Triple Canopy and the History-Future of Online Publishing

I’ve only begun to explore the contents, but the new issue of Triple Canopy — subtitled “Unplaced Movements” — looks incredible. And right in the wheelhouse of my obsessions . . .

From the editors’ Note on Unplaced Movements:

Every innovative new-media publishing venture is born obsolescent. No sooner has an editorial initiative laid claim to a new technology than some newer technology arrives, turning its predecessor into an outdated curio. The numerous attempts to create alternatives to the print magazine using other forms of distributable media—cassettes, floppy disks, laser discs—are now considered with a combination of nostalgia and archaeological fascination. By the time Triple Canopy was founded three years ago, it had long been clear that the Internet is subject to the same cycle of novelty and anachronism. Nevertheless, it seemed equally clear to us that, amid the succession of short-lived formats, a tradition of new-media publishing had emerged that could inform our use of the Web.

Over the past several months, Triple Canopy has produced a series of public programs designed to investigate our own underlying assumptions about online publishing. The projects included in issue 9 are the outcome of talks, conversations, and performances that position Triple Canopy’s approach to the Web within a broader historical context. By charting a critical genealogy of new-media publishing, we hope to identify some of the undercurrents that have defined and enriched each successive “new” medium. Beyond exploring those properties specific to the Internet, the projects presented here gesture toward art practices and aesthetic strategies that will remain relevant long after the current iteration of the Web goes the way of dial-up.

There’s a ton of great stuff here, including the transcript of a conversation between Dan Visel and Bob Stein (founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book entitled Mao, King Kong, and the Future of the Book. In case you’re not familiar with Stein (and you should be, he’s an amazing thinker and doer), here’s a brief intro:

In 2004, Bob Stein founded the Institute for the Future of the Book, with the goal of finding new models for publishing as it moved from the page to the screen, from the enclosed world of the individual reader to the networked one of the Internet. While innovative for its own time, the Institute’s mission built on Stein’s decades of experience exploring the frontiers of electronic publishing, whether with Atari, the Criterion Collection, or Voyager. Long before the popularization of the Internet, the tools that Stein developed for publishing with floppy disks, CD-ROMS, and LaserDiscs laid the groundwork for dramatic shifts in how we interact with (formerly) printed media. Much of his work proposed hybrid formats, combining the referential nature of books with the visual appeal of films, using computers to turn texts into what Stein was already calling, in the mid-’80s, “user-driven media.” Today these hybrids seem natural, but the history of publishing and technology prior to the Web, which has largely gone unrecorded, suggests that the evolution of the medium was not prescribed, but rather spurred by the experiments of Stein and his cohorts.

Before getting into the publishing stuff (although it’s all kind of connected thought development-wise, no?), there’s this great bit about the creation of the Criterion Collection and the capabilities of new technologies:

DV: Did it seem at this point like LaserDiscs were about to take off?

BS: No. VHS was exploding. It was like being in the CD-ROM business when the Web was exploding. I was at a meeting one day with the president of RKO Home Video, and I said to him, “So, what’s the chance you would sell me the rights to Citizen Kane and King Kong for LaserDisc?” He said, “Well, they’re not worth anything to us. Of course I’ll sell them to you.” So I bought the rights to two of the most famous movies ever made. I had a choice: I could make stuff for the Apple II, but aesthetically I just couldn’t stomach it. (That was the age of pea-green text on a black screen.) So I went with LaserDiscs.

DV: And you started the Criterion Collection?

BS: Yes. It was just of one of those things where—I mean, I like movies, but I’m not a movie buff. I just knew I could do something interesting with them. You have to understand how much of this stuff is accidental. I knew the guy who was the curator of films at the LA County Museum of Art, and I brought him to New York to oversee color correction. He’s telling us all these amazing stories, particularly about King Kong, because it’s his favorite film. Someone said, “Gee, we’ve got this extra sound track on the LaserDisc, why don’t you tell these stories?” He was horrified at the idea, but we promised we’d get him superstoned if he did, and he gave this amazing discussion about the making of King Kong, which we released as the second sound track.

DV: And that was the start of what became DVD extras.

The Institute for the Future of the Book has some amazing projects, and for anyone working in the nonprofit world, its origins sound insanely ideal:

BS: Then, in a really sweet moment, the MacArthur Foundation called and said: “We loved the work you did at Voyager; how can we help you go back into publishing?” I said that I had no idea what it means to be a publisher right now, but if they gave me some money to start the Institute for the Future of the Book, I would think about it. And they gave me twice as much money as I asked for and no deliverables. That’s when I hired Ben Vershbow, Kim White, and you. That’s been a really interesting collaboration because you were all in your late twenties, had grown up with the Internet to some extent, and it was the beginning of Web 2.0, which you were very comfortable with. We spent a year sitting around a table having discussions about what we could do with books, and what books were, and what they could evolve into.

DV: I’m curious why, for so long, you’ve felt it necessary to develop new tools for publishing, and thought that what we have isn’t good enough.

BS: I was telling a programmer today that if I have one regret it’s that I never learned to program. And I think that’s part of the reason why I’ve wanted these tools.

DV: I’d always thought it was your great virtue that you didn’t know how computers worked: You ask dumb questions, and people have to explain things from the beginning. That process of explanation can be really fruitful.

Overall, great conversation, great issue.

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