Monday, 30 March 2009

Of eggs & ebooks

Payday tomorrow and I'm contemplating the next two major purchases to be made here in Caxland: a henhouse and an ebook reader. The irony is that I've spent a lifetime reading and never looked after a hen in my life, yet choosing the right accommodation for the soon-to-arrive chickens is proving significantly easier than selecting an ebook device. And I'm talking orders of magnitude here. When it comes to housing poultry I know I need maximum ease, minimum maintenance, easy to clean and as foxproof as possible. That the eglu from Omlet looks funky and maintains its value with virtually zero depreciation are a fantastic bonus (the rare occasions on which one appears second hand on eBay it fetches only a few pounds less than a brand new model). Yes it's going to be expensive, but do I care? Only a bit. I've wanted hens for years, and despite a peripatetic lifestyle the eglu and kind neighbours willing to trade shutting-up duty for fresh eggs are finally going to make it happen.

Compare the ease of this purchase then with my dilemma over what hardware or device I select to read ebooks with. I know more about books than I'll ever know about chickens. And yet I really have no idea what to go with: Sony E-book Reader; iLiad; Cybooks Gen 3 ebook; Kindle 2; Kindle on iphone... You may be wondering why if I like printed books so much I even want to do this (cf. yesterday's post). The answer is multi-textured and certainly not because I've wanted an ebook reader for years. Sure I've owned various PDAs and electronic notebooks, but none of them has ever become an indispensible tool or the only repository of my contacts list. And each time I bought a new electronic organiser I thought this was the device that would finally house diary, contacts, to do list and latterly Internet access - making everything finally cohere into one easy package. But here I am years later, with a mobile phone, laptop, access to a massive database at work and a dongle for online access on the move. Oh yes - and a decaying filofax. A niggling voice tells me that whatever ebook option I choose it might end up just as much of a let down as the last generation of devices.

Why an ebook reader and why now, then? Well because Web 2.0 and beyond, that's why. I live and work in a world of information, ideas, books and speed. Much as I love print books - and let's face it my daily working life revolves around enabling publishers to get them out of a warehouse and into customers' hands - I don't always want to wait. If one of my colleagues or friends emails or blogs about a writer, or if I read a review or hear a speaker talking about a book, particularly a non-fiction book, I'd like to read and discuss it now - not next week. So although I can't imagine ever not buying any print books, there are some texts for which I'd happily trade bound paper for speed. For an English Literature & Drama graduate I purchase a terrifying number of business books - and guess what - they're not the ones in pride of place on my sitting room shelves.

I search online for clues about which bit of kit to select and my heart sinks. OK, I admit, I held and had a play with a Kindle 2 at the IPG Conference and was temporarily seduced. But why would I want to carry one with me everywhere when it can't do anything other than host books. Why can't I blog from it, tweet from it, make calls from it, order my groceries from it, check in with the children on it, and maybe if I rig up a webcam, look out for Mr Fox to boot? If I do go for Kindle, it'll be on iphone, no matter how sexy the Kinde 2 looks and feels. But then there's not even a Kindle 2 page on the website yet, and luddite that I am I can't work out if I can download Kindle for iphone from the .com website to a UK phone. Moreover if I can, do I really want to only be able to buy US editions from the .com site?

There are alternatives of course. I know that as at 21 August last year Gail Rebuck thought her Sony ebook Reader the bees knees. But she's not in my Filofax on my Linked In network, so how do I know if she still thinks so? For all I know it might already be discarded in the back of a storage box along with a jumble of chargers, dead mobile phones, ethernet cables and other detritus of modern life. And above all the Sony seems to me to have many of the same downsides as Kindle 2.

So, dear Reader, if you're using an ebook reader - your opinions and advice will be most welcome.

In the meantime one thing's certain. There'll be chickens in the garden and omlette for breakfast long before I've made my reader choice. Here in Caxland eggs seem a whole lot easier to crack than ebooks. And I'll bet that whatever device I do choose I won't be able to sell it a year later on eBay for as much as it cost me.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

On Twitterverse

I hope to return to some of the issues raised by Tapscott, Keen et al, but as it’s the weekend I thought I’d permit myself a little detour into reading for pleasure. And most specifically reading poetry. I accept it's not a widespread habit. Moreover most booksellers I know reckon more people write poetry than buy it. The relative health of the US and UK poetry book markets can be gauged by comparing the two stacks of poetry on offer at the Union Station Washington branch of R Dalton with W H Smith at Kings Cross London, where it is virtually impossible to find a single poetry book except the occasional Poems on the Underground or Forward Book of Poetry (even when the shop isn't halved in size due to the ongoing station refurbishment). But bear with me. Poetry reading lurks deep in my DNA, and I like to think there are wider lessons about publishing to be found via an occasional detour into verse. And in this instance, Twitterverse.

Last week marked two debuts for me: blogging and tweeting. And by a happy co-incidence it was also the week in which Ben Okri began publishing a poem a line a day on Twitter. Today is Day 5 and when I checked this afternoon, Okri had attracted 268 followers. Compare this to 11,776 for Cheryl Cole and draw your own conclusions.

I'm finding it hard to know what to make of Okri's experiment, other than its obvious role as a hook for sales of his forthcoming Tales of Freedom, in which Okri is said to be experimenting with the boundaries between short story and verse forms. (I'm presuming that as it is in the public domain on Twitter, I'm not breaching copyright by reproducing it here.) So far the poem reads:

I sing a new freedom -
Freedom with discipline.
We need freedom to rise higher.
Be true to yourself.
In the follies of our times.
Except of course that isn't how I've experienced it. The "follower" receives a line a day. If like me, you twitter on your laptop not your phone or PDA (uncool I know, but I'm over 40 and on a steep learning curve) it's likely that by the time you look, Okri's tweet of the day is already buried way down out of sight under a pile of pressing/ diverting/ informative/ amusing/ crass/ inane comments. And then there's the question: is a line a poem? It's certainly a reading experience of sorts. But not satisfying one. So far it has only been the fact that I know Okri's credentials as a poet and thinker that on reading a line like We need to rise higher I haven't rolled my eyes in pretty much the same way my 13-year-old does every time I open my mouth, dismissed Okri as a spent new age guru and hit the remove button. I might be more lenient if I felt Okri were writing the poem on a day-by-day basis. But based on the Guardian's report I think not. And I note that since Day 3 tweets have been sent at precisely 10.00am from Hootsuite, which presumably frees the poet from the responsibility of being online at the time.

Still, I'm in too deep to stop. On Okri's profile page the poem so far reads upside down, as follows:

Line 5: In the follies of our time. #benokri
10.00am MAR 28 from Hootsuite
Line 4: Be true to yourself. - #benokri
10.00am MAR 27 from Hootsuite
Line 3: We need freedom to rise higher. - #benokri
10.00am MAR 26 from Hootsuite
Line 2: Freedom with discipline. #benokri
5.30pm MAR 25 from web
Line 1: I sing a new freedom - #benokri
5.29pm MAR 24 from web

Looking at it like this prompts some insight into the nature of reading for pleasure. I find myself irritated that I have no idea how long this poem is. I can't flick through the pages and know at the outset whether I am in for a haiku or an epic. I'm annoyed too that I can't see the poem the right way up and without the interruptions of twitter rubric. Are they a refrain that the poet wants to be part of the poem? If so it's a dissonant harmony. I want this poem now. I want to see its shape; to make some judgements about it based on its form, its visual impact on a printed page (not scrawled on my notepad day-by-day). I want to know now whether it's worth spending my time and energy on - not at some indeterminate future date when the final line is delivered. Yet I'm also fascinated by questions like is this a poem yet? When does a poem become a poem? At present it's the poetical social networking equivalent of Bishop Berkley's table or possibly Schrödinger's cat. Does it exist, and is it alive or dead? Or has it even been completely born yet?

I'm exercised too by wondering when it is finished which way round will it be? I've never intentionally read a poem from the bottom up before (excepting perhaps Zukofsky's final 80 Flowers which he wrote hoping all of the relative juxtapostions of the words would resonate). So far this poem could work read from the top, but which is actually the bottom:

In the follies of our time.
Be true to yourself.
We need freedom to rise higher.
Freedom with discipline.
I sing a new freedom.
I find myself waiting to know whether tomorrow's tweet will add a new dimension to the poem and maybe tell me once and for all which way up it goes. Or sound like another throwaway from a second rate life coach. Either way I'll be looking for it at 10am.

So, I ask myself, do I like poetry delivered this way? No, not much. Will I be buying Tales of Freedom? You bet.

Twitter brought me back to Okri's work (and back to poetry after a few weeks off). But I'll be buying it in print, on paper.

Authors and publishers preach social & economic change at RSA/Britannica debate

I’m encouraged to notice that although the world of the word published on paper in volumes known as books is undergoing something of an identity crisis, it is still authors and publishers who are driving forward vital social discussion. Thursday evening's energetic RSA/Britannica debate The Economic Crisis and the Age of Uncertainty featured three prominent authors alongside an eminent academic economist who, between them, set a fair few cats amongst the pigeons.

After a tentative start with a temporary Powerpoint failure neatly counterpointing his evangelism of the transformational power of new technologies Don Tapscott soon hit his stride (with the support of an off-stage tecchy). Those familiar with Tapscott’s Wikinomics will not have been surprised at his proselytising web 2.0 as a force for collaboration, self-organisation, economic renewal and, ultimately, for good (and that’s leaving aside the way in which web-based social interaction is believed to be rewiring the human brain).

Two of Tapscott’s three respondents, economist Professor Lord Eatwell and Dan Hind (author of The Threat to Reason: how the enlightenment was hijacked and how we can reclaim it - and publisher at the Bodley Head for his day job), approached the economic theme of the evening more directly than Tapscott in his upbeat but tangential presentation. For a while it looked as though the evening would fail to cohere or to fulfil its potential. Hind mused that having been failed by the self-regulation of financial institutions and the inability of the advertising-funded media to explore the truth, the public must step up to the plate to both demand and promulgate transparency by, amongst other methods, creating a new structure for funding investigative journalism. Professor Lord Eatwell, meantime, began by expressing the view that the interactive web is nowhere near so significant a force for change as the steam engine, electricity or the combustion engine. Notwithstanding the fact that Web 2.0 could not exist without electricity there was almost an audible intake of breath from the disbelieving audience. As his speech progressed although we were moving deeper into the causes of abject failure in our global financial systems, we were straying further from the heart of the matter – which is (it seems to me) the question: how can we transform the global economy into a viable, sustainable and maybe even fair framework for humanity to support itself within?

And then respondent number three, Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur - how the Internet is killing our culture – whose body language confirmed his contrarian mindset as he resolutely remained seated, eschewing the lectern – spoke out in resolute tones articulating both his disagreement with Lord Eatwell over the relative significance of old and new technologies and his dubiousness about the over-simplicity of Tapscott’s view that it is the young who have become enabled experts and who will moderate the social and economic transitions that we so desperately need. Keen pointed out that although the young are empowered by new technologies, they are still children and we are still their parents. Sparks began to fly as he spoke of the unnoticed social revolution that has handed children supremacy over adults and he posed the questions “have we let our children down?” and “have we failed as parents?”.

By this time all four panelists had begun to bristle with energy as the debate jumped several gears into overdrive. The woefully inadequate time remaining for Q&As brought four viewpoints from the floor, including the question – “if pedagogy is dead, will universities be reinvented?” and a fascinating insight into what is wrong with the structure of the economy from the founder of a peer-based banking organisation (his view seemed to be that the fundamental flaw of our historical economic structures lies the homogeneity of education, thinking and expectations of the highly intelligent people who devised and operated them). Each of the four points raised could form the basis of a whole new debate in their own right (and it is to be hoped that the RSA and Britannica take note of that).

Almost out of time, the four speakers were engaging at a level that was simultaneously contentious and collaborative – all four in their summations managed to agree and disagree with the others. The final few minutes ranged from Tapscott’s suggestion that a far better comparison for the changes that are being wrought by Web 2.0 is not the steam engine, but the printed book, which was the first vehicle for mass dissemination of information, to Keen’s disturbing and unanswered question, “what would have happened to global democracy in the 1930s if the social web had existed then?”

Chairman Matthew Taylor (Chief Executive of the RSA) in closing the evening described it as the most contentious he had witnessed in RSA lecture theatre. The pity is that it was far too short - the room was bursting with informed professionals many of whom had much to contribute to the discussion. I can only hope that all of us present left asking ourselves how we as individuals can ensure that the debate is not left within the four walls of the RSA – but taken out into our lives, workplaces and homes – to find a way forward for the economy, and thereby for society, that does not go down the paths that Andrew Keen so darkly hinted at in his references to 1930s fascism.

And in the meantime - three cheers for authors and publishers.