Will the future of reading affect the future of writing?

James Joyce, it is said, became so disgruntled while drafting his first novel that he threw it on the fire. His girlfriend rescued the work-in-progress from the flames, and the subsequent rewrite became A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Such acts of literary self-immolation and redemption could only occur in our once-analog world, when the permanence of erasure moved only as fast as fire. These days, the irreversible deletion of one’s work is a mere keystroke away.

That said, it seems would-be authors are more apt to hit the “publish” key on their blogs than the “delete” key on their magnum opus. Future literary historians will decide whether this has been a positive trend for the world of letters. Of the 100 million?plus blogs in existence, it’s unclear how many purport to be literature, let alone how many actually are. Nevertheless, entire industries have arisen to support the notion one’s blog could be a book, turning aspirants into authors with a click and credit card?at least for now.

Print-on-demand services like San Francisco?based Blurb will print the next Joyce a “Blog Book” for a percentage of that book’s sale to the author or his readers, in as many or as few copies as desired. Blurb has even automated the process with a program that “slurps” a blog’s content from its online habitu? and excretes it in the shape of a book when ordered online. Likewise, online retail juggernaut Amazon provides a similar service, CreateSpace, an on-demand clearinghouse for everything DIY, from books to DVDs. It is a micro-mogul’s mecca for the manufacture of media.

Now print-on-demand might prove to be a transitional technology the same way DVDs are giving way to digital downloads. Amazon claims 35 percent of its book sales are downloads for its Kindle “wireless reading device.” In March, cult brand Apple will overshoot the electronic book fray with the iPad, which aggregates print, video and music enjoyment into a single, sexy device.

From Kindling to Kindle

Be assured, publishers and independent authors alike are readying their wares for Apple’s latest game-changer, which is an overgrown iPhone sans telephony. But who wants to take a call while in the thrall of a warm, glowing piece of technology anyway? It’s like a vibrator for the mind, and a throng of independent content producers hopes to get you off.

In the olden days of digital reading, circa 2000, premium content was scarce. Beyond being deskbound, the only texts available seemed to be classics poached from the public domain, Joyce included. Occasional experiments in electronic-book marketing came and went, with business ebooks and white papers seeming most prevalent. The transformation of print-to-pixel was a trickle with publishers wary or unsure of the medium, though pixel-to-print releases were garnering wider appeal and stoking dreams of digital discovery for thousands of would-be authors (blog-borne Julie/Julia is a popular example). Publisher HarperCollins even created Authonomy, an online authors community from which it occasionally cherry-picks and publishes material vetted by the crowd.

Future of Writing

Now, however, it seems a new type of author is poised to emerge, one tailored to the new medium literally at hand, whose work will bypass traditional publishers and appear in the iTunes store, forsaking the bookshelf entirely. Pictures in printed books must have once been a novelty?moving pictures embedded in the text of your iPad is an inevitability, not to mention audio, three-dimensional maps, animated sidebars and other electronic illuminations. How will this amplify or diminish storytelling as we know it? A fear is that mutant transmedia hybrids might obviate established forms or at least leave them marginalized in the market in which a bestseller and killer app are one and the same.

What seems most uncertain is whether how we read will affect how we write. This will have to be determined in the field, for not even a visionary such as Joyce could have anticipated someone cuddling up with his words “In the silence their dark fire kindled the dusk into a tawny glow” from the glow of a tawny Kindle.

Web 3.0, the Pedantic Web

No sooner has popular culture digested the term ?Web 2.0? than the ante is upped by the next generation of the World Wide Web. Behold, ?Web 3.0.?

Um, yeah. This unfortunate protologism, doomed to eternal comparison to its pithy predecessor, proves the adage that ?Good technologists borrow, great technologists steal and then add 1.?

Also known as the ?semantic web,? Web 3.0 presently has several working definitions, the most salient of which seems to be web godfather Sir Tim Berners-Lee?s suggestion that a semantic web will enable ?the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives? and ?machines talking to machines.? Meaning, data presented on the web and necessarily meant to be interpreted by humans, but inscrutable to machines, will soon become scrutable.

Though the notion of machines talking to each other about one?s web queries, sundry database entries and general arcane of our digital lives, might lead to a more expeditious online experience, it may also foment a paranoia of the sort described in a Philip K. Dick novel. Especially if the machines are chatty and gossip-prone.

Interestingly, the semantic web?s etymological ancestor, Web 2.0, was coined by Sonoma County?s own Tim O?Reilly, the open-source maven, publisher and founder of O?Reilly Media based in Sebastopol. O?Reilly chose the term to describe the emergence of post-crash web-based businesses and the commonalities they share (social, collaborative, no Fusbol game in the foyer) as the raison d?etre for a conference.

?Could it be that the dot-com collapse marked some kind of turning point for the web, such that a call to action such as ?Web 2.0? might make sense?? O?Reilly wrote in 2005 post entitled What is Web 2.0 archived on OReilly.com. ?We agreed that it did, and so the Web 2.0 Conference was born.? So too was born an infectious meme that has seen the ?2.0? appliqu? on everything from healthcare reform to sex (incidentally, the Sex 2.0 conference, explores the ?intersection of social media, feminism, and sexuality? returns to Seattle this May).

In the half-decade since O?Reilly?s coinage, culture has undergone something of a digital renaissance (think Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter) and his Web 2.0 Conference is now the annual Web 2.0 Summit. So, how is it then that New York-based Mediabistro, a trade group that bills itself as ?the premier content, career, and community resource for media professionals? came to host the so-called Web 3.0 Conference last week? Clearly, something has gotten out of sequence. That is, unless Web 3.0 involves time travel and paid us a visit here in the present to show us the future with a stack of PowerPoint slides. Gimmicky, sure, but revealing nevertheless ? about half of the seminars and presentations were presented by marketers about leveraging the semantic web, which some hope will emulate a kind of artificial intelligence, to target consumers. ?Ka-ching 3.0? might have been a more apt title for the conference (better lock that in ? the KaChing Button, an iPhone app that makes a cash register sound for the currency of your choice, is already up to version 1.0.3).

Given the Sonoma provenance of Web 2.0, it was somehow apropos that its unrelated pseudo-sequel was held at the Hyatt Regency in Santa Clara, where the conference rooms are dubbed ?Sonoma,? ?Napa? and ?Mendocino.? Adorning the walls are tilt-shift prints, photo-collages and other digitally-produced eye-candy designed to evoke a Silicon Valley aesthetic, despite its wine country pretensions. And wherefore Wine 2.0? That conference happened in New York last November.

In the coming years perhaps we will experience Web 4.0, which will find its comeuppance when Webs 2.0 and 3.0 join forces and become Web 5.0. Web 4.0 will respond by rehabbing Web 1.0 out of its post-bust stupor (so-named the way the Great War became World War I) and attempt to beat Web 5.0 at it?s own game. An accord will ensue and all parties will reform together as simply The Web ? at which point it will become sentient and enslave us all. You know, if it hasn?t already.

Originally published in the North Bay Bohemian.

The First Email Spam to Open a Can of…You Know

Cogito ergo spam.

Here’s the lowdown on the origin of email spam:

For reasons lost to history, the pork-based product called ?SPAM? was not included on the U.K.?s list of rationed foods during and after World War Two. Consequently, the relative abundance of the preserved meat soon bored the isle?s collective palate, which will seem ironic to anyone who has ever eaten such Brit delicacies as mashed-peas.

In the ?60s, pioneering English comedy troupe Monty Python penned an ode to the ubiquitous luncheon product of their youth in which dining Vikings intrusively chant ?Spam, spam, spam, spam? over the dialogue of others until the credits roll (which are likewise graffitied with the word ?spam?). The Net?s Jurassic-era geeks perceived an analogy between the Python sketch and the proliferation of unsolicited commercial e-mail. The slang stuck and fine people at Hormel Foods, purveyors of what ?Ask Dr. Science? described as ?Scientifically Produced Animal Matter,? have been generally sangfroid about such use of their product name since. (Theirs is a branding issue on par with ?Muzak,? which Lennon used pejoratively in a lyric decrying McCartney?s solo work: ?The sound you make is Muzak to my ears??).

In 1994, immigration lawyer Laurence Canter and his wife Martha Siegel posted the world?s first spam to thousands of Usenet groups promoting their ?green card lottery? enrollment service to non-citizens of the U.S. Predictably, cyberspace erupted in uproar. Within two years, Canter had been berated in the media, disbarred, divorced and, finally, reduced to small talk with a 23-year-old would-be scribe in the banal splendor of someone?s east Petaluma kitchen. Larry, as he was introduced to me, was reacquainting himself with the former stepmother of a young woman with whom I briefly lived during the mid-90s. What I found remarkable about Canter was that he seemed rather inured to the oily image the media had ascribed him and ardently unrepentant about the whole debacle. He was, as I was reminded repeatedly by the former-stepmother, featured in a Time Magazine cover story after all. Reporter Philip Elmer-Dewitt?s July 25, 1994 article opened, ?There was nothing very special about the message that made Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel the most hated couple in cyberspace??

Despite her squire being one of the two most hated people in cyberspace, the former-stepmother seemed compelled to uphold Canter as an example of public relations ingenuity. I myself had just gotten my mug featured in a local paper in a round-up of area writer-types and I believe she was trying to teach me a lesson, something akin to ?There?s no such thing as bad PR, just bad publicists.?

As a writer, my byline is my brand name and given the amount of sweat-equity I?ve put into the moniker (the origin of which is too recondite to recount here) I am, of course, loath to tarnish it with a half-cocked foray into self-promotion. Seeing as my public relations budget is a smidge above the average cup of coffee, however, I must use the cheaper means at my disposal and risk mirroring Canter?s oily image in the media. Then I remember ? I am the media, baby! I put the ?me? in media. And the ?I.? Heck, I even put in the big ?D.? The only letter left for you, dear readers, is the ?A.?

Actually, make that an A++. You deserve it. And you can?t spell ?Kiss A++? without it.