in epub or pdf format. They are very much contained and DO have definite endings. Simply because we’ve introduced code doesn’t mean we’ve completely liberated books (yet) from their containers. And it definitely doesn’t mean books don’t end. With the exception of some obscure experimental PoMo works (I suspect), ebooks are still discrete objects with start, a climax and an ending.

    But you’ve talked about two different types of digital reading. Reading the web is quite different from reading an ebook (so far).

    I don’t feel that some inconclusive Google search results prove the internet provides no endings, but I do feel like an ending is beside the point (that’s where my paper comes in!). Many independent nodes on the web do end—they draw conclusions, tie up in neat bows, meet a need for information the user/reader set out to find. The difference is “différance” :) Even though many of these nodes may have a conclusion, they are rarely independent ideas. They almost invariably differ—linking out to more information for support, clarification, definition, illustrative content, etc. A reader might reach a point where their curiosity is satiated or their time runs short, but they can endlessly delve into the depths of the web should they choose. Maybe, instead of traditional endings, it’s actually a question of reader satisfaction. Wherever they choose to metaphorically close the book, that is their ending.

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