Picture me sitting by the fire, mass-deleting emails from companies who want me to be shopping right now. It’s Black Friday. (Friends in foreign lands, I’m sorry: it appears we’re now exporting that bit of American excess, too.) Did you know that, originally, cops in Philadelphia started calling it that because of how awful the shopping traffic was and how much better everything would be if we all just stayed home instead? Well now you don’t have to go out to the mall for things to be awful. You just have to open your email! Maybe someday this will all come to some good and lead to a new sub-genre of metal. Blackfridaycore? Or just “Black Friday.” It’s somewhere between black metal and mallcore. But darker. Ok, stay with me. There’s much more to slog through ;) Happy Thanksgiving!
“Magazine’s are for looking at.” That’s a David Hepworth message as relayed by Warren Ellis recently at yet another digital funeral for yet another publication that died too young. And just before the singularity, too. I mean, of course, the paper singularity — that moment when all things to be read slough off this printed coil and ascend to immortality on the screen — which is certainly just around the corner. Isn’t it? I’m not so sure. As Ellis said, “some very hard questions about the nature of publishing” remain. He concludes: “If there’s a next phase in this, then maybe it’s enforcing a digital divide. You want the big pictures, buy the print and get yourself a beautifully designed object that you want to keep in your house. If you actually want to just read the damned thing, buy the digital version.” Maybe. The notion that visually-rich experiences belong in print, while simple text’s place is on the screen, seems like a peculiar opinion firmly planted in a publishing blind-spot to me. Screens, of course, do visually-rich quite well. The opinion that publishing should steer clear of them when it wants to do something beautiful and immersive would be like saying that games should stick to boards and pieces, except, of course, when they are text-only, in which case screens are obviously your best bet. But that’s obviously silly. Tell that to Sid Meyer or Brendan Iribe. Oh, and do it while looking at their bank accounts.
So what place does paper have today? What new things could a magazine, for example, do? What experiments or boundary-pushing that wouldn’t look terribly naive and quaint while the rest of us are surfing THE WORLDWIDE WEB for goodness sake? This month, WIRED attempted just such an experiment in the form of a Christopher Nolan “directed” issue. Editor Scott Dadich promised:
“…we wanted to give him license to create a magazine version of the kind of rich, detailed, and complex worlds he builds for his films. We wanted something that would reward scrutiny and attention to detail. We wanted something readers would want to come back to again and again, the way that we all love to go back and study his films…We believe its innovative structure is something no magazine has tried before.”
I’d heard something about this a few months ago, and had made a mental note to pick it up when it came out. And there it was, just an arm’s reach from the M&Ms I was buying somewhere in Terminal 3 at SFO last week. What better an opportunity to scrutinize this new thing than five hours of tense confinement in the sky? So I bought it. And I was disappointed. Serves me right for believing the hype. I should have known better after seeing Interstellar.
What was the nature of this experiment, really? Was it about patronizing an artist? Giving him a chance to explore a different medium? Or was it about exploiting a name? Read the issue for yourself; I think the answer will be obvious. I mean, really. Was Nolan actually an editor? And what would that have meant, anyway? Surely he didn’t edit anything. There was almost certainly no Christopher Nolan red-penning going on. Did he shape the stories, then? Like, Editor-in-Chief style? If so, what a wasted opportunity. It doesn’t seem like anyone actually said to him, “Chris, if you could do anything with print, what would you do?” If that was said, perhaps the proviso was understood: “…without compromising our ad revenue.” The best and most radical way to have done this experiment would have been to remove advertising from the equation entirely and increase the price of the issue to compensate. Buy their freedom. I probably would have paid up to double the newsstand price if this thing was actually something no magazine had tried before. Maybe even more. After all, I paid $16 to see Interstellar. If advertising had to stay, then maybe they could have asked Nolan to a few more meetings to convince advertisers to try something new, too. What would product placement look like in a magazine? A 14-page section of “amazing products we’d like to give and receive” doesn’t count. This issue has one of those, by the way. That’s a lot of pages, and none of them stand up to scrutiny or are something I’d want to come back to again and again. Near that section, incidentally, is an interview with Nolan and Kip Thorne, the physicist whose ideas directly inspired Interstellar. At the end of the interview’s first page — page 45 —there’s a little message about how you’ll need to travel through a “wormhole” to continue reading the dialog on page 202. Cute. So I start turning pages. 46, 47, 48… I eventually emerge on page 202. I read the next section of the interview, but then have to travel back through the “wormhole” to finish it on page 46. By the time my second trip was required, the affectation really showed. Oh really? Did I go through a wormhole? No, I think I went through an ad hole. In fact, between page 45 (actually, they’re using the very Long-Nowish convention of sticking a zero in front to remind you that time is loooonnnnggg, so 045) and page 202, there were 54 individual advertisements. Not including that 14-page “Wish List” section. So that means that out of 157 pages, about half of them (many of the ads I counted as one individual ad were actually multiple pages) were ads. If this choose-your-own-adventure-style wormhole was supposed to inspire wonder with a capital “W,” like the gorgeous wormhole sequence in Interstellar, it did not do that. But as I flipped pages — something I might come back and read, ad, something I might come back and read, ad, arg this is annoying, ad ad ad ad — I just wondered when magazines started getting away with being catalogues.
So, advertising. Nolan or not, the issue wasn’t likely to do anything new there. Publishing at this scale is still dreadfully beholden to the advertising model that inexorably bankrupts the value of the content it’s intended to support, no matter what experiment it wants to run. It’s kind of a major capitalistic bummer that you can’t really expect to grab anyone’s attention without letting someone else sell them something on the side. Come adpocalypse, come!
But could WIRED have found other ways to shake things up? Visually creative things? Playing with form? It does have a comic in it. And it was ok. But what if the entire issue had been a comic? That would have been something. The cover of the issue, too, was beyond boring. Has no one at WIRED looked at the tech issue of the New Yorker, or any issue of Cabinet, or their own back catalog — particularly from the first decade — for that matter? And all of that is traditional, 2-D, illustrative stuff! But still more interesting than what they came up with. They could have played with paper. Glow in the dark paper, holographic paper, black ink on black paper, white ink on white paper, translucency, die-cuts. All kinds of tangible properties of paper could have been used to explore themes resonant in Nolan’s work — perception, time, layers of identity and meaning, etc. Nah, let’s just do a black and white gradient. It seems that the team behind what used to be the one of the most cutting-edge publications at the nexus of technology, design, and culture hasn’t kept up with print culture at all. There have been so many interesting examples of pushing the media, all of which could have inspired and informed WIRED’s attempt to go where no pulp has gone before. OFF THE TOP OF MY HEAD and in no intentional order, SVK, BERG’s collaboration with Warren Ellis that you needed an ultraviolet light source to read (awesome); the cover of Robin Sloan’s first novel (friggin glows in the dark! Hi, Robin!); J.J. Abram’s S; textless graphic novels, like Isles; print on demand. That’s just five things. I could go on. What if they had done the entire magazine as a piece of science fiction? Including the ads? Like those future ads they used to do at the end of the magazine in the early days? What if they had produced several different versions that were mixed up, so you had to buy them all and piece them together? Like they’d actually gone through a wormhole? What if they had randomly mixed some very old WIRED content in with the futurey stuff? Time slippage! The early days of WIRED had some outstanding pieces that remain pretty resonant now, and probably would have made for a better issue than this one. Ah, well. What if…
The point here, of course, is not to complain. Honestly, who cares in the end if an issue of a magazine isn’t any good? It’s become too easy to let the volume of our angst go up and up and up unchecked. The internet is good at that. When a website isn’t responsive, we get angry. When it doesn’t load fast enough, same thing. When the hyperconnectedness of our media and the latest marketing experiment join forces to drop a free album onto our devices, we freak out. Our entitlement goes to eleven. We could fix these things, of course. Could that website have one more breakpoint? Sure. Could it load faster? Of course. And it probably will. Someone will say something, and someone else will scramble all night to “fix it.” Although it’d be nice if we had the patience to let things be imperfect every now and then; to learn from the hiccups and do things better next time. That’s the nice way to go about it. A steady climb among friends. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what we see and experience most, is it? We see anger. Complaining. Sneering. Someone wise once encouraged me to always balance one negative with five positives. That’s not easy to do. Mostly we invert that balance. Especially me — here I am, fussing about a single issue of a magazine. It probably should have been the byline in a long letter about the five better examples I mentioned. But, ultimately, this is meant in the spirit of encouragement. We live at a special time when technology and culture are pushing us to rethink the old. It’s going to get harder and harder to get away with doing the same old thing and slapping a new label on it. That’s a good thing.
All that we make — from the kindergarten pinch pot to the late in life skyscraper — is an opportunity for discovery and learning. Making is part of who we are and how we learn, whether humble or monumental. And paper still has a place in that. The screen isn’t necessarily in front of paper in a single-file evolutionary march of progress. It’s next-to. But it’s easy to think otherwise, isn’t it? Especially us screen folk. And we rationalize our screen preference by thinking that printing anything today is a waste of resources or an environmentally irresponsible thing to do. But perhaps so is taking that selfie or streaming that song. Those things actually live somewhere: On a drive. In a server cluster. On a server farm. Under a roof. Sucking up bandwidth and burning coal! But that’s another argument. My point is that art has a place in the world. It doesn’t have to be the enemy of the environment, or publishing, or commerce. It can be a part of our progress. But we have to be willing to think bigger than spinning the same old story.
On Screen: Have you watched Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now yet? It’s pretty fun. Steven makes for a charming tourguide of the winding path of ideas and innovation, and if I judged some of the episodes on the number of wows-per-hour, they’d get pretty high marks. But I still have a greater love for the 80s version: James Burke’s The Day the Universe Changed, which tells a similar story at a remarkably similar scale despite being almost thirty years older. Check it out!
Recent Tabs: Scientist says aliens nuked Mars. Despite what may be a preponderance of data, I think this man, THE SUN, is probably responsible. Occam’s Razor is what I’m sayin’. On attending a conference with a telepresence robot, which seems ridiculous. I mean, is the advantage here that you can do other things since you don’t have to be physically there? Like surf the web and check your phone? Because everyone is doing that all the time at conferences. In fact, when you’re staring at a crowd of laptop backs, it feels like it’s the speakers who should telepresence-roboting… But I digress. Here are some pictures of anticipation.