[Report of the Off the Press Conference – a more tidied version can be found at http://digitalpublishingtoolkit.org/2014/05/off-the-press-report-day-ii/]
Tools and Workshops
The second day of Off the Press starts with workshops. I decide to go to the workshop about pandoc first, as it promises to be about a way of working with text that I am not used to, but have started to like. When I started to use computers, in 1991 there was already Word and that is what I used for writing. At the same time I still sometimes had to use command line tools and learned about 20 Unix-commands. Through the years I’ve met people who championed the use of emacs, LaTEX, Multimarkdown or pandoc. But I have never really figured out how to work in that ‘paradigm’. First thing to understand is that pandoc is basically a very powerful converting tool. Pandoc is not an environment, but a step in a chain, a step in the workflow. It just converts. And it won’t solve the problems of converting visual design to a digital format. It is based on using Markdown, a simple markup language that uses asterisks, square brackets, underscores. I have always found it easier to write HTML markup, than this type of markup, but it is even simpler than writing HMTL-tags. The idea is that the plain text file shows the structure in a human readable format but is ready for computer consumption at the same time. What you see is what you get – but in a different way. An interesting remark is made – I forget who made it: ‘Word and InDesign are not basic tools of the trade – though most people now have grown up thinking they are. They are very specific tools.’ And it’s true that especially editors can take advantage of the knowledge of markup languages to create better, cleaner source texts… There’s some panic and chaos in the workshop, as the difference in competence is really big. Some participants use the terminal mode all the time, others have never seen a command line interface before, let alone worked with it. There is also a bit of a clash between those who think that people should be empowered to use tools themselves and acquire what they think is necessary basic knowledge, versus people who do not have such ‘basic knowledge’, consider such knowledge to be ‘technical’, and who, let’s face it, will probably never use these tools themselves anyway. In the middle is a majority who at least would like to get a taste of the ‘basic knowledge’.
After the lunch break I have a look at the other two workshops. Two groups of each 20 participants (the maximum) are working concentrated. In the SuperGlue workshop (http://superglue.it/) all have just installed, or tried to install, the SuperGlue package, thus creating a local network of mini servers. (The SuperGlue website states: ‘SuperGlue’s mini-server provides full control of your personal data by enabling you to run and maintain your server at home. This means you can better protect and share important information, directly with those whom you want to share it with. So your privacy is in your hands.’) Danja Vasiliev, one of the workshop tutors and creators of SuperGlue asks: ‘who has got it working?’ About everybody has it working. When I check my Airport it sees six SuperGlue networks. Again, I realise I should finally learn how to set up my own server, that I should learn this little bit of command line tweaking, so I can run WordPress on my own machine, and have all the other useful tools at my fingertips. It really is basic knowledge. A lot of it is hardly ‘technical’ – but it’s in a different computer paradigm, that feels very far removed from the shiny ‘intuitive’ interfaces.
Megan Hoogenboom leads the workshop in which the participants try to make an epub form a work of visual poetry. About everyone is playing around with what I call good old-fashioned HTML: writing tags. It looks like they are having good fun with HTML and CSS.
Both the SuperGlue workshop and the visual poetry workshop show that it’s fun to work with tools that empower you as user, that give you the feeling of being in control and creating something – instead of consuming nice interfaces that mostly control you. (I would say that working, well playing, with an iPad mostly give the user the feeling of being controlled by the interface, not of being in control. Using an iPad certainly does not enhance the feeling that one can make something oneself, apart from using services that offer heavily pre-formatted ways of creation. Sure, the touch screen can be great to control sound output, and it can be nice for gaming, but that is another thing). It’s an old point, but it stays relevant.
Back in the days – roughly 1997 to 2000 – I taught basic HTML (and writing to the web and so forth) at Mediamatic. At the time it was still considered ‘handy’ for editors and designers – who actually already were working in Dreamweaver and were doing Flash – to know some HTML. (Of course the question was always raised: why should we know these tags, when you can do the same visually in a WISYWIG editor?) Who, apart from the ‘nerds’, maintained their websites doing HTML in the 21st century? Maybe some artists who liked the simplicity of HTML. Some academics. The great thing is that a website made with simple HTML in 1995 still displays fine in any browser. I think there is a basic, simple fun in creating something with one’s own hands. Maybe the result doesn’t look as slick as other websites, but it will work fine, and you have control over almost every step.
Also in the visual poetry workshop I mostly see smiling faces. They generate an epub in the end – using a command line tool. And that’s great. There is fun in making epubs. (Michael Murtaugh told me that the pandoc workshop, which started quite chaotic, also ended with a great feeling of relief from the side of the participants, when they create an epub-output with pandoc with a simple command.)
‘Mp3 was not made big by the music industry, it was made big by file sharing, started by hackers. Netflix makes it decisions about programming by analysing Pirate Bay downloads. Maybe,’ Florian Cramer says, because he’s doing the introduction again, ‘we should have started the conference with this last panel on underground publishing.’ The underground file sharing of books is, at least in Europe, much larger than the retail market of e-books. Artists have been very active in this scene from the beginning according to Florian Cramer. It also exists much longer than the retail market. Some of it is illegal ‘sharing’ of books, but not all of it. Here at the conference Bibliothecha is running on a little local file server. It appears as an open wireless device on one’s computer and allows you to download books that people have put there. There’s also a website and a public repository – at http://bibliotecha.info.
Sebastian Lütgert, the next speaker, ran a repository of philosophical and activist and underground texts ‘back in the days’. (I still should have a lot of those files somewhere on a harddisk, the start of my digital library together with downloads from Project Gutenberg). His talk is about ‘what do you do with your books’. What do you do with the gigantic amounts of unsorted PDFs and epubs that you have on your hard disk, often not properly named. He assumes we all have such collections – do we? He does not like Calibre as a management tool and reader. Calibre (http://calibre-ebook.com/) – in the first place a converter for epubs and comparable formats – seems to be the tool of choice of many. Though I wonder how many users in the iPad/iPhone/Adobe universe know of it. Sebastian Lütgert main question is: how should library-software function, what is a good ebook-management tool? With support from Constant vzw (http://www.constantvzw.org/site/) in Brussels such software is developed: openmedialibrary (http://openmedialibrary.com/#about). He shows how it works in a web browser. It allows browsing the library of peers, and transferring books from there to one’s own computer.
We’re in ‘the underground’ here so we’re assuming that we’re dealing with free content and books that people have bought and like to share with friends… But the topic now is not how the digital is or should be changing society, culture and the economy. We’re looking at how the tools work in practice. Tools like this one are important, they are an activist ‘cog’ in the ‘machinery’. They change the function of the public library too – and public libraries, at least in Europe, are thinking about these transformations. Here we get into an endless and endlessly interesting discussion, which is a topic for another conference. It is self-evident that this is about sharing knowledge, which is a basis of our civilization. If I sound a bit ironic, this is unintentional. I agree with the philosophy to build these tools – it is an active and activist impetus to change society.
Calibre by the way also has a function to set up a content server, and can connect to other users. I think Calibre is a decent viewer, it’s great for conversion (Mobi to epub…), and can be used to produce ebooks. The main downside to Calibre, for me, – except for the fact that it adds its own code to your converted epubs – is that its interface is not attractive at all.
After Sebastian Lütgert it’s over to the Marcell Mars – hacker, activist, researcher. He is expert in book sharing and book hacking, and is, or was, actively involved in creating code for Calibre. (Actually he has just been banned from the developer forum). He wrote a sharing tool for Calibre: memoryoftheworld.org/public-library). He says: aesthetics and usability are less important than social interaction. Calibre might be ugly – he says it’s ugly – and not the easiest tool, but it has thousands of users. He wants to make Calibre a political project. He mentions the property regime and intellectual property are a huge problem. They sure are. He also rants against the technological problems – the asymmetry in the network, laptops that send requests for data, but never send data, though they could. He is so right in that. The internet we have created is a far cry to what it could have been in the dreams of 30, 20 or even 10 years ago. But most importantly Mars wants to connect again to the idea of the public library. The public library as the democratic dream of access to knowledge. He’s from Croatia where in 1991 books were burned because they were in Cyrillic, in Serbian, and/or communist. And the book scanning project at MAMA in Zagreb was a way of resurrecting that burned library. He’s passionate about the idea of the public library, and a passionate speaker with his Karl Marx-beard, using the word struggle quite a bit. I think he is very right in his passionate plea for the public library, and his plea against the development of electronic reading as ‘streaming’, licensing temporary access to a file, where the whole reading behaviour is controlled. In between he advises us to read Paper Machines, Markus Krajewski’s book on the card catalogue. The issue he raises is that of having power in the control over access to knowledge, control over the index to knowledge. He pleads to not let Google take over a total control over this index, that we need to retain the index of the public library. He also pleas for retaining the function of a librarian – as a person, a human being – and not hand over the control over the index to computer engineers and algorithms. There are many points in his presentation that deserve a detailed think-through and discussion.
Dusan Barok of monoskop (http://monoskop.org) is the last speaker. He delves into the history of reading and publishing, going back to manuscripts and scrolls. While he talks an image of one of the earliest Greek manuscripts of Plato’s Phaedrus is shown, with the title ‘Communing Texts’. Referencing is his main topic. How to refer to passages in an ebook? Pagination – a historical, ‘technological’ invention that came about through the development of the codex – is hardly ever mentioned in the discussion of ebooks. Dusan compares two traditions of referencing: the academic one (pointing to a specific passage in a text) and hyperlinking between sections of a website (through using anchors). He would like to see the possibility to digitally augment references in scanned printed books, as well as the possibility to link to any passage in a digital text – regardless of whether there is an anchor in the HTML. He says that this means looking at digital text as a continuous line of data (which is the materiality of digital text anyway). Enabling referencing between texts is important, as in such a way a community of texts can arise.
During the discussion Joost Kircz repeats that we indeed need referencing inside texts – and that this still does not exist. Interestingly Sebastian Lütgert says that it is probably easy to make such references inside electronic publications – and sketches the concept how it could work. Sounds simple. Joost Kircz says: well let’s make it, because this does not exist, and we have been wanting it for over 30 years now. (I think: doesn’t this go back to Ted Nelson’s ideas on transclusion – and that was very problematic?) Marcel Mars thinks that any computer student could solve it. But it’s another question if such a standard would be used. (And making sure it becomes a standard is difficult).
Marcell Mars ends one of his answers with that he hates the idea of the underground in the American and UK sense – ‘I’m not underground, fuck you’. He is very right – when you would consider all our book sharing (which in the current technical implementation means downloading) as being the new implementation of the public library. (And not as building a private library).
So, is there a toolkit? There is no finished toolkit yet. There is the repository with tools http://digitalpublishingtoolkit.org/github/. There is also by now a good insight in the various workflows used by small publishers, artists, writers, self-publishers and organizations. There is an overview of the pro’s and con’s of different tools. There is an overview of how all of this relates to the larger context of publishing, and to reading and sharing behaviours in online and offline culture. There is probably no perfect toolkit that fits every need. What I personally learned, is that pretty much everybody has been trying out different ways of making epubs that are good enough to bring into the world, and that there’s almost always something that has to be done ‘by hand’ as well, some tweaking and correction. Every method has advantages and disadvantages, and what fits a certain project depends on a variety of factors: the source text, the editorial process, the goal of the publication, the envisioned market or reading group, the available time… I think a progression has been made thanks to this project and the three conferences. There is also progression in knowing that a lot concerns really very basic stuff – very basic stuff.
The attraction of epubs for me lies in the fun of making something which is simple, which you can do yourself (just as well as any large institution). It’s in the joy of making – and also there is a parallel with web design of the middle 1990s. In that respect I have gone from amazement over the fact that such a fuss was being made of ‘e-books’, to a joy of making epubs.
(For pictures see: https://www.flickr.com/photos/networkcultures/)